Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Agnieszka Kuciak

Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don't Exist

The idea of authorship should be unambiguous, and it mostly is--I am writing this, and such and such is my biography.  

But let's look a little more deeply--Who wrote the Republic?  Plato gets the credit, but was he merely recording the words of Socrates, or had he redacted his teacher's ideas to such an extent that they became his own?  One might argue that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--a tour de force of literary ventriloquism--is replete with heteronymatic (?) figures: Chaucer supplies each of his speakers with a full-fledged biography in the 'General Prologue', and then writes tales in the voice, and with a diction and tone appropriate to that character (think of the Nun's Priest and his tale, a perfect marriage of tale to teller).   Or, sticking to the era of Chaucer for just a moment--who was William Langland, "author" of the great political poems collected as Piers Plowman? And what is the meaning of authorship in an age that valued plagiarism, that expected one author to copy the work of another? 

Then there is the question  of the pseudonym: are Dickens's Sketches by Boz (1836) an example of pseudonymous authorship, or was Boz a Dickensian heteronym? Was Józef Teodor Nałęcz Konrad Korzeniowski's decision to go with 'Joseph Conrad' the same sort of literary disguise as François-Marie Arouet's decision to become Voltaire?  I can't imagine Voltaire as having any other name, but I can see Conrad in Konrad and might be able to make the Polish leap.  Then what of Chloe Wofford or  Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto--can we imagine them as other than Toni Morrison and Pablo Neruda?   Some pseudonyms seem almost an affectation--why Mark Twain when Sam Clemens was perfectly serviceable?--and others have a political or cultural purpose (George Eliot, or Howard O'Brien's sensible decision to become Anne Rice).  So: names are complicated, and when writers change their names they do so for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to deflect attention away from themselves and toward their books.

The melancholy Dane Søren Kierkegaard bridges the gap between pseudonymous authorship and fully realized herteronymic writing: Johannes de Silentio, "author" of Fear and Trembling, has a different style and tone than the "Victor Ermita" of Either/Or, but neither pseudonym is attached to a literary figure possessing a fully developed biography; indeed, Kierkegaard goes so far in his autobiographical writings as to discuss his use of pseudonymous figures in his literary productions, thus making the pseudonyms superfluous (rather like the way in which we are told that "Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville"--what's the point, aside from a possible tax dodge?).

File:Pessoacopo.jpgThe greatest act of literary impersonation ever pulled off was Fernando Pessoa's, the man himself (I think) pictured here imbibing a bit of wine in his (and my) beloved Lisbon.  Some attribute to Pessoa eighty full blown heteronyms, but this is an exaggeration--if a heteronym requires a biography, a variant style, and even a psychological profile (as with Bernardo Soares, author of The Book of Disquiet) then I'd credit Pessoa with having created no more than twenty (!) literary stand-ins.  Pessoa wrote so much--with Proust, he is the greatest graphomaniac of the modernist era--that he needed to fob off some of his work on other selves, but, beyond the issue of overproduction requiring decentralization, the miracle of Pessoa's writing is that it appears that he became this roomful of other people. 
Which brings us, at long last, to the subject of this entry, the Polish poet and translator (from Italian to Polish) Agnieszka Kuciak.  I made the acquaintance of Ms. Kuciak a few years ago through reading a handful of poems of hers in Six Polish Poets (ed. by Jacek Dehnel, Arc Books), but have since come into possession of her second book Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don't Exist (her first was Retardacja [Retardation]) thanks to the good people at White Pine Press.  Kuciak is a ventriloquist, a punner, a Pessoan creator of echoing voices--but she is also a delight straight up, as here:
The Lyric Poet Considers the Lake
Clean as the drowsy line of fate
is the lake's shoreline, the line of reeds and trees.
And just like in words where you discern the truth,
in water you can glimpse heaven's depths, cushioned
in clouds. It seems we can plummet there without fear,
and the fisherman with his pliant line and pole
is reeling in something from the absolute,
but he's on vacation: it doesn't interest him.
He'd prefer two kinds of carp: crucia and Common.
['reeling in something from the absolute,' a line I'd love to steal]
Then again, this little poem is signed by N. Miłosz, who is, we learn from the tongue in cheek (what's the Polish for this odd-ball idiom?) "Notes on Authors" is "A poet of amiable faith, known as the 'bishop of poetry.'" So, of course one thinks of Czeslaw at once--he who has "lyrically consecrated countless lakes and landscapes" and the joke is very good.  Kuciak has created twenty-one voices--mini-heteronyms--and given each a part in the recitative that is Distant Lands.  I don't know a word of Polish, but Karen Kovacik has done an admirable job of rendering the pitch and variation in this chorus of half-imagined voices ('half' because there is a continuo that clearly belongs to Kuciak, unmistakable in some poems, subtler in others).  Thus we travel from the sonorous 'Nobody's' plosive "Fermeta"--"The Po glides by before me--with the paradox/and parasol that made me pause here in the lashing rain..." through Mrs. K's quotidian "On Losing My Third Pair of Sunglasses" with its kitchen images, through the mock serious resurrection rhymes of one "D.A.," which (wittily) quotes John Paul II thus: "His corpsely record has been meritorious, /Even the worms hold him in high regard/for how he's decomposed in the graveyard...."  And so on...there's no buttoning this collection down or summing it up--the mimicry is quite fine, and non-stop. 
The delights are multiplied as the voices co-mingle, split, and play one against the other--the semi-serious, the burlesque, the lyrical, the lovely:
She kneels by the bed's precipice,
and no one knows how she'll jump
over Egypt, over her own heart,                                                 
that place aching after him.
She could be faithful to the one who didn't touch her.
She could be faithful to the one who is gone.
She could be like the others, drinking wine,
desiring this body or that, untransformed.
She's more and more faithful
the less faith she has. 
This one is signed by the great blind seer, Tiresias, "inwardly a woman himself."
Kuciak is an intelligent, witty, and skillful poet, and Distant Lands is a rich collection whose meditation on authorial identity--who is the poet? or, "all poets are liars"--added greatly to my enjoyment of a remarkably diverse and intellectually challenging volume.
Distant Lands is published by White Pine Press--
George Ovitt (2/27/13)

Monday, February 25, 2013

The End of the Book

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

If you don't remember the 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (I don't) you will most likely recall the 1966 film, directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. [Full disclosure: Jules et Jim, starring Oskar Werner, is not only my favorite film, but I am perhaps the only person who ever  had an Oskar Werner poster in his college dorm room, until, that is, my roommate, who believed with mad fervency that Clint Eastwood was an actor, burned the poster to a cinder, claiming that OW was "too French."]  Of course, in F 451Werner plays a fireman who, ironically, I suppose, burns books instead of dosing them with water (same dif) but later becomes one of the "book people" who memorize books to save them--though technically I suppose the memorized 'book' is only the content and not the book itself.  Anyway, Werner selected the Tales of Edgar Allen Poe as his book to memorize, which would not have been my first choice, but that's neither here nor there.  It wasn't a great movie, and Werner was much better in Ship of Fools, and sublime in Jules et Jim, but that too is off topic. 
By the way, I suppose that if one were to remake Fahrenheit 451--and why not since every other B movie has been remade?--the star would be Jack Dorsey (ten points extra credit if you got this one), and instead of fire you'd have the kindle--get it?--and all the technophiles (instead of book people) would be dashing about reading ebooks and lecturing the world on how they're saving the forests. 
Then again, when my copy of Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude arrived in the mail, the first thing I did was to open the book to the center and stick my nose right in the binding, just as if I were testing the waters with a Hess Cab.  And after a deep sniff of the book I knew, without looking, it was A Harvest Book, published by Harcourt--it's easy really to tell--any book-mad person knows with his or her nose the difference between Harcourt,the old Vintage paperbacks, and the delightful aroma (of leather and parsnips) that told you a paperback was published by Doubleday-Anchor (defunct), or can identify the overpoweringly turpentine Dell Paperback scent, or, still my favorite, the hint of oak leaf and autumn-afternoon that came with every Modern Library Classic. [I just sniffed my Republic, purchased in 1964, and, sure enough, the oak fragrance is still there, forty-nine years later].
And what does your Kindle smell like?
So: books are tactile, physical objects, sensual pleasures, aromatic, hard (covers) and soft (pages), yellowing slowly like a fall season that hesitates to  arrive, brittle as your mother's graying hair, the ink and paper and endpapers (marbled sometimes!), and those serrated Alfred A. Knopf edges that drop little bits of paper on your lap as you read--the loving way you take the new, stiff book and break it in, using your best pen and tidiest hand to inscribe (as I do) your name and the date you first held the book.  For years I removed dust covers from hardbacks; now, when I can afford one, I keep it on, all the better to see it tear and crinkle.
Now look at Hrabal's face.  It is a lovely human countenance--worn and wrinkled and a little sad.  The way a face might look if, for example, one has lived.
Too Loud: an idiot savant, or perhaps just an idiot, fond of beer, has spent thirty-five years pulping old books, and saving a few of them, storing them in his tiny room, a wall with two ton's worth of books, a wall of philosophy and history and ideas, some of which, at random, Haňtá, the pulp press operator, has memorized.  And what does he do with the random ideas that have stuck in his head like the greasy remains of ruined books have stuck to his body?

For thirty-five years I've been compacting old paper, and in that time I've had so many beautiful books thrown into my cellar that if I had three barns they'd all be full. Just after the war the second one - was over, somebody dumped a basket of the most exquisitely made books in my hydraulic press, and when I'd calmed down enough to open one of them, what did I see but the stamp of the Royal Prussian Library, and when next day I found the whole cellar overflowing with more of the same - leather-bound volumes, their gilt edges and titles flooding the air with light - I raced upstairs to see two fellows standing there, and what I managed to squeeze out of them was that somewhere in the vicinity of Nové Straseci there was a barn with so many books in the straw it made your eyes pop out of your head. So I went to see the army librarian, and the two of us took off for Nové Straseci, and there in the fields we found not one but three barns chock full of the Royal Prussian Library, and once we'd done oohing and ahing, we had a good talk, as a result of which a column of military vehicles spent a week transporting the books to a wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague, where they were to wait until things had simmered down and they could be sent back to their place of origin. But somebody leaked the hiding place and the Royal Prussian Library was declared official booty, so the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leatherbound volumes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flat-cars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant stream of gold water cum pitch and printer's ink flowing down from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning aginst a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain in my face merging with tears, [...]

What else would he do but weave what he has read into the fabric--however odd and eccentric--of his life?  When he drinks, or makes love, or works, or thinks, he does so in a fog of ideas induced by the books he has saved from the pulper. Like anyone's mind, Haňtá's  is untidy, but at least he can hang his random thoughts on the contents of the books he has read and memorized--Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, Holderline, and Hegel.

 A friend of mine and I batted this idea back and forth: what happens if books become more real to us than life itself?  Should we be upset if we if live vicariously, through the pages of the books we have come to love?  I wonder sometimes why  living through books should be different from any other kind of living--we live through our work, or other people, or some creed or ideology.  Pure living--the thing itself--is hard to find.  So why not through these little blocks of paper that put us--miraculously--inside the mind of someone else?

There they are, lined up like memory itself on the shelves, each one preserving a part of our life, associated with the people we knew then, the things we were thinking, the person we once were.   

And who was this mysterious Czech writer?  Most readers know him through the adaption of his Closely Watched Trains, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1967.  Hrabal was among the most popular Czech writers of the modern age.  Born in 1914, his books have been translated into twenty-seven languages; like many other Czech writers whose books have political content (e.g.  Milan Kundera), Hrabal was banned from publishing after the Prague Spring of 1968.  My favorite of his books is Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a novel in one sentence (I'll write about it here sometime).  But I loved the oddness of Too Loud a Solitude--it made me nostalgic for the great age of print, now, alas, passing from us.  Hrabal died from a fall from a fifth story window in the Bulovka Hospital in Prague in February, 1997 at age 82.


Too Loud a Solitude was translated by Michael Henry Heim and is published by Harcourt.

A good brief introduction to Hrabal is found here:

George Ovitt (2/25/13)


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Paz in India: An Inescapable Attraction

“The dream of Brahma, what we call reality, is a mirage, a nightmare. To wake is to discover the unreality of the world.”   Octavio Paz

The great Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, first arrived in India in late 1951 as a minor functionary in Mexico’s first diplomatic legation to the newly independent state.  He stayed six months.  It was not until 1962 that he returned, this time as a world-renowned poet and Mexican ambassador. He was to remain there, in India, for more than six years, travelling the length and breadth of the country, and engrossing himself in the study of Indian philosophy religion, culture, and art, a highly influential period of his life described by Paz himself as: “After being born, the most important thing that has happened to me.”


 “When he first went there,” writes Raleigh Trevelyan about Paz, in his 1997 review of A Tale of Two Gardens, “like so many newcomers, he had been overwhelmed and bewildered by the country's vastness and complexity; he had felt ‘dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea,’ but also an ‘inescapable attraction.’” Anyone who has ever travelled to India is sure to recognize these sensations. Paz himself, in his book In Light of India, describes his first day in India, in Bombay (now Mumbai):   

I put my things in the closet, bathed quickly, and put on a white shirt. I ran down the stairs and plunged into the streets. There, awaiting me, was an unimagined reality:

waves of heat; huge grey and red buildings, a Victorian
London growing among palm trees and banyans like a
recurrent nightmare, leprous walls, wide and beautiful
avenues, huge unfamiliar trees, stinking alleyways,
torrents of cars, people coming and going, skeletal
cows with no owners, beggars, creaking carts drawn by
enervated oxen, rivers of bicycles,
a survivor of the British Raj, in a meticulous and
threadbare white suit, with a black umbrella,
another beggar, four half-naked would-be saints
daubed with paint, red betel stains on the sidewalk,
horn battles between a taxi and a dusty bus, more
bicycles, more cows, another half-naked saint,
turning the corner, the apparition of a girl like a
half-opened flower,
gusts of stench, decomposing matter, whiffs of pure
and fresh perfumes,
stalls selling coconuts and slices of pineapple, ragged
vagrants with no job and no luck, a gang of adolescents
like an escaping herd of deer,
women in red, blue, yellow, deliriously colored saris,
some solar, some nocturnal, dark-haired women with
bracelets on their ankles and sandals made not for the
burning asphalt but for fields,
public gardens overwhelmed by the heat, monkeys in the
cornices of the buildings, shit and jasmine, homeless boys,
a banyan, image of the rain as the cactus is the
emblem of aridity, and, leaning against a wall, a stone
daubed with red paint, at its feet a few faded flowers: the
silhouette of the monkey god,
the laughter of a young girl, slender as a lily stalk, a
leper sitting under the statue of an eminent Parsi,
in the doorway of a shack, watching everyone with
indifference, an old man with a noble face,
a magnificent eucalyptus in the desolation of a garbage
dump, an enormous billboard in an empty lot with a
picture of a movie star: full moon over the sultan's terrace,
more decrepit walls, whitewashed walls covered with
political slogans written in red and black letters I
couldn't read,
the gold and black grillwork of a luxurious villa with
a contemptuous inscription: EASY MONEY; more grilles
even more luxurious, which allowed a glimpse of an
exuberant garden; on the door, an inscription in gold
on the black marble,
in the violently blue sky, in zigzags or in circles, the
flights of seagulls or vultures, crows, crows, crows...

The unreality of what Paz saw inspired him, in 1952, to write what was to be the first poem of this marvelous collection, a lengthy, sensual record of his experience in the teeming holy city of Muttra or Mathura, the birthplace of the god Krishna, as well as a meditation on the way the architecture of the past still haunts the present.  Comprised largely of short poems, most inspired by the towns, tombs, and temples to which he traveled, A Tale of Two Gardens includes Paz’s own translation of ten epigrams from the Sanskrit and ends with the long and beautiful poem from which the collection itself draws its name. 

After a visit to a little mohalla in Delhi, known today as Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, Paz wrote:

The Tomb of Amir Khusru

Trees heavy with birds hold
the afternoon up with their hands.
Arches and patios. A tank of water,
poison green, between red walls.
A corridor leads to the sanctuary:
beggars, flowers, leprosy, marble.

Tombs, two names, their stories:
Nizam Uddin, the wandering theologian,
Amir Khusru, the parrot’s tongue.
The saint and the poet.  A grim
star spouts from a cupola.
Slime sparkles in the pool.

Amir Khusru, parrot or mockingbird:
the two halves of each moment,
muddy sorrow, voice of light.
Syllables, wandering fires,
vagabond architectures:
each poem is time, and it burns.

* Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was born in Mexico City. On his father's side, his grandfather was a prominent liberal intellectual and one of the first authors to write a novel with an expressly Indian theme. Thanks to his grandfather's extensive library, Paz came into early contact with literature. Like his grandfather, his father was also an active political journalist who, together with other progressive intellectuals, joined the agrarian uprisings led by Emiliano Zapata.

Paz began to write at an early age, and in 1937, he travelled to Valencia, Spain, to participate in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. Upon his return to Mexico in 1938, he became one of the founders of the journal, Taller (Workshop), a magazine which signaled the emergence of a new generation of writers in Mexico as well as a new literary sensibility. In 1943, he travelled to the USA on a Guggenheim Fellowship where he became immersed in Anglo-American Modernist poetry; two years later, he entered the Mexican diplomatic service and was sent to France, where he wrote his fundamental study of Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, and actively participated (together with Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret) in various activities and publications organized by the surrealists. In 1962, Paz was appointed Mexican ambassador to India: an important moment in both the poet's life and work, as witnessed in various books written during his stay there, especially, The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope. In 1968, however, he resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against the government's bloodstained suppression of the student demonstrations in Tlatelolco during the Olympic Games in Mexico. After that, Paz continued his work as an editor and publisher, having founded two important magazines dedicated to the arts and politics: Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta. In 1980, he was named honorary doctor at Harvard. Recent prizes include the Cervantes award in 1981 - the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world - and the prestigious American Neustadt Prize in 1982. In 1990 he was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature.

At Tale of Two Gardens: Poems From India 1952-1995 is published by New Directions Books.


Peter Adam Nash

Friday, February 22, 2013

"A Whole World of Varied Beauty"

Donald Richie, 1924-2013

Although this is a literary journal dedicated to fiction and poetry, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the passing of the great translator, interpreter, and advocate of Japanese film, literature and culture, Donald Richie.  Richie lived in Japan for sixty-six years, beginning with his service there as part of the Allied Occupation forces in 1947.  He published forty books--novels, studies of Japanese aesthetics (including a wonderful book on Kabuki 歌舞伎), and many books on Japanese cinema, including the definitive study of the films of Akiro Kurosawa. 

My own favorite among his books is The Inland Sea, a travelogue that recounts Richie's journeys among the islands and villages that surround Japan's great interior ocean.  With a handful of other books--Bruce Chatwin's In  Patagonia, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, and Michael Arlen's Passage to Ararat, Richie's book transforms the genre of travel writing to create a literary work of great intelligence and sensitivity--a book that is as much about Richie's inner life as about the lives of the people he encounters between the great islands of Shikokoku and Honshu.

"If I were to tell a Japanese that [something] is very beautiful, he would ask what is beautiful, and I would select the clouds or the far islands or else say that everything is beautiful. In Japanese it is always something that must be beautiful. Though the language has many abstract nouns, I have rarely heard the one for 'beauty.'

"Beauty is then not a state, but a quality. It is like strength or width or weight. It implies that there are many kinds of beauty--not just one ideal beauty. Everything is real; therefore everything has its own form of beauty, and beauty exists in it and not outside it.
"Beautiful islands, beautiful sea, beautiful sky--a whole world of varied beauty."

The Inland Sea, is now available from Stone Bridge Press

George Ovitt (2/22/13)


Thursday, February 21, 2013

"I am not here to write, but to be mad"

A Walk with Robert Walser  (1878-1956)

He loved to walk--he died in the snow on a stroll--was dapper, lonely (or not), wry and melancholy, Kafkaesque (though the influence ran the other way), intimate with the oddities of life, funny, and, in the end, perhaps, a little mad.  "I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits.  I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes. That's what it does to you. That's life."("Nervous")  Indeed life does just that: it wears you out.  Walser is the great poet of fatigue, which is to say he does for ordinary life what urban intellectuals like Baudelaire or Benjamin did for ennui--he showed that fatigue is the human condition.

In my favorite picture (he was often photographed, even in death), Walser resembles my father, who was himself a low-level clerk (Walser scrapped together a precarious living selling his writing; he moved often; lots of his stories deal with lodgings and landladies).  "He goes for a walk. Why, he asks himself with a smile, why must it be he who has nothing to do, nothing to strike at, nothing to throw down?" ("Kleist in Thun")  "With a smile," so the question is this: is he really asking, or is he affirming?  That's the way it is with Walser's novels and especially with the short pieces--one can hardly call them stories: they are interludes--is our walker asking a question, inquiring into life, or does he know the answer already, does he know why he has "nothing to do" and wants merely to probe the dimensions of that "nothing"? 

"As I looked on the earth and air and sky the melancholy unquestioning thought came to me that I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way, that for all men there was only the one dark path into the other world, the path down into the pit, into the earth, that there was no other way into the other world than that which led through the grave."

In Walser, such somber reflections quickly give way to other feelings--often to self-mockery, or to affection for some undistinguished person, or to disdain for the pompous.  Walser is flighty, his prose style rolls from formal diction and syntax--almost a parody of academic writing, stilted and dense--to breezy wit and heavy irony.  The long story "The Walk" traipses through landscapes and moods suggestive not so much of Kafka as of Pessoa, as if Walser's narrator was reinventing himself in time with the slowly passing urban and rural scenery.  If Walser were a wine, his label might direct the imbiber to search for overtones of Kafka and Klee (rectilinear miniatures going nowhere), of W.G. Sebald (wandering in blasted landscapes), and of the shape-shifting Pessoa, especially as encountered in the Book of Disquiet.

So long as we are playing this game--who does the writer remind me of?--my vote must be cast not for a writer at all, but for Joseph Cornell, the assembler of boxes, little collages cleverly done up from tattered bits of the discarded refuse of New York, cast off icons of modern life gathered together and assembled in Cornell's workroom on Utopia Parkway.  Walser's small pieces of prose are like little boxes that assemble impressions, memories, nostalgia, and, as with Cornell, a sweet, unrepentant  sadness almost never encountered any longer.

Untitled (The Hotel Eden)c. 1945 (140 Kb); Construction, 15 1/8 x 15 3/4 x 4 3/4 in; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Walser was a  graphomaniac--he lived to write, or perhaps he wrote to live.  A selection of  twenty-five of Walser's  microscripts was published in 2010 by New Directions.  Even after his hospitalization in 1933 at Waldau, Walser continued to write stories in a hand so tiny an entire text "could be written on the back of a business card."  Appropriate, as the tiny German letters recreate worlds that are themselves miniatures of this world--"a clairvoyant of the small" was Sebald's judgment, and it is an incisive one.

 But of course, as with Cabala, everything in the universe is contained in even one letter of the Secret Books.  So it is with Walser.  In his miniature studies of eccentrics ("Kienast was the name of a man who wanted nothing to do with anything"), oddities ("The Man With the Pumpkin Head"), and, of all things, trousers, Walser demonstrated that something can be said about nearly anything, and that, in the end, what is said amounts to nothing.

Robert Walser, Selected Stories, with an introduction by Susan Sontag, New York Reivew Books

J.M. Coetzee has written a fine essay on Walser, focused on two of Walser's novels, in the New York Review of Books.

George Ovitt (2/21/13)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Palestinians at Sea

The Ship (al-Safīnah)
by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

The ‘ship of fools’ has been an important allegory in Western art and literature for at least five hundred years. Typically involving a pilotless ship packed with fools of every kind, it is the story of a journey to nowhere, an apologue, a parable, that has been traced to actual practice in Renaissance Europe. As described by Michel Foucault in his book Madness and Civilization, there was a tradition—no one knows how rare or widespread—of ridding a city of its lunatics by crowding them onto a ship then turning it out to sea.  

I first really learned of this allegory when I happened upon a copy of Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, a story about a motley collection of Mexicans, Germans, Americans, and Jews bound from Veracruz, Mexico, aboard a German freighter called the Vera, to Europe on the eve of World War II—a journey to nowhere indeed! Clearly Jabra Ibrahim Jabra had something similar in mind when he wrote The Ship, if with some bold and compelling variations. Set shortly after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, what Palestinians refer to as ‘The Catastrophe’ (النكبة, an-Nakbah), the novel follows an assortment of Palestinian exiles—writers, professors, artists, and intellectuals, as well as a smattering of Lebanese, Iraqis, and Europeans—on a journey aboard the passenger ship Hercules as it plies the Mediterranean en route to London.  Drinking, dancing, debating, declaiming, the travelers pass their days in a state of restless limbo, a sort of floating Purgatory between East and West, neither here nor there.  Into this crucible Jabra pours all of the hopes and dreams, all of the anger, frustration, and despair of the Palestinian people, as well as that of the Arab world itself.  According to translators Adnan Haydar and Roger Allen, “Palestine is the microcosm of the Arabs’ defeat, of their failure to determine their destiny in their own lands.  The fall of Palestine in not an incidental event; it is the tragic fall of the whole Arab world, a product and a result of Arab acquiescence in a reality before which they are helpless.  Palestine is the land, the soul to be reclaimed…” 

What is so striking about Jabra’s novel, The Ship, about his particular version of the allegory, is that for all its nods to the West, its rich and numerous allusions to classical Greece and nihilism, to Bach, Freud, Goethe, Balzac, Eliot, Le Corbusier, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Thomas Aquinas, the novel hardly feels Western at all.  For we read also—and to equal effect—of Ibn al-Arabi, Ahmad Shawqi, and the Arab history of Palestine, hear the haunting, incomparable voice of Umm Kulthum. Told from a variety of perspectives, in a series of dramatic, sometimes internal monologues, the novel feels far more like a modern version of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights than a remaking of Porter’s Ship of Fools.  Distinctly Arab in style, distinctly Palestinian in longing and grief, the novel represents a dexterous bridging of East and West that springs directly from the identity of the author himself.  Born to a Syriac Orthodox Arab family in Bethlehem in 1919, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra came to be one of the finest ambassadors of his time between the Arabic and European worlds. Novelist, poet, translator, sculptor, painter, art collector, playwright, and critic, his work and interests knew no boundaries. Sadly, as noted by the late Anthony Shadid in a 2010 article for The New York Times,His [Jabra’s] secular notion of identity has withered before the ascent of sectarian and religious forces.  In an asymmetric conflict, at times cartoonish, an aggressive West faces a seething East.” 

Here, to round things out, is one of Jabra’s best-known poems:

In the Deserts of Exile

Spring after spring,
In the deserts of exile,
What are we doing with our love,
When our eyes are full of frost and dust?
Our Palestine, green land of ours;
Its flowers as if embroidered of women’s gowns;
March adorns its hills
With the jewel-like peony and narcissus;
April bursts open in its plains
With flowers and bride-like blossoms;
May is our rustic song
Which we sing at noon,
In the blue shadows,
Among the olive trees of our valley
And in the ripeness of the fields
We wait for the promise of July
And the joyous dance amidst the harvest.
O land of ours where our childhood passed
Like dreams in the shade of the orange-grove,
Among the almond-trees in the valleys—
Remember us now wandering
Among the thorns of the desert,
Wandering in rocky mountains;
Remember us now
In the tumult of cities beyond deserts and seas;
Remember us
With our eyes full of dust
That never clears in our ceaseless wandering.
They crushed the flowers on the hills around us,
Destroyed the houses over our heads,
Scattered our torn remains,
Then unfolded the desert before us,
With valleys writhing in hunger
And blue shadows shattered into red thorns
Bent over corpses left as prey for falcon and crow.
Is it from your hills that the angels sang to the shepherds
Of peace on earth and goodwill among men?
Only death laughed when it saw
Among the entrails of beasts
The ribs of men,
And through the guffaw of bullets
It went dancing a joyous dance
On the heads of weeping women.
Our land is an emerald,
But in the deserts of exile,
Spring after spring,
Only the dust hisses in our face.
What then, what are we doing with our love?

When our eyes and our mouth are full of frost and dust?

*Translated by Mounah Khouri and Hamid Algar

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920 – 1994) (Arabic: جبرا ابراهيم جبرا) was a Palestinian author born in Bethlehem at the time of the British Mandate. Educated in Jerusalem and, later, at Cambridge University, he settled as an exile in Iraq, in Baghdad, following the creation of the State of Israel.  An internationally renowned writer, artist, and cosmopolitan, he distinguished himself in the Arab world with his critically acclaimed  translations of Shakespeare, Chekov, Eliot, Beckett, Faulkner, Camus, Wilde, James Frasier, La Fontaine, Edmund Wilson, and Dylan Thomas.  The Ship is published by Three Continents Press.  Also noteworthy is Jabra’s novel In Search of Walid Masoud published by Syracuse University Press.
Note: The house that Jabra built in Baghdad (complete with his beloved orange trees, library, and art collection), a home in which for more than forty years he played host and mentor to artists, writers, and intellectuals from around the world, was destroyed in a car bomb attack in 2010.

*Photograph of Jabra’s house by Holly Pickett for The New York Times
* Detail of painting ‘Ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch (painted c. 1490–1500)

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hallucinations: Céline and Antunes

Young men with guns: look in the pages of the New York Times any morning and you will see an image like the one above (actually a photograph  taken in Angola in the 1970's).  There is nothing to say about such images, about such realities, any longer.  All that is left is to ascribe the image, the  violence, to the realm of nightmares.  There is no longer anything to learn about these images, these young men--they are only to be discussed by madmen. 

In 1916, Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, better known to us as Louis-Ferdinand Céline, set out for what were then known as the Cameroons, in French West Africa.  He spent one year in Africa, but wove that year into his debut novel, Journey to the End of the Night (1934), a  hallucinatory voyage through the First World War, European imperialism in Africa, immigrant life in New York, and despair in Paris.  I have chosen this passage more or less at random:

"What I [Bardamu, Celine's alter ego and anti-hero] couldn't help hearing under their spoken words and expressions of sympathy was this: 'Nice little soldier boy, you're going to die...You're going to die...this is war...Everyone has his own life...his role...his death...We seem to share your distress...But no one can share anyone else's death...A person sound in body and soul should take everything that happens as entertainment, neither more nor less, and we are wholesome young women...You'll soon be forgotten, dear little soldier boy..."

What does hallucinatory really mean, in relationship to literature?  I read Celine as a writer who is recreating dreams, states of consciousness that are offered without editing, where the extraneous is pushed front and center, where the reader's patience is tried by a lack of causality, coherence, and even, at times, of meaning. But then how else should a serious writer represent the horrors of the twentieth century but as a waking nightmare?

Among the most horrid nightmares of the Cold War occurred not in Latin America (there were plenty there) or Eastern Europe, but in Africa, in Angola in particular, a nation torn in three by the Portuguese--the original colonists--the Russians and the Americans, with the Chinese waiting in the wings for whatever scraps of diamonds and domination were left over. I won't recapitulate this history here, but only mention that the great Portuguese novelist, Antonio Lobo Antunes, served both his medical and literary apprenticeship in the horrifying war that pitted the Marxist government (supported by Cuban and Russian men and arms) against the U.S.-backed UNITA movement led by the charismatic madman Jonas Savimbi, one of the darling psychopaths of the Reagan administration.  Antunes, born in 1942, served a medical apprenticeship in Angola, and witnessed scenes of horror that have pervaded his fiction ever since.  His stylistic and tonal affinities with Celine are apparent, but his voice is his own--in the great novel Os Cus de Judas (The Asshole of Judas) translated by Margaret Jull Costa as The Land at the End of the World  (1979)--the mad, rambling, hallucinating narrator relates his experiences in the horrifying Angolan Civil War that eventually claimed the lives of half a million Angolans:

"No, I mean it, dusk falls and my heart starts to pound, I can feel it in my pulse, there's a tightening in my stomach, my bladder hurts, my ears hum, as if some indefinable thing waiting to burst forth were throbbing inside my chest: one of these days, the porter will find me lying naked on the bathroom floor, toothpaste and blood dribbling from one corner of my mouth.....I know it was six years ago, but I still get upset: we were traveling in convoy along sandy roads from Luso down to the Land at the End of the World, Lucusse, Luanguinga, past troops guarding the road construction site, past the ugly, uniform desert, villages surrounded by barbed wire, the prefabricated buildings of the barracks. . . . .my cap pulled low over my eyes, an endless cigarette vibrating in my hand, I began my painful apprenticeship in dying."

The hallucinatory is the dream made real. Antunes has a predecessor in Céline to be sure, but also in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, in Conrad, and in Faulkner, all of  whose narrators share with Antunes's doctor an obsession with the hopelessness of rendering into language that which is unspeakable. 

The victims of more recent colonial wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will recognize at once the madness of Atunes's doctor-narrator as the inevitable outgrowth of war's horror.  We call the syndrome PTSD and apply the term to any sort of trauma, but the victims of war suffer more than trauma--they lose their identifty altogether:

"I am today whom I deep down reject: a melancholic bachelor whom no one phones and from whom no one expects a call, who coughs occasionally just to feel as if he had company, and whom the cleaning lady will find one day sitting in his rocking chair in his undershirt, mouth agape, his purple fingers trailing on the November-colored hair of the carpet."

Antunes is the author of over twenty-six novels and is widely considered to be Portugal's greatest living novelist. 

The Land at the End of the World is published by W.W. Norton.

George Ovitt (2/15)