Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yehoshua’s Gift

Five Seasons by A. B. Yehoshua

A man has to be in love.
                A.B. Yehoshua
It was only on the train ride from Haifa back to Tel Aviv, after I had found a seat and caught my breath, the ancient coastline flashing by outside my window, that I opened up my copy of Five Seasons to see what the author A.B. Yehoshua had written inside. Unfortunately the inscription was in Hebrew, a language with which I have but a stumbling familiarity. Eager to know what he’d written, I asked an Israeli soldier seated across the aisle from me—a frowzy-looking teenager with an I-pod and Uzi—if he could translate the message, a request with which he seemed happy to comply. “You met him?” he asked me, after a glance at the page. He looked genuinely impressed. “Yes, just now, at a café in town.” He shook his head and smiled. “My father says he’s the best.”

It had started on whim, before I was due to visit Israel with my wife and sons, when I'd written the author at the university where he teaches on the chance that he would meet with me for no other reason than that I admired his work, indeed had been deeply changed in my thinking by his many prize-winning novels about life in Israel today. As an American I was not alone in this. “When I stumbled on the writing of A.B. Yehoshua,” writes Vivian Gornik in a recent article in The Nation, “it was as though a fault line had opened in a hardened surface to expose me to an emotional insight that life on the Israeli street had denied me.” I’d experienced exactly the same thing, some years earlier, before I’d actually been to Israel, when I’d chanced upon a novel of his, A Late Divorce, in a used bookshop in town. It was a revelation to me: for the first time there were people—real, familiar, struggling people—behind the daily newsprint drama of violence and fanaticism that had come to define the country for me. 
The Israelis of Yehoshua’s novels are at once universal in their needs and fears and aspirations, and complexly, compellingly distinct in their identity as Israelis, as Jews, a mixture of toughness, pride, and despair, a political, emotional, plainly existential dis-ease, that brings one so close to the brilliance and crisis of modern Israel that one can only be moved. And what else is literature for than to move us, to complicate our perspectives, to rattle the many truths and generalizations we hold dear?
This is not to suggest that Israel, as a nation, has simply been misunderstood, that the criticism of its policies in recent decades is without foundation, based largely on anti-Semitism and ignorance, only to state the obvious: that in a world fraught with bigotry and strife, a world sick with religious and cultural narcissism, it is fatal—literally fatal—to lose sight of the people themselves, be they Israelis or Palestinians, to be satisfied with cutouts and caricatures, with shadows on a screen. This is what good novelists do: they defy our complacency, our desire—all but instinctive, it seems—to simplify the world, to paint it black and white. This is Yehoshua’s gift: his ability to tell a story about a man, a woman, a family, in such a way that we know them as people first, with all their quirks and imperfections, and only after—if significantly—as Israelis, as Jews. 
His 1987 novel, Five Seasons (Molkho), my favorite of all, is a case in point. Never anywhere have I read a more stirring, more deeply human depiction of love and marriage and death, than in the pages of this book. The novel is worth buying for the opening pages alone, an exquisitely controlled description  of one man’s lonely vigil at the deathbed of his wife:  

Molkho’s wife died at 4 a.m., and Molkho did his best to mark the moment forever, because he wished to be able to remember it.  And indeed, thinking back on it even weeks and months later, he was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? he wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric heater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it. 
What Five Seasons gives the reader is a grave, sometimes funny, always acutely personal account of a middle-aged man struggling to come to terms with his life after the protracted and painful death of his wife, a simple story replete with love and longing, yet further charged, further complicated, by the fact that it takes place in Israel, a nation at war with itself, so that even its most quotidian details seem intimations of some greater, more grievous truth. While never overtly political like his novels Friendly Fire, A Woman In in Jerusalem, and The Liberated Bride, each of which I strongly recommend, Five Seasons is to my mind his most accomplished, most finely-wrought tale because it leaves me, not with a nation and its politics—its settlers, terrorists, and soldiers—but with a person, a human being, a vain and vulnerable man who longs for little more from this life than love.

Avraham “Boolie” Yehoshua was born in Palestine in 1936, a fifth-generation Sephardic Jerusalemite.  Following his form al education at The Hebrew University, where he studied literature and philosophy, Yehoshua moved to Paris for four years.  In 1967 he returned to Israel and served as a paratrooper during the Six Day War. Today he resides in Haifa, where he has been a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Haifa since 1972.  His works have been translated into 28 languages and he is the recipient of the Bialik Prize, the Israel Prize for Literature, and the Los angles Time Book Prize.  He is credited with being among the first Israeli writers to give voice to an Arab character in post-1948 Israeli literature.*

* Thanks in part to Stephanie Tankel
Note: The inscription in my copy of Five Seasons reads simply: “To Peter Nash, with heartfelt greetings. A.B. Yehoshua”
Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, May 26, 2013

And the living isn't easy.....

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee


I've been reading Coetzee all week, one of the writers I most admire and whose books I enjoy revisiting year after year.  In his early novels, up to The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee wrote about South Africa--recording his sense of nostalgia mingled with loathing for the mythic Afrikaner past and his hatred for apartheid (Life & Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians).  Master of Petersburg was a transitional book, a brilliantly inventive novel about Dostoevsky's private life, published in 1994, the year Coetzee's son died at age 23.   The novels that followed, beginning with Disgrace (1999), which many readers consider Coetzee's finest and most disturbing book, examine in greater detail dilemmas of personal authenticity and identify--still against the backdrop of South Africa's history--and deflect political questions into the realm of  (mostly failed) individual struggles to live a meaningful life; in other words, they take up the themes that preoccupied Dostoevsky himself. Coetzee is the most cerebral of writers, and it would be foolish to attempt an easy categorization of his work, but one can discover in a sequential study of his novels a gradual movement inward, an increasing focus on autobiography and "problems of the self," beginning with Youth, and continuing through Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year, and culminating in Summertime.

Coetzee's autobiographical writings remind me of Bernhard's Gathering Evidence and, to a lesser extent, Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels--intense, unsparing self-portraits of the artist; of the three, Coetzee is the least inclined to give himself the benefit of the doubt.  His portrayals of "John" in Summertime or of "Señor C" in Diary of a Bad Year can make the Coetzee admirer cringe before the author's Puritanical lack of sentiment:

"In Coetzee's eyes, we human beings will never abandon politics because politics is too convenient and too attractive as a theatre in which to give play to our baser emotions. Baser emotions meaning hatred and rancor and spite and jealousy and bloodlust and so forth.  In other words politics is a symptom of our fallen state and expresses that fallen state."

Summertime purports to be the interview notes of someone named Vincent, an English biographer who is writing about Coetzee's "lost years," his thirties, the years in South Africa when "John" was living an odd existence in a run-down house with his father, working part-time as a tutor, and preparing to compose Dusklands, his first novel (which was in fact written while Coetzee was teaching at SUNY Buffalo in 1971).  Vincent speaks to a woman with whom John had a brief, unsatisfying affair; with a cousin; with a Brazilian woman who was the unmoved object of John's infatuation; a male acquaintance (John had no friends); and a Frenchwoman, a colleague at the University of Cape Town, whose liaison with John was also unfulfilling and quickly terminated.  From these fragmentary interviews a portrait of the (deceased) John Coetzee emerges that is far from flattering: he was, we learn, socially awkward, lonely, "boney," a poor lover, incompetent, unmanly, shy, and, while perhaps talented, not a writer his lovers, relations, or friends considered worth their time.  Throughout these portraits the tone is mordant, deadpan,and without apparent irony.  It is as if Coetzee were constructing his post-mortem reputation without resort to the illusions the rest of us use to insulate ourselves from the truth--we are, all of us, foolish in the eyes of others, deluded as to our own significance.  Coetzee shares with Bernhard an unromantic view of the human tragicomedy--nothing is funny about our follies and cruelties and self-delusions--the best thing we can do is face the facts and bend to our fate.  While his early books are preoccupied with political will (if not idealism), Coetzee's work after 1999 is suffused with a sense of fate; he is, as one character in Summertime remarks, a Calvinist through and through.

Then again, no writer I can think of better disguises his commitments and beliefs.  We know Coetzee is a vegetarian (Elizabeth Costello), a bicycle enthusiast (Slow Man), and disgusted by the treatment he received in his native country (Disgrace and its aftermath).  But as is the case with Bernhard, the ruthless honesty of a great writer is no guarantee of his sincerity.  The conjuring of multiple fictional personae in Coetzee's work might delude us into thinking--like Mr. Vincent, the erstwhile and frustrated biographer--that we "know" the writer, but in the end, like Vincent, all we have are fragments of a complex and often contradictory imaginative life. 

"...[John's French mistress speaking] John did not have a strong presence. I don't mean to sound flippant.  I know he had many admirers; he was not awarded the Nobel Prize for nothing; and of course you would not be here today, doing these researches, if you did not think he was important as a writer.  But--to be serious for a moment--in all the time I was with him I never had the feeling I was with an exception person....he had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant." 

Or, this: there is no "original insight into the human condition," only its precise recording in flawless  prose.  Nothing more; but what more is needed?

George Ovitt (5/26/13)


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Calcutta: City of Palaces, City of Joy

Rajmahal by Kamalini Sengupta

                                                         By what dim shore of the ink-black river,
                                                         by what far edge of the frowning forest,
                                                         through what mazy depth of gloom art thou threading
                                                         thy course to come to me, my friend?

                                                                                          Rabindrinath Tagore

It was an agent of the East India Company, a man named Job Charnok,  who in 1690 chose the site of present-day Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) as the site for a British trade settlement, the three existing villages there purchased—Peter Minuit fashion—from the Mughal emperor, Alamgir, so that ever since the city’s inception the fates of Indians and the English there have been inextricably bound. Not only is Calcutta distinguished as a city for having been the capital of British India from 1772-1911, embodying a singular fusion of European philosophy, culture, and politics with ancient Indian traditions, but it has had a long history of armed resistance and rebellion, home, first and foremost to the Indian struggle for independence under the influence of Swami Vivekananda (commonly known as “the maker of modern India”), Sir Surendranath Banerjee, Rabindrinath Tagore, and Subhas Chandra Bose, as well to the radical Naxalite and trade unions movements of more recent years.* 

Steeped for more than a century in both Bengali and English culture, the citizens of Calcutta were (and perhaps still are) a remarkably, if sometimes reluctantly, cosmopolitan lot. “Rajmahal is Sengupta’s Howard’s End,” writes Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer in her glowing review of Kamalini Sengupta’s novel about life in post-independence Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is on the face of it an apt comparison, for, as in Forster’s novel, Sengupta chooses a single dwelling (in her case an old mansion-turned-apartment-building) as the stage for a comedy of manners that shrewdly explores the shifting political, economic, and social mores of a new and giddy nation. In this respect the novels are akin—fraternal if not identical twins. In fact Rajamahal is reminiscent of another English novel as well, Paul Scott’s 1977 Staying On, a deeply affecting tale about an English couple, Tusker and Lucy Smalley, who stay on in India after Independence, trying their best, with what little remains to them, to come to terms with the change. 

Yet the beauty of Rajmahal has less to do with its intimations of these fine English novels than with Sengupta’s own exquisite prose, and with her diverse and eccentric cast of characters—Muslims, Hindus, Sindhis, Sikhs, and a hodgepodge of Europeans (not to mention a stable of cranky old ghosts), the lot of them wrought with such affection, such attention to detail, that even now they rise before me when I close my eyes. The Ramjahal itself is personified—trembling, sighing, groaning, judging, intervening even in the lives of its tenants in order to keep the peace. Built in 1910 by a man named Sardar Bahdur Ohri in the fashionable British part of town, the once-proud building, by the time the story opens, has fallen into a state of sullen, churlish disrepair:

The Rajmahal, which was upset at losing its pristine quality after its sale and transformation into a block of apartments, had a history replete with the tales of ghosts.  It had four floors connected by a vast, soaring stairway, and the heavy wrought iron balustrades trailed down with festoons of dusty sunlight and pigeon droppings.  The iron beam which held up the roof formed convenient roosts for the pigeons and there was a constant bustle, sometimes music, raised voices, a dog’s bark, mingling with the pigeon coos and hinting at the life inside the apartments.  The lobby, at the foot of the stairs, had a graciously proportioned black and white marble flagged floor, barely visible and seductive from the top floor.  Within two curved embrasures, naked marble women tilted urns toward basins once awash with water…

This not an English novel with Indian characters, such as A Passage to India, The Far Pavilions, and The Raj Quartet, but a distinctly Indian novel with Indian and European characters struggling to find their footing in a city at once deeply familiar to them and every day more strange.

*Thanks in part to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta: A Cultural History and Calcuttaweb

Kamalina Sengupta writes for newspapers and magazines in India, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong.  As the executive director of the Surya trust, she films documentaries that aim to correct misconceptions about Indian life. Rajmahal, her second novel, is published by The Feminist Press--fast becoming one of my favorite presses.  Check out their list:

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 18, 2013

This Blinding Absence of Light

"My eyes looked like those of madman, although I haven't lost my mind.  There was also death in my eyes, yet I am alive. I have not accepted having those eyes, there's something frightful in them. ... I'm afraid. And I see fear in the eyes of others.  Maybe I should have prepared myself for that shock. I'll get used to it, in the end."

Cette aveuglante absence de lumière, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

In the 1970's, the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was founded in the Western Sahara to fight for independence from France.  In 1975, although the International Court of Justice upheld the claim of the native Saharawi people to self-determination, King Hassan II of Morocco organized the so-called "Green March" to recover what was then called the Spanish Sahara from Polisario forces.  Faced with an enormous invading army, Spain, which had been asked to intervene, sued for peace, and the resulting Madrid Agreement divided the disputed territory between Morocco and Mauritania.  The Polisario movement established a government-in-exile in Algeria (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), but the region--as empty and barren as any on earth (with a population of one-half million)--is still governed by Morocco. 

This Blinding Absence of Light is the story--a monologue, a parlay with madness--of Salim, a Moroccan soldier kept for eighteen years at Tazmamart Prison, a literal hellhole, an underground cell into which no light could penetrate, a coffin ten feet long by five feet wide, so cramped that the fifty-eight inmates, each kept in solitary confinement, couldn't stand. Here Salim and his fellow prisoners were kept (barely) alive on starvation rations for nearly two decades until 1991 when twenty-eight survivors were finally freed. 

"For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret."

To call this novel claustrophobic is an understatement--there are voices, but aside from the initial description of the prison cell, with its hole in the floor for excreting and its tiny hole in the ceiling for breathing, there is nothing to look at and no light with which to see, and only the surreally calm words of the narrator to listen to, words whose cadences are incantatory, as if Salim were reading the Qur'an and not narrating the tale of his unimaginable imprisonment. He is, as he says himself, a dead man. In the final chapters, describing his release, Salim speaks of being reborn: his eyes are unfocused, his body is stooped, his teeth are gone, and he cannot walk--the world has moved on, and he sits with his dying mother as Lazarus, come to proclaim not man's resurrection but his inhumanity to his fellow man. 

I've read my share of prison stories: Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle made an indelible impression on me many years ago; Cheever's Falconer, which might be his finest novel, Darkness at Noon with its expose of the Stalin show trials--however, I prefer true stories of incarceration, books like Wilde's De Profundis and the great Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, raw and honest books that deal with injustice, a genre that goes back at least to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy

But to call Jelloun's fictionalization of Salim's two decades in Tazmamart "prison literature" is like calling Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a travel guide.  This Blinding Absence of Light is a psychological study of a human being in extremis--it asks us to consider not only what a person can endure (and not in a voyeuristic way--the distance between the reader and Salim is too great), but to consider the egregious suffering one man--in this case King Hassan II--can inflict on another.  The men interned at Tazmamart were never accused of a crime, never tried or convicted.  I won't compare their plight to that of the men at Guantanamo since comparisons of suffering are glib and misleading; yet in reading TBAOL one is forced to consider the consequences of long-term incarceration, especially absent any substantive legal process, on both inmates and their jailers. (In TBAOL the guards are as dehumanized as their charges).  The reader is forced to confront both the injustice as well as the horror of Salim's fate as the 6000 plus days of his sentence unfold. What could time have meant?  How could one have lived one day under these conditions?  Only the "blessing" of being allowed an hour above ground to bury the dead marked the eons of Salim's (literal) internment. 

Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fes, in French Morocco, in 1944.  He received the bilingual, French-Arabic education typical of the colonial period (actually, that's not true: most often the education would be only in the metropolitan power's language, at least until independence).  Jelloun was a teacher of philosophy in Casablanca before moving to Paris in 1971.  He won the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his novel La Nuit Sacrée and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for This Blinding Absence of Light. He has recently published a controversial account of the "Arab Spring," entitled The Spark.

For further information see Maureen Freely, here

This Blinding Absence of Light, trans. by Linda Coverdale, is published by the New Press.

George Ovitt (5/18/13)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hafiz: Tongue of the Invisible

A Year With Hafiz: Daily Contemplations, selected by Daniel Ladinsky

“He fears nothing,” wrote Emerson of the Sufi poet, Shams-ud-din Muhammad (c.1320-1389), known commonly as Hafiz or ‘memorizer,’ an honorific conferred upon him, as a young man, by his having memorized the Quran. “He sees too far, he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see or be.” Beloved by Persians, by Muslims and mystics, Hafiz, a contemporary of Chaucer, has long been revered in the West—thanks in large part to Goethe—by such diverse figures as Nietzsche, Brahms, Queen Victoria, Garcia Lorca, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes was fond of quoting the poet’s ghazals. Born in the city of Shiraz, the son of a coal merchant, Hafiz worked as a baker’s assistant and later studied calligraphy and the work of the Persian master poets, poets such as Saadi of Shiraz, Farid-ud-din Attar, and Jalal-ud-din-Rumi.  While still a young man, he became a disciple of a Sufi teacher named Muhammad Attar, an experience that transformed his understanding of the world—of Love, of Beauty: of God.

 “The Sufis,” according to Robert Graves from his introduction to Idries Shah’s fascinating book The Sufis, “are an ancient spiritual freemasonry whose origins have never been traced or dated… Though commonly mistaken for a Moslem sect, the Sufis are at home in all religions,” independent of clergy and dogma, an ancient mystical tradition with “an intense, often ecstatic, one-pointed devotion to God.”*

Since the latter was not of interest to me, I wondered—for recently a student had given me a copy of A Year With Hafiz as a gift—if I would find anything in his poetry at all. What I discovered was the vision of a compassionate, profoundly catholic man whose gentle, self-effacing wisdom reminds me of that of such fellow greats as Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Thomas Merton, Krishnamurti, Meher Baba, and the fourteenth  and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyasto. Missing from the many poems I read, and perhaps from Sufism itself, for all its association with Islam, is any notion of sin or damnation, any fear of God. Instead, what distinguishes these devotional love songs is Hafiz’s simple joie de vivre, an abundance of delight, intelligence, and humor that bubbles forth like water from a cool mountain spring.  The pleasure of these poems for me lies in their refreshing, truly novel combination of “ecstatic assurance and scepticism”—enough to drive both rationalists and zealots mad.

Retire In The Alps

The great religions are the ships,
poets the lifeboats.

Every sane person I know has
jumped overboard!

Hafiz, it is good for business,
isn’t it?  Indeed,

but I would rather retire in the Alps!

I Had a Legitimate Excuse
I had a legitimate excuse for not going to the
mosque and temple to pray.
It was because love is so wild in me I might
break the fragile glass cage that all religions
are made of.

Two Giant Fat People

God and I have become like two giant

fat people living in a tiny boat;

we keep bumping into each other and

Hafiz (1310-1390)lies buried in Musalla Gardens in Shiraz.

*“The Life and Work of Hafiz” by Henry S. Mindlin

* “ecstatic assurance and scepticism” from Claud Field’s Preface to The Alchemy of Happiness by Al-Ghazzi

Note: Hafiz poem in Arabic calledMy 3,ooo Loving Arms”

Special thanks to my friend and former student, the poet, Megan Reynolds, for the gift of this book.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Walker in Mexico City

And Let the Earth Tremble At Its Centers, by Gonzalo Celorio

"He couldn't remember anything that happened the night before."

I confess a weakness for what might be called dipsomaniacal novels--books whose plots revolve around the excessive consumption of alcohol.  Great dipsomaniacal novels include Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas (which also fits into another category, that of novels whose film adaptation is actually better than the book--a rare class indeed), Lawrence Block's sublime Matt Scudder novels, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend, Ironweed by William get the idea. And my favorite,  the book most relevant to Celorio's brilliant novel, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.  The great virtue of novels whose narrator drinks too much is the narrator's honesty--that's the reason these books are so powerful--drunks might be deluded about themselves--that goes with the territory--but they don't hesitate to speak the truth about the world around them.  I'll never forget reading Lowry for the first time and being shocked at the extent to which his story of the final day in the life of the self-destructive Geoffrey Firmin (the "Consul") put me inside a man bent upon the eradication of his being --Lowry's gift for poetically rendering a self-destructive consciousness was unique, and  Lowry's prose was nearly hallucinatory, as if (as if!) he were writing in a state of morbid inebriation himself.  Compared to Lowry, Bukowski was a member of the Moral Majority. 

So: booze and books go well together--and I don't mean writers who like booze; hell, there's no end to that subject--no, I mean books where drinking is an integral part of the character's life, where it shapes his or her reflections on the world.

The other category of fiction to which I am hopelessly addicted is the perambulatory novel--the novel whose plot is focused on the ramblings of a thoughtful person, usually through an urban landscape.  I emphasize "urban" here; I have little  interest in books about people walking in the woods, even the inimitable Bill Bryson, or books that describe botanizing strolls in the country except if the country carries the narrator to an especially blighted landscape (as in Sebald's brilliant Rings of Saturn).  No, walks should be taken in cities, where there is something to see and be stimulated by--I'm no naturalist, and though I often hike in the woods, my thoughts among trees are banal--"Why is there always a fly buzzing around my face?"--whereas a walk in Paris or Tokyo or Lisbon or Manhattan or (best of all) Philadelphia is bound to evoke ideas about the human condition, history, late capitalism, and the best place to get a drink.  The city, after all, is humanity's greatest cultural achievement. I love thoughtful walkers like Sebald and Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin; Mrs. Dalloway, Leopold Bloom, Jane Austen's claustrophobic heroines (Catherine, Elizabeth, Marianne), and Farnsworth, hero of Joshua Ferris's remarkable The Unnamed, Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City, a book that made Brownsville as fascinating as Joyce's Dublin)--these are the sorts of walkers I like to carry in my knapsack while lounging in Central Park.

Given these odd fictional interests, Gonzalo Celorio's And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers (the words are from the Mexican national anthem) was just the book for me.  Celorio describes one day (the final one, as it transpires) in the life of an older academic, Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, a man who loves to wander the streets of Mexico City, who is intimate with the city's architectural history, the stories behind each façade, intimate with every café and bar, and a lover of drink--not, perhaps, an alcoholic, but one of those ritual imbibers whose rules about when and where to have beer, tequila, scotch, and/or wine, reflect a conscious admission that life on the cusp of inebriation offers charms that sobriety does not:

"Once and for all, you're ready to take the second shot of tequila of the day--the one that produces happiness and euphoria, according to your theoretical disquisitions. Impulsively, you're about to order another one, which will send straight to hell the rules of the game that you yourself imposed on your students [college aged, disciples of Dr. Barrientos]."

Drinking and walking, Dr. Barrientos alternates between thoughts of his students--especially his close followers, those whose admiration gives him a reason to live--and thoughts of his childhood, of his parents and his life in the city that he loves.  Just as Mexico City is a modern metropolis built literally on the bones of the past, so is Barrientos' inner life a kind of archaeological dig--his reflections tip seamlessly into bouts of reminiscence and of regret, not only for the life that is fleeting past, but for the life of a great city that is, even as he walks its streets, being destroyed by political and economic forces Barrientos cannot comprehend.  The air of the novel is polluted with sadness and the sense of loss.

And then, of course, there is tequila, a drink that, like mescal in Under the Volcano, promises ease, tranquility, escape from loneliness, and, as it transpires, death. 

Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, like Lowry's Consul, is a man enamored with self-annihilation.  In Mexico, los borrachazos are serious about their drunkenness.  Barrientos is a thoughtful drinker, but as the climactic scenes of the novel make clear, he too has a Baroque-Catholic fondness for the distinguished thing.  Lowry's and Celorio's heroes (like Greene's 'whiskey priest') aren't British clubmen sipping gin and quinine in some African enclave, or Irishmen downing what is a rather salubrious mixture of barley and hops, or Frenchmen breaking up clots of butterfat with glorious Bordeaux's; no, Barrientos comes from a long line of imbibers of those ferocious spirits brewed from plants that are themselves unforgiving, harvested in the harshest country in the hemisphere. Dia de los muertos indeed.

Barrientos' brief odyssey through the bars of Cinco de Mayo and Avenida Moneda ends ingloriously to be sure, in violence and humiliation, but there is a humanity at the heart of Celorio's story that is lacking in the more calculated and depressing tale of Geoffrey Firman.  The well-intentioned, vain, and befuddled Professor stumbles into his fate; the Consul embraces his destruction right up to the moment his body is tossed into a ravine.  I'm inclined to think Celorio was influenced by Lowry, but perhaps not.  Novels that take their theme from the landscape of Mexico City are not unusual; in any case the great beauty of both these books is their relentless examination of the memories of their monomaniacal protagonists--both books lack supporting characters, for good reason:

How many hours of your life have you spent sitting in front
of mirrors at bars, alternating one foot or the other on the
barstool rung, staring at your reflection, rebuffing it at times,
and at other times, doting on it with tenderness? Tell me,
how many hours has it been? If you dared to add them up,
they would become days, weeks, months, and even years.”

Gonzalo Celorio, born in Mexico City in 1948, is a critic and essayist as well as a novelist. He is the former director of the Fonda de Cultural EconomicaAnd Let the Earth Tremble At Its Centers is his first novel to be translated into English, and with great skill, by Dick Geddes.  It was published by the University of Texas Press in their excellent Pan American Literature in Translation Series.

George Ovitt (5/13/13)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nothing

Spectacle (Stories) by Susan Steinberg

"Steinberg is one of the best fiction writers in America today." Joshua Furst

I was tempted to begin this journal entry with the famous final proposition from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but since no one has any idea what Wittgenstein meant--I certainly don't--I'll quote instead a proposition I flatter myself that I do understand, 6.522 for those of you who are following along at home: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." [Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dis zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.]  The key word here is Unaussprechliches: my dictionary provides "inexpressible" and also "unutterable" as if these words meant the same thing.  That which cannot be spoken might lie beyond language--the feeling one has for one's children, for example--or it might be the case that we know the proper word for what we are feeling but refuse to utter it because it would be too terrible to do so--I feel this way when a news reporter sticks a microphone in the face of a bereaved husband and asks how he feels now that his (let's imagine) wife has been crushed in a collapsed garment factory.  What he feels is both inexpressible and unutterable.  I don't mean to split hairs here, but the distinction is an important one both for our lives and in our engagement with serious literary works.
Raymond Carver was, of course, the most influential of minimalists; indeed, his impact on American literature has been remarkable, if not entirely (in my opinion) positive. It is likely that if you pursue an MFA in fiction writing you will be moved to produce sentences like Ray's sentences, or, as we say, to strive for the Carveresque:
"A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. Except for the chrome hooks, he was an ordinary-looking man of fifty or so.
'How did you lose your hands?' I asked after he'd said what he wanted.
'That's another story," he said. 'You want this picture or not?'" ["Viewfinder"]
Not much happens in a classic Carver story; drinks are poured, cigarettes are smoked, conversations tail off into uneasy silences.  When something does happen, as in "Viewfinder," you're hard-pressed to say what exactly and perplexed as to the why. "Gerald Weber didn't have any words left in him. He kept quiet and drove the car." ["The Pheasant"] And so it goes.  But in spite of the silences, there's something going on in Ray's little vignettes of American desperation--there's desperation for one thing, the sense that everything bad that can happen has already happened and we've been invited to witness the aftermath.  When I read Ray I feel like I do when I look at pictures of bombed-out cities. There we are, having a bourbon, sitting in the rubble.
Carver's palette is the inexpressible.  But Susan Steinberg goes Ray one better; she  mines the unutterable, not just the things that we are silent about but the things we cannot help but be silent about.  A Carver character is reticent; a Steinberg character is dumb (in the original meaning of the word):
"When the plane crashed, I was all messed up.
For years, I was all messed up.
I could see the scene inside the plane.
I could see the scene outside.
And I had thoughts of flying.
Then thoughts of falling. . . . " ["Spectacle"]
There are twelve pages of propositions just like these.  There are no characters to speak of, no incidents that we can believe in, no feelings expressed.  All p is q. No p is q. Some p is q.  Reading Spectacle, I thought about my study of symbolic logic, p's and q's that stand for propositions that stand for (as Wittgenstein briefly believed) pictures of the world. I thought of poems that are really prose; I though of prayers chanted in Latin--nonsense, but full of yearning.  Steinberg is doing something in her stories, but what exactly?
"Next someone turned up the radio and some song was on, and the six of us were riding up some burned-out Baltimore street. There was no one on the street but us. We were screaming out the words to this song. The another song came on and we knew that song too....I was just so fucking powerful in that moment." ["Superstar"] Well, it isn't Proust, but why should Susan Steinberg write like Proust? 
Here is Mr. Joshua Furst on Steinberg's Spectacle:
"In each of the stories, we see one or more aspects of how this narrator grapples with the relationship between her circumstances and her ability to control them. And the events presented in the stories reappear with nothing changed but the meaning they hold. The narrator is pressured into pulling the plug on her dying father; her college friend dies in a plane crash. She gets drunk. She has sex with someone she doesn’t like, or someone she does like but pretends not to, or someone she’s pretty sure doesn’t like her."

Fair enough.  But what isn't said here is that we readers don't know if any of these things are really happening--Steinberg purveys ultra-minimalism plus irony!  Is there a plane crash?  Does she kill her father? Has she slept with creeps? The lovely veil of fiction--our willingly suspended disbelief--Steinberg tears it  up with clinical efficiency--she's cataloging events and nothing more; causality is undercut; of course fiction is untrue, but what if it's not only untrue but pointless?

The "narrator"--a droning voice uttering gnomic propositions (see above) isn't only unreliable, she's a phantom, maybe dreaming what she tells the reader, but most certainly not meaning any of it.  Indeed, the word "grapples" in Mr. Furst's review is ludicrous--there is no touching let alone grappling in Spectacle. Steinberg's bursts of prose are feather-light; her detachment is absolute. 

The comparison to Wittgenstein isn't that far-fetched: "Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it--or at least similar thoughts"  In that case....we come to the end, to the futility of writing, of speaking, of feeling. Not the inexpressible or the unutterable, but the banal--not the "things that we pass over in silence" but the things unworthy of expression. What we talk about when there isn't any point in talking.

Untitled, Mark Tobey


Spectacle is published by Graywolf Press

George Ovitt (5/8/13)