Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hope and Nostalgia: The Yesterdays of Natalia Ginzburg

All Our Yesterdays (Tutti i nostri ire) by Natalia Ginzburg

“There is a certain dull uniformity in human destiny,” reflected the ‘great small’ writer Natalia Ginzburg, some years before her death. “The course of our lives follows ancient and immutable laws, with an ancient, changeless rhythm. Dreams never come true, and the instant they are shattered, we realize how the greatest joys of life lie beyond the realm of reality. The instant they are shattered we are sick with longing for the days when they flamed within us. Our fate spends itself in this succession of hope and nostalgia.” It is a tone—this weariness, this resignation—that permeates her fiction, which, while ever fresh and compelling, is like a sitting room at dusk. 

Her novel All Our Yesterdays is no exception, this otherwise straightforward tale drawn back and forth through the skein of her own rueful experience of life, lending it a somber, doleful intimacy that is the mark of Ginzburg’s work. As in the prose of Marcel Proust (whose work she greatly admired: she was the first to translate Du Côté de chez Swann into Italian) in which the past is meticulously re-created, Ginzburg is a miniaturist in her extraordinarily fine command of detail, in the charged, if distinctly unsentimental way in which she brings the past to heel. It is a detachment that seems to me a particularly Jewish, particularly Italian detachment, an ancient, all but visceral fatalism (one can feel the history in it, the darkness, the weight) cruelly compounded, in the author’s own lifetime, by the torture and murder, by the Gestapo, of her husband, Leone Ginzburg, and by the Holocaust itself.

Yet, as is the case with so many great writers, such brooding forbearance as Ginzburg’s is transmuted—through the powerful process of her writing—into fiction that transcends her own experience, so that, while dark, still very dark indeed, it is poignantly, often luminously so.

Set in Italy between 1939 and 1944, All Our Yesterdays is essentially a family drama writ small with great precision, then writ large against the jingoism, murder, and destruction of WWII, a war that steadily creeps its way toward the family, day by day, mile by mile, even deep into the southernmost reaches of Italy, where finally it engulfs them in its fury. 

The novel’s characters are sharply, memorably drawn—the housekeeper and de facto mother, Signor Maria; the wealthy and eccentric “uncle,” Cenzo Rena; the children: Anna, Giustino, Ippolito, and Concettina; and their sickly, cantankerous father, with his Goethe and detective novels, exacting his revenge upon the mad and degenerate nation that is Italy of the time by secretly writing his memoirs: “The old man used to laugh and rub his hands together at the thought that the King and Mussolini knew nothing about it, while in a small town in Italy there was a man writing fiery remarks about them.” It is an image that makes me smile. 

Widely considered the most important woman writer of post-World War II Italy, Natalia Ginzburg is an author whose works have long been savored by more solitary, world-weary readers for whom the pace of the telling itself—so patient in Ginzburg’s case—would be consolation enough.  Yet her stories offer the reader much more than that. To read one of her novels is to surrender oneself not only to a different tempo but to a different temperament and time. All Our Yesterdays is a deeply affecting portrait of the trauma and betrayal of war, an experience Europeans of Ginzburg’s generation knew altogether too well.

*Opening quotation from A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays by Natalia Ginzburg.  Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz and published by Seven Stories Press.

Natalia Ginzburg (1917-1991)was an Italian-Jewish novelist and playwright who studied  in Turin, where  she befriended many of the Jewish antifascist intellectuals active in the Italian resistance. Her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, a victim of the Nazis, died in a Roman prison in 1944.  She was friends with many of Italy’s greatest writers of the period, including Pier Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante. and Cesare Pavese.  Her best-known books include Family Sayings, The Little Virtues, The City and the House, The Manzoni Family, Valentino and Sagittarius, Family: Family and Borghesia, Two Novellas; and Voices in the Evening(Thanks in part to Jewish Virtual Library)

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Polish Light and Polish Darkness

Dukla by Andrzej Stasiuk

Living in New Mexico, in the high desert, one becomes almost jaded by the daily spectacle of refracted light--mauve and magenta, fifty shades of blue ranging from the color of deep ocean to turquoise to an impossibly rich hue that creates the illusion that the brown prairie grasses and cacti have turned to gold.  Living for many years in the East, I'd not paid much heed to light--there was an approximation of daylight, and twilight, and then night--but the richness of light as the sun eases its way across the vastness of an empty sky--for in this place the universe is still geocentric--was something I'd not experienced, a visceral, jubilant vindication of the proposition that light holds mystical power, that it is the embodiment of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

And here's Andrzej Stasiuk, noted Polish writer, preoccupied with the effects of light ("I've always wanted to write a book about light"), born in 1960 in Warsaw, prolific and only now beginning to be translated into English (by Bill Johnston in the the case of the book under review).  I enjoy looking at author photographs and find Stasiuk to have an especially photogenic face.  But what drew me to the picture below is the endless, snowy, dirt track, a road to nowhere, or to the small town of Dukla--the Polish word means "mine shaft," of which there are more than a few in central Poland.  How can we think of Eastern Europe, now or in 1960, and not imagine roads like this one, perhaps clotted with tanks (of the Wehrmacht or the Red Army, rumbling East or West), and feel a kind of incipient terror, or a weariness at the predictability of history--the kind of experience reflected in Stasiuk's lined face and in his eyes, quite youthful by my standards, which appear to have seen it all.

Dukla is one of those unclassifiable books that eastern European writers seem especially adroit at producing--part travelogue, part memoir, part prose poem.  In it, Stasiuk investigates the effects of light on the landscape, on a small town and its residents, one of a thousand non-nondescript villages on the vast plain that is Poland and the Ukraine, the tragic plateau on which so much of European history has been contested.

In the town of Dukla, in the novella of that name that fills much of the book, in the short, poetic sketches of the town's rain and swallows and seasons, Stasiuk creates an impressionistic sense of quotidian life--the routine existence of an ordinary town of 2,000 souls which has, we know, stood at the crossroads of some of the twentieth century's great tragedies. Though politics are absent from the book, history is not, and one feels the weight of the past in the beautiful descriptions of ordinary things.

"This was how it was as I rode the train to Duka in April, the light continually summoning things into being and then annihilating them again with a cold, supernatural indifference.  The outskirts of Krosno were flat and industrial. Warehouses, sheds, lockups, general devastation.  There was something lying by the tracks. Maybe someone had been supposed to load it up and take it away, but now it wouldn't be worth the effort. Branch lines ran off amid low buildings. They were coated in rust...Sun-drenched walls, benches made of a handful of bricks and a plank, the glitter of green and brown broken glass, white bottle caps, colorful tongues of trash slithering down the embankments, and a girl of twelve in her mother's high heels pushed an enameled stroller that was fifteen years old."

Throughout the couple of days I spent reading Dukla, I thought of W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, that unforgettable evocation of a dead landscape, of dying English towns whose ruins remind the author of the vaster ruins of the twentieth century. With Stasiuk the sense of surveying a landscape replete with meaning and linked to terrible events is similar, though he isn't quite like anyone I've read before. Stasiuk is a writer of poetic prose, a witness who possesses a sensibility that penetrates the landscape and illuminates it using the light that flows--from first sentence to last--throughout the book ("...the night slowly raises its dark backside...").  Sebald was the foremost of the saturnine romantics--akin to Blake rather than to Wordsworth--a dispossessed German whose rambles through the blasted landscapes of southeastern England were intent upon decay and loss, an observer pulled, inexorably, back to the greater ruins of war and genocide.  Stasiuk, a generation on, is more at ease in the small microcosm of Dukla, a Wordsworthian observer, but one who notes that the light of Poland illuminates scenes of devastation rather than of personal edification and recollection: 

"January was sunny and almost snowless. We were plodding along up to our ankles and Wasyl said, 'Look at them all in a huddle.' Before we reached them they flew off.  Crows, white-beaked rooks, ravens, chattering jays, and jays with their wings touched with pale blue. And some smaller kinds. In the place they took off from we found a deer. In place of its eyes it had red cavities in a smooth white frame of bone. Wasyl looked for the wound that had killed it, but the skin was torn in many places. Tufts of drab fur were scattered here and there. 'Maybe it dropped dead, maybe it was shot,' he said, and we walked back."

The last sentence of Dukla captured the mood of the book as a whole and made me think again of the great--what?--irony? cruelty? of having the sun shine on the wreckage of the world--a feeling I used to have as I walked on (rare) sunny days among the broken-down houses and factories of Philadelphia, a place I loved and lived in for many years, a kind of laboratory where one could observe how "free markets" and deliberate neglect would destroy, as surely as war, what was once vibrant and alive:  

"And if a weather front happens to be passing through, in the chasmic depths of the blueness long white clouds will show up. They look like bones, like a scattered and hazy vertebral column.  Because that's how things will be at the very end. Even the clouds will vanish and all that will remain will be an endless blue eye hovering over the ruins."

Yes, exactly.  The blue sky that hovers over our ruins. 

Andrzej Stasiuk operates, with his wife, a small publishing firm, writes, and breeds sheep in the small hamlet of Czarne, in the Beskids, in southern Poland.  His books are now becoming available in English and include Dukla, White Raven, Nine, and FadoDukla is available from the good people at Dalkey Archive.

George Ovitt (10/25/13)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jubilant Misunderstanding

The Following Story, by Cees Nooteboom

"Modesty hesitates to express metaphysical concepts directly; if one tries, one delivers oneself up to jubilant misunderstanding."  Theodor Adorno (Nooteboom's epigram)

What are the qualities of memorable books?

Most people would put plot or story above other qualities, and this is a reasonable viewpoint given
the origins of the novel as well as the nature of the its most immediate precursors--Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Troilus, Boccaccio's Decameron, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Don Quixote (I suppose the first European novel, but I'm not sure how literary scholars classify Cervantes) and other early works which, in prose or poetry, spun out stories that were ultimately rooted in oral traditions.  Great fiction is full of memorable plots and many of us, myself included, were first seduced by stories rather than by the other attractions of great fiction.

And what are these other attractions?  For me, a memorable work of fiction must possess, in order of importance,  a brilliant style (and there are deep taxonomies of great writing unique to every serious reader); interesting ideas; characters who possess the qualities and failings of real human beings (hence, no science-fiction, fantasy, or, for the most part, genre books, aside from certain mysteries whose authors satisfy the other criteria of memorable fiction--there are many such writers).  A good story I consider to be a bonus--I love stories still, but not at the expense of style and ideas, and never at the expense of characters with whom I can live out my vicarious reading life.  I should say that I don't consider myself to be a snob in matters of literature or anything else--I have read a few bestsellers in my day and enjoyed them, and I'll read any book written by George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, or Michael Connelly--but there are limits, and life is far too short to waste on Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, or, God help us, Bill O'Reilly (newly-crowned king of thanatonic history), just as it's too short to spend it drinking Budweiser or wine out of boxes.  'Quality' isn't just a word for what is better; 'quality' is what we search for in order to serve our deepest needs, in order to fill the emptiness in our intellectual, passionate, and appetitive selves, spaces whose filling allows us not merely to be entertained but to grow as persons, to become persons. 

That's Cees Nooteboom in his study.  Two weeks ago I'd never heard of him, or read a word he'd written.  My colleague Peter Nash came into my office holding a copy of Nooteboom's novel All Soul's Day, a book I hope he'll write about.  If Peter liked Nooteboom, I knew I would too.  I decided to read him at once and started with his Roads to Santiago, a travel book about, obviously, Spain, beautifully written, engaging, full of ideas.  Travel writing is a genre of non-fiction about which I am extra selective--I don't like guidebooks to places I'll never go--but Nooteboom's Spain was as much a place of the imagination as a destination in the world.  So it was with great anticipation that I purchased The Following Story, a slender novel published in 1991 whose story is odd beyond imagining (in a good way), and which bristles with interesting ideas, features a thoroughly unlikeable but unforgettable narrator, and, in the English version of Ina Rilke, is full of beautiful writing, some of which I'll quote in a moment.

The plot of The Following Story, once recapitulated, sounds "thin," as book-chat columnists are prone to say.  Herman Mussert, a disagreeable and even creepy former classics teacher and guidebook writer goes to bed in his home in Amsterdam and wakes up--of all places--in Lisbon, scene of his one great, passionate love affair, a brief, torrid romance with a fellow teacher, twenty years before.  The novel is almost entirely an interior monologue, Mussert's musings on his past, on his ill-fated adulterous affair, and his apparent nocturnal transference (how to describe such a thing?) from his home to a hotel in Lisbon.  Once in the Portuguese capital, if he is indeed there, Mussert thinks a lot about Pessoa, as anyone would, but of course his thinking about the great poet of shape-shifting reinforces the central idea of the novel--nothing is fixed, all, as Heraclitus believed and as Ovid demonstrated, is in flux. 

Anyway, not much to hang your hat on if you're a plot person.  Not a New York Times type of book for sure. But Nooteboom, who is some kind of genius at weaving intricate ideas and themes and references into a remarkably fugal construction--e.g. a reference on page 11 flows through the entire book, gathering momentum and resonance as more bits and pieces of the story arise--or, since Mussert loves Ovid above all writers (he is translating the Metamorphosis, which seems an especially pointless labor given the inimitable brilliance of the Golding translation, the very one Shakespeare morphed into some of the greatest stories in any language) perhaps one should see The Following Story primarily as a meditation on the notion of shape-shifting, Mussert as the hero with a thousand faces, the doughy countenance of Socrates shifted into the face of a scholar, a lover, a fool, and, finally, a tragic figure, a childless and unloved Lear. ("I had waked up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead...")

The most remarkable section of this thoroughly remarkable novel--so many ideas packed into 115 pages!--is the playful use of the ancient/perennial theme of water-crossing.  The novel ends with a small party of men from various walks of life--a priest, a journalist, a scholar--being escorted across some great unnamed sea; of course, one is meant to think of the Styx. In the midst of the journey a Chinese scholar, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, reveals to Mussert that the poet Qu Yuan, who antedated Ovid by three centuries, was also, like Mussert, banished, ferried across a river to an unknown land: 

I gaze my last upon the river bank,
The autumn breeze blows chill.
I halt my carriage here within the wood
My steeds beside the hill.
In covered vessel travelling upstream,
The men bend to their oars;
The boat moves slowly, strong the current sweeps,
Nearby a whirlpool roars.

I set out from the bay at early dawn,
And reach the town at eve.
Since I am upright, and my conscience clear,
Why should I grieve to leave?
I linger by the tributary stream,
And know not where to go.
The forest stretches deep and dark around,
Where apes swing to and fro.

The beetling cliffs loom high to shade the sun,
Mist shrouding every rift,
With sleet and rain as far as eye can see,
Where low the dense clouds drift.
Alas! all joy has vanished from my life,
Alone beside the hill.
Never to follow fashion will I stoop,
Then must live lonely still.

(From "River Crossing")

To cross to the other side: to love someone who doesn't, who couldn't, love you; to live in an imaginary world of heroes and gods but to find in their stories not heroism or divinity but pathos and tragedy; to be dead, or dying, and not to know it--these are the richly textured themes that bind The Following Story together and that caused me, immediately upon finishing the novel, to go back and read it a second time.  It turns out that I missed a great deal on my first reading. Nor did I appreciate as fully as I might have the beauty of the writing:

"Like Qu Yuan [Professor Deng (!) the Chinese scholar] now felt captive in a diseased era in which he did not wish to live, and then he had seen the wheels of change revolving once more and he had turned his back on the world and fled. He quoted [Qu Yuan]: 'I experienced calumny in the morning and expulsion the very same night.' Taking his poem as his only luggage, [Deng] had started walking until he reached a river, and thus he had left behind his life, like a discarded object on the shore. The water had weighted down his clothes; he had floated like a little boat and had waited for the wind to rise so he could embark on his great voyage.  Around him he had heard the water murmuring in all sorts of voices, very soft and gentle it had sounded. He gestured to [Mussert] with his arm, he had almost vanished already, as if he were made of a delicate, immensely old material, and you had made the same gesture and already got to your feet..."   

There's much more in this vein; hallucinatory writing, deeply poetic, psychologically astute, tragic in tone, without irony. 

Ideas, characters, hypnotic passages, scenes that linger in one's mind for days (the ending!)--and a bit of plot to hang the whole thing on--what a book!  It's a puzzle, a mirror, a pastiche of a thousand other books, a pendulum, an invisible city full of cabinets of wonders.

Ovid understood that the boundaries of the visible world are fluid--that gods and men and women move from one sort of being to another without, at times, knowing that they have.  And this kind of flowing from one state of being to another is, of course, exactly what great fiction accomplishes--as I read Nooteboom's remarkable novel I felt yet again the power of the great Buddhist idea of 'conditioned arising,' that 'I' am not anything at all but a momentary collocation of circumstances--a bit of memory, some sensations, unfocused desire--and that, in a moment, like the fall of Icarus, the momentary self disappears, makes way for the next and the next, and the following stories that each of us calls our life.

The Following Story, translated by Ina Rilke, is published by Harvest Books, the old Helen and Kurt Wolff imprint at Harcourt. 

For Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE) see with a generous selection of poems by the "Father of Chinese poetry" 

George Ovitt (10/16/13)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mystic Made Ashes

The Last Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990 by Joe Bolton

My first reaction to reading these poems was that I was reading my own—scribblings, musings, conceived in some fatal rush of feeling in the days when I was young and reckless and living on my own in New York. Not that I could have written this well. I couldn’t have. Rather, it was the particular loneliness and longing in the poems, their high romantic spirit, that I recognized as my own—that vain, if exquisite grief that can only be courted when young, that can only be courted with words. Reading these poems was like stumbling upon an older, younger self.

Autumn Fugue

I remember how the silver leaves fell down,
Extravagantly, as if in prefigured spirals,
From the fig tree you couldn't keep alive,
And how, when you’d sat watching for a while
That lovely dying, then turned your face to me,
Your face seemed the same silver of the leaves.

It had to do partially, I suppose,
With the light—how the brief and intense dusk
Along 14th street gathered in the canopy
Of chestnuts choked with vine, filtering
In through the three windows of your white room
To make a luminous lake in which we swam.

Looking all that autumn for a holier way
Of talking about things, you found yourself
Hardly able, at last, to speak at all;
And so, for long moments, no word would pass
Between us, when we had only to listen
To the quarter-hourly noise form a nearby church.

There was something greater t the sadness
Than simply the going away of your lover,
Or even our past failures at love.
What sadness there was carried with it the weight
Of something intensely formal, and which would not
Be overcome by anything so commonplace

As a gesture shred between the two of us.
And so, as the light faltered and the leaves fell down,
I’d light a cigarette and sip my drink,
And you’d arrange your body at the window
Like some unfinished portrait if yourself…
If there is nothing between a man and a woman

Except the light by which thy see each other,
And a past in which they appear continually smaller,
And a future that seems already to have acquired
The irrevocability of the past,
It seems important, nevertheless to acknowledge
Their brief victory: the surviving it. 

This past summer I visited NYU in Greenwich Village with my wife and sons. It felt strange to be back there again, after so many years—on University Place, at St. Mark’s Bookshop, in Washington Square Park, where I’d spent so many hours as a student, book in hand, sitting on a bench or wandering the paths, so lonely, so wretched some days I was sure that I would choke. For I remember feeling much like the speaker in these poems, much like Bolton himself, who wrote his heart out in poem after poem, then promptly blew out his brains. He was just 28.

For the modern consciousness,” writes Susan Sontag in her well-known essay on Cesare Pavese, “the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able to best express his suffering.” Steeped in Faulkner and Vallejo, drinking heavily, and reeling from a string of failed relationships, Bolton suffered greatly, it is clear, wandering here and there, in the years these poems were written, from Kentucky to Florida, from Texas to Arizona, always restless, never easy, at peace.  All told, he expressed himself well. 

The Return

And when,  finally, you found your way back,
It seemed you barely recognized the place—
Or rather, the place barely recognized you.

The great rivers (Cumberland, Tennessee)
Rolled on as always; cardinals and jays
Skirmished among the crosses of dogwood.

But visiting friends, their faces both the same
And not the same, you realized how the loss
Of a common language could undo the world:

How the sky over each landscape contained
The blueprints of a city that might rise
When all your generation has gone away,

And how lovers were, in the end, reduced
To the sounds of names, the flesh utterly forgotten.
And it seemed then that you’d come  all this way

Only to pass unnoticed through the place.
Driving fast down dangerous, familiar roads
Like a shadow you had cast years before. 

While I would never wish to be young again, there are times when I miss the painful splendor of my days as a student in New York—the righteous alienation, the restless yearning, the heady, desperate belief in words that made me feel at once so powerful and helpless and free.

It is impossible to say what kind of poet Bolton would have become had he not committed suicide, yet the power of these poems lies not in their intimation of greater things, of genius snuffed out young, but in what the poet Donald Justice, the editor of this collection, calls “a certain blazing youthful freshness”—enough to give any writer pause. 

Fathers and Sons

“But the sultriness of noonday passes, and evening comes, and
night, and then, too, the return to a calm haven, where sleep is
sweet for the tortured and the weary…”

In my father’s recurring dream,
His life’s humiliations take on the form
Of a procession of slow-drawn, open boxcars.
A hideous old man hangs out by one arm
From each of them, his blackened face leering.

It’s late winter as he tells me this.
We’re sitting on the back porch, sipping beers,
Watching the dusk play itself out
In a lightshow through the woods,
Shocked yellows and reds blazing the leaf rot

Where the neighbor’s son lay down and
Shot himself last October, the note stuffed
In his shirt pocket: Pretty place
To die. They’ve moved away now,
Their house empty and up for sale.

A train sounds in the distance, pure sound,
Its fading whines and shudders dragging off
What’s left of the light, while my breath
And the stars my breath rises to meet
Become visible against the dark.

And this evening I understand
What little consolation stars are—
How their shimmering is out of reach
As the smooth stones or the small fish flashing
In a frozen-over stream, and how my father,

Staring up at them, can only think
How alone he is out here, among these wasted
Fields the woods are reclaiming year by year.
“It’s terrible, just terrible,” he says,
Meaning his dream.  “It goes on forever,

And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
And we can’t help each other, he and I.
We’ve perfected our obsessions and traveled
Too far into ourselves, like the mystic
Made ashes by his own imploding light.

John Bolton (1961-1990) was born in Cadiz, Kentucky, the son of schoolteachers. The Last Nostalgia is published by The University of Arkansas Press.

Peter Adam Nash