Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Gabito, Brandi, Nemerov

"Before adolescence, memory is more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town [Aracataca] were not yet idealized by nostalgia."

In the late 1980's I undertook two trips to Mexico City and to Cuernavaca to catch a glimpse of the man who was, in my mind, the greatest living novelist.  While I put in a lot of bus time, passing through tiny, dusty pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, and Oaxaca, I never spotted my idol, whose novels, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had read over and over through the 70's and 80's.  Knowing of Márquez's ill health, I wasn't shocked by his death, but still it feels as if a chasm in the world of writing has opened.  The hypocrites at the Washington Post--enthusiasts for the war in Iraq, dupes of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal--fell all over themselves condemning Márquez's embrace of the Cuban revolution and of Fidel Castro.  And what sort of politics was a man like Márquez supposed to have, growing up as he did on United Fruit lands, witnessing the goons of UFCO massacre the banana workers (recounted in Cien años de soledad and throughout his books and stories), a Latin American living in the era of Abrenz and Allende, of Kissinger and the Reagan Doctrine?  The pundits on the Potomac who have been busy condemning Márquez's leftist politics are able to count on American forgetfulness; the whole point of Gabito's life's work was that the poor of Latin America don't have that luxury--in their vast solitude all they have is memory.  I have been reading his memoir Living to Tell the Tale, a lovely glimpse into the intersection of Márquez's life and books--it is full of tender portraits of his family, his youthful colleagues, his friends, and lovers.  One story Márquez told (on the anniversary of the sale of the ten-millionth copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude) was how he and his wife Mercedes took the manuscript of the greatest twentieth-century novel written in Spanish to the post office but only had enough money between them to mail what turned out to be the second half of the book to his publisher.  Forty-two pesos.  Luckily his publisher liked the novel well enough to send Gabito the difference.

All Márquez ever wished to do was write--and, thankfully, despite years of poverty and struggle, that is what he did. 

I was fortune enough to attend a gala used-book sale last week and purchased forty-two--yes, that's 42--books of poetry.  Among them was John Brandi's Heatbeat Geography, Selected and Collected Poems, 1966-1994. I have wanted to write about Brandi for some time; I have his newest book somewhere in the chaos of my study, but I was happy to read through this earlier collection and to get a feeling for the development of Brandi's unique sensibility.  Brandi and I live in the same general neighborhood--New Mexico, a wee state perched on either bank of the Rio Grande and wedged between the madness of Tejas and Arizona.  John B. is up the road from me in the northwest corner of our state; we're not too far distant in age, and while he has traveled considerably more than I have, we have visited many of the same places.  His sensibility, if not his poetic style, reminds one at once of Whitman and of Gary Snyder--it's my surmise that these poets, plus Neruda, Kenneth Rexroth, and Denise Levertov have influenced his work--but I'm only guessing.  Poetic influence is difficult to make out among older poets.  Nowadays, with most poets trained in MFA programs, there are clear affinities between writers and their mentors; in Brandi's day one read a lot of poems but worked out one's style alone, perhaps in the Altiplano or on the road in Chiapas or Alaska; Brandi, as I said, has been around, and this collection has a strong sense of place attached to its great variety of voices, styles, and subject matters. Here's one I like:

It is Spring Now

The stars rush out
with a special odor through the weaving pines.
There are sparks in my mouth. A whirling universe
stands still on the blue beach of our bedcovers.
Nobody is dancing but us.

It is a great dance floor
& we are simply alone.  It seems like
an eternity, then out of nowhere spectators applaud
from the walls.  All is finished. The lights dim.
Your fingers slowly release
their grasp.

It is spring now,
aroma of sage & lucious portions
of ripe fruit from little fruits peeled beneath your eyes.
Everything in bloom!
Beyond the windows, a severe wind picks up.
I watch the blossoms spin through
the deepness of night.

And feel the greatness
of your smile, forever warming me.

Brandi wrote this poem in Guadalupita, probably in the same little motel I have stayed in a few times.  Once, in the middle of a freezing winter night, my wife and I were driving through the snow from Guadalupita to Angel Fire and a herd of elk crossed the narrow road just in front of us.  I turned off the lights and opened the windows and all we could hear was the wind riffling the snow and the breaking of the ice under the rush of elk.  These beautiful wild corners of our state retain enough desolation to allow the poet's imagination to imprint whatever he wishes on the landscape.  Brandi has a gift for fitting his life into the places he's visited--leaving something of himself behind, but also taking something away and sharing it with us.

Thanks to a lucky prompt from a friend, I reread Howard Nemerov's Selected Poems a couple of weeks ago and remembered as I did how much his writing has meant to me over the years.  Nemerov wakes us up and forces us to pay attention:

Running and standing still at once
is the whole truth. Raveled or combed,
wrinkled or clear, it gets its force
from losing force. Going it stays.

This stanza opens "Painting a Mountain Stream."  How about these lines from his famous poem "The Town Dump": "Objects of value or virtue, / However, are also to be picked up here, / Though rarely, lying with bones and rotten meat, / Eggshells and mouldy bread, banana peels / No one will skid on, apple cores that caused / Neither the fall of man nor a theory / Of gravitation."  Nemerov has the sensibility of a metaphysical poet, jarring us with oddball images and associations, in quietly balanced lines, with diction that runs the gamut from Philip Levin's vernacular to Mark Strand's stately sophistication: this is "Learning by Doing:"

 They're taking down a tree at the front door,
The power saw is snarling at some nerves,
Whining at others. Now and then it grunts,
And sawdust falls like snow or a drift of seeds.
Rotten, they tell us, at the fork, and one
Big wind would bring it down. So what they do
They do, as usual, to do us good.
Whatever cannot carry its own weight
Has got to go, and so on; you expect
To hear them talking next about survival
And the values of a free society.
For in the explanations people give
On these occasions there is generally some
Mean-spirited moral point, and everyone
Privately wonders if his neighbors plan
To saw him up before he falls on them.

Maybe a hundred years in sun and shower
Dismantled in a morning and let down
Out of itself a finger at a time
And then an arm, and so down to the trunk,
Until there's nothing left to hold on to
Or snub the splintery holding rope around,
And where those big green divagations were
So loftily with shadows interleaved
The absent-minded blue rains in on us.
Now that they've got it sectioned on the ground

It looks as though somebody made a plain
Error in diagnosis, for the wood
Looks sweet and sound throughout. You couldn't know,
Of course, until you took it down. That's what
Experts are for, and these experts stand round
The giant pieces of tree as though expecting
An instruction booklet from the factory
Before they try to put it back together.

Anyhow, there it isn't, on the ground.
Next come the tractor and the crowbar crew
To extirpate what's left and fill the grave.
Maybe tomorrow grass seed will be sown.
There's some mean-spirited moral point in that
As well: you learn to bury your mistakes,
Though for a while at dusk the darkening air
Will be with many shadows interleaved,
And pierced with a bewilderment of birds. 

"A bewilderment of birds."  Yes, that's how they sound these days, blown about by New Mexico's relentless April winds, mourning in the clear dawn the passing of a great writer.

George Ovitt (4/29/14) 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Yellow Birds and an Orange Crescent Moon

Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat by Grete Weil

From the trolley car to the train. The train will travel east. The east is nothingness.

On May 10th, 1940, the German army invaded the Netherlands and began their five year occupation of the country under the ruthless administration of the Shutzstaffel or SS, Himmler’s elite Nazi guard, an especially well-regulated command that in less than three years was to orchestrate the plundering, deportation, and murder of eighty percent of Dutch Jewry—Ann Frank and her family included. For many of these Jews the eastern ‘nothingness’ was the infamous Austrian death camp, Mauthausen. Weil’s own husband, the playwright Edgar Weil, was murdered there after being arrested one night in Amsterdam, to where, seeking refuge from the Nazis, they had emigrated in 1933.   

Described as a story of “memory, guilt, and the meaning of responsibility,” Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat is one of the most complex, most poetically compelling Holocaust novels I have read in years. Set in Amsterdam, that “centrifuge,” that “city of pilings, mirror-city, city of circles,” it unfolds through the eyes, the experience, of a young German named Andreas, a yet unremarkable poet and reporter posted to Amsterdam during the Occupation, who is haunted day and night by the incessant rumblings of the trolleys that pass beneath his window where he lives.  

Still, like a good German of the time, a young man born to bourgeois parents who, even after the war, refuse to acknowledge Hitler’s crimes, he does his best to distract himself from the horror unfolding around him each day and from the blatant hostility of the Dutch themselves with the writing of his official weekly reports and with the novel that he has been struggling to complete—the story of a man, a painter and forger named Sebastian L. who forfeits his own style for that of others “out of hunger for money, for life.”

Soon, however, his life in occupied Amsterdam gets dramatically more complicated when he agrees to hide a Jewish boy named Daniel in his apartment, a boy for whom he feels a curious, finally harrowing affinity. This we learn in retrospect—of his secret friendship with Daniel, of Daniel’s eventual capture by the Gestapo—the matter framed, complicated, at the start of the novel, some years after the war is ended, by the protagonist’s troubled marriage to a Jewish woman, Daniel’s twin-like sister, Susanne.

Art plays a poignant, often haunting role in this novel, manifesting itself not only in Andreas’ vocation as a poet, writer, and witness, but also in the fragment of a painting by Paul Klee that the refugee, Daniel, brings with him into hiding, a painting Andreas had happened to glimpse in full in the Rosenbusch home—“green branches, with yellow birds sitting on twigs, hanging upside-down, standing on their heads, and flying without spreading their wings. Above them hovered an orange crescent moon.” 

At heart, Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat is the story of Andreas’ guilt and complicity as a German, of his overwhelming need to reckon with the past, which he attempts to do, at last, by returning alone to Amsterdam, then, finally, by visiting the death camp Mauthausen itself, where his friend Daniel was murdered, hoping against hope to lay this ghost to rest.

Grete Weil was born in Germany in 1906. The author of four novels and two short story collections, she lived most of her life near Munich. Her previous novel, The Bride Price, was awarded the ALTA Translation Prize. She died in Grunwald in 1999.  Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat was translated by John Barett.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, April 7, 2014

Number One Hundred and Fifty*: Not Jude but Thomas the Obscure

Thomas the Obscure, by Maurice Blanchot

 Reading Thomas the Obscure reminded me of my college days, spent, in part, reading writers like Hermann Hesse (pictured here), Par Lagerkvist (Barabbas), Knut Hamsun, and Max Frisch--but especially Hesse, and, in particular, Hesse's Siddhartha.  At the time, as an aspiring literary poseur,  I found these writers inspirational, and books like Demian, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, and Journey to the East struck me as profound, beautifully written, and indisputably great.  Now, I'm afraid, I find Hesse mostly unreadable, dated, and labored--though I didn't see it then, the impact of Freud on Hesse's thinking was pernicious.  But this judgment merely shifts the blame away from me; the honest thing would be to admit that I had no clue what made a literary work worth my time, and often confused seriousness with profundity.  There's a quality in all of these writers, in Hesse especially, that struck me as I was reading Blanchot--at first I couldn't put my finger on what this quality was, or why I felt unable to engage with the text (as Blanchot himself would have put it), but it has come to me that the great weakness of the kind of philosophical literature represented by Hesse and Blanchot is the substitution of murkiness for clarity, a narrative misdirection that is intended to invoke metaphysical truths but which ends up seeming inscrutable.

Is it too obvious to mention that Thomas is, of course, doubting Thomas?  (John 20:24) "Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe."

   "What [Ann] said to [Thomas] took the form of indirect speech. It was a cry full of pride which resounded in the sleepless night with the very character of dream. 
   'Yes,' she said, 'I would like to see you when you are alone.  If ever I could be before you and completely absent from you, I would have a chance to meet you. Or rather I know that I would not meet you. The only possibility I would have to diminish the distance between us would be to remove myself to an infinite distance. But I am infinitely far away now, and can go no further. As soon as I touch you Thomas....'
   Hardly out of her mouth, these words carried her away: she saw him, he was radiant."

Blanchot (left), among the founders of post-modern French literary theory, is recreating a myth--some say of Orpheus and Eurydice, but I'm not sure that's quite right. In any case, the fragmented, dreamy, semi-erotic, thanatopsic, disjointed story of a man who is obscure (to himself and others; a sort of ghost) and a woman who yearns for oblivion, a story that has all of the qualities of myth--the suggestiveness, the yearning for universality, the reduction of all things to the personal: "On the retina of the absolute eye, I am the tiny inverted image of all things," Thomas tells us, and then "With me, the laws gravitate outside the laws, the possible outside the possible."  Madness, of course, lurks behind the plots of many of these semi-surrealist writers.  Siddhartha, who may or may not be the historical Buddha, always struck me as a bit daft for his insistence that staring at a river all day long could teach one the truths of life.  Thomas also spends his time floating in the sea, wandering in forests, and reading without noticing the words--in a bubble of self-regard that tries to pass itself off as cosmic and universal. I am sure that in a room full of undergraduates, well stocked with that which alters consciousness, these Thomistic pronouncements would evoke ejaculatory cries of pleasure among the readers or auditors.  For me, an older gent with lots of post-war French literary shenanigans under his belt, the effect was quite different.  

Blanchot was an important philosopher.  Serious students (I was one) read The Infinite Conversation (available only in French) in the heady 60's.  I came at Blanchot's theoretical work mostly at second hand--especially through my reading of Georges Bataille. I heard that Blanchot had taken principled stances against fascist collaborators during the war, although it appears now that his writing before the Occupation might not have been as anti-fascist as his supporters have maintained. This time around I was inclined to enjoy Thomas the Obscure, but was disappointed, and thought again about how often philosophers fail to write novels that "live."  Sartre, for example, has never tempted me, and while I can enjoy scattered pages of some of her vast output of fiction, Iris Murdoch engages me more for her writings on ethics than for her fiction; ditto Camus, whose essays seem far better than his novels or plays.  To what extent, I wonder, can fiction bear up under the weight of ideas?  Thomas Mann, among the finest of philosophical novelists, excelled at blending in-depth character studies with lengthy ruminations on obscure topics (scholastic theology!), but who else can pull this off?  Thomas the Obscure felt a bit like an undergraduate seminar in metaphysics--a little too solipsistic ("It seemed that, through a phenomenon awaited for centuries, the earth now saw him"), a bit too sophomoric ("I think, it said, I am subject and object of an all-powerful radiation..."), and a little too full of yearning for my tastes.  Anne's "death" reminds me of Werther's--pointless, freighted with meaning that it cannot sustain and that it doesn't deserve.  Blanchot is celebrated as the first post-modern novelist.  This seems right to me--he was a precursor to Alain Robbe-Grillet (for example)--and for this reason his novels and his critical writing have great interest for the scholar of French thought in the pre- and post-war years. But as a novelist he leaves me yearning for a bit of Germanic refreshment--a few pages of Bernhard, for example, or a bowl of Böll.  Give him a try, or write and tell me that I'm full of hooey--I'd love to hear from my post-modern friends.

There's a good overview of Blanchot's work here: http://www.spikemagazine.com/0602blanchot.php

Thomas the Obscure is available from Station Hill Press, translated by Robert Lamberton

*This is Talented Reader's one-hundred and fiftieth post.  Thanks for reading.

George Ovitt (4/7/14)