Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where the Clay Revolts

The Wake by Margo Glantz

Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point.

                        Blaise Pascal

If you like the novels of Thomas Bernhardt (I’m reading his Extinction right now), you are certain to enjoy this deft, erudite, intellectually relentless short novel about one woman’s struggles to come to terms with the death, by heart attack, of her former husband and friend, a well-known Mexican pianist and composer.

Told in retrospect by cellist, Nora García, in a single, swirling, vertiginous narration, the novel begins with Nora’s reluctant return to the small house and village, where she’d lived with her husband, to attend his wake. Reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s classic novel, Pedro Páramo, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the narrative turns round and round its subject with all the rapacity of a vulture on a high. Nora is clearly haunted by her late husband, by their fraught if artistically charged relationship, and by the labyrinthine complexity of her own voluminous grief. As the oft-repeated epigraph of this post implies, surfacing as it does throughout the story like a musical motif, the novel is first and foremost about Nora’s attempt to uncover the many cryptic reasons of her heart—how and why she feels the way she does.

Almost equally compelling, however, are her detailed and lengthy recollections of the many conversations she’d had with her late husband, Juan, heady, erudite, often contentious late-night discussions of music and musicians—of Bach and Beethoven, of  pianos and castrati, of Franz Schubert, Sviatoslav Richter, José Alfredo Jiménez, and András Schiff. Of all the topics, however, there is none more central to the story, more stubborn, more plainly musical, in its recurrence, than that of Glenn Gould himself, a musician with whom Juan (like Thomas Bernhardt, like the author, Margo Glantz) was particularly obsessed. Reading this novel is a bit like eavesdropping on a literary salon in Á la recherche du temps perdu—only set in Mexico, around a wake, and in the mind of a single person. And there are mariachis, too!
Margo Glantz, an award-winning novelist, is one of the most prolific and respected writers of Mexico. Lecturer, critic, journalist and translator, she teaches literature at the University of Mexico and has been a writer and scholar in residence at numerous universities in the United States, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Her father, a man deeply devoted to Modern Mexican art, had been friends with such Mexican notables as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. 

* Lead illustration by Mexican political printmaker and engraver, José Gaudalupe Posada (1852-1913)

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Death, and Not Only in the Afternoon

A. L. Kennedy, On Bullfighting

Can there be beauty in cruelty? When a man stands alone in an arena before a thousand pounds of bloodied brute force, an animal blind with pain, when the matador flashes the muleta before the bull and raises the estocada or killing sword for the final thrust--the faena--is there something sublime in this dance of death, something ugly yet touching in ritualized violence?

My father was a fan of the "sweet science"--as a kid he'd boxed flyweight--and he and I took in many bouts at local venues, and once, memorably, saw Sugar Ray Robinson box at the Garden. But these were fair fights. Aside from the palooka who took on Sugar Ray, all the fights I ever witnessed were evenly matched. Not so in the bullring, where the victim comes to the matador already pierced by the banderillas, weakened by loss of blood, crazed with fear. Boxing is fighting. The corrida is killing, pure and simple.

First the lance, then the barbed pikes (twenty-seven of them), the cape passes--tanda--that exhaust the bull, and finally the thrust of the sword into the rubio, the point where the razor-sharp blade enters the bull's heart, and the beast, gloated over by the matador in his baroque attire, topples into the dust.

Hemingway found beauty in death--in the deaths of bulls and wild animals and, perhaps too, in the deaths of men. He was, it seems, in love with it, with the sharp edge of danger, the way all things tip toward dying. I never finished Death in the Afternoon, not for dislike of Hemingway's flirtation with self-destruction, but out of disgust at the pleasure he took in the slaughter of a wounded animal. Perhaps if it were a fair fight....I know, the corrida is culture, sacred ritual, an expression of machismo or Catholic piety or something else incomprehensible to the outsider. Bulls, as A. L. Kennedy demonstrates, have a long history in European societies. I remember viewing frescoes of frolicking bulls in the Palace of Knossos, the auroch, a symbol of fertility and (male) power.  This very fresco--a leaping bull, worshiped, not slain, worn to white but still dazzling is pictured below--note the grace of the animal's form, two curved creatures, one atop the other, suspended in mid-air for the past three thousand years.  Was it the Catholic Church that needed the bulls to be killed, for their blood to be offered to propitiate the millennia of pagan animal worship? The earth was given to man to dominate, and animals to use--to slay a bull at the tail end of a hot afternoon in Seville, to prance about in the costume of a courtier wielding a sword, processing through a catechism of almost sensual rebolera (cape passes), to flirt with goring (like the death of St. Sebastian, impaled)--isn't this a kind of sacrament? Someone, or something, has to die so that we can go on living. Better the bull than the man.

 But A.L. Kennedy, who I have been reading obsessively for the past two weeks, isn't interested, or isn't only interested in the deaths of bulls. Her little book is about her own dying, or near dying, and about how she hoisted herself up from the grave on the blood of what is, to any but an aficionado, a macabre spectator sport:

"And if it does so happen that a human being finds death in the corrida's rarefied afternoon, if a torero, or perhaps one of his cuadrilla, is fatally wounded, then the corrida is intended to redefine the moment of death, to act as our translator. Even the almost always inevitable death of the bull is meant to be controlled within the corrida's physical language, the structure and the sad necessities of its world. The corrida can be seen as an extraordinary effort to elevate the familiar, mysterious slapstick, the irrevocable, indecipherable logic of damage and death, into something almost accessible. The corrida can be seen as both a ritualised escape from destruction and a bloodly search for meaning in the end of a life, both an exorcism and an act of faith."

If I were to encounter this paragraph in the work of a literary theorist I'd blanch--what would be coming would be a dense "reading" of the corrida with much deployment of jargon and a lot of references to Nietzsche. But Kennedy is an artist, a novelist and short story writer who just happened to be unable to write, who was in several kinds of pain, close to suicide, when she set off for Spain to write an account of bullfighting. While On Bullfighting is learned, its preoccupations are personal in the way that the investigation of the universal always feels personal: the book is a quiet, and beautiful, meditation on death. Not on its sublimity, but its inevitability.

When Kennedy describes the faena, the stylized and "almost religious" posture of the matador as he drives the sword home, her tone flattens, as if she too felt the anti-climax. One imagines that at the end, were the bull to be granted speech, he would say, "Let's get it over with. All this fuss. And what have you proved?" For in the end, as Kennedy's vivid account of the corrida shows, the bull's dying isn't the point, and neither is the sad spectacle of the "fight." In the end the corrida has the pointlessness of a Mass or an exorcism--when it's over, and if you've survived, you must go on. And the beauty of Kennedy's book, and of her stories and novels, is that everyone finds a way to go on, whatever the cost.

The last words of the book? "I don't know what to do."

George Ovitt 9/23/14

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Death of Sulh-i Kul

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

            T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

The people of India are indebted to the British for many things: their railways, their educational system, their civil service, and their basic governmental structure. Ironically, they are indebted to British as well for their widespread mastery of the English language, as evidenced by the extraordinary colonial and post-Independence flourishing of native and émigré Indian writers writing in English, authors as varied and remarkable as R. K. Narayan, Ved Mehta, Mulk Raj Anand, and Khushwant Singh to Raja Rao, Gucharan Das, Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, Indira Mahindra, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar, Amitav Ghosh, Upanmanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor, and Nyantara Sahgal, to name just some of my many favorites. Yet such benefits (whatever their worth today) came at an exorbitant, still-incalculable price.

Surely one of the most devastating and long-lasting consequences of British rule in India was the systematic, essentially Evangelical destruction of the Mughal Empire—and with it its extraordinary spirit and policy of universal toleration, known as sulh-i kul, which for centuries had bound Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians in an intricate, often radiant fabric of sympathy, fellowship, and love. Writes William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal, “The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.” One has only to scan the papers today to know that life in India has never been the same. 

Attia Hosain’s gentle, often highly evocative novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column, centers upon an orphaned Muslim girl named Laila and her struggle, in the midst of the larger Independence movement, to find her footing as a Muslim woman in the modern world. Set in in the city of Lucknow in the twilight years of the British Raj, when only the faintest traces of the Mughal Empire remained, the poets Mir and Ghalib but ghosts in the many ruined gardens, the story explores, through a host of sympathetic characters, the many tangled issues—tradition, modernity, democracy, nationalism, sectarianism, feminism, and class—that bedevil the country to this day.

This novel is nostalgic to its core, yet complexly so, involving a harkening back, a genuine affection for the past, that is made compelling, persuasive by Hosain’s distinctly unsentimental  approach. Rather than glorify and romanticize the past she glimpsed as a girl and loved so well, she lets us see it for ourselves. “A monument suggests a gravestone—grey, cold and immutable,” writes Anita Desai in her introduction to the novel. “Her books are not: they are delicate and tender, like new grass, and they stir with life and the play of sunlight and rain. To read them is as if one parted a curtain, or opened a door, and strayed into the past.” 
Attia Hosain, born in Lucknow, India, in 1913, was the first woman from amongst the feudal “Taluqhdari” families to graduate from college. A journalist, broadcaster, and short story writer, she divides her time between India and England.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"The Seismologist of a Chaotic History"

Drago Jančar, Joyce's Pupil

There is no literature I enjoy more than Eastern European--for its melancholy, for its hard-won irony, for its historical consciousness, for its inattention to the glib conventions of American writing--are there Slovenian MFA programs? I'm giddy when I see diacritical marks above vowels in names I cannot dream of pronouncing. I scour the most obscure and dusty shelves of our few remaining bookstores for novels by Romanian or Polish or Czech writers; I can't imagine wasting time on a NYT's bestseller when there are books by László Krasznahorkai I have yet to read. The moment I open Norman Manea's The Black Envelope I imagine cloudy skies and drably attired, pale-faced, chain-smoking, chess-playing Romanians scurrying through freezing rain to attend subversive political meetings. No blue skies, no Hamptons or Martha's Vineyard (please, spare me the details of what New York intellectuals are up to on this poison-ivy infested island!), no phony angst recounted by the neurotic denizens of Brooklyn--no more! America has a literature of sorts, but little history (what we've had we've forgotten), no civil life, no politics, and certainly no politically-obsessed novelists. Which is why I relish the hours spent with a book like Joyce's Pupil, a fine example of the kind of writing I most admire--stories of desperation set in claustrophobic cities in periods of political turmoil or in the memory--the ever-haunting memory of the turmoil that seeminly began with the election of Charles V as the first Hapsburg Emperor half a millennium ago.

Krasznahorkai: "There are no masks."

 Now I'm sitting in sunshine, but would leave in an instant for a place like this: "The wind stirs the tops of the poplars, clumps of white acacias toss in the breeze, somewhere up river it is raining, while here a dull and foggy light can be seen through the clouds. Organ music emanating from the church of St. Egidio rolls over the cobblestones [cobblestones!], and it bounces off the houses whose empty facades look like inside-out city walls; the powerful sounds chase each other and swirl around the Gothic building." Each of the twelve stories in Joyce's Pupil is set in either literal or metaphorical twilight; nothing much transpires, no one has an epiphany. The title story reprises a disappointing life whose one luminous moment was born in a cryptic comment of James Joyce--the point being that we never understand the truth of our lives until it is too late. There's a bit of Chekhov in a few of the stories ("Death at Mary of the Snows" and "A Tale About Eyes"), cross sections of lives we would have trouble imagining for their unique circumstances, and yet the narrative economy is such that the lives open to us like the lowering clouds of Ljubljana. There are Marxists in these stories, and secret agents, and men and women on the run from their past, professors and writers, political hacks and poor souls. As with my other preferred East European writers, the aura of menace saturates not only the landscapes and the city streets but has been internalized to such an extent that even an innocent moment is rotten with fear and sadness ("The Look of An Angel").  History lies across Jančar's stories in the way dampness pervades the tales of Dubliners, the most east European of west European story collections--but then Ireland's history is not unlike that of Slovenia. In Jančar, as in Joyce, the great curse of living is that no character forgets; but--what do they remember?

Joyce's Pupil is published by Brandon Books of Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland and available on Half-Price Books here http://www.hpb.com/

George Ovitt 9/7/14