Sunday, 20 July 2014

Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza & Gabriel García Márquez: The Fragrance of Guava




Not long before he received the Nobel Prize, Gabriel García Márquez agreed to sit down with his long-time friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who had worked in journalism with him since their early adulthood, for the interview to end all interviews. García Márquez did not like renown but One Hundred Years of Solitude had made him world famous and he was constantly pestered about giving interviews and talking to journalists, reporters and academics. A French editor, who was initiating a collection of book-length interviews with famous writers, approached Apuleyo Mendoza to convinced his old friend to join in. When he probed the great novelist, he liked the idea. “That’s a terrific idea. Don’t you see, that way we could get my interviews over and done with for ever.” The book was called The Fragrance of Guava and came out the same year the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize. If he thought he’d never have to worry about interviews again, he was dead wrong.

By the time García Márquez passed away, earlier this year, I had already read all his essential fiction: Strange Pilgrims and all the stories in Collected Stories, Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, In Evil Hour, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in his Labyrinth and Of Love and other Demons. There was a time in my reading life, back in high school, when the curricular books were (and are) unbearable to me, when García Márquez was the greatest writer in the world and One Hundred Years of Solitude the greatest novel ever written. I don’t think that anymore but for a young reader, slowly discovering literature, it was a miraculous floating piece of wood come to rescue me amidst the hostile sea of humourless solemnity and cult of pain that is and has always been, with few exceptions, Portuguese letters. Even now the saga of Macondo, with its mixture of fantasy and realism, its ghosts, magical artefacts and apparitions, its non-linear structure and baroque language, constrains my conception of what literature should be.

Gabo’s photograph has adorned my blog for months now until I had an occasion to write something in his memory. The Spanish Literature Month finally gives me that occasion. The Fragrance of Guava is a carefree book put together by two friends who felt like chatting informally about everything: memories, childhood, family, books, love, politics, fame, superstition, books, a book brimming with humanity and good disposition. I sense Gabo’s immense trust in Apuleyo Mendoza as he opened himself up to him, a friend who had been with him since the worst periods of his life and whose friendship continued through the good ones.

This book of evocations begins in Arataca, in a house full of relatives: his grandmother who told him stories full of ghosts and mysteries in a deadpan, serious tone, without astonishment or surprise; his grandfather, a retired colonel of many civil wars against conservative forces who filled Gabo’s young mind with war stories and showed him his war wounds, the reason why civil wars show up so often in his fiction; his mother, who as she grew older came to resemble the legendary Úrsula more and more; and his father, a conservative telegraph operator, for that reason despised by the liberal colonel, who courted his daughter so obstinately that he gave in. Family and friends were important to him and he himself liked being a family man. He met Mercedes, his future wife, when she was 13 and he straight away proposed to marry her. But they had to wait another decade. Together they had two children and Gabo claims that “my true vocation is to be a dad: I like being one, the most wonderful experience in my love was to help raise my two children, and I think that the best thing I did in my life are not my books but rather my children.” Mercedes managed his life while he shut himself for almost two years to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, she was the one who provided him with everything he needed to continue his work unmolested, going so far as to sell her car for money. When he finished the novel and mailed the manuscript, she asked, “What if the novel isn’t any good after all?” Fortunately it would be the greatest success of his life. Gabo never forgets the people he loves in his books. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for instance, is narrated by him and his mother shows up in it under her real name. And Mercedes shows up in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His family and friends are present in his books, “signs to my most intimate friends, signs only they can discover” and that elude the critics, a pontificating class of people he has no patience for. Uh-oh…

Arataca, until the death of his grandfather when he was 8, was the joyous period of his life. Then he was taken to the capital, where he pursued and abandoned a Law degree and found a career in journalism, moving around Colombia, living in Cartagena and then in a small town called Barranquilla. As a young man he lived a bohemian, dissolute life: heavy drinking, chain smoking, literary meetings at bars, visits to brothels; as a journalist he had the “same schedules as prostitutes” and rented a cheap room in a whorehouse to live in. His first years as a writer were hard because success was slow to come, because of his political sympathies and because of the wide social divides in Colombian society; he came from the wrong background, had the wrong name, dressed the wrong way to make an impression on the elite that controlled the country, an elite that lived in ignorance of the actual country it ruled. In order to attest this disparity, Apuleyo Mendoza tells that when Gabo accepted the Nobel Prize, he wore the traditional Colombian liqui liqui costume. His friend was asked by “elegant ladies from Bogota” why the author had “suited up like a cook” to receive it.

His first book, Leaf Storm (1955) was written in the early hours of the morning, in the newspaper’s newsroom, after finishing his shift. Sometimes he was so poor that in order to get credit in the brothels he entrusted the manuscript to the bouncer, who knew how precious those pages were to him. Before he became a novelist, Gabo wanted to become a poet and read lots of poetry: Rimbaud and the poets who revolutionized Spanish-language poetry like Rubén Darío and Pablo Neruda. Then he changed to novels: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Faulkner and Kafka, who showed him a non-rationalistic way of writing. He discusses at length magical realism. During childhood he tethered between the supernatural world of his grandmother and the rationality of the colonel. Fascinated by her stories, they nevertheless filled him with dread too. “My grandfather, in turn, was for me the absolute safety inside my grandmother’s uncertain world. Only with him did my anguish disappear and did I feel with my feet on the ground and well installed in the life. What’s strange, thinking about it now, is that I wanted to be like my grandfather – realistic, tough, safe – but I couldn’t resist the constant temptation of getting closer to my grandmother’s world.” Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis (translated into Spanish by Borges), introduced him to a way of writing that was similar to the way his grandmother told stories and that showed him how he wanted to write. Even so, to my surprise he claims to detest “fantasy.” “Because I believe that imagination is just an instrument for elaborating reality. But the source of creation, in the end, is always reality. And fantasy, that is, plain and simple invention, a la Walt Disney, without any basis on reality, is the most detestable thing.” For this reason he credits journalism (and I suppose Hemingway) with “teaching me resources to give validity to my stories.” According to him, his flights of fancy are realistic because women need bed sheets to fly into the air and men need cups of chocolate to levitate 10 centimeters off the ground; “the rigour of a journalist,” he says. Hm. Even weirder is when he claims that “In my novels there isn’t one line that isn’t based on reality.” Hm-mm. Inspiration for him merely means “a reconciliation with the theme on the strength of tenacity and mastery.” In other words, hard work; now that’s sensible talk. At the time he kept a rigid schedule, writing from 9 to 15 every day and carefully editing each sentence in order to be perfect, so that it could be ready to be given to an editor without mistakes or corrections.

Gabo reveals a lot about his creative process and the specific process of writing certain of his novels. For instance, in order to overcome the structural difficulty posed by Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which he wanted to end with the minute description of the crime, he claims that he simply inserted himself in the book in order to “walk at his leisure back and forth in the novel’s structural time. I mean, at the end of thirty years I discovered something that we, novelists, many times forget: that the best literary form is always the truth.” His books always start with a visual image; the one for One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, started with the image of colonel taking Gabo to go see ice when he was a little boy. That became the novel’s first sentence. Although this was the novel that catapulted his name onto the world stage, he accuses it of “almost ruining my life. After published, nothing was the same again” because “fame disturbs the sense of reality, perhaps as much as power, and besides it’s a constant threat to private life.” He was wary of fame. “It bothers me, the worst thing that can happen to a man who doesn’t have a vocation for literary success, in a continent unprepared to have successful writers, is to have his books sell like hot dogs. I detest transforming myself into a public spectacle. I detest television, congresses, conferences, round tables…” During the ceremony in Sweden, Gabo whispered to Apuleyo Mendoza, standing next to him, “Shit, this is like watching your own funeral!”

In the 2005 preface he wrote for the Portuguese edition, Apuleyo Mendoza reveals that although at the time of the interviews Gabo’s considered The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) his best book, his preference later changed to Love in the Time of Cholera. He was not overly fond of One Hundred Years of Solitude, calling it even “superficial” and believing he could surpass it. To him he did just that with The Autumn of the Patriarch. “Literarily speaking, my most important work, the one that can save me from oblivion, is The Autumn of the Patriarch,” because it’s the novel “I always wanted to write, and besides it’s the one where I took further my personal confessions.” His main drive to write this spectacular novel, which he conceived as a “poem on the solitude of power,” was because no one had yet written “Latin American dictator novel.” Although Miguel Ángel Asturia’s The President had been published in 1946, both are quick to decry it, which validates my own negative impression when I read it. Originally he wanted to write the novel as a long monologue by the dictator sentenced to death, but scraped that idea. “First of all, it was anti-historical: dictators either died of old age in their beds, or were killed, or ran away. But they weren’t tried. Secondly, the monologue would have restricted me to the dictator’s single point of view and to his own language.” Interesting, what Roa Bastos would have to say about this? In this novel he mixed times (a sunken US war ship shares the sea next to Columbus’ caravels) and geographies, going for a synthesis of reality rather than an accurate depiction of one regime. But although he wanted to write the Latin American dictator novel, he was conscious that simultaneously a series of novels on the same topic had come out creating a subgenre: Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974) and Arturo Uslar Pietri’s Oficio de difuntos (1976). About this coincidence he says: “I don’t think it was a sudden interest. The theme has been a constant in Latin-American literature since its origins, and I suppose it’ll continue to be. That’s understandable because the dictator is the only mythological personality created by Latin America, and his historical cycle is far from being concluded.”

Sadly the book can’t delve into Love in the Time of Cholera, his last great book. I cherry-picked what I imagined would be the most interesting facts for book lovers, so I’m not going to include his meetings with politicians, his personal politics, or his take on superstitions. But I have to make an exception for his friendship with Fidel Castro, a voracious reader, a lover of literature, and his proofreader. He was in Cuba when he published The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Castro “went to my hotel just to tell me that there was a miscalculation on the boat’s speed,” which turned out to be true. Castro has a keen mind and a great culture and is capable of spotting these little mistakes with hawk-like precision. “So that before I published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, I took the manuscript to him and he pointed out a mistake on the details of hunting rifles.” There you have it, his books were proofread by Castro himself. How can this man continue to surprise and amuse after he's left us?

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

António Lobo Antunes: 10 books to understand him



A few days ago I finished reading António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels and to my surprise I ended up liking it very much (a review is in the works). Lobo Antunes excites ambivalent thoughts in me: he’s a writer of infinite talents who seldom writes anything that grabs me. He’s an ingenious manipulator of language, his longueurs are just as good and intricate as José Saramago’s, and the part of his brain that concocts metaphors and similes must be connected to a nuclear power plant because he just doesn’t run out of the spectacular sort. And yet he uses all that virtuosity to write, for the most part, boring novels about the mundane. I’m always on the verge of giving up on him; but The Return of the Caravels is something else and has renewed my stamina to keep reading him for the time being.

And it got me thinking: if I wanted to immerse myself in the study of António Lobo Antunes’ life and work, what books would complement his novels? So I poked around and came up with a list of essential literature about him:

Os Romances de António Lobo Antunes (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2002)


Maria Alzira Seixo is one of the foremost authorities on the author. She currently oversees the definitive editions of his complete works for the Dom Quixote publishing house and has an extensive knowledge of his oeuvre. This book, at over 600 pages, was the most meticulous analysis of his novels up to that point. Since then he’s published 9 more novels so it’s a bit out of date, and sadly it’s out of print.

Conversas com António Lobo Antunes (María Luisa Blanco, 2002)


María Luisa Blanco, a journalist for Babélia, the literary supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País, sat down with the novelist for a series of interviews. It also contains an interview with his parents. At the time, this was the most intimate look into his personal life. I have this one.

D'este viver aqui neste papel descripto: cartas de guerra (Maria José Lobo Antunes & Joana Lobo Antunes, 2005)


Between 1971 and 1973, Lobo Antunes served in Angola, as a medic in the Portuguese army. The African country was at war with Portugal for its independence, the medic was 28, freshly married to Maria José and not published anything yet. This book, edited by his daughter, collects the letters he sent to his wife, sharing his fears, his love for her, and his literary ambitions. A portrait of the author as not yet the messed up, bitter novelist who’d spend the following decades spewing the bitter traumas of this war into the pages of his books. I have this one too.

Entrevistas com António Lobo Antunes: 1979-2007 - As Confissões do Trapeiro (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2008)


Ana Paula Arnaut, another authority on him, put together a lengthy book of interviews Lobo Antunes gave to newspapers since the start of his career until the publication of this collection. This one provides a concise overview of his changing attitudes over the decades and is full of gossip. Of course I have it.

Uma Longa Viagem com António Lobo Antunes (João Céu e Silva, 2009)


This book is a mega-interview (400 pages) that took many sessions across months to complete. The author visited Lobo Antunes at the warehouse that he’s converted into a writing studio and talked with him on and off. It’s been labelled as the definitive look into his life, but I’m curious to compare it with María Luisa Blanco’s book. I should have bought it this year at Lisbon’s Book Fair but got the Saramago mega-interview instead. Priorities, my friends, priorities.


António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2009)


I’m not sure what this is, but I suppose it’s a sort of primer. It’s included in a collection about writers so I guess it’s written for curious laymen. It may have some value. I don’t own it yet.

As Flores do Inferno e Jardins Suspensos (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2010)


Maria Alzira Seixo’s follow-up to her monumental study of Lobo Antunes’ novels. The second half of this book is devoted to his texts for periodicals. Lobo Antunes has kept a biweekly column at a magazine for decades now, which have been collected in four or five thick volumes. I don’t have this one either.

A Crítica na Imprensa 1980-2010 - Cada Um Voa Como Quer (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2011)


The scholar edits a companion piece to her anthology of interviews. This time she puts together reviews written about his novels. It’s certainly a valuable tool to appreciate how his novels were received at the time. I also need to get this one.

As Mulheres na Ficção de António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2012)


I needed a volume to round out a list of 10 items. Ana Paula Arnaut is the winner. There are several books that study the novelist in a general way. But this book is specific about the way women are portrayed in Lobo Antunes’ fiction. Another lacuna in my book pile.

Os Escritores (Também) têm Coisas a Dizer (Carlos Vaz Marques, 2013)


This is not a book about Lobo Antunes; it’s a collection of interviews with several Portuguese novelists, including him. I actually bought it because Saramago is one of the interviewed and I obsessively collect his interviews. But reading both interviews in tandem is great because it sheds new light on the hilarious theme that is the mutual hatred Saramago and Lobo Antunes nurture for each other. In Lobo Antunes’ interview he explains why he fell out with the Nobel laureate, providing a flimsy, ridiculous reason. In Saramago’s interview he’s confronted with the charges and blows a fuse. It’s a he-did-no-I-didn’t-he’s-lying squabbling worthy of children. Obviously I own it and treasure it.

Meanwhile I’m trying to gather courage to read The Inquisitors’ Manual.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón: El amigo de la muerte




Once upon a time Jorge Luis Borges made a list of fantasy and science fiction literature for an Italian editor who, for marketing reasons, called it The Library of Babel. Since I ambition to read all the authors on the list, the Spanish Literature Month gave me the encouragement to take another name off it: El amigo de la muerte: cuento fantástico (1852), by Spanish writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891), better known for the comical The Three-Cornered Hat. There’s nothing comical about this bizarre novella: it’s a tragic love story, but also fantasy with hues of science fiction since it takes place in the future; oh, and it’s also a dystopia since the world is about to implode as the apocalypse draws near and souls are being prepared for Judgement Day.

First of all a succinct synopsis: Gil Gil is the son of a shoemaker who dies in his infancy (his mother died giving birth to him) and he’s brought up by Count of Rionuevo, who dies a few years later. As his page he meets and falls in love with Elena, the daughter of a duke who visited the house often. After the count’s death his scheming wife throws Gil Gil out. He returns to his father’s shop, which was for rent all these years accumulating dividends managed by an old lady who gives him back all the money and helps him. He doesn’t have a lot of work to do and sometimes goes to the San Millán church to spy on Elena. One day he meets her with the countess who publicly humiliates him. Shortly afterwards the old lady dies. He takes to bed in a violent fever. When he wakes up he discovers his neighbour had to sell all his goods to take care of him. A destitute man, Gil Gil decides to end his miserable life with vitriol. Only to be stopped by Death. Death has taken pity on him. “I’m Death, my friend… I’m Death, and it’s God who sends me… God, who reserves a glorious place for you in Heaven! Five times now I caused you unhappiness, and I, implacable divinity, have taken pity on you. Tonight, when God ordered me to take before his court your impious soul, I pleaded with him to entrust your existence to me, and to let me live alongside you for a while, offering to return your spirit free of guilt and worthy of his glory. Heaven was not deaf to my request. So you’re the first mortal I come close to without his body converting into cold ashes! You’re my only friend! Now listen and learn the way to your happiness and your eternal salvation.” Death devises a plot to help him conquer his beau (and as I describe this ridiculous premise I realize how this could be a quirky Hollywood comedy). “My power is very limited, very sad! I don’t have the gift to create. My science concerns destruction. However I can give you a strength, a power, a wealth greater than princes and emperors can… I’ll make you a physician; but a physician my friend, a physician who knows me, sees me, speaks to me! Guess the rest.”  The rest is that Gil Gil gains tremendous reputation predicting when people die, which gives him some leverage in the politics of the time. The year, at this time of the story, is 1724, during the historical Spanish royal crisis. King Filipe V abdicated in January to his son, Louis I, who is gravely ill, and now craves the throne again. Gil Gil promises to tell him when he’ll die in return for wealth. Gil Gil predicts Louis I’s death, becomes rich and famous, marries Elena and they leave to Madrid, with the fake physician worried about avoiding Death for the rest of his life so he can live happy with his lovely wife. “And the story could have ended here, but it’s precisely here that it starts becoming more interesting and more understandable,” so says the omniscient narrator. And this is where I start spoiling the whole denouement.

When I read the novella I despaired at the clumsy, rushed and unpolished language. Basically it has all the stylistic flaws that fantasy and science fiction genres tend to have, decrying style in favour of straightforward storytelling. But as I re-read bits and pieces for this write-up I realized what a marvel of foreshadowing this novella is! One of the added bonuses of this collection is that Borges wrote a preface to each volume. Of this book he says, “This tale, in its first half, may look just like an irresponsible series of improvisations; however as it goes on one realizes that everything, up to the Dantesque climax, is deliberately prefigured in the initial pages.” I shouldn’t have doubted Borges.

This novella relies on a twist. I sort of guessed the finale since the twist has been done to death (as you can tell, I’m writing with my punning hat on today) thanks to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Yes, this is one of those narratives where the character is dead all along. But that doesn’t diminish the intricacy of the clues. The author drops lots of hints and nearly every dialogue with Death has an implicit meaning. When Death first meets him, she claims to have “caused his misfortune five times.” This numbering at first was odd to me: there was his mother, his father, the generous count, and the old lady who took care of his shop while he lived at the count. Only on re-reading did I realize that the fifth was his suicide. Then there’s her insistence that she’s interested in his “eternal salvation.” This is because his suicide, rather than having been averted by her arrival, was successful. “I want to unite you to her,” she says about Elena; since he’s a suicide they could never meet in the afterlife. Another clue is that he’s always asking Death if she’ll leave him, and she promises not to; she can’t since he’s already in her realm. Another hint: he’s worried Death may kill Elena one day. “Elena will never die for you.” She can’t since she’s already dead too. We also learn that Gil Gil was in fact the Count of Rionuevo’s bastard son; again there are hints: his father’s marriage was “short but bad,” an allusion to his being knowingly cuckolded. More evidence arises when he spies on Elena in San Millán church. “Naturally no one from those stops suspected that our young men were a poor shoemaker, and everyone thought him in possession of some legacy from the count of Rionuevo, who, in life, showed too much predilection for the young page for one to believe that he had not thought of securing his future.” Indeed he made him his heir, but the jealous countess withheld this information and kicked him out. A tinge of sadness permeates the novella. Gil Gil is shown the life he could and should have had, if justice and honesty prevailed in the world. He should have inherited a fortune, married Elena and lived a happy life. The fact that he’s only allowed to experience a simulacrum of this life in a fantastic afterlife adds even more tragedy to the tale.

After Gil Gil wins Elena he vows never to see Death again, thinking he can succeed. But Death reappears to destroy their idyll and to disclose the nature of his existence. Riding on a flying cart, they travel across the world, visiting distant continents, watching battles and discussing lofty themes like life, death, time, goodness, vanity and salvation. Some of the novella’s trippiest lines are in this section: “Very well, what is Earth seen from this height but a sinking ship, a city at the mercy of fire and plague?” And: “You’d only need to make a map of all the cemeteries that exist on earth to understand the political geography of your world.” They visit the continents and watch battles and see people from all lands.” Or how about their trip to Jerusalem: “That’s Golgotha! That’s where I spent the great day of my life! I thought I had defeated God himself… and indeed I had him defeated, for many hours… but unfortunately it was also on that hill that three days later I was disarmed and annulled, on the morning of a Sunday… Jesus had resurrected!” And finally Death flies him to her abode, the North Pole, a logical destination since nothing can live there, or so was thought at the time. “Imagine a total absence of heat, a total negation of life, the total cessation of movement, death as the only way of being, and you still won’t have an exact idea of that corpse world…”

And in this desolation Gil Gil finally learns the truth: he’s been dead for 600 years; it’s the year 2316 and Earth only has a few hours left before it “explodes like a grenade.” He drank the vitriol and should have gone to hell. But fair and pure Elena, who died of grief after learning of his death, went to heaven and there pleaded with God to save his soul, and so God allowed Death to attempt to reform him. Since Alarcón is writing from a Christian perspective, the purpose of man can only be to save his eternal soul. And now Gil Gil has redeemed himself and both lovers will rest side by side forever in the afterlife, brought together by a Death that can finally rest from her mission as the world is finally dying. Borges was doubly right about the Dantesque ending: it’s a series of horrible images and a celebration of love as Elena becomes Beatrice and guides her lover’s soul to the Star of Truth.

If this were a movie, I keep imagining the last minutes as a slick montage of previous scenes as the whole twist is put together and Gil Gil discovers that his soul is saved and that he’ll spend eternity with Elena, a bittersweet finale playing to dreamy, elegiac but hopeful music by Sigur Ros, M83 or Max Richter, ending in an emotional crescendo with female vocals. And people would be coming out of the room in tears and I’d be one of them.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Las islas extraordinarias



Las islas extraordinarias, published in 1991, follows an unnamed private detective hired by a henchman’s dictator to investigate and defuse a possible conspiracy against the tyrant of a three-island archipelago. A large sum of money eases his moral qualms for the time being and he travels to the Islands to start his mission. This is the kind of oddball premise I’ve come to expect from Gonzalo Torrente Ballester.

We don’t know much about the detective’s life, he has a minimal personality; he has no past to speak of, save a reference to a wife (Isabella) whom he divorced and who is now happily married; apparently he still phones her from time to time, but not this time. He clearly has a moral side like the best detectives, and this shows in the novel’s denouement. But sixty pages in I began realising this was not an ordinary detective novel. For one thing, no actual detective work had been carried out so far. Clearly GTB is less concerned with a mystery than he is with creating a pretext to organize and bring to life a series of scenes of live under a dictatorship. By no means is it a realistic dictatorship; as with everything else I’ve read by him, it leans towards the grotesque, the burlesque, the buffoonish. But notwithstanding this exaggeration he creates a world that reflects our own in its relationship with dictatorships, and explores the true meaning of power.

“The last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me of certain data regarding the history of the Islands, of their geographical situation, of the reason why, them being so close to my country, they’ve remained independent, although their economy complemented our own in a certain way, and they depended as much on us and we did on them: this reason being why my country had always remained in the margins of the political circumstances that dominated the Islands, of its always extraordinary regimes and of whether or not they complied with the minimum social conditions that permitted us to consider them a country similar to our own.” This is interesting. So close and yet so far, like in our world; those who are lucky to live in free states know from television and newspapers that dictatorships exist, and yet they’re mysterious, distant places, a bit like enchanted kingdoms in fairy-tales. And yet it’s ironic that the archipelago can be reached from the continent via a simple bridge. And notice the little critique of democracies: dependent on dictatorships for their economy, they turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

The detective operates by questioning his Excellency and his family: his son and wife, who rule the second and third islands, respectively. First he meets the dictator. After passing through several control checks in the vast palace, he arrives at his office. He’s warned not to smoke in front of him, an advice he wisely follows. His first meeting with the dictator leaves him with a clear idea of his ruthlessness. The tyrant orders coffee for both; a servant brings a tray in; the tyrant orders the servant to taste the coffee. The servant tastes it and falls dead, under the dictator’s indifferent gaze. “Don’t worry. For these cases I have a coffeepot ready, next to the rum that I offered you. But it’s sad not being able to trust in the personnel, don’t you think?” His Excellency also gives him valuable information that may help him, not to solve the case, but to operate more clearly inside that bizarre society. “To sum it up: approximately each month there’s a conspiracy against me, whose chiefs are promptly punished. These conspiracies are organized by government agents. I know their development hourly. They don’t worry me, as you may imagine: they’re an instrument of power that I wield with certain dexterity. But there is another conspiracy which I haven’t started, which I haven’t organized, and that’s the one you have to find out. You ought to read these reports in order to be aware of the others and not get confused.” Like every great politician, his Excellency knows the usefulness of inventing one’s own enemy to keep the masses under control.

The detective’s trip across the archipelago brings him into weirder aspects of that nation. The second island contains the “most important scientific centre in the world.” “Did you know that NASA depends on us? Of course we also depend on them, but it’s our initiative.” They’re so strategically important the civilized, democratic world pretends the centre doesn’t exist. “Every country is our potential buyer.” And so they’re protected and kept hidden from the world. “Somewhere in the Third World they’ve denounced us, but the denouncing was received as fantasy. Those who don’t believe in the existence of this centre are right and that’s why they’re wrong: they don’t believe in the incredible, and that’s what we are. However, for once the incredible is real.” The dictator’s son rules the second island, kept under martial law, and is the military chief, the man who administers justice and is known for “having sent lots of people to the other world.” Effectively he’s the most powerful man in the world. The dictator’s wife rules the third island, called the Island of Vice, a den of crime, drugs, brothels, casinos. The islands are self-sufficient and money circulates inside them without loss, for what is earned on the other islands are spent on the third one. A final note on their economy: they make money from customs taxes. “In our docks, in our airport, ships and airplanes, loaded with merchandise whose nature doesn’t matter to us, buy, sell, barter without any other requisite but paying, thanks to which our seaport is the busiest in the world, and our airport the most visited.” In other words, they’re a purely capitalistic society, without regulation on whatever passes through them, and obviously with the consent of the free world.

The detective’s guide, secretary and driver is Gina, who works in the palace. She hardly has any self-will and the detective tries to instil some of it in her again. She’s mostly a prop, really, to give exposition, lead into the climax and explain the bizarre sexual politics of the islands. Gina is one of the women randomly chosen to bear the dictator’s children, which means she’s state property. Raised into that society, she’s deeply honoured to participate in the creation of the new ruling class; they intend to produce a new aristocracy, although some idiots show up. “Those, when the day comes, will be docilely suppressed.” So they also practice eugenics. It’s a very complete dictatorship.

As the detective takes in these horrors one after another, he begins to wonder where the poets are:

“Here we don’t know of anyone who writes verses. Not even those who praise power and the powerful.” “And if one were to appear?” “I suppose we’d send him to the Isla of Vice.” She slowed down and looked at me. “Don’t you understand? Any poet would be a disturbing element.” “There are those who show talent.” “Here, those with talent have their place reserved and well paid. We don’t buy more brains than necessary.” I started imagining: the drama of distraught adolescents, constrained to use their talents in bureaucracy, or in the improvement of war ships. “Sometimes poets are incoercible and inevitable. Can’t you think of anyone? Not even a national poet, those who proclaim with enthusiasm the superiority of their fatherland over all other fatherlands?” “That’s so obvious we don’t need poets.”

My favourite character is Professor Martin. I’ve always O’Brien from 1984, the bureaucrat who spills diatribes about control and obedience. Professor Martin is an O’Brien-esque figure, the thinker who provides the intellectual framework to justify everything through reactionary clichés, upsetting the “old mental structures” that the detective was born with: democracy is “the suppression of superior men;” equality “is the weapon of the mediocre to triumph in the world and in society.” “We have to think that man, whoever he may be, is an accident, no more no less than a rock or an insect. His existence is justified by his function. If he can’t function, what’s the point of keeping him?” “He said that people needn’t think, said that it was dangerous that people thought for themselves, said that people needed a satisfactory thought, said that it was especially convenient that people believed that they thought for themselves. There were two dailies on the Islands. Opposed in their expression, even though both started from the same principles and arrived at the same conclusions. People followed one or another and thus believed to freely elect their way of thinking.” What’s despairing about this is that GTB is clearly describing any ordinary democracy, with its citizens’ belief that they’re under control, that they’re not being manipulated by the media. This is all to conclude with Professor Martin’s philosophy in a nutshell: “People need to believe they think…”

As for the actual conspiracy, yes, well, there’s not a lot about it. After investigating, the detective concludes there’s nothing to go on; the island is a highly stratified paradise of order and peace. There is no evidence of a conspiracy, no one talks about it. There’s no sense of it, no rage or violence in the air. The only people who could throw him down are his son or wife, but they’re content in their little kingdoms, and anyway the dictator’s power is illusory. “His Excellency doesn’t govern; he just rules.” He’s a title, a job, a position, he doesn’t give commands or orders. His son has all the power and could crush him. He’s just an old man who’s tolerated and allowed to carry on with his farce. The detective intends to quit, but that’s not the end of the story.

Las islas extraordinarias is my fourth Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. In invention and in ambition it does not reach the heights of La Saga/Fuga de J.B and Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. It's a rushed, short narrative. But even his minor efforts have a special flavour. His gift is to create and pepper his narratives with otherworldly situations; in essence he fulfills one my requisites for writers: to write sentences I never imagined logically possible.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

State of the Book Pile Address




Back in January I pledged to reduce my book pile to 100 books. Six months later it is time to make a report on my efforts to accomplish this resolution. The resolution at the time seemed feasible, for I had but 130 or so books. However the vicissitudes of existence, over which I have no control, have contributed to foil my promises. Highly credible data informs me that my book pile has ballooned to the unprecedented number of 212 books.

 
The main reason, analysts have discovered, was the influence of July’s Lisbon Book Fair. A painstaking inventory reveals that I purchased 65 new books on a total of six trips to the fair. Although the pundits have come out to criticise the necessity of this expenditure, you should see the lovely stacks of books I brought home! The great thing this year is that I went there always after work, at 21:00, when the evenings are cool and the fair is almost empty. Not to mention that at 22:00 there's a special hour called the H Hour, when certain book publishers offer amazing discounts!


My main areas of interest this year were Portuguese History, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Aquilino Ribeiro and Eça de Queiroz. I have 8 new books about Eça, including A. Campos Matos’ monumental biography.


What else did I buy? A bit of Jorge de Sena, Alexandre O’Neill, Miguel Torga, Ana Luísa Amaral, Pepetela, António Lobo Antunes, Camilo Castelo Branco and Luís de Camões. I bought enough books from young (born c. 1970) Portuguese novelists in order to devote a month to contemporary Portuguese literature: Gonçalo M. Tavares; João Tordo; José Luís Peixoto; Afonso Cruz; Pedro Guilherme-Moreira; valter hugo mãe – they’re all as mysterious to you as they are to me. My only foray into foreign literature was Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.


Currently my book pile has disintegrated and scattered like the tribes in the Bible: I have a modest pile next to my bed; then half a shelf in the living room’s bookcase harbouring a few dozens; another shelf in the adjacent bookcase contains a few more. But the bulk resides horizontally on a sturdy shelf inside a wardrobe, above my jackets and pants. That’s the state of my book pile.


It's just a matter of time until sooner or later all these books will show up, directly or indirectly, in my blog. 


Sunday, 29 June 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire




Back in January I asked readers to vote for 10 books for me to read from my book pile. As I read through the list I posted my impressions on them. Recently I finished this challenge by reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I deliberately postponed it until the end because I wanted to savour the bittersweet anxiety of returning to the author of Ada or Ardor. There was also apprehension involved because I feared he could not repeat the virtuosity of that novel. But Nabokov corrected me with zest and aplomb! It is premature to declare it, but I have no doubts Pale Fire is the best book I read in 2014.

There exist many pleasures to be picked from this novel but first I must essay a rudimentary explanation of the plot. On the surface, the novel is an extended commentary written by one Charles Kinbote, professor of American Literature at a small college town, about the poem “Pale Fire,” whose author, John Shade, is his friend, neighbour and college colleague. Kinbote guides the reader through the apparently autobiographical poem and unveils the subtextual celebration the small European kingdom of Zembla, from where Kinbote hails and which recently suffered a Soviet-backed coup d’état that deposed its beloved monarch, King Charles II. That’s one interpretation; the other is that Kinbote may be the deposed king, hiding in America from revolutionary assassins and that it was his intimacy with the Shade that inspired the poet to write a poem about Zembla, or so the king thinks, because the poem doesn’t mention Zembla save in one or two instances. So it’s possible that King Charles, if he be Kinbote, is actually insane and is misunderstanding the poem. Or it may be that Kinbote is in fact an insane Russian émigré-cum-college professor called V. Botkin who thinks he’s Charles Kinbote, who thinks he’s King Charles, who may have his own mental instabilities. But it’s also possible that Zembla, Kinbote et al are figments of Shade’s imagination (the least interesting interpretation to me). Basically the reader can choose whichever plot he fancies the most and ferret out clues from the text to support his reading, which is essentially what Kinbote is doing when he insists that Shade “was reassembling my Zembla!”

Since I’m a fan of mono-linear plots, I have to stick to one course of interpretation, and my preference goes to the most obvious one: Charles Kinbote is King Charles pretending to be Charles Kinbote. It is quite obvious that the reader is in the hands of a madman. But he’s an entertaining madman with talents a real reader is trained to admire. The fact that Kinbote is well-spoken and pathetically endearing hides the fact that he’s a callous and selfish person. But he writes alliterative sentences and uses word puns, and sprinkles the text with foreign words, and so the reader is disarmed because he wishes he were that clever with words. And so, like children, we’re led by the hand by this dangerous narrator. His friendship with the Shades today would be called stalking: he ingratiates himself with the Shades for ulterior motives, spies on them, obsesses over them, and exaggerates his friendship with Shade. Although there’s a wide cognitive dissonance between what he says and the way Shade treats him, he believes “John Shade valued my society above that of all other people,” which incites academic jealousy against him. The man is clearly paranoid. At least one colleague calls him “insane,” behaviour he attributes to the “venom of envy.” Another person drops a note in his pocket accusing him of suffering hallucinations. In an article included in the commentary the College shows concern about the fate of the manuscript, since it’s in the hands of a “deranged mind.” And this envy leads to an obituary containing “not one reference to the glorious friendship that brightened the last month of John’s life.” Kinbote himself claims that “[p]ersonally I have not known any lunatics.” But the text is constantly bringing up the topic of insanity, and it’s from here that we realize that Kinbote may be one Botkin thinking he’s Kinbote thinking he’s King Charles.

According to Kinbote, he moved next to the Shades on February 5, 1959 (like the best of madmen he’s nothing but methodical and precise). Although Kinbote knew Shade “only a few months,” he considered him a “very dear friend” because “there exist friendships which develop their own inner duration, their own eons of transparent time, independent of rotating, malicious music.” Kinbote’s foreword to the poem and the commentary is dated October, 19, 1959, by which time Shade is dead. So a few months indeed (and we find out that in five months he’s only invited to their “table exactly three times”). Tragedy has struck Shade: a gunman assassinated him, and Kinbote retrieved the manuscript of the poem in order to publish it, apparently out of respect to him. Kinbote believes he contains in himself the best of virtues, fairness and generosity included. “Immediately after my dear friend’s death I prevailed on his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband’s manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published without delay, with my commentary, by a firm of my choice; that all profits, except the publisher’s percentage, would accrue to her; and that on publication day the manuscript would be handed over to the Library of Congress for permanent preservation. I defy any serious critic to find this contract unfair.” Yes, well, the problem is that he obtains Shade’s poem because he happens to die right next to him, victim of a deranged man, and so he runs away with the 80 cards inside a manila envelope that constituted the poem, hiding himself in a remote place to write his notes. Furthermore, in due time we also realize that Kinbote harbours hostility towards Mrs. Shade, Sybil, the “misguided widow,” as he calls her, which may be attributed to his likely homosexuality.

We don’t have to wonder too much because Kinbote; in a totally deadpan, un-ironic way he describes himself as the most horrible of creatures, totally oblivious to his sinister personality. He routinely spies on John Shade, his neighbour, especially in the backyard, where he burns drafts of his poem. Kinbote’s conceited and thinks Shade would have asked for his opinion. “And perhaps, let me add in all modesty, he intended to ask my advice after reading his poem to me as I know he planned to do.” But the fact is that Shade writes his poem without his input. Kinbote, a native of Zembla, thinks that Shade used their brief encounters to create a paean to his faraway, unreachable, mourned land. The hilarious bulk of the novel is the misinterpretation of the poem. Kinbote prides himself on his “placid scholarship” even though he’s explosive and highly emotive. He’s constantly using the word “modest” about himself, but modesty is something he lacks. And his exegesis is totally disproportionate. Two words in a verse – “my bedroom, line 80” – leads to a note that goes from page 90 to 94. Just two words. In a verse that speaks of “that crystal land,” Kinbote sees a possible “allusion to Zembla, my dear country.” Although Kinbote maintains that Shade is writing about Zembla, its name doesn’t figure at all in the final version, only the draft cards, save for one verse:

And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.

Needless to say Kinbote is not amused by this paucity. The commentary section, which segues from the long unfinished poem (the final verse was left unwritten), is a brilliant example of critical misreading, an example of an apophenic mind finding symbols and references that don’t exist in the text, the critic annihilating the author, overwhelming him with his narrow-minded, obtuse, egocentric interpretation, seeing in the text only what he wants to see. In other words, a warning about and a parody of literary criticism.

Kinbote has an explanation for the absence of Zembla: Sybil’s hostility towards him. In his theory, after Shade read his verses to her, “she made him tone down or remove from his Fair Copy everything connected with the magnificent Zemblan theme with which I kept furnishing him and which, without knowing much about the growing work, I fondly believed would become the main rich thread in its weave!” (As I cobble my notes from the novel, I realize this is the novel where a re-read is much necessary to appreciate all the intricateness of its architecture.). Like paranoid people, Kinbote is an expert at rationalizing away everything that threatens to wrinkle the smooth silk of his insanity. The fact that Kinbote hates Sybil, and women in general, may be due to the fact the king is gay; throughout the novel he shows no interest in women; and indeed Kinbote expels a roomer after he catches him entertaining a “fiery-haired whore from Eton.” Which must beg the question, does Kinbote love Shade?

Kinbote, like I already mentioned, also seeks to obliterate the author from the text and to insert himself on it. “Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide.” More disturbing is his sense of possession of Shade, it’s always “my good-natured poet” or “my poet.” He thinks he owns Shade; and since he couldn’t own him in life he now owns the interpretation of the text. Like he writes in the foreword, “for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.” Indeed! The fact that the Shades don’t give him much consideration leads him to be always anxious to visit them, under whatever pretexts. “What I would not have given for the poet’s suffering another heart attack (see line 691 and note) leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone calls, Zemblan herbal receipts (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade weeping in my arms (“There, there, John”). But on those March nights their house was as black as a coffin.” Like I said, the man is sinister under his fancy talk. So you can imagine that Shade’s death doesn’t bother him as much as it excites him with the prospect of giving him absolute freedom over his text. He even considers himself “the main, if only potential, victim” of the murder attempt, because it left his Zembla poem unfinished. His indifference to Shade’s death and his concern for the poem are the apogee of his ruthlessness. He even demeans the tragic death of Shade’s daughter, Hazel, an important presence in the poem, by saying that she “resembles me in certain aspects.” There are no depths he won’t sink to. And so he continues until the end of the novel.

Then there’s the subplot of the king. Ignoring Shade’s autobiography, he sees in the poem a hidden narrative about the flight of the King of Zembla. It’s a great narrative, full of derring-do and last minute escapes, chases and disguises, evasions and hiding in woods. It’s also possibly fully fictional, a mere invention of a man who thinks he’s a Zemblan King. Does it matter? No, it’s aesthetically rewarding. It’s no more false than any other narrative, it just tells you it’s probably false. Indeed it’s unlikely that Shade was ever interested in the king, for in a discussion he called him an “appalling king.” In this thread from this labyrinthine novel, King Charles is fleeing from an assassin named Gradus, who searches for him in Europe before tracking him down in America, leading to the tragic murder of John Shade. Gradus is the typical extremist. “He worshipped general ideas and did so with pedantic aplomb. The generality was godly, the specific diabolical. If one person was poor and the other wealthy it did not matter what precisely had ruined one or made the other rich; the difference itself was unfair; and the poor man who did not denounce it was as wicked as the rich one who ignored it. People who knew too much, scientists, writers, mathematicians, crystallographers and so forth, were no better than kings or priests: they all held an unfair share of power of which others were cheated. A plain decent fellow should constantly be on the watch for some piece of clever knavery on the part of nature and neighbour.” This narrative is hilarious and over-the-top, and its light touch is all the more amazing after I discovered Nabokov’s father had been assassinated in similar circumstances by a Soviet henchman. The ability to transform such a personal tragedy into such comical literary fuel is remarkable and a sign of Nabokov’s good-humour as a novelist.

Now I’m of course one of those readers who just wants a funny, entertaining plot, I dispense the highfalutin stuff, but even so this novel has many treasures for those who want a deeper interaction with the text. Nabokov was a fan of meta-fiction and that’s evident from the name of his possible madman, Professor V. Botkin, a Russian college professor, much like Nabokov, and indeed V. Botkin seems to have been scrambled from letters of his own name. Already in Ada or Ardor he had created an alter ego called Vivian Darkbloom. This segues into the intertextuality of his book, which includes references to his other novels, Lolita and Pnin. Readers of Nabokov must surely extract fun from that. Alas, I can’t yet.

And then for the lovers of language there’s the vast vocabulary: parhelia, to forelay, pudibundity, stillicide, speluncar, turfy, springy, nictitation, apograph, perlustration, alternating between Latinate, arcane and just plain goofy words. Finally, though, we have Nabokov’s gift for alliteration, internal rhymes and consonance. A few examples:

1) “I wanted to know if he did not mind being taken the longer way, with a stop at Community Center where I wanted to buy some chocolate-coated cookies and a little caviar.” (I’m signalling only the stressed syllables)

2) “(…) black bendlet of a branch.”

3) “every tree top plotted its dotted line (…)”

4) “well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-.”

5) “poor beady baubles and bits of nacre became microscopic soldiers swarming in desperate battle.”

6) “testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons.” You almost wish to give the English language a dressing down for not having a synonym starting with t for crave. Bad language, bad, go to your room!

This novel is complete: it amuses the seeker of comedy, it’s full of adventure and incidents, it is a cerebral challenge for readers who like difficult books, and it’s a marvel of aesthesis. Nabokov’s imagination extends into every domain it touches, including a long rumination about suicide methods, transforming it. Here we are in the hands of a man who could take hold of reality and recreate it to his whim and fancy in the most delectable and ludic of ways.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jane Austen’s Horrid Novel




Northanger Abbey. If I hadn’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I wouldn’t have minded letting this one climb up to the first spot of my best reads of 2014. Read in the same intense binge that found me devouring the Nabokov novel, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’ La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, and Cervante’s Don Quixote, Austen’s novel forms one of the faces of an unplanned polyptych (screw you, word corrector! The word exists!) of meta-fictional novels. The novel is a satisfying, if predictable, narrative about growing up, falling in love, discovering autonomy and learning to separate fantasy from reality, which for someone like the heroine, Catherine Morland, a young lady, it meant marrying a man with a firm income, with the added benefit that he’s the man she actually loves. In less capable hands, in a less twisted mind, this would have been a corny novel, full of sickening sentimentality and odious Romantic excesses, but Austen looked at things from a prism all her own and infused everything a decidedly bizarre aura. I think her trick is that this is a very ironic, very self-conscious novel. If I wished to simplify, and I do!, I could say that Northanger Abbey does for the Gothic novel what Don Quixote did for the chivalric romance. Austen uses the Gothic genre as her novel’s skeleton (a not unintended pun) in order to mock that very same genre. If Don Quixote endures the physical travails of knight errantry, Catherine faces the dangers of ruining her perfect match when her hyperactive imagination, engorged on Anne Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, suspects her beau’s father of being a murderer.

One day someone will explain (or I’ll bother looking it up for it probably exists) why comedy and meta-fiction go hand in hand so often – the theatre of Aristophanes and Luigi Pirandello (and Tom at Wuthering Expectations has unearthed the Danish missing link between the two), Don Quixote and the ghastly Tristram Shandy, the movie Airplane. I presume it’s because comedy subverts reality and authority, and meta-fiction is fiction aware of its unreality. Tragedy and drama thrive on the illusion of verisimilitude. That’s why it’s common for comedy to break the fourth wall in movies; if The Wolf of Wall Street were a tragedy, Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t spend the whole movie talking to the viewer, to gloat about his greed and perversions; that self-aware smug tone just doesn’t fit tragedy. You want a tragic Wall Street movie, you watch Wall Street. A seriousness of tone depends on the permanence of values and the fact that sacred ideas and concepts exist, made sacred by the inscrutable authority of tradition. But comedy is acid thought corroding assumptions and emptying ideas and concepts of the splendour of their traditions. I like how Milan Kundera somewhere argues that the “grandeur of tragedy” is a “consolation” for tragic protagonists: to be overwhelmed by Fate, to become noble through suffering; there is something beautiful about succumbing to tragedy, because it shows man failing under something stronger than him, something that permeates the cosmos and is like an order unto itself.

That’s not Northanger Abbey. Austen’s novel is inconsequential insofar as it concerns the human condition. It’s a novel of small problems for which the solutions are always just around the corner. It’s a novel about a 17-year-old girl who goes to Bath with Mrs. Allen in what becomes her adventure of maturation. She attends balls, sort of debuts into society, makes friends with vapid people and falls in love with a nice, handsome boy who reciprocates. Now, the important thing is the way these mundane events are told. This novel is, first and foremost, a triumph of style. Jane Austen is a master of comedy and the humour in Northanger Abbey never subsides. Austen owes a huge debt to Cervantes. I read Don Quixote after this novel and that helped me put into perspective its influence, but it also showed me the great strides the novel had taken since his time. Yes, Austen’s parody comes straight from Cervantes, but she has more material to mock since his time: in the two centuries separating the two lots of novels showed, and she’s not just aware of Gothic clichés, she’s also conscious of the tropes of the respectable novel (insofar as the novel was respectable at the time), that is, the more serious, more realistic novels of Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding. In fact the book opens with Austen collecting tropes as if she were a scalp-hunter. In order to prove that, I want to transcribe the entire first paragraph (with my italics), a masterpiece of comedy: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy's plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief—at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities—her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the "Beggar's Petition"; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of "The Hare and Many Friends" as quickly as any girl in England. Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another. Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange, unaccountable character!—for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.”

Catherine is not very pretty, she’s not very feminine, she’s not interested in boys save to play their games. Hardly made from the same cloth as the sassy but angelic Sophia Western from Tom Jones, the ideal heroine. Austen is writing against type, fully aware of the codes that a type of character as such. Then there are the jabs at conventions: the mother who does not die at birth (heroines always seem brought up by fathers and governesses, don’t they?), the father who does not lock her up (Squire Western from Tom Jones?). But Austen is aware of her readership and she adapts accordingly; Catherine starts falling into character at the age of fifteen, but by seventeen she’s still lacking an amorous affair, having no luck to live next to a male protagonist. “She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.” No mysterious waifs, no Tom Jones, no Heathcliff (who was created some forty years later, that’s how persistent this convention was). This fiction refuses to play by the rules. Beautiful. And then comes the bow to Cervantes: “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” Catherine does not grow up thinking she’s a heroine in a Gothic novel, but she does grow awfully fond of them, building her expectations of the world on how things would pan out in Ann Radcliffe’s shockers.

Fortunately for her initiation into heroism, Mr Allen must go to Bath for his gout and so Mrs Allen “probably aware that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad, invited her to go with them.” And so departs Catherine to find the world, or at least Bath, “her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” The jokes on tropes continue for more pages, but we can stop here. In their own good time – and the novel is quick on action and change of settings – Catherine and Mrs Allen find themselves navigating the unknown waters of Bath society, utterly alone, as the novel turns into a comedy of manners:

"How uncomfortable it is," whispered Catherine, "not to have a single acquaintance here!"
"Yes, my dear," replied Mrs. Allen, with perfect serenity, "it is very uncomfortable indeed."
"What shall we do? The gentlemen and ladies at this table look as if they wondered why we came here—we seem forcing ourselves into their party."
"Aye, so we do. That is very disagreeable. I wish we had a large acquaintance here."
"I wish we had any—it would be somebody to go to."

And also a novel about growing up, and in this case about Catherine learning to be a lady, that is, learning to enjoy being looked at by men and praised for her beauty. And like a girl at her age she just wants to hear praise. When two young man call her a pretty girl, she’s riveted. “Such words had their due effect; she immediately thought the evening pleasanter than she had found it before—her humble vanity was contented—she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms, and went to her chair in good humour with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention.” Of course the self-consciousness never stops; when she meets a gallant young man, Mr. Tilney, their dialogue turns upside down the rules of romantic meetings:

“Were you never here before, madam?"
"Never, sir."
"Indeed! Have you yet honoured the Upper Rooms?"
"Yes, sir, I was there last Monday."
"Have you been to the theatre?"
"Yes, sir, I was at the play on Tuesday."
"To the concert?"
"Yes, sir, on Wednesday."
"And are you altogether pleased with Bath?"
"Yes—I like it very well."
"Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again." Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. "I see what you think of me," said he gravely—"I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow."
"My journal!"
"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."
"Indeed I shall say no such thing."
"Shall I tell you what you ought to say?"
"If you please."
"I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say."
"But, perhaps, I keep no journal."
"Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies' ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal."

Mr. Tilney is a charming, eccentric, kind-hearted man and in due time he’ll marry Catherine. In the meantime she must escape a few trolls that threaten to turn her into a disagreeable, false person. Mrs. Allen meets Mrs. Thorpe and Catherine meets her children, Isabella and John. She immediately strikes a friendship with Isabella, a fatuous young lady who’s looking for a rich suitor. Catherine, a poor judge of character, strikes a friendship with because they both share the pleasures of shutting themselves up to read novels, not just Gothic novels, but novels in general. And this prompts another meta-fictional moment, a passionate defence of the novel against its evil detractors: “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

One of the trolls Catherine must triumph against is precisely one of these novel-haters, Isabella’s brother (incidentally, is there anything to the fact that Isabella is an Italian name and several of Radcliffe’s novels take place in Italy? There has to be!) But for now let us witness the young ladies’ love for Gothic novels in another extended dialogue. And I have to add that I love Austen’s dialogues, they’re sublime in a surreal sort of way:

 “Have you gone on with Udolpho?"
"Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil."
"Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?"
"Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina's skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world."
"Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you."
"Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?"
"I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."
"Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"

Austen forms lines I never expected were logically or sensibly possible in a novel. But she keeps disproving me. Let’s have another example:

“While I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! The dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it."
"It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels."
"No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way."
"Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume."
"It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining."
"Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.”

The downside of Isabella’s friendship (the first anyway) is the fact that Catherine meets her bully of a brother, John Thorpe, a vulgar rack with designs on her. And he ridicules novel reading. For that reason he’s the closest thing to a villain:

"Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."
"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."
"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant."
"I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it."
"I have never read it."
"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."

Once again I have to emphasize the surreal qualities of the dialogue. Honestly, what are they talking about? This sounds like a Monty Python script. Mr. Tilney has the excellent quality of being a friend of novels, which endears him both to Catherine and to me:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time."
"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."
"Thank you, Eleanor—a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion."
"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly."
"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do—for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as—what shall I say?—I want an appropriate simile.—as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!"
"Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"
"The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."
"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."
"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

But amusing as a novel full of obscure references to novels no one reads anymore may be, Northanger Abbey dares to be more than that! At the heart of this tangle of relationships is Catherine’s losing her innocence and maturing. She wants to live in a Gothic world, but at the same time she’s growing up and discovering boys. She’s torn, even though it’s not a choice of Sartrean complexity to make. At Bath she continues to see Mr. Tilney and his sister, Eleanor, realizing she likes to be with them. They even arrange to have a little walk together. Unfortunately this occurs on the same day Mr. Thorpe is planning a trip to Blaize Castle. Oh no, what will Catherine do?

"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that?"
"The finest place in England—worth going fifty miles at any time to see."
"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"
"The oldest in the kingdom."
"But is it like what one reads of?"
"Exactly—the very same."
"But now really—are there towers and long galleries?"
"By dozens."
"Then I should like to see it; but I cannot—I cannot go."

She cannot go in order to hold her earlier commitment with the Tilneys; but vile Thorpe tricks her into going, much to her vexation and to her feelings, for she begins to realize she prefers Tilney to Thorpe, learning that important lesson that it’s better to be with those we care for. Everyone around her is expecting, and forcing, her to end up in Thorpe’s arms, bur she’ll have none of that and starts thinking for herself, fighting for her independence, showing the feistiness of Fielding’s Sophia. In modern parlance she’s what we call a strong female character, strong of spirit rather than physique. Catherine’s bid for freedom culminates with her voyage to Northanger Abbey, far from Mrs. Allen and the Thorpes, although she has one final obstacle to overcome: her fascination with Gothic novels. At the thought of spending a few days in an actual old abbey, she goes hoping for an adventure, but gets another one instead. “Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun.” Yes, yes, but it’s at the abbey that she discovers that social standing, money and breeding are more important than novels, sadly. Mr. Tilney’s father, General Tilney, is perhaps a villain (although that’s too harsh a word) but not of the sort she thinks. Her naivety starts simply. A cabinet piques her curiosity and she hopes to find a manuscript in it: “Catherine's heart beat quick, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by hope, and an eye straining with curiosity, her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty. With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty. Not one was left unsearched, and in not one was anything found.” She’s not to be discouraged, a place like that invites certain ideas and she believes that General Tilney murdered his wife. When she learns that her mother’s portrait hangs in Tilney’s bedroom, not wanted by his father, that only excites her imagination. “Here was another proof. A portrait—very like—of a departed wife, not valued by the husband! He must have been dreadfully cruel to her!” The fact that she hears him walking about at night makes her conjure even more sinister theories. “There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed.” After all, faking a corpse is easy. “Were she even to descend into the family vault where her ashes were supposed to slumber, were she to behold the coffin in which they were said to be enclosed—what could it avail in such a case? Catherine had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced, and a supposititious funeral carried on.” You can’t beat genre logic. Catherine is a fool, and Austen is not generous to her; she shows just how foolish she is. In the end there’s no mystery, but nevertheless General Tilney is not a nice person and she discovers that he doesn’t want Tilney marrying Catherine because she’s not as rich as he thought. But love conquers everything and the two lovers marry. About the ending I can only add that this is one of those novels where I wanted a happy ending, where a happy ending was a necessity, even a natural extension of the spirit of the novel and perfectly fitting in tone. Essentially Austen has written about a character undergoing a genre transfer, from Gothic to novel of manners. I’ve been very lucky to read many good novels this year: Don Quixote, Pale Fire, Middle C, La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, but none was as special as this one. This one has an aura of joyous hilarity that is unique and must be savoured and treasured. 

 Read for the 2014 Women Challenge.