Friday, 31 January 2014

Reading Pile Voting Results



The mention of Trakl made Amalfitano think, as he went through the motions of teaching a class, about a drugstore near where he lived in Barcelona, a place he used to go when he needed medicine for Rosa. One of the employees was a young blogger in his free time, barely out of his teens, extremely thin and with big glasses, who would sit up at night reading a book when the pharmacy was open twenty-four hours. One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what obscure new fiction books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like Pale Fire, The Divine Comedy, The New Science, The Prince. And then he said that he was reading Bolaño’s 2666. Leaving aside the fact that The New Science and The Price were non-fiction, not fiction books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young blogger, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred famous works to unknown ones. He chose Pale Fire over O Sétimo Juramento, he chose The Divine Comedy over Vindima, he chose The New Science over Todas as Palavras, and The Prince over A Gloriosa Família or Muana Puo. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish bloggers are afraid to take on the obscure, chthonic, foreign works, books that blaze paths from the unknown. They choose the well-established exercises of the familiar masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the known masters reiterate, so they have no interest in distant combat, when the unknown masters struggle against that incognito, that incognito that terrifies us all, that incognito that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
- Roberto Bolaño, 2666

As everybody knows, this month people were free to pick ten books from my reading pile for me to read. The idea was that I’d tally the votes and form a reading list out of them. The voting booth closed yesterday and I've tallied up the votes. First of all, I wish to thank everyone who voted: Alex, Dwight, Brian Joseph, Tom, seraillon, toutjour, and stastats.

Now for the books: fourteen books got 2 or more votes. Five were a lock because of the number of votes:

Virgil: Bucolics, Georgics, Aeneid 4
Giambattista Vico: The New Science 3
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian 3
Saint Augustine: Confessions 3
W.B. Yeats: The Collected Poems 3

I chose the other five in the order the votes were cast, that is, the first five to get two votes got in:

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire 2
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey 2
Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy 2
Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince 2
Umberto Eco: Inventing the Enemy 2

I certainly did not expect to start the year reading a mix of Saint Augustine, Giambattista Vico and Virgil, but a promise is a promise. But there are beautiful patterns and contrasts here: Virgil and Dante, that makes so much sense; and Machiavelli and Eco on politics; and a prim novelist like Austen and a violent writer like McCarthy. Four non-fiction writers, three poets and three novelists. It's a very interesting list.

Each book will be written about here. Reading begins in February.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Adam Zagajewski and the City







Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) is a Polish poet. However, he was born in Lvov, now part of Ukraine, from where his family was expelled when he was a baby. Between 1944 and 1946, Poles living in what is called the Kresy region, to the East of modern Poland, were forced to move out as the map of post-war Europe was being redrawn. His parents resettled in Krakow. Critical of communism, one of his poetical bête noires, he left for Paris in 1982, and also lived in Houston and Chicago, having taught at the universities of these respective cities. He emerged as a poet around the 1970s and has become one of Poland’s most celebrated modern poets. He’s received numerous awards, including the Neustadt Prize (2004), the European Poetry Prize (2010) and the Zhongkun International Poetry Prize (2013). He’s also a major Nobel Prize contender. On top of writing poetry, he’s also the author of several books of essays: A Defense of Ardor, Two Cities, Another Beauty.  His work, for a foreign writer, has received a lot of exposure in English. My first book was Eternal Enemies, then I moved to Without End, a collection of books previously published, and last year I read Unseen Hand.

 

Out of the 500 pages of poetry currently available in English, one can read Zagajewski’s from many different angles. There’s the tourist always in transit, there’s the man in pursuit of his memories, there’s the ongoing drama of his father losing his mind, there’s the lover of painting, there’s the philosopher in dialogue with dead philosophers, there’s the poet writing tributes to other poets. These are all valid forms of writing about his work. But the first topic to come to mind is his attraction to the city, or town. Not a particular city or town – although these exist too, Lvov and Krakow, for instance – but an abstract, featureless, opaque space of reflection, sorrow, reminiscence and joy, and it’s right there on page 3 of Without End:

TO SEE

Oh my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian;
if I had to tell you, city
asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves,
if I needed to describe the ocean’s skin, on which
ships etch the lines of shining poems,
and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails
and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration,
and cities with sharp turrets gleaming
in the keen morning sun,
and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds,
the bureaucrats’ undying scorn for us, people,
Umbria’s narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,
and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing,
gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation,
Krakow, on Sunday, when even the chestnut leaves
seem pressed by an unseen iron,
vineyards raided by the greedy fall
and by highways full of fear;
if I had to describe the sobriety of the night
when it happened,
and the clatter of the train running into nothingness
and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink;
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world,
but you unmoving city turned to stone,
my brethren in the shallow sand;
the earth still turns above you
and the Roman legions march
and a polar fox attends the wind
in a white wasteland where sounds perish.

This is basically the City, we’re going to walk through it again and again, with similar adjectives and sensations attached to it. It’s a city of no specified geography, it’s Umbria, Paris and Krakow all converging in his brain, a gray place, asleep, still, mute, unmoving and turned to stone. If I’m reading him correctly, each place he passes through – and Zagajewski’s a globetrotter – is the same place because his memory and creative power carry with him a single vision, which needs a whole different brand of poems for decoding, his poems on memory, for instance “In A Little Apartment,” where his father “works in the quiet apartment – in silence” in “a low block in the Soviet style that says all towns should look like barracks.” This is the city he carries with him everywhere, stuck in time, drab, dreary, scarred by the communist regime.

Also, this poem doesn’t make any sense. It starts with an if and you keep waiting for a then, and it just keeps adding ands and ands, and you think there’s going to be a big then at the end, and you’re having a hard time following all the incremental ands, but it’s going to be worth it and then he cuts it off with a semicolon, and moves on to something else. Where’s the payoff? This is why people don’t like contemporary poetry.

Anyway, I was talking about variations, but there’s also recycling. This “mute city” gets expanded into a whole poem with the same title in Unseen Hand:

MUTE CITY

Imagine a dark city.
It understands nothing. Silence reigns.
And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers
make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flight,
filling us with admiration.
Mute city. Blanketed in clouds.
Nothing is known yet. Nothing.
Sharp lightning cleaves the night.
Priests, Catholic and Orthodox alike, rush to shroud
their windows in deep blue velvet,
but we go out
to hear the rain’s rustle
and the dawn. Dawn always tells us something,
always.

The poem seems to start on an aural metaphor, but it’s really visual. It’s all about light and darkness: the dark, the bats, the blanket metaphor, night-time. I guess this muteness is not so much about inability to speak but a deeper difficulty in transmitting or obtaining knowledge, a cognitive, expressive opaqueness, the limits of understanding perhaps. Did I mention he dialogues with Nietzsche in his poetry?

He works on the same themes a bit more in this poem:

WALK THROUGH THIS TOWN

Walk through this town at a gray hour
when sorrow hides in shady gates
and children play with great balls
that float like kites above
the poisoned wells of courtyards.
And, quiet, the last blackbird sings.

Think about your life which goes on,
though it’s already lasted so long.

Could you voice the smallest fragment of the whole.

Could you name baseness when you saw it.

If you meet someone truly living
would you know it?

Did you abuse high words?

Whom should you have been, who knows.
You love silence, and you’ve mastered
only silence, listening to words, music, and quiet:
why did you begin to speak, who knows.

Why in this age, why in a country
that wasn’t born yet, who knows.
Why among exiles, in a flat that had been
German, amid grief and mourning
and vain hopes of a regained myth.

Why a childhood shadowed
by mining towers and not a forest’s dark,
near a stream where a quiet dragonfly keeps watch
over the world’s secret wholeness

– who knows.

And your love, which you lost and found,
and your God, who won’t help those
who seek him,
and hides among theologians
with degrees.

Why just this town at a gray hour,
this dry tongue, these numb lips,
and so many questions before you leave
and go home to the kingdom
from which silence, rapture, and the wind
once came.

Actually I don’t have a clear idea what he’s talking about here, but that last stanza is about death, right? Or is he talking about some other kingdom?

Remember how in the first movie we had an “unmoving city turned to stone?” Well, there hasn’t been much progress:

IT COMES TO A STANDSTILL

The city comes to a standstill
and life turns into still life,
it is as brittle as plants in a herbarium.
You ride a bicycle which doesn’t
move, only the houses wheel by,
slowly, showing their noses, brows,
and pouting lips. The evening becomes
a still life, it doesn’t feel like existing,
therefore it glistens like a Chinese lantern
in a peaceful garden. Nightfall, motionless,
the last one. The last word. Happiness
hovers in the crowns of the trees.
Inside the leaves, kings are asleep.
No word, the yellow sail of the sun
towers over the roofs like a tent abandoned
by Caesar. Pain becomes a still life and despair
is only a still life, framed
by the mouth of one passerby. The square
keeps silent in a dark foliage of birds’
wings. Silence as on the fields of Jena
after the battle when loving women
look at the faces of the slain.

I like this poem, it unveils a bit of his passion for painting. The still life is one of the classic themes of painting, the rendering of inanimate objects, usually domestic or everyday objects, important in the history of painting for their rupture with traditional religious or mythical themes, bringing a new representation of reality into the painting. There’s nothing awkward about life turning into still life, in painting all life turns into still life, and I’d add a poem is also still life, holding it on the page, framed by one’s mouth.

And the adjectives for cities keep coming:

CITY UNKNOWN

O unknown city, cool cradle
Snow falling on a map

The tenements’ green roofs
The windowsills where laughter rattles

Unknown city hidden away among
I don’t know how many gentle hills

What was ordinary isn’t possible anymore
A different wind turns the tin vane

In the imperial forest in the royal pantry
wild cherries waited so sweet and black
one could feed them to Leviathan

And fate gave into our hands the blood-filled
Star of Bethlehem whittled with a knife

This one is hidden away amongst hills, like the one “buried in ravines.” My geography is awful, is Krakow surrounded by hills? But moving on, next we have:

IN A STRANGE CITY

The faint, almost fantastic
scent of the Mediterranean,
crowds on streets at midnight,
a festival begins,
we don’t know which.
A scrawny cat slips
past our knees,
gypsies eat supper
as if singing:
white house beyond them,
an unknown tongue.
Happiness.

Which sounds a bit like this other poem:

IN STRANGE CITIES

In strange cities, there’s an unexpected joy,
the cool pleasure of a new regard.
The yellowing façades of tenements
the sun scales like an agile spider
aren’t mine. The town hall,
harbour, jail and courthouse
weren’t built for me either.
The sea runs through the city, its salty tide.
submerging porches and basements.
In the market, pyramids of apples
rise for the eternity of one afternoon.
Even the suffering’s not really mine:
the local madman mutters
in an alien language, the misery
of a lonely girl in a café
is like a piece of canvas in a dingy museum,
the huge flags of the trees, though,
flutter as in the place we know,
and the same lead is sewn in the hems
of winding-sheets, dreams, and the imagination
homeless, and mad.

Both are poems that show his penchant for travelling. Perhaps one day I’ll write about his tourism poetry, about visiting museums and churches and spending time in airports and train stations. The word homeless is telling. Is that how he sees himself? Homeless is a strong word, though, I’d prefer rootless, or cosmopolitan.

There are also the cities of memory and imagination, although all his city poems are that too, one way or another. But some are more evocative of these qualities than others:

THE CITY WHERE I WANT TO LIVE

The city is quiet at dusk,
when pale stars waken from their swoon,
and resounds at noon with the voices
of ambitious philosophers and merchants
bearing velvet from the East.
The flames of conversation burn there,
but not pyres.
Old chucks, the mossy stones
of ancient prayers, are both its ballast
and its rocket ship.
It is a just city
where foreigners aren’t punished,
a city quick to remember
and slow to forget
tolerating poets, forgiving prophets
for their hopeless lack of humour.
The city was based
on Chopin’s preludes,
raking from them only joy and sorrow.
Small hills circle it
in a wide collar; ash trees
grow there, and the slim poplar,
chief justice in the state of trees.
The swift river flowing through the city’s heart
murmurs cryptic greetings
day and night
from the springs, the mountains, and the sky.

STAR

I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
unchanging city
buried in the waters of the past.

I’m no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity.
I’m not the young poet who wrote
too many lines

and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand,

but still I’m guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.

I DREAMED OF MY CITY

Written while attending
A Herbert conference in Sienna

I dreamed of my distant city –
it spoke the language of children and the injured,
it spoke in many voices, rushing
to shout one another down, like simple people suddenly
   admitted
to the presence of a great official:
“There is no justice,” it cried; “All
has been taken from us,” it wailed loudly;
“No one remembers us, not a soul”;
I saw feminists with dark eyes,
petty nobles with forgotten family trees,
judges wearing togas sewn of nettles
and devout, exhausted Jews –
                                               but slowly, relentlessly
the gray dawn drew near and the speakers faded,
dimmed, submissively went back to their barracks
like legions of toy soldiers,
and then I heard completely different words:

“Still there are miracles, not everyone believes,
but miracles do happen…” And waking, slowly,
reluctantly departing the dream’s bunker,
I realized that the arguments continue,
that nothing has been settled yet…

Finally, we have a poem which I think is a key for a lot of what he writes:

POETRY SEARCHES FOR RADIANCE

Poetry searches for radiance,
poetry is the kingly road
that leads us farthest.
We seek radiance in a gray hour,
at noon or in the chimneys of the dawn,
even on a bus, in November,
while an old priest nods beside us.

The waiter in a Chinese restaurant bursts into tears
and no one can think why.
Who knows, this may also be a quest,
like that moment at the seashore,
when a predatory ship appeared on the horizon
and stopped short, held still for a long while.
And also moments of deep joy

and countless moments of anxiety.
Let me see, I ask.
Let me persist, I say.
A cold rain falls at night.
In the streets and avenues of my city
quiet darkness is hard at work.
Poetry searches for radiance.

Poetry as the dispeller of darkness, blazing paths from the quotidian, revealing new states, wrestling with and rising above the negative human forces of despair, panic and sadness, finding an alternative. Zagajewski is a poet of small epiphanies, ensconced in a world of night-time, dead history and alienation.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Leonardo Sciascia: I Pugnalatori



In 1975, with the publication of The Mystery of Majorana, about the sudden disappearance of physicist Ettore Majorana in 1938, Leonardo Sciascia received a proposal to write another book about a real person, in this case the life of Guido Giacosa, State Attorney in Sicily between 1862-63, involved in a bizarre and complex criminal trial that had become the subject of a recent study written by his great-granddaughter, Nina Ruffini. Taking an interest in the case, and after meeting Ruffini, Sciascia started doing his own research, taking trips to archives, and in the end came up with a true crime novella called I Pugnalatori (1976).

I’m a newcomer to Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989), Sicilian-born Italian novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Not too long ago I was riveted by his novel Equal Danger (1971). I don’t know much more about Sciascia, save that the man’s work has a knack to be adapted into movies that I like: To Each His Own (1967), The Day of the Owl (1968), Exquisite Corpses and Todo Modo (both from 1976), Open Doors (1990), A Simple Story (1991). It’s much easier to watch than to read books, especially in Sciascia’s case, since I make a point of reading them in Italian, a language that forces me to decrease my daily average of pages from sixty pages to a mere twenty. Thankfully his books are shortish, evening things out. The movies are especially good because of two frequent factors: the direction of Elio Petri and the acting of Gian Maria Volonté, one of the greatest Italian actors of the last century; they were even better when they collaborated, which was quite a lot. When I think of Sciascia I can’t disassociate him from these two men.

So having watched all these movies, when it came to decide the next book I steered away from re-enactments and chanced upon this novella. My first impression is that it’s totally different than Equal Danger. One of the big differences is history. There’s no escaping history in I Pugnalatori. Whereas detective Amerigo Rogas ambled through a political investigation in a nameless country, Guido Giacosa comes up against a crime produced in the turmoil of then-recent Sicilian history (in the movie adaptation of Equal Danger, one can clearly see the map of Sicily on the wall of a police precinct, even if the island is never alluded to; a clever touch, I thought). Although I’m not particularly well-versed in Italian history, from what I understand up until 1860 the island of Sicily and Naples formed a joint kingdom called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the House of the Bourbons. But as part of the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded, conquered and annexed it to the Kingdom of Italy, under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel II. In 1862 Giacosa, from Piedmont, was made State Attorney of Palermo. Just a few months later he met the greatest challenge of his career when he tried to solve a unique crime that occurred on the night of October 2.At the same hour,” we’re told, “in several points in the city almost equidistant between them, a thirteen-pointed star was painted over Palermo’s map, thirteen people were gravely injured by knife, almost all of them on the belly’s lower part.” In a sequence that seems to predate Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, he describes how each of the 13 victims were attacked, their names and professions, the location, the circumstances. The language is very formal, objective, like a police report. We’ll get back to this objectivity; but more on the crimes first.

At first, and on the same night, only one of the attackers is arrested One of the victims is being attacked right when officers are passing by, and a chase ensues that ends with the suspect captured. This man is identified as Angelo D’Angelo. The other 12 victims, injured at the same time as D’Angelo’s target, are unable to identify their attackers or provide reasons for the attacks (a note on the title: pugnalatore comes from the word pugnale, meaning dagger. A pugnalatore is someone who stabs with a dagger. I looked up the word daggerer, but no dictionary has it, and it’s an ugly neologism, so let’s use stabber henceforth. But why did the English language evolve without needing a word that describes someone who stabs others with daggers? Did the British have a different choice of weapons? Or were they more diplomatic?). But even without the victims’ help, they manage to quickly identify and arrest the other stabbers. Things escalate when they discover who hired this small army and why, and the Giacosa’s investigation leads him to suspect, without being able to prove, that Prince Sant’Elia, “extremely rich, extremely respected, senator of the Kingdom of Italy,” is behind the attacks. He is an unlikely suspect: an aristocrat devoted to the crown, a fierce defender of the unified kingdom, a public man who doesn’t get involved with extreme parties, a good Catholic. But although Giacosa tries to make advances in the investigation of this citizen above suspicion, he’s basically targeting an untouchable man, enjoying immunity. As a senator, Sant’Elia couldn’t be arrested or interrogated without the Senate’s direct permission, which Giacosa never received. So he only managed to sketch motives.

His theory was that the crimes were political. Sant’Elia was in fact a member of the exiled Bourbon faction, and planned the crime as a form of terrorism to prove the new government’s inability to maintain order, in spite of the fact that the stabbers were quickly apprehended. In fact the only disorder, if you will, happens when Giacosa’s investigation collides against the power and vested interests of Sant’Elia, who uses his influence, statute, money and power to raise obstacles to the court proceedings. In the end, as tends to be the case when powerful are involved, he got away scot free, whereas his minions were given sentences. Defeated, Giacosa returns to Piedmont, to continue his career as lawyer.

Although the aspect of the true crime makes this novella curious, I have to say it’s not a book that enthralled me as much as Equal Danger did. I would say that its language was the main motive. Sciascia deliberately used an objective, precise language, heavily quoting documents of the time. I think this leads to the novella’s main weakness, namely the anodyne and sometimes dull language employed. It is redolent with names, dates, places, ranks. From time to time, and those are my favourite moments, the Sciascia wit transpires. For instance, when Angelo D’Angelo is running away from the police, he enters a shoemaker’s shop, thinking the workers will hide him. “And in the shop, trusting in the solidarity that could not help existing towards one chased by the police, the attacker thought he could find a way out: he entered, lifted a labourer from a stool by the working bench; and put himself in his place as if he were working. But officer Graziano, having entered a few moments later, and found himself in a not yet finished scene: with a glance he realized that the man to arrest was the one who showed the least tiredness (…)” I like this passage for the way the narrator shows the mind of the criminal at work, or at least the Sicilian criminal, betting on people disliking cops enough to help anyone who’s in trouble with them.

Still I think I see a reason why he opted to mix documents with his own writing, instead of writing a full essay or a full fictional story. As much as this is about 19th century Sicilian politics, it is also a commentary on modern Italian politics. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novella is how it does not purport to belong to the historical genre. Were he writing historical fiction, he’d be restricted by the facts, and any intention to write about modern history would have to be under the form of allegory. But then why not speak directly about it? Instead of beating about the bush, he brings this preoccupation to the fore. It starts slowly, with the facts trickling out of the documents, but then the modern narrator’s voice becomes more and more opinionated. Here’s, for instance, his reaction to the 12 victims’ inability to identify their attackers:

And it’s true that glancing at police reports from then to our days it’s rare to find a victim of stabbing or sawn-off shotgun who gives away the name of the attacker or gives information to identify him (we speak, to make ourselves plain, of Palermo and Sicily): but thirteen in a single night who reply in the same way and who in the same manner describe, even if summarily, the man who has attacked them, was a bit too much even for the Palermo police.

In no time he starts making more comparisons between past and present, finding more similarities. There’s the rule of silence, Omertà, enforced then and now. The suspects kept their mouth shuts for their families’ sake, who were taken care of in return for silence. He sees corruption in the trial similar to modern corruption. Even the price to kill a man hasn’t changed, with adjusted inflation. More urgent for the time the novella was written in, Sciascia sees this crime as a sort of forerunner of the “strategy of tension” employed by the Italian authorities between the 1960s and 1970s. During Italy’s years of lead, when the country was an ideological and physical battleground between far-right and far-left groups, with intelligence services, CIA, Catholic Church, and Mafia all in the mix, it is believed that the Italian government sponsored state terrorism – bombings, assassinations – to create an atmosphere of fear in order to manipulate public opinion against their political opponents, who could be anybody from communists to anarchists to unionists to feminists to peaceful ordinary citizens and artists. This was called the strategy of tension, which Sciascia links back to the possible plot of using the 1862 crimes to bring back the Bourbon dynasty into power. This in turn helps him support an even more interesting thesis. “According to a journalist friend, the history of Italian from the unification to our days was in great part conditioned by the rivalry, by the declared or veiled enmity, between Sicilians.” How true or plausible this is only an Italian could ascertain. But as one of the centres of organized crime and secret societies, I think it’s a theory worthy developing. Guido Giacosa has a similar view when he states that the history of Sicily is “nothing but a continuous sequel of baronial conspiracies to throw out the new ruler and put the old one back in place, and to start all over again to conspire against the old one to put back the new one.” But is this Giacosa speaking from official documents or something the narrator invented for him to speak? It’s very convenient and goes in the direction of what was written before. So perhaps it’s not all as objective as it seems. But if history is just a power struggle between factions, who can be right or wrong about anything? What do we know save perhaps what some want us to know?

The novella certainly raises interesting questions about history. But for all that, I fear this is a flawed book. This essay-novella form leaves something to be desired regarding its ability to retain the reader’s interest. And the characters are like lifeless puppets. I can’t help think Sciascia intended it that way the moment he decided to follow the facts dryly. He knew what better suited what he wanted to express. But having enjoyed Equal Danger so much, I’m certain he expresses things much better when he’s not constrained by fidelity to historical truth.

Friday, 17 January 2014

St. Orberose: 2 Years




Today St. Orberose celebrates its second anniversary. This is the longest time I’ve kept a blog. After many hesitations and trials, I think I’ve finally found what I want to write about, and how and why. It was a fruitful year. As a blogger, I had the pleasure of continuing to be part of a passionate, intelligent, lively community of book lovers who’ve enriched my life and who make blogging easier and more rewarding.

My blogging last year ended up having a symmetry to it that I did not plan beforehand. Like so many things in my blog, it just grew organically. I started the year with a slew of reviews about diverse writers from many nationalities, the way we like it around here. Then in May what started as an informal series of posts about Guimarães Rosa turned into a two-month-long event about Brazilian literature, happily coinciding with Lisbon Book Fair which allowed me to stock up. It was stressful because sometimes only one day elapsed between finishing a book and posting about it online. But I think it was worth the effort because I consider it the highlight of St. Orberose in 2013. But after six months of frantic writing about mostly foreign literature, I needed to slow down. Also, after two months immersed in Brazilian literature, I figured I had neglected Portuguese books for too long and decided to keep writing about them for a while. I don’t know how it happened, but one day I found myself wondering how long I could keep writing about Portuguese literature before I got tired of it. So book after book I kept at it, and before I knew it I was stuck with it for the remainder of the year.

I took the occasion to discover some classics and get better acquainted with others. I knew Eça, of course, but I had never really explored his generation. By chance I happened to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Por Tierras de Portugal Y España, which discussed many of his confreres. Using it as an inspiration and guide, I set out to read more of 19th century Portuguese literature than I ever thought I’d be interested in. It was certainly revelatory. I don’t presume to be an expert on Portuguese literature; many of things I wrote about I was sharing them at the same time I was discovering them. At best, I know many, many things about Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago, my Holy Trinity. But I’m not particularly crazy about Portuguese literature. In fact after six months reading and writing about it non-stop I was entertaining a temporary ban on it this year. But there are too many books I’m anxious to read so I’ve dropped that idea. But in any event in 2014 I hope to bring the blog back to the cosmopolitan identity that I want for it, with a more balanced mix of foreign and Portuguese books.

Meanwhile I’m thinking about what this year’s theme month will be. After a José Saramago tribute and a Brazilian marathon, I may as well make it a tradition at St. Orberose to devote a whole month to something. I’ve got some ideas already, but nothing concrete. More information soon.

I’d also like to remind people that I’m accepting votes on what to read from my TBR pile. You can choose up to 10 books. Voting ends on January 30. Then I start reading them on February 1 and pledge to post about them. So anyone interested in voting still has a chance.

Finally, I wish to thank everyone who has been following St. Orberose. During 2013 there was a slow but steady rise in visits, with December being the most visited month since the blog was started. I like to believe it was because the blog’s content is improving. I can only say thank you to everyone who has deemed St. Orberose worthy of their interest and company, and who have enriched it with their commentaries. Thank you.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor



- “Ada, our ardors and arbors” – a dactylic trimeter that was to remain Van Veen’s only contribution to Anglo-American poetry – sang through his brain. Bless the starling and damn the Stardust! He was fourteen and a half; he was burning and bold; he would have her fiercely some day!

Before I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, I planned on reading the famous Russian-American novelist’s oeuvre chronologically. But after detesting his first novel, Mary, I realized that persisting in this foolish plan would undoubtedly poison me against him forever. Therefore I jumped almost his entire oeuvre ahead to a novel from his most renowned period. Readings of Mary (1926) and Ada or Ardor (1969) reveal similarities between both novels, mainly thematically – love and its hardships, the effect of time on memory, the transformative power of memory on distant events. But the stylistic abyss between the two is tremendous! And it’s hardly noticeable that the same mind created one and another. One suffered from insipidness and lack of lustre; the other displayed unrivalled linguistic virtuosity as it set about  reinventing love stories.

There’s simultaneously not a lot and everything to say about this novel. Not a lot about its premise, which is about two people falling in love trying to live happily ever after. But everything in the way Nabokov tells it, never running out of linguistic and storytelling surprises in his deployment of an infinite array of puns, anagrams, intertextual references (to himself even: Lolita and Pale Fire are alluded to) alliterations, foreign words, complex syntactic structures, lengthy metaphors and similes, pervasive symbolism, and a vocabulary whose novelty was surpassed only by its breadth and precision. Sometimes it’s a topological pun like Balticomore, or a literary pun like Palace in Wonderland, or attributing the poem The Waistline to one Mr. Eliot. Sometimes it can be an anagram like Osberg (for Jorge Luis Borges, I recently learned). Or it can be a definition of an ordinary thing that comes out of nowhere, unpredictable but sensible:

What are dreams? A random sequence of scenes, trivial or tragic, viatic or static, fantastic or familiar, featuring more or less plausible events patched up with grotesques details, and recasting dead people in new settings.

Nabokov, from what I understand, loved three languages: his Russian mother tongue, the French he used in exile; and the English of his adoptive country. So he melded these three languages into the texture of the book’s reality, creating an alternative world called Demonia. In this world, African navigators have discovered America, which was also extensively populated by Russians, who maintain a lingering aristocracy well into the 20th century. Instead of Canada, there’s a half that is mainly Russian, Estoty, and a French-speaking half, Canady. Asia, meanwhile, has coalesced around an empire called Tartary. Technology has met strange advancements, since vehicles like planes exist, but devices analogous to telephones exist with the difference that they’re powered by a bizarre watery technology. History has run along similar lines, and there has even been a war of independence, an event reflected in the flora: Washingtonias used to be called Wellingtonias. In this world, a branch of psychology called terrology studies the behaviour of people who believe in a world called Terra, a negative image of Demonia (which leads some to call it Antiterra too), with artists and writers constituting many of the patients.

In this fairy-tale world Van, aged 14, spends a summer in his aunt’s house, Ardis Hall, and falls in love with his cousin, 11-year-old Ada. It later turns out they’re actual brother and sister. The novel purports to be old Van’s memoirs (with notes by Van and Ada) of his decades-long endeavour to live freely with Ada. Diverse foils conspire to periodically keep them apart for decades, enjoying brief periods of euphoria in between. Early on there’s Van’s belief in Ada’s infidelity to him, which culminates in a ridiculous attempt at getting revenge on two rivals (complete with veritable 19th century Russian novel duels), then the taboo of incest, which prompts Ada to marry somebody else, and finally her spending seventeen years caring for her ailing husband before she’s free to reunite with her true love. In between there’s also Ada’s sister, Lucette, aged 8 when Van arrives in Ardis Hall, and who falls in love with him, growing up dreaming of seducing him away from Ada, and whose failure leads her to suicide. In spite of the bitter taste poor Lucette’s death leaves, this is an unusually love story in that it ends happily, with both lovers managing to live together until old age, at which point Van starts writing his memoirs. Nabokov is famous for having said that readers should not identify with characters; I can’t say I did, but I found them very likeable, and I for one rejoiced at their success.

I’ve read people call this novel difficult, cryptic, heartless, Nabokov’s least generous novel to readers. I strongly disagree. The reader’s in very good company with Van and Ada. They’re both aristocrats with good taste and a rare nobility of spirit, endowed with intelligence, humour, sensibility and compassion. The character work is sublime. There’s a lot of warmth in Van and Ada’s sexual awakening and the way Nabokov writes about love, not just sex, especially not about sex, but genuine love, the feelings that make two beings feel as one, in pure harmony. Also, Mr. Nabokov is a master of sensuality:

Very lightly he let his parched lips travel down her warm hair and hot nape. It was the sweetest, the strongest, the most mysterious sensation that the boy had ever experienced; nothing in his sordid venery of the past winter could duplicate that downy tenderness, that despair of desire. He would have lingered forever on the little middle knob of rounded delight on the back of her neck, had she kept it inclined forever – and had the unfortunate fellow been able to endure much longer the ecstasy of its touch under his wax-still mouth without rubbing against her with mad abandon. The vivid crimsoning of an exposed ear and the gradual torpor invading her paintbrush were the only signs – fearful signs – of her feeling the increased pressure of his caress.

But it’s not easy to pinpoint this warmth, since it’s everywhere, it’s not a particular passage or pithy line, it’s embedded in the text, diluted, scattered here and there, building up from the book’s first section to the last, leading the reader in small, meticulous changes in the characters’ perceptions and affinities. It’s not a circumspect novel, that’s for sure, Nabokov’s style assaults the senses not with subtleness – the puns are subtle, lots of things go unknown and misunderstood, or not even perceived at all to be misunderstood – but with confident bravado, with unapologetic glee in showing off. And the reader is fine with that because it’s first-rate showmanship.

The novel is divided into five parts, with each part almost half the size of the previous one. This means the first part, dealing with childhood, takes up more than half the book, to show children’s feeling of endless days of fun and care-freeness. Conversely, the final part, encompassing decades, is short of twenty pages. It’s an inspired and apt structure for a novel about time and memory.

Here’s a good passage showing how age and circumstances can change memories, Van taking his first steps into sexuality:

The aging woman who sold barley sugar and Lucky Louse magazines in the corner shop, which by tradition was not strictly out of bounds, happened to hire a young helper, and Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord, quickly ascertained that this fat little wench could be had for a Russian green dollar. Van was one of the first to avail himself of her favors. These were granted in semi-darkness, among crates and sacks at the back of the shop after hours. The fact of his having told her he was sixteen and a libertine instead of a fourteen and a virgin proved a source of embarrassment to our hell-raker when he tried to bluster his inexperience into quick action but only succeeded in spilling on the welcome mat what she would have gladly helped him to take indoor. Things went better six minutes later, after Cheshire and Zographos were through; but only at the next mating party did Van really begin to enjoy her gentleness, her soft sweep grip and hearty joggle. He knew she was nothing but a fubsy pig-pink whorelet and would elbow her face away when she attempted to kill him after he had finished and was checking with one quick hand, as he had seen Cheshire do, if his wallet was still in his hip pocket; but somehow or other, when the last of some forty convulsions had come and gone in the ordinary course of collapsing time, and his train was bowling past black and green fields to Ardis, he found himself endowing with unsuspected poetry her poor image, the kitchen odor of her arms, the humid eyelashes in the sudden gleam of Cheshire’s lighter and even the creaky steps of old deaf Mrs Gimber in her bedroom upstairs.

His first sighting of Ada is also tinged with the distorting powers of memory, and introduces another theme, how past is viewed differently by two people who share the same event:

A victoria had stopped at the porch. A lady, who resembled Van’s mother, and a dark-haired girl of eleven or twelve, proceeded by a fluid dackel, were getting out. Ada carried an untidy bunch of wild flower. She wore a white frock with a black jacket and there was a white bow in her long hair. He never saw that dress again and when he mentioned in retrospective evocation she invariably retorted that he must have dream it, she never had one like that, never could have put on a dark blazer on such a hot day, but he stuck to his initial image of her to the last.

The matter of the black blazer becomes a running question in the novel. As Van writes in one of his memoirs’ margin notes, “if people remembered the same they would not be different people.” Ada is no less fascinating:

Children of her type contrive the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: “real things” which were unfrequent and priceless, simply “things” which formed the routine stuff of life; and “ghost things,” also called “fogs,” such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a “tower,” or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a “bridge,” “Real towers” and “real bridges” were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral “thing” might look or even actually become “real” or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid “fog.” When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with “ruined towers” and “broken bridges.”

Van finds out one of these ruined bridges when he discovers Ada’s unfaithfulness during a four-year period away from Ardis Hall. The return is not as happy as the first stay, not just because of suspicions but because Lucette, now aged 12, gets in their way. At the end of his second stay, he becomes obsessed with getting revenge on Ada’s lovers:

Aqua used to say that only a very cruel or very stupid person, or innocent infants, could be happy on Demonia, our splendid planet. Van felt that for him to survive on this terrible Antiterra, in the multicoloured and evil world into which he was born, he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men. He had to find them immediately; delay itself into might impair his power of survival. The rapture of their destruction would not mend his heart, but would certainly rinse his brain. The two men were in two different spots and neither spot represented an exact location, a definite location street number, an identifiable billet. He hoped to punish them in an honourable way, if Fate helped. He was not prepared for the comically exaggerated zeal Fate was to display in leading him on and then muscling in to become an over-cooperative agent.

The matter of Lucette is more complicated. Like Van and Ada, she’s a likeable character, who had potential to be happy if she were not in love with Van, who in turn is madly in love with Ada. One of the themes of the novel, perhaps not the most explored of them, is the pain they cause Lucette. To them Lucette’s love for Van is a trifling, minor subject of no consequence, to be gently mocked. In their lives it’s perhaps the only instance they show selfishness and cruelty. Lucette’s death is a masterpiece of writing. Nabokov puts her aboard a cruise with Van, who’s trying to forget Ada after her marriage; Lucette takes the opportunity to seduce him once and for all – but in the last minute her success is thwarted when Van sees a movie starring Ada, which reawakens all the feelings for her he’d been trying to bottled up. Despondent, Lucette jumps into the water after eating several sleeping pills. Water imagery had been a leitmotif in the novel and in her final sequence it’s turned up to eleven, as each line seems to mock her with previous knowledge of her plunge in the waves, almost as if language itself were pulling her towards death. It’s a remarkable, long passage of which I’ll quote just one of many great possibilities:

The sky was heartless and dark, and her body, her had, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers, felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. At every slap and dash of cold wild salt, she heaved with anise-flavoured nausea and there was an increasing number, okay, or numbness, in her neck and arms. As she began losing track of herself, she thought it proper to inform a series of receding Lucettes – telling them to pass it on and on in a trick-crystal regression – that what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude.

There’s tragedy in the novel, and sadness too. As a love story it has everything one expects from the genre. In fact in the novel’s marginalia I wrote how odd that the line between high art and a soap opera is so tenuous. Because this is a soap opera: people fall in love, there are kindred souls, there’s seduction, there’s jealousy, rivals to get out of the way, obstacles between the two lovers. When I wrote that this novel reinvents love stories, it’s not so much by subverting tropes, it’s because the language elevates every cliché. Everything pans out as one expects, and yet each line and situation seems new and trail-blazing.

If Ada or Ardor is Vladimir Nabokov’s most difficult and divisive novel, as I often see stated, then I suppose things can only get better from here on. I’m not just happy for the novel, I’m thrilled its reading has finally given me the impetus to read his other famous novels. Anyone who’s perused my reading list, posted last week, knows that I already have Pale Fire to read. Expectations are immense, the craving is almost unbearable.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Fragmentos de Apocalipsis




A novelist must know no end to his anxiety about publishing a new novel if his previous one was one of the greatest novels ever written. When Gonzalo Torrente Ballester published La Saga/Fuga de J.B., slamming the doors wide as he trotted merrily into Olympus, he also set the bar very high. Nothing quite like it had ever been written. All the familiarity with the craggy recesses of the 20th century novel wouldn’t prepare the reader for the travails of José Batista, hurled into a labyrinth of a story that brings to mind Franz Kafka’s fascination with the horror of infinity. At times it seemed just like a Kafka novel, the closest references I have for it, but unafraid of vastness – instead of an inaccessible castle or a murky criminal trial, an entire town becomes the puzzle that baffles the reader as it assault his senses with its century-spanning cyclical history, distinct in its eras thanks only to some variations (history had Bach been in charge of time instead of musical notes) which, in their increment, come to expose an elaborate “architecture of time,” to quote Alan Moore’s From Hell. That doesn’t sound too hard save that whole chunks of the town’s history may be pure confabulations as part of cultural guerrilla warfare to protect the town from a conspiracy that wants to assert its non-existence. The Castle and The Trial, faced with this attack on history and reality, do seem too small, too individual, not cosmic enough. But they are its forerunners in the way they use the concepts of eternity and repetition to subvert assumptions about being, for the great paradox here is how these mechanisms which encourage multiplication can act as symbols of the void, mechanisms used to hide the nothing at their centre. I try to think of other novels. Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Notra is another good choice, for its length and ambition, but it’s really a straightforward novel that intimidates more for its size than for its content, with an orderly timeline, neatly compartmentalized, really just a historical novel with more flourishes and magical realism than usual. The Magic Mountain and The Recognitions also seem adequate, in size at least, but there’s that clinging to a stertorous realism, a dry respectability to their contents, that makes them look like displaced artefacts of another century. Obviously Ulysses seems like a perfect choice, but it goes off in pursuit of its opposite themes: Milan Kundera once wrote, and I subscribe to his view wholeheartedly, that James Joyce’s novel is about the apprehension of the fleeting present. Everyone, from Borges to Kundera to Eco, agrees that Ulysses is the epitome of the realist novel, obsessed, regardless of the mystery of the mackintosh man, how many men Molly screwed and other uninteresting ambiguities, with creating the concrete reality of a single day in Dublin. Kundera makes another statement that I agree with: as Joyce is the culmination of the 19th century novel, Kafka is the father of the 20th century novel. Kundera and I disagree on why, though. Borges comes to the rescue to elucidate. In a prologue to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, he wrote: “Everybody murmurs sadly that our century is not capable of weaving interesting plots; no one dares to check that if this century has some superiority over the previous ones, that’s the superiority of plots. [Robert Louis] Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps worthier of our absolute friendship than Chesterton; but the stories he controls are inferior. De Quincey, in nights of meticulous horror, plunged into the heart of labyrinths, but he didn’t mark his impression of unutterable and self-repeating infinities in fables comparable to those of Kafka.” More, not less, plot; hyper-active, not atrophied, imagination; a man who wakes up turned into an insect, not Leopold Bloom ambling about Dublin – those are the lynchpins of modern fiction. Bioy Casares’ novel is also about time, repetition and lies. It no doubt belongs to the lineage of La Saga/Fuga de J.B., along with Borges’ short-stories. Flann Obrien’s The Third Policeman also shares similarities, but it leaves off just when it was getting its rhythm. Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude has the rhythm, but again the scope is smaller. José Saramago compared Torrente Ballester’s novel to Don Quixote, but I think he meant more in talent than objective. From what little I know of literature, there’s nothing quite like it. All those writers – Kafka, Borges, Bioy Casares, O’Brien, Torrente Ballester – weaved stories whose repetitive structures and glimpses into a hidden infinite order underpinned the illusory solidity of reality. Why do these three concepts, repetition, infinity and illusion, hang around together so often? My first assumption would be that it’s a legacy of Zeno’s paradoxes. But Borges comes to the rescue again. For him, the main quality of the novel of adventures was its formal rigour. To him, the realist, psychological novel was formless, vapid and imprecise because vacuity, imprecision and lack of verbal artifice were adopted as elements of verisimilitude. The novel of adventures, on the other hand, doesn’t wish to convince the reader it’s anything but verbal artifice. It’s then no surprise that so many modern novels have incorporated repetition into their plots full of adventures, since repetition is an immediately recognizable form that also demands close attention to the mechanics of language.

I bring up my very personal view of 20th century fiction only to explain why I find La Saga/Fuga de J.B. such a singular novel. And why I had huge expectations for the author’s next novel. As the first volume in a loose “fantastic trilogy,” La Saga/Fuga de J.B. was up for a remarkable start. In the first novel the town of Castroforte maintains its tenuous claim to existence, thanks to the strategies of a secret group called the Round Table working across centuries, against an outsider plan to erase it from all registers and consciences. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was born in Galiza (I prefer this spelling in order not to be confused with the Galicia of Eastern Europe), a current autonomous region in the north of Spain with a turbulent history. Since as late as the 19th century it’s been trying to become a separate country. In 1936 a referendum voted for its status as an autonomous region, but the Spanish Civil War put a damper on that. During Franco’s regime, Galician language and culture were neglected and ostracized. Towards the end of Franco’s regime Galician nationalism saw a revival, and the region regained its autonomous status in 1981. I don’t know if this is where the author got the idea for his persecuted Castroforte, which official maps refuse to recognize. Perhaps, but it’s of very little consequence. In the end, it’s a fantasy place, much like its arch-enemy, the town of Villasanta de la Estrella. Just how much a fantasy place Villasanta de la Estrella is, constitutes the subject of the second volume in the trilogy, Fragmentos de Apocalipsis (1977). Well, if the author felt any anxiety about the follow-up to his masterpiece, he did not show it once. It's equally extraordinary!

What are those fragments of apocalypse? Perhaps a metaphor for the writer’s craft. As the author writes in the prologue to the second edition, unusually candid about the genesis of the book, this is a novel about writing novels:

Said in other words: this book is not a poetic creation, but the testimony of a hard and finally frustrating creative process; in which the contents are fictional (although some aren’t), but not the process. Fragmentos de Apocalipsis is not a realistic work, but the testimony of a reality.

He adds that he wanted to “present, not a finished and round novel, but the process of its invention.” In another part of the prologue he admits he’s writing about himself, that is, he’s the narrator in the novel. To make it simple, this novel is about a novelist who writes about writing a novel. The novel is simultaneously a novel and a “working diary.” He even interacts with his own characters (paying direct homage to Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist) and, in a nod to Cervantes, to whom he attributes the trick, he borrows characters from other people’s novels – in this case Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ great nemesis. He also does it better than Fuentes in Terra Nostra, which pointlessly includes a cameo of Javert and Jean Valjean. (Note: I’m very much of the opinion that Torrente Ballester and Fuentes should change places regarding their reputations and visibility as Spanish-language novelists.) To cap it off, the narrator maintains an ongoing literary discussion with Lénutchka, a 24-year-old Soviet literary critic and teacher at the University of Leningrad, who reads his drafts with “scrutinizing parsimony,” then gives opinions and makes suggestions.

The novel starts with the narrator complaining about a bizarre psychic ailment – parts of his conscience and memories have been replaced with those of Napoleon. When he visits a doctor about it, he’s informed that up to a point he’s Napoleon, a division in the brain separating both consciences. Then he complains about having heteronyms living in him, including one Alberto Caeiro (reference to Fernando Pessoa). Perhaps this represents the condition of the novelist, fated to having multitudes inside him. But it also sets the stage for a complex story about doubles, secret identities and paradoxes, themes scattered throughout the novel. It should be remembered that José Batista also suffered from imagining several personalities. The narrator notes that this ailment begins as he decides to write a novel that is at the same time a working diary, fact and fiction mixed, which reinforces the connection between his condition and the creative process. And with this intro, we jump into his working diary, dated May 22, as he’s correcting drafts of a new novel and imagining a setting for a story. He decides a good setting would be Villasanta de la Estrella, “one of my cities, of my four cities, two of them already told. One of the stories I never wrote took place in Villasanta.” So he doesn’t mind cannibalizing it for a new story about an anarchist placing a bomb in a church to assassinate a bishop. But he’s not content with inventing just a town. He comes up with citizens, conspiracies, groups, history, conjuring a whole “underground city” for the official town,

because the labyrinth from which Villasanta is born has dark paths that don’t appear in the blueprints, streets of ancient sarcophaguses, catacombs of anonymous dead, with secret exits to ecclesiastic cellars and houses of heretics and wizards; cubicles for the meetings of followers of extravagant cults brought by pilgrim poets, the secret synagogues of the Jews in times of persecution, the dungeons where they were placed once discovered and which served as hiding place to the republicans during the civil war. None of which would be suspicious to the eyes of the upper city, so harmonious and visited by tourists, if it weren’t for those alleys that end in a corner where river sailors urinate as they come, go and pass, and those streets that lead nowhere, and those labyrinthine houses of narrow and interminable corridors that return one to the starting point, and those fragments of old architecture that loom behind the back of a recent house, and that astonished angel face that shows up in the foundations of a house of prostitutes, and the arms, legs, torsos here and there, and what’s buried, and what’s been stolen, and the start of a walled in arcade in the palace of the Aires, and the end of a similar one, also walled in, in the convent of the Clarisses, and the impenetrable mystery of the monastery of the Benedictines, whose four unexplored cloisters contain a flora and a fauna ignored and probably fantastic, and all those types that only early-risers know, in whose faces it’s easily read that they live underneath the ground, from where they come out at night, and to where they return just after sun-rise: I like to gather them all, old men and women, crippled girls and sickly boys, in one enormous stone frieze, Romanic in appearance, like the one from the presbytery, collecting, leaving almost no room, the faces and the bodies of those who, sad and stupid, share the common defect of macrocephaly.

And he continues, creating Villasanta, populating it, inventing subplots for his characters, rejecting some, improving others: priests, anarchists, an expert on medieval manuscripts, a revolutionary writer who won’t write until the revolution is accomplished but who already has the titles for all his future works. And sometimes references to a mysterious ‘manuscript of the Apocalypse.’ The Apocalypse Manuscript contains a prophecy that the Viking king Olaf Olafson will return to reclaim Villasanta, because apparently in its past it was a Viking colony. There’s also an underground labyrinth that harbours the sepulchre of Esclaramunda Bendaña, a mythical saint. This labyrinth in turn leaves the narrative of Villasanta and intersects with the narrator’s own narrative.

Villasanta is just one of the novel’s threads, though, because the narrator is in fact merely pretending to be a novelist in order to hide his real identity, that of a secret agent:

I’m known in the world of secret agents as the “Master of the Bifurcating Paths,” due to my ability to create fake ones and disorientate my pursuers: since I’ve never been caught, in the files that every government in the world has on me, there’s a red-coloured question mark on the title page. My many operations are identified by their style, and when they send after me packs of the best agents, they know beforehand that they won’t discover me. My handling of the clues exceeds what’s necessary, it’s an amusement in itself, and in a press conference that the director of the Intelligent Service granted a few years ago, he recognised that my methods verged on virtuosity and that each one of my escapes was first of all a game where I seemed to enjoy myself.

If you’re wondering what he’s doing inside a novel, he explains that it’s a mechanism to evade a trap. The net is tightening around him. “The siege, however, that several have put on me is more threatening than on other occasions, and for that reason I’ve taken refuge in the inside of this novel, mere collection of words, like the worm hides in the ball created by itself.” That makes sense. Or does it? In fact he’s just an entertaining aside the narrator creates out of boredom, and because he felt like it, and because it was fun to do it, because as this novel shows, writing more often than not doesn’t follow a grand plan, it’s just a question of what the writer feels like doing. Or is it? What I think is that this novel makes a good point of how much effort it takes to create the illusion of effortlessness. Anyway, the Novelist is God: that’s a cliché now, but I can’t think of another writer who makes his point so unapologetically, freely and joyfully. He demonstrates his god-like powers when he takes Lénutchka to the Isle of Mazaricos, an island he invented for one of his fictions that he never completed. But he takes her there flying, because he can do that as a writer. It’s pure whimsy, childish even, but so honest the reader embraces it. And he takes her to meet the Ugly Dragon, a character from a novel he never completed, a kindly dragon with a beautiful voice for singing, whose greatest joy is singing for Lénutchka.

If all this sounds incoherent, it very much is, Lénutchka, upbraids him for it, because she’s a literary critic and she knows what real literature looks like. But their relationship is really a running commentary on the art of fiction, and she’s a character too so her upbraiding is the author’s own too. They start by exchanging letters, since she was interested in his work as novelist:

It was what we agreed on, and we spent some time with melancholy letters of autobiographical content: with her studies, her amusements and the story of her friends; with my works and purposes, also with my difficulties and hopes. And when I started thinking this novel, I told her: “A bunch of words in which I myself will be, made word too; with the cards on the tables, I mean, with the reiterated warning that this is a verbal fiction, and in no way a true or even truth-like story.” “If you put things like that, she said, what type of reality can your characters have?” “More or less that same as Emma Bovary if, at the same you read her story, you also read the letters by Flaubert where he says how he goes writing her.” “Are you that certain?” “I live in a world of words, they do and undo everything, on the condition that they’re public. There’s no other reality than the one the public word picks up, and what it excludes doesn’t exist. That’s why there is so much trouble with words, why they’re protected and persecuted, depending on what’s convenient. For that reason I’ve proposed myself to create with them a more lasting reality, that fiction I told you about, and in it only those die who are killed with words, and men and women love when love words are written.”

And with those words Lénutchka asks him to write her into the novel, to make her word like him, so that they can love each other too, at least in the novel.

And I haven’t even brought up Moriarty. At some point the narrator realizes he’s being thought of by someone else, another conscience has inserted itself in the novel, causing interferences. The narrator meets this man, who dates Lenn, a Russian friend of Lénutchka, and calls himself the Supreme, an all-powerful being. The Supreme is an unpleasant bully who enjoys himself tormenting the narrator with his condition of “ontological indigence,” claiming he’s just a figment of his imagination, and even kidnaps and hides poor Lénutchka in the underground labyrinth of Villasanta, the blackguard. And here are more mirrors and double images: the Supreme was the ruler of a country who abandoned his position and left things in place of a double in order to try out living a mediocre life, and then opted to become a writer. But the Supreme’s double, in charge, starts persecuting him. So he hides himself in a novel too, and the fake Supreme sends Doctor Moriarty after him. But wait. After the narrator rescues Lénutchka, she suggests inserting Moriarty in their book, since he’s the only person the Supreme fears. But wait! When the narrator conjures Moriarty, he in turn explains that the Supreme isn’t the Supreme either, he’s really a man called Chupachups, aka Shopandsuck, who is actually the Supreme’s double. And the double in turn has more doubles. And it all makes sense. Anyway, Moriarty enters the novel and goes after Chupachups.

Why several of the characters claim to be the narrator was part of an idea the narrator had (real or not is irrelevant) of introducing in each chapter a new character claiming to be the narrator/author. He abandons the idea though. But we must ask ourselves: was this a failed purpose? Or did he fail on purpose? Because the novel is about frustration, about the difficulty of writing, and Lénutchka is always evaluating his drafts. But at the same this frustration is false, for if anything this book shows, is how it’s one of the most liberated pieces of writing ever written. Few writers take their writing wherever they want, do with it whatever they want. Some are prisoners of vocabulary, syntax, common sense, good taste, expectations, or rules. Others subordinate writing to their will. Few writers had that willpower: Joyce, certainly; Vladimir Nabokov, at least in Ada or Ardor; Borges, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago. At no point is the author not in control here, and all the chaos of the miscellaneous assortment of plotlines and abrupt stops is ordered chaos.

I also think I detect in the novel the whole gamut of the genres: the spy novel with the Master of Bifurcating Clues; the action thriller with Moriarty; the political novel with the bomb plot; the dystopia with the Supreme’s regime; the fantasy novel with the Ugly Dragon; romance, autobiography, the epistolary novel; even prophecy with the Apocalypse Manuscript. But this exhortation of the novelistic genre comes also with criticism. After the narrator has talked to one of his characters, Lénutchka chastises him for repeating the trick Miguel de Unamuno invented in Mist. When he declares that his novel is nothing but verbal artifice, Lénutchka, brought up with social realist theory, wonders if his characters can be realistic at all. Are modern novelists doomed to be mere plagiarists, or imitators as Torrente Ballester nicely puts it, of their predecessors? Are their characters inferior to the characters of the past? Are his characters here less real than Emma Bovary? That’s a good question. In essence they’re all just words put together. The difference is the level of verisimilitude of each character, of how complete each one feels. No character is ever real enough, complete enough. Some receive more focus in some aspects than others. I have no doubts that Tolstoy’s characters have a much more active inner life than just about any other characters I’ve ever read, that’s how it felt to me it when I read Natasha and Nikolai, they were as realistic as fictional characters could ever hope to be, pure consciousness poured into the page. That’s laudable insofar as one believes the purpose of a character is to have an active inner life. But Tolstoy was writing at the height of the psychological novel, so he had expectations to fulfil. The psychology in Torrente Ballester is almost non-existing, rudimentary really, there are lots of physical descriptions, many verbal duels, virtuosity at every turn, but hardly a look at what’s going on inside. I’d say that complexity is to the 20th century what psychology was to the 19th century. Nowadays novelists want to outdo each other in size, ambition, fragmentation of timelines, juggling of multiple plots, subversion of traditional ideas, and since the second half of the previous century at least there’s been a steady obsession with bringing science into the novel, all those writers infatuated with quantum physics and who like to build novels after the Fibonacci sequence and who go around calling their novels ‘holographic,’ whatever they think that means; it’s easy to see this development since Marcel Proust and James Joyce and continuing with William Gaddis, Carlos Fuentes, Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Joseph McElroy – big, difficult, heterogeneous novels are the modern novel. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester contributed to the trend with La Saga/Fuga of J.B. Now Fragmentos of Apocalipsis, half its size but no less complex, is the same and more – it’s a poetics of the modern novel. Perhaps it’s not necessary, it hardly needs a defence at this stage since it’s so ingrained. But more importantly, it shows how there are no limits to what novels can be, if the novelist does not constrain himself with assumptions of what the novel should be. And that too is very modern.