Friday, February 21, 2014

La cosa en sí

La cosa en sí is the second of the three volumes of Andrés Trapiello's multi-volume diary that, to my surprise, I found in a bookstore in the city I was living in in France, a city whose inhabitants, for the rest, have almost no interest in things Spanish. If I didn't enjoy this volume quite as much as the first one I read, El jardín de la pólvora, it's just that the earlier volume had already prepared me: I expected to be entertained and astonished. With the earlier volume, it had come as a complete surprise.

As with El jardín, I particularly enjoyed Trapiello's bitchy, gossipy, and perhaps even slightly malicious but surely accurate portrayals of his fellow Spanish writers. He coincides with Enrique Vila-Matas at the famous book fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, for example. Vila-Matas isn't named, but he's clearly recognizable even to someone like me, who is by no means in the loop. Trapiello describes him rather acidly (he calls him the man whose stock response, unlike Bartleby's, would be: "I would prefer to") and stresses his physical resemblance to Buster Keaton. I was most gratified, as I've never enjoyed Vila-Matas's books, and his relative popularity baffles me. Vila-Matas's books, for instance, have been translated into English; not so Trapiello's, which, on the strength of the two I've now read, are more interesting and much funnier, at least to me.

At another point, in Colombia, Trapiello refers to the Colombian artist Botero as the current darling (the diary corresponds to the year 2000) of the PUB (Pedorrez Universal Burguesa). I laughed out loud there. Of course, that laughter may have been in part the result of the single apéritif that I, in utter solitude, had just consumed.

But good Lord God, since we're obviously not going to translate him, contemporary English-language writing needs someone with Trapiello's lucidity, his corrosive humor and caustic spirit, his independence and courage! Instead we have J. Franzen and P. Roth. We have Lorrie Moore and Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates. We have critics who, as E. Abbey used to say, are like giant schools of minnows, all turning in the same direction at once. We translate Enrique Vila-Matas.

There are some things in the diary I don't really like, too. For Trapiello, everything that's attractive or appealing becomes precioso. I've never really liked that word in either Spanish or English. All the writers he discusses are referred to either as X or by their initials. I don't really get it. Sometimes you can identify these writers easily enough (as with Mr. I Would Prefer To), but other times it's hard. Here, Trapiello praises the stories of one D.J., a Colombian (?) writer who works for the Banco de la República and lost a leg to a bomb. I might have liked to try these stories for myself. But who is this writer? Finally, Trapiello sometimes launches into brief flights of fancy (never more than two or three pages) that sometimes strike me as a bit too fanciful. Are his novels made up of successions of such passages? If so, I'm not sure I'd enjoy them.

At all events, one has one more volume of the diary to read, and after that one will decide where to go: to one of the novels or back to one of the earlier volumes of the diary.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Paper Wings and Baseball

Getting back to Bukowski, why is it that in a country such as ours [Peru] a writer like him never appears or appears only most rarely? I mean a writer who writes with “his guts,” whatever comes to mind, in the most direct, brutal, and vulgar way, without any self-censorship (saying Nixon is a piece of shit, Bernard Shaw a cretin, Genet a little woman, Shakespeare a bore, and so on), without the slightest pretension of the man of letters or the subtle thinker, and without accepting any convention (literary, moral, civic, and so on)? It’s apparently inexplicable. It could be explained that it would be difficult for a writer of this sort to emerge in France, for example, because it’s a country with a pure literary tradition, where whoever devotes himself to writing already has all the models in his head and has had rhetoric beaten into him since elementary school and has also received a language chewed over or refined over centuries of collective work and with which it’s difficult to do anything new. This is not the case in Peru, where it’s theoretically possible to get to literature (to write) by non-established or uncommon ways, which would permit Bukowskian forms of writing. The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. Several come to mind: literature in Peru is reserved for the élite, for people who have been to university, with all that that implies. Whoever hasn’t been to university or at least high school doesn’t write simply because he’s never learned to read and write. The U.S., on the other hand, allows for the assimilation of literature and a cultural apprenticeship outside the confines of school. Besides that, there’s another element: the lack of roots. No matter how underdeveloped Peru may be, its population is more deeply rooted in society, through misery, mediocrity, prosperity, or riches. We don’t have that demographic mass of immigrants or children of not yet integrated immigrants who are looking for cultural roots and, unable to claim any, are freer. All this is horribly explained. But I understand myself and that’s what matters to me now. In our environment, a Bukowski-type literature has no ticket, because before starting out to write you have to have learned a lot of things, among them belles-lettres and other idiocies. There’s neither a place nor an audience for those on the margins of these standards. With us, everybody wants to “write well,” to show, to prove that things can be done as well as or better than in other places. Dependence, imitation, performance. The writer has to be knowledgeable, clever, know it all, be a show-off. One writes par rapport à other literatures or a certain commonly accepted notion of literature rather than par rapport à oneself. 

With what I say here I’m not defending Bukowski’s literature, not at all. It’s fine with me if people write that way, but also in another way. I in any case—who will never attain a fraction of B.’s audience—will never write that way. For the reasons I’ve mentioned and for others. What Bukowski writes is impressive, but reading him exhausts you. There’s no more than what’s said. His discourse fits precisely over his meaning. There aren’t those fissures, the unsaid, that which is silenced or repressed, the merely insinuated, which to me give writing its breadth and its meaning. Also, no desire for transcendence, to rise above instinct, above the immediate, the bestial, the ordinary. The beefsteak in your face and that’s it. We all know that man is a beast, as Pascal said, but he also said that he’s an angel. B.’s angel has paper wings and plays baseball. I don’t believe in angels with paper, flesh, or aluminum wings, but I do believe in the need to soar over the vulgar when writing and to seek something other than the hyper-realistic summary of our much too familiar miseries.

--Julio Ramón Ribeyro, La tentación del fracaso (26 September 1978)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Mood Swings

Paris, 22 July 1964
Our states of mind are so fragile. How little it takes (the sky going cloudy, seeing a pretty woman go by, or simply lighting a cigarette or letting a memory come to the surface) to go from discouragement to optimism or vice versa. The whole color of life changes. All morning and most of the afternoon I was gloomy, pensive, leafing through my novel, finding only flaws not just there but also in my life, telling myself: “Decrepitude has begun.” I even wrote to my brother to let him know some of my thoughts on the matter. At dusk I looked out the window facing rue de Bagnolet and I thought something, something imprecise I couldn’t recall now, but when I went back to my desk I was happy, surer of myself, telling myself, “I’m not just anything, I am worth something, I do things well, but slowly.” Now, as I write this, my enthusiasm—a very grandiloquent word, something less than enthusiasm—continues and I confront this evening, and as a result, all those to come, with confidence. But who can assure me that this will last? The fact of having looked at my ashtray and counted more than thirty butts there, the remains of a single, unfinished day, frightens me a bit, begins perhaps to harm my serenity. Alida out buying dinner. Maybe when she comes back she will find me disheartened again.

--Julio Ramón Ribeyro, La tentación del fracaso (The temptation of failure)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nineteen Years Without

Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro, one is reminded, died nineteen years ago today. Nineteen years! One stumbled across his superb work very shortly before his death, which one wasn't made aware until years later, on opening a book of essays and, with a shock, seeing the dedication: To Julio Ramón Ribeyro. In memoriam.

In Ribeyro's honor, then, and for the readers (crackpots both, one imagines) of one's infrequently updated blog, text 115 of Prosas apátridas: 

My black cat and I, this rainy summer night. The silent room. Now and then a car slips by on the wet street. The neighborhood is asleep, but my cat and I are still awake, I, at least, reluctant to call it a day without having done anything to justify it, to give it meaning, and to make it different from others just as stinting and empty. Maybe that's why I write pages like this one, to leave tokens, light traces of days that deserve to figure in no one's memory. Time is threaded through every one of the letters I write, my time, the weave of my life, which, like the figure in the carpet, others will decipher.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gaya on Galdós

Spanish painter and writer Ramón Gaya (for an introduction to whom one is indebted to Andrés Trapiello and his excellent diaries, published under the collective title Salón de pasos perdidos) on Galdós:
Gaya, by Juan Ballester

Galdós I imagine taking one turn after another around Madrid, without haste, to be sure, but not after the fashion of the promenader or the flâneur or with the flâneur’s cynicism; rather, with that stray dog’s gait that is wisdom more exactly than it is slowness; after all, what might come across as vagueness of objective in stray dogs is nothing other than wisdom, profound wisdom, the conviction that there are no absolute places to betake oneself to. Galdós, with his overcoat and scarf, looked like a high-class beggar, a beggar who doesn’t beg, who gets everything without begging; and little by little reality gave itself over to him cordially, without violence, without conquest, without study. Flaubert (certainly a great artist, but less chosen) has such a studious attitude before reality that it often flees, flees offended to give itself over to someone else, someone who, rather than observing it as a phenomenon, treats it as a friend, as a brother; treating reality as an equal—that is, without servility or haughtiness and, of course, without objectivity, without the insult of objectivity—is Galdós’s secret. Galdós sees the most surprising, most monstrous, most unlikely events with great naturalness because, instead of striking the coarse pose of the observer of a spectacle, he offers to be a friend to those events—not to get involved, to take sides, since that would be butting in where he’s not wanted—he offers to be a fellow creature of reality’s to keep it from feeling forsaken or observed. It’s not that Galdós mingles with and gets lost in reality; instead, he makes common cause with it without getting involved in it, and once this common cause is made, once they have become brothers, nothing about this reality can surprise him. It’s easy to identify two attitudes in the great novelists, that of the objective scoffer—Stendhal—and that of the generous wreck—Dostoyevsky—but it’s hard to find a compassionate attitude like Galdós’s. Flaubert thought he was la Bovary, but the thing isn’t being the characters on the inside or gazing on them from afar; the thing is cohabiting with them, approaching them without passion or expediency. Now, after several foolish remarks from 1898 about Galdós, it seems that he is beginning to win favor again, but the researchers, historians, and critics—as always—are digging laboriously through the material of his novels and weighing and measuring the prose, the style, the composition, the accuracy, the imagination, and the symbols without understanding that while they are giving themselves over to this shortsighted work, his greatness is escaping them. We will find Galdós’s greatness not in the composition or content of his novels but in the harmonious relationship miraculously created between him and Reality.

Recent Translations

From Catalan: Narcís Oller's "The September Revolution" and "Novena for the Dead"; Robert Robert's "The Back Room"

From German: Heinrich von Kleist's "Anecdote from the Last Prussian War" and "Betrothal in Santo Domingo"; Frank Wedekind's "The Vaccination"

From Portuguese (Brazil): Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's "Coimbra the Clerk," "The Diplomat," "Sooner the Tarpeian Rock," "The Pale Woman," "Nameless Flower," "Holidays," "A School Story," "Trio in A Minor," and several others, many not previously available in English

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ángel Ganivet, Pío Cid, Suicide

In late November of 1898, the Spanish writer Ángel Ganivet, consul at Riga, twice threw himself into the freezing waters of the Dvina (he was fished out the first time, but, perhaps somewhat ungratefully, he jumped right back in, and this time there was nothing doing). He was not yet thirty-three.
Ganivet, by José Ruiz de Almodóvar

The very year of his suicide, Ganivet had published (self-published, in fact) an extraordinary book, Los trabajos del infatigable creador Pío Cid, whose main character, Pío Cid, is an eccentric clearly modeled after Ganivet himself. Though Pío Cid is never less than intriguing, he is perhaps not always as witty or brilliant or selfless as his tireless creator Ganivet seems to think he is. For that reason, then, when Judith Ginsberg, in her book on Ganivet, examines the possible reasons for his suicide, the following remarks do not seem out of place:
The persistent association of Pío Cid and Jesus Christ strongly suggests a pathologically grandiose self-image which would be in keeping with Utrillo's impressions of Ganivet when the two of them met in Barcelona in the late summer of 1897. Such an omnipotent self-image would be impossible to maintain and the inability, failure, or perceived refusal of the outside world to support such a self-image has long been associated with suicide attempts in neurotically depressed people.

Pío Cid's self-image (and thus Ganivet's) does indeed seem disproportionately grandiose at times. All the same, on reading Ganivet's delightful work, one also wonders if, in his case, the larger world, by refusing to recognize his brilliance, did not penalize itself most of all. It can be of little comfort to him, of course, but 115 years after he drowned himself in the Dvina Ganivet has found at least one reader, from a country different from his own, for whom translating his work is a delight and a consolation and perhaps even an act of revenge.