Wednesday, February 22, 2012

War Will Never Get in the Books

Beppe Fenoglio is almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, even to those who might have tried his countrymen and near contemporaries Pavese or Calvino. The fault (and it may be banal to say so, but the banality of it doesn’t make it any less true), lies with the reluctance of English-language publishers to publish work in translation and perhaps with the same inexplicable prejudice against simplicity, prevalent in literary circles, that has deprived English-language readers of the excellent work of the Catalan Josep Pla and the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro. 

Fenoglio, who died of a respiratory ailment just days before he would have turned forty-two (one’s own age), fought in the partisan war of 1944–1945; much of his work draws on this experience. The story posted below was found only after his death; it was untitled (anepigraphic, if you want to get fancy) and very probably unfinished. Of himself Fenoglio once wrote, “Ho una strana potenza di parola [I have an odd power with words].” It’s no idle boast. 

I knew my buddy Jerry was writing about the war. Too often, I’d caught sight of him intent on writing, feverishly, sitting under a tree or leaning on a low wall; sometimes he would go on writing until dark, facing the last of the sunlight. 

He would write—picking up and discarding a huge number of pencils every five minutes—in little schoolboy notebooks. I figured he had to have filled at least a half a dozen of them, counting from when he had transferred to my unit, of course. Before, he was with Giorgione at the detachment in Castagnole. I knew, too, that he didn’t like the town: he didn’t like that it was on the plain, that it was split into two cores. He didn’t like that it had a train station (even though the line had been cut since the spring of ’44); he didn’t like the population; he didn’t even like the sound of the Castagnole bells.

I would see him write and had no doubt he was writing about the war. I remember that when I became convinced of it a phrase of Lawrence’s (the good one, the colonel) immediately came to mind: “. . . to pick some flowers . . .” But I concluded that I couldn’t—I really couldn’t—attribute it to him lightly. 

“It’s an idea,” I said to myself commentarily. “This stuff will sell afterwards. Publishers will be all over this stuff afterwards, for at least ten years. But will there be an afterwards for Jerry?”

And from out of the corner of my eye, and from afar, I watched him write in those little notebooks of his, and meanwhile I asked myself if Jerry would make it through the war. I was slightly moved and, at the same time, slightly irritated by this kid (short, a fairly big head with overly sparse and overly thin blond hair, a slightly skinny chest, and proportionally overdeveloped thighs) who wrote in such solitary fashion, so feverishly and absorbed, surrounded by the whirl of activity of his companions, rash, extroverted, and community-minded even in idleness. 

From a certain obstinacy of his and from a certain movement of his hands, I got the impression that he must have been mixing the writing with drawings and sketches—the profile of a buddy, a view of hills, the arrival of a truckload of ammunition—but I was wrong.

One evening I literally ran into him. I turned into the low road around Mango and nearly found him underfoot. He had actually sat down just to the side of the road, on the grass already damp, facing the last sunlight. 

Jerry shut his notebook with a slap, then uneasily opened it back up.

I sat down as far away as possible and offered him an open pack of Craven A

He said no with a hand still armed with a pencil.

“I like everything English—” 

“I know.”

“Except the tobacco. It almost makes me throw up. I don’t know why.” 

I had lit it.

“You writing about the war, eh, Jerry?” 

“Notes,” he said hurriedly.

“Notes on the war,” I suggested. 

“Of course,” he said a bit belligerently.

He had caught the vaguely ironic tone I was using and, oddly, was unable to put right. So, since I couldn’t manage anything other than a strained seriousness, I tried to make it at least nicely ironic. 

“And . . . are they working out?” I asked stupidly.

“You can’t say that about notes. They’re just notes.” 

He had gotten me, and for a second I took a drag on a Craven A.

“You know,” I said then, “what Walt Whitman said about war? He was talking about the War of Secession, but of course it goes for all wars.” 

His face, nearly blotted out by the darkness, was shining with curiosity.

“The real war will never get in the books,” I cited in English. 

“It’s true, very true,” he said. “I’m noticing it myself. It’s like emptying the sea with a little pail.”

Then, with apparent tension, he started. 

“What did you do in life?”

“I taught English language and literature.” 

“Ah,” he said rather bashfully.

It was getting cold. The cold, nearly liquid, was rising from the nearby ravine. 

“You’re doing it for publication, I hope?” I went on.

“I hope so,” he said with a kind of non-hope. 

“All the publishers will be interested in this kind of literature. And . . . will it be something purely factual or something . . . decidedly artistic?”

“Artistic . . . I hope,” he replied in that non-hope tone of his. “As factual documents, they’re not even worth my lugging them around with me.” 

He was talking about the notebooks: so there must have been several.

It was perfectly clear to me that our dialogue had a resolutely literary and insubstantial tone made up of courtesies on my part and [reticence] on Jerry’s. But it was to my liking: for months I had uttered only words that were not words but mud, blood and fire and flesh . . . since the day I’d gone for tea with Fulvia Pagani at her villa in the first spurs of the hills above Alba, occupied by 2,000 Fascists. 

I didn’t have the slightest desire to have a look at so much as a single page, yet you could see Jerry was tormented by the fear I would ask him to. I wanted to relieve him of that suffering, but I really didn’t know how to tell him so.

“Where does your diary start from?” 

“It’s not a diary!” he blurted out.

“Whatever it is. Where does it start?” 

“At the beginning. At my beginning.”

“When did you come?” 

“In June.”

“You chose well. Those were splendid months. We had an empire, you could say, and—” 

He cut me short almost angrily.

“Just a second. It’s true I came in summer, but for me there was trouble right away. I joined up the twenty-third of July and by the twenty-fourth my life was worth next to nothing. Don’t you remember what happened the twenty-fourth of July?” 

Just then I didn’t remember. So much had happened. . . .

“On the Bricco di Avene,” Jerry said to me.
It came back to me instantly. Orlando’s folly, seven or eight dead on our side, none on theirs.

“Ah, you were one of Orlando’s bunch?” I asked without real interest. 

“Right, one of that madman Orlando’s bunch! Will you go ahead and say I turned up at the right time again? A guy who shows up the twenty-third and the twenty-fourth finds himself up to his neck in one of the finest massacres—”


This time I interrupted.

“Still, it was even tougher later.” 

“Not for me,” he said. “I haven’t found myself with my back to the wall the way it was the twenty-fourth of July. But on the whole I admit that it got infinitely harder. For me, everything sprang, all the hard stuff, from taking Alba. It was there for the taking, but we should have resisted the temptation.”

“It was a mistake, and we’re not here to see if it was magnificent or not. I was one of the ones who said it was a mistake, but when I went in I got drunk with joy like everybody else, and I nearly cursed myself for having thought otherwise. And, what’s more, I even thought, despite all of the blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary, that we could hold it.” 

I stirred uneasily on the grass and resumed:

“But whether we’d taken it or whether we’d left it to that garrison of fools we still would have gotten that big November thrashing.” 

“True,” admitted Jerry.

“And so let’s be thankful we lost Alba,” I said. “Let’s thank the forces from Turin that kicked us out by coming from the river. If they hadn’t managed, we would have stayed in the city and the divisions that attacked us from the south would have been on us. And all of us, as many as we were, would have drowned in the Tanaro. Remember how high it was?” 

Jerry nodded deeply.

“As high water, it was terrifying. But as a protective barrier it was really comforting.” 

I smiled.

“Is the flood of the river in Alba in your diary?” 

“Of course.”

“That must be a good bit.” 

“I hope so.” 

“Well then,” I said conclusively, getting up.

That very evening Jerry came over to me at mess. There was a hellish clamor of voices, and Jerry couldn’t make himself understood in a normal voice. I saw in his eyes a plea for me to go out for a bit with him, but I’d had enough of literature, had enough of it for a while, and I didn’t do as he wanted me to, with no little callousness. So he was forced to explain himself loudly, and you could tell it was making him suffer. He had come to tell that if anything happened to him he had arranged for all of his notebooks to be handed over to me. I could do whatever I wanted with them, whatever I thought best . . . in his memory. That’s exactly what he said. I remember I thanked him as soberly as I could: I mentioned only that in the overall turmoil the arrangements he had made might come to nothing. But he answered me, with nearly fanatical certainty, that I would get the manuscripts without fail if. . . . I remember as well that I didn’t tell him that nothing would happen to him and that he would be going back to Turin with his rucksack crammed full with those notebooks. We had gone too far, too far, for that sort of reassurance.

He left me immediately afterwards. He had been seconded to the English mission, but he didn’t stay there more than a week. His written English was good, and he spoke it fairly well, but he didn’t understand it at all. After a week, Major Hope, tired of writing questions down for him on paper, sent him back to me. He was fairly humiliated, but I bucked him up easily. 

“Write about your experience with the English mission in a comic tone,” I told him, before assigning him to Diego’s platoon.

I next saw him dead, together with five others, on the Valdivilla road, at around three the afternoon of the twenty-fourth of February. I barely threw him a glance, saw he had been stripped of his English sealskin boots: nothing more, because I had to run after Diego, who wanted to kill himself. He blamed himself for everything. He had gone to set up an ambush and had himself been ambushed. And he had lost six men, the first of them Jerry. 

I remembered the notebooks only when we got back from burying him in the cemetery in Mango. I remembered them and waited for Jerry’s executor to turn up. I didn’t expect it to be one of his companions, since he had only superficial relationships with all of them, but neither was I expecting the person who, three days after the burial, showed up asking for me at the Mango command post.

It was a girl, eighteen maybe. She was so physically shattered she didn’t spark the interest of the men on duty. She was struggling to hold up a floppy rucksack. I knew her: it was Paola, the daughter at the farmstead where Jerry had spent the winter after the general dispersal and until the return to duty. Her relationship with Jerry must have very close, at least on her part. She had an entire speech ready, but not even the strength to begin it, so I spoke. I told her not about my talk with Jerry but about my talks with Jerry and about my interest in his affairs. All she did then was hand me the rucksack and leave, as shattered and as unobserved as she had come.
There were six notebooks, duly and tediously numbered. There were neither drawings nor sketches. The handwriting was very steady and clear, and I was astonished: remembering the frenzy Jerry wrote with, I’d been expecting to have to ruin my eyes. Instead, it looked liked the fair copy of a dictation taken by a schoolboy of firm and tireless hand.
Cover sheet to manuscript of "Partisan Notes, '44-'45"

I started the real reading at night. I was staying at an isolated farmstead a kilometer from town, in the direction of Alba. My hosts were well off, and I could accept, without too many scruples, the courtesies and kindnesses they were constantly showering me with. I had a good bed, I had to get harsh to forbid the woman from putting a bed warmer in it, and I had a large supply of candles. I could read for hours, without pangs of conscience.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Josep Pla and the Gray Notebook

Josep Pla is the modern Catalan writer most widely admired by his countrymen (okay: and women). It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that none of his work has ever been published in English. Some of the reasons for this neglect are obvious: Pla wrote non-fiction rather than fiction, his relative conservatism kept him, to an extent, on the margins of post-Franco Catalan literary and cultural life, dominated by the Left, and, above all, English-language publishers are notoriously hesitant to publish work in translation, regardless of the author’s political leanings or his preferred genre (exceptions are made for an occasional international celebrity). But it is perhaps also that in the United States and other English-speaking countries there is a puritanical streak, a prejudice against simplicity, against the delights of irony: literature must be work. Anything else is a mere entertainment not worth the serious reader’s time.

At least two of the precious few American publishers that bring out translations trumpet their Catalan lists; but until they publish something of Pla’s—anything—these boasts will be little more than hollow rodomontade. 

The first entry of El quadern gris (The gray notebook), Pla’s diary, appears below. The diary has been translated into Spanish, French, and perhaps Serbian, so it isn’t entirely inaccessible to those who don’t read Catalan (one suspects that these translations may well be of little consolation to the vast majority of English speakers, but there’s nothing stopping you from learning to read Catalan; go ahead and give it a shot; you’ll be glad you did).
Josep Pla

8 March 1918
Since there’s so much flu around, they had to shut down the university. Since then, my brother and I have been living at home, in Palafrugell, with our parents. We are two idle students. I see my brother, who is a great fan of playing soccer—even though he has broken an arm and a leg at it—only at mealtimes. He is doing his thing. I don’t miss Barcelona and much less the university. I like life in the village, with the friends I have here.
At dessert time, at lunch, a big dish of burnt cream and a delicious, spongy, golden-brown pound cake with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar appear on the table.
“You know you turn twenty-one today, don’t you?”
Indeed: it would be absurd to argue: I turn twenty-one today. I take a look around. My father is eating in silence, in a state of absolute normality. My mother seems no more agitated than usual. Since only saints’ days are celebrated in this country, the presence of the pound cake and the cream make me wary. I wonder if they were really made to celebrate my birthday or to remind me that the total on the bottom line after the first years is altogether negative, downright paltry. This finishing touch, I think, is so natural. Having children in the form of mystery, of vagueness, must be unpleasant. My frivolity, all the same, is so great that not even the problems of conscience posed by the sweets is enough to keep me from finding the pound cake extraordinarily tasty and the cream literally exquisite. When I help myself to seconds, the indifference becomes visibly greater. Twenty-one!

Family! An odd and complicated thing. . . . 

By mid-afternoon it starts raining—a light, vaporous, steady drizzle. There’s no wind at all. The sky is gray and low. I hear the rain falling on the ground and on the trees in the yard. It makes a muffled and distant sound, like the sea in winter. A cold, bitter March rain. As the day wanes, the sky goes from gray to a gauzy white—pallid, unreal. Above the village, weighing on the tiled roofs, is a heavy silence, a palpable silence. The sound of the falling water spins it out into a indistinct music. I see, wafting above this patter, my obsession of the day: twenty-one years old!

Seeing the rain fall, in the end, makes me drowsy. I don’t know what to do. It’s clear I should study, go over my textbooks, to get these boring law studies out of the way. Not a chance. I may often have trouble resisting the temptation to read papers I find in the street, but in front of this sort of book my curiosity gets put under lock and key. 

I decide to start this diary. I’ll write in it—just to kill time, any which way—whatever occurs to me. My mother is a very tidy woman governed by an obsession with keeping the house in a frosty order. She likes to tear up papers, burn old pieces of junk, sell to the ragman everything that, for her, is of no immediate practical or decorative use. It will be enough, then, if these papers are rescued from her admirable housekeeping virtues. If they aren’t, don’t think, in any case, that there’s anything to be sorry about. . . .

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Berlin, Digging through Junk

An entry dated 2 November 1977 from Julio Ramón Ribeyro's La tentación del fracaso: 

Sidnet Bechet in 1922
Digging through some old junk of mine just now, I come across a package of old records and among them one--a Sidney Bechet--I bought in Berlin exactly twenty years ago, that is, in November of 1957. And as I play it I see my poor pension on Reinikendolfern Strasse (I'm not sure if that's correctly spelled), the then "French quarter" of the former capital divided into zones by the occupation forces. And at the same time I remember--what was her name? Hélène? Barbara, Gisella? A name of that sort, the first girlfriend I had in that city, my first German lover. And everything about her. Her face, her body, her hair, her freckles. A story that could fit in twenty lines. One night I go to a neighborhood bar and put records on the jukebox while I drink a glass of alcohol that I think was called Escorial. Two girls are drinking something at a nearby table in the almost empty bar. When one of them gets up to choose a record, I approach--an unusual thing, because I've never made that kind of approach--and ask her if she wants something in particular and if she wants to dance. All this in a rather primitive German, but in any case better than that I know now. The girl chooses a record and accepts the dance. And taking her in my arms was all it took for me to realize that she was expecting nothing but that and much more, not because of me, but because it was her habit or for some other reason. We danced for a long time, I bought her an Escorial, and then I accompanied her to the bus stop. We made a date for the next day in the same bar. She came alone and after a few drinks we went to my pension. We went in covertly, because the landlord was a fat and lame and irate-looking old man. The next morning--we'd overslept--someone knocks on the door. It was the maid coming to clean the rooms. Hélène or Gisella barely had time to cover herself with a towel and hide behind the door, while I pulled the covers up over me. The maid started sweeping and tidying the room and suddenly saw the hidden intruder. I was lost, I told myself then, she's going to shout at her to get out, she's going to call the landlord, and finally he's going to kick me out of the pension. But I was wrong. I hadn't counted on the solidarity created between women in some instances. The maid put her finger to her lips to tell me to be quiet. She gestured to the girl to get dressed while she went out to look down the hall. After a little while she came back and signaled to her that she could go now, but quickly. And Gisella or Barbara went without being seen. From then on she came to my room several times, always around midnight, after we met at the neighborhood bar. She would leave at dawn, before the landlord woke up. But he must have suspected something or maybe the maid ended up giving us away, because one day when I got back to my pension the lame old fat man was waiting for me in my room, he'd put my suitcases in the middle of the floor, and in the midst of shouts, ordered me to leave the establishment. Which I immediately did, since I didn't have any other choice, and I moved to my friend Hernando Cortés's pension. Because of this incident I lost contact with my girlfriend. I didn't know where she lived; our next date was at the door to the pension, a pension where I was no longer staying, and I racked my brains thinking of a way to find her. At last a kind of light came to me: I remembered she'd told me she worked in a neighborhood record store. One evening I set out to go to all the Reinikendolfern record stores. And at last, after several awkward situations, I managed to find her. But a strange thing: she didn't recognize me or refused to; trying to dialogue with her was futile. Why? I'll never know. So that I wouldn't look bad in front of the owner, who was watching us, I bought a record, the Sidney Bechet record I'm listening to now. I moved again, to another Berlin neighborhood, and I didn't see her anymore.