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)