Thursday, 25 September 2014

Don’t be disappointed with Kurt!

Full title: Armageddon in Retrospect And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (edited by Mark Vonnegut)
Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction
Attributes: 240p, hardback
Publisher: Putnam (2008)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s a shame the work of Kurt Vonnegut cannot be read without the shadow of Slaughterhouse Five looming thick and nigh poisonous over everything. Put together by Mark Vonnegut, the writer’s son, the collection Armageddon in Retrospect appears to be precisely under the spell of this exclusivist love for the 1969 novel that made the author so (too?) famous. A review by Roy Blount Jr., published in the New York Times almost a year after Vonnegut’s death in 2007 and months after the publication of this collection, keeps a very distant tone and gives more credit to the son than it does to the author himself. On British soil, the book didn’t fare any better, if we take the word of The Guardian, where Jan Morris’s review ends in a straightforward declaration of disappointment, followed immediately by another refuge in the celebrity of Slaughterhouse Five. Add to all this the very introduction composed by Mark Vonnegut, a text equally clouded by a general meh feeling, and you get the feel of how these previously unpublished stories have been received.

But things look better (much better) than these reviews point out.
What I believe is worth paying a little closer attention to, and what (knowing Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent career in the field) students in Creative Writing are likely to be interested in perusing is the narrative technique to be found in no short supply in this collection. OK, these may be early works. OK, they may be lesser versions of Slaughterhouse Five (although, I think, even that can be negotiated at various points). But when you read something like
“Ivy pressed her back to the wall, as though God had just passed by.”
(“The Unicorn Trap”)

you need to admit it: you’re in the process of witnessing genius. Try to imagine an expression of awe, astonishment, fear and adoration – all mixed together and delivered as one parcel – that’s more evocative than this, and you’ll be ill at ease to find a better candidate.

"I guess all of you know, that I am suing the manufacturer of Pall Mall cigarettes,
because their product didn't kill me." Not then. And so it goes. Source: The Guardian
Another thing that stands out, as it stood in Vonnegut’s other works, is his carefulness around details. If the narratives are memorable, they are not because of the events they describe; not entirely so. They are also memorable because of how the characters make their appearance, how they touch insignificant objects, how they make tiny gestures (like the same character, who at some point “scratches herself daintily”), how they breathe and eat in ways rarely seen in literature, and how they discover the irrationality of the world.

Such as:
“The man in the bunk overhead was also astir. I asked him for the time. He stuck his head over the side, and I saw that his jaws were crammed with bread; be blew a shower of crumbs over me as he answered. He said he no longer had a watch. He chewed and swallowed until a major portion of the great wad of bread was cleared from his mouth and he could make himself understood.”
(“Brighten Up”)

And then, of course, one cannot be so desensitized as to overlook Vonnegut’s reflections on war, which cover a pretty extensive part of the volume. Sometimes, they appear as philosophical cogitations, as in:
“World War II was fought for near-Holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombing of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem.”
(“Great Day”)

At other times, they are embedded in narrative admonitions:
“It is with some regret that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but boys, you killed an appalling lot of women and children.”
(“Great Day”)

The combination of humour and repugnance, of humanity and lack thereof, is, no doubt, the “Saint Kurt the Vonnegut” trademark. You feel it in the sarcasm of statements like the ones above. He says it in the text that opens the collection; the unbeatable and unstoppable need for humour, for play:
“And somebody might now want to ask me, ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’ The answer is, ‘No.’”

And then there’s one more thing to be said about this collection, to silence the critics; or at least make them think again. The fact that these stories appeared posthumously should give an indication that the author himself may have felt a little uneasy about publishing them straight up. Maybe he himself saw in them mere exercises; experiments of sorts. So let’s be a little less “disappointed,” and read the collection in its proper context.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dear justice

Full title: The Visit
Author: Friedrich Dürrenmatt (translated by Joel Agee)
Genre: Drama, tragicomedy
Attributes: 112 pages, paperback
Publisher: Grove Press (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a play in the tradition of things so tragic they are comical, and therefore absurd. A flavour of Ionesco hovers over the play, and one can't help but delight in tragicomedy, a hybrid genre where everything is possible and where everything, if given the chance, will take place. Dürrenmatt imagines a textbook moral crisis, yet complicates it to a serious extent. The dilemma that puts the play in motion involves not an individual (as would have been the case in a classical tragedy) but an entire community (as is often the case in comedy).

Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Source: Die Kunst der Fugue
The principal character and the protagonist/antagonist (notice how she seems to be ticking both boxes at the same time), Claire Zachanassian, is an old and filthily rich woman who’s coming back to her hometown. She’s visiting, but the visit turns out to be far from a touristic whim. She’s back with a vengeance. She’s here to fix a problem that’s been haunting her for decades: the treacherous act of Alfred Ill (it looks like a 3, but it's actually "ill"), her former lover, who, sixty years earlier, had abandoned Claire when their love story was in full swing, and condemned her to a life of prostitution and squalor. Now a billionairess, she's grown into a merciless revenger. She presents the town of Güllen, where Ill has lived all this time, with an offer they cannot refuse:
“I can afford justice. One billion for Güllen, if someone kills Alfred Ill.”
One sentence, and the town is shattered. The engine of tragedy has been turned on. There won’t be peace any longer, there won’t be patience. The command, veiled, like all moral dilemmas, in the illusion of choice, is precisely diabolical and leaves no room for negotiation. The offer falls upon Güllen like a thunderbolt. It destabilizes its institutional structure, it brings the populace into the marketplace, it shakes the foundations of its very humanity, and it makes it take pleasure in the idea of committing a crime for financial gain.
The mayhem generated by the old billionairess is illustrated by the Priest, who, acting like a chorus from a Greek tragedy, gives Ill the only advice that can, in all appearance, still save him  (BTW, choruses do appear in the end, to give the play that special twist and remind the audience to put the right frame onto the story):
“Flee! We are weak, Christians and heathen alike. Flee, the bell is resounding in Güllen, the bell of treachery. Flee and lead us not into temptation by staying.”
Let us not forget, this is a small town, where existential spleen happens in cyclical swirls, and where ethical norm could be disturbed by as much as an innocent pinch. Let alone a billion! As noted by one of the visitors, an idiot who’s managed to best define the town’s bucolic insignificance,
“All right, the linden tree’s rustling, birds are singing, the fountain is splashing, but they were already doing that half an hour ago. There’s just nothing happening, neither in nature nor in the people, nothing but deep, untroubled peace, contentment, satiety, and comfort. No grandeur, no tragedy. None of the ethical calling of a great age.”
Of course, he’s wrong in the essential part: exactly where he supposes there’s no “ethical calling.” Because the play is all about this problem, presented to the inhabitants of Güllen like an equation they are expected to solve. In the age of counting (in 1956, when the play was originally published, just as much as now, almost sixty years later), morality too must be looked for in numbers. One billion in unspecified currency against one very concrete human life! A problem for ethics, a problem for arithmetic, it’s all the same: a problem; and one that needs to be solved. Now!

The 1964 filmic version discarded some of the humour
and changed certain details, but heightened the drama

A few things need to be said about the play’s technical conceits as well. Dürrenmatt manipulates very well theatrical conventions, so as to encourage experimental treatments of both space and time. Settings, for instance, change without the fall of curtains, by mere prop handling (in the style of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, no doubt). Sometimes, even characters are used as props, as is the case with an omnipresent group of four blind men who turn now into trees, now into animals, now into different people. These are, perhaps, the most delightful characters. They bring that touch of comedy to the stage whenever they go through these unexpected transformations: a great source of humour.
When taken as a whole, The Visit entertains while exposing the weakness and the hubris of human nature. The end is not comic, but the journey there is paved with a lot of delightful moments, which ease the bitter taste of the ethical crisis the play occasions. Plus, the questions – the questions, whatever they may be, are worth pondering.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The novelist as a clone artist

Full title: The Literary Conference
Author: César Aira
Genre: Fiction, novella
Attributes: 96 pages, paperback
Publisher: New Directions (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

César Aira, an incredibly prolific experimental writer of (according to his own admission) a Dadaist creed, experimented here with the very idea of Creation. The novella (his favourite format) is about a failed attempt to clone the Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes. There are complications to this, of course, but when reduced to the most essential, this is the book’s narrative core; its crux.
Since the central element has been disclosed, it may be of use to mention that, in The Eagle’s Throne, originally published in 2002, Fuentes had imagined César Aira as having won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Literary Conference may, therefore, be read as Aira’s return of favour.

Beyond the plot line (complex and multidirectional, hence impossible to summarize without missing something), what needs to be closely looked at in this book is the figure of the protagonist/narrator/implied author, César. He divides his life between improbable science and insignificant literature. He is a creator in and of both. He clones with the ease with which he writes, and he solves century-long mysteries with the bonhomie with which he attends literary conferences. However, no reviews (to my knowledge) have noticed how this character reasons and acts like a deity. One with a very interesting propensity towards forgetting or neglecting his own creations (a deus otiosus, no doubt), but a god-like figure nonetheless.
“My Great Work, my secret labor, is highly personal, nontransferable, nobody but I could carry it out, because it consists of the innumerable psychic and physical instants whose sequence confirms my velocity. The velocity at which I unfold through time.”
But there’s also something awkward, ridiculous, about this pseudo-god. He makes major silly mistakes, surrealist in their expanse, Dadaist in their juxtaposition. Having written a play entitled In the Court of Adam and Eve (if Carlos Fuentes had written his Adam in Eden a little earlier, one would have imagined this to be an allusion!), César, the playwright, gives the Biblical story an original twist, imagining that, while in Paradise, Adam was, in fact, married; but not to Eve! Interesting as it may seem, this innovation turns out to give the author nothing but headaches, as it becomes an unsolvable conundrum.
“I must confess, I didn’t know how to resolve the difficult problem this plot line presented. Because if Adam and Eve were, respectively, the only man and the only woman on the planet, then Adam’s wife – the absent wife whose existence prevented him from living out his love with Eve – couldn’t be anybody other that Eve herself.”
He drives himself into a similar dead corner with the cloning project as well. Here, the initial bulletproof plan (detailed to the minutest of gestures) turns to dust when a wasp, employed by the scientist to collect a relevant DNA sample from Carlos Fuentes, mixes up the genetic information and collects genes from Fuentes’ silk tie. Such mistakes and mismanagements make the protagonist a sad figure of lost causes, who’s brandishing a slogan that says it all:
“I fail because of my precipitousness, my rush to finish, and my desperation to please.”
But this is also what makes him funny. Not unlike, say, Don Quixote, whose endless experiments in reading are met with endless literal debacles. In words that play convincingly the autobiographical tune of César Aira himself:
“Once again I had submitted to nonsense, to the frivolity of invention for invention’s sake, resorting to the unexpected as if it were some kind of deus ex machina!”
Experimental to the point of surrealist unreliability and jovial to the point of mad experimentalism, it’s a pleasure to read this short but alert book, which waxes now philosophical, now satirical, now downright humorous and fun. The density of the text is quite remarkable. Only 90 pages, but whew, what a marathon! Which makes it necessary to talk about it somewhere else, perhaps: in a place that transgresses the condition of a simple book review.
Post scriptum. One must know that the joke of the book was more significant and more loaded at the date of publication, when Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was still alive. Now, however, it might still be a good joke: the thought of what it would have been like to have cloned Fuentes for real.

It would have been nice, though. Source: Latino USA

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

One year after the poet’s death, a reading

Full title: The Spirit Level
Author: Seamus Heaney
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 82 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (1996)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems of Seamus Heaney (not only these, but all) are a learning field. One needs to learn about Northern Ireland in order to understand his political allusions. One needs to train oneself in the patois of literature in order to understand his citations. One needs to grow an academic eye in order to understand his intertextualities. One needs to read his interviews and teach oneself lessons in Seamus Heaney's biography in order to understand his contexts. Gradually, however, this shortcoming (this embarrassment with which one approaches his poems) turns into a blessing: at the end of the process, one will have made progress; one will have grown.
Autobiography is vital in Heaney's work, and so one might often end up staring perplexedly at some lines or other, which, beautiful as they may be, straightforward as they may appear, feel somewhat hermetic, somewhat self-referential.
"All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train

And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door
Our speed and distance were inestimable."
("A Sofa in the Forties")
The gist of these lines is to be found in the opening statements of the acceptance speech given by Heaney at the awarding of the Nobel Prize, in 1995.

There, the same setting materializes: a childhood in a solitary Northern-Ireland farmhouse, nine siblings, of which Seamus was one, growing attuned to the sounds (harmonious or not) of the world.
As above, there’s a delicate celebration of things in almost all of Seamus Heaney's poems, and this is what, perhaps, made his poetry so popular. From the "Rain Stick," which opens the volume ("You are like a rich man entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop") to the sofa in the poem already mentioned ("Its castors on tiptoe, / Its braid and fluent backboard gave it airs / Of superannuated pageantry"), to the text itself, in "Remembered Columns" ("The solid letters of the world grew airy"), Heaney appears to be engaged in a crusade for the affirmation of objects in a world dominated by humans. Whether this happens through the agency of memory or through the more topical involvement of these objects in political matters, there is this constant feeling that objects are invited to feast with humans.
There's glory to be found in this. A sense of elevation, of a bringing to poetical height of inanimate objects (itself with a rich literary history, at least from Swift onward) dominates these poems. At times, objects take front stage. At other times they remain, well-behaved and silent, in the background. But what's important is that they’re never completely absent. The often-cited Northern-Irish peasant legacy must have translated, for Heaney, into this peculiar, affective attachment to objects.

Source: Le Nouvel Observateur
And that, to any reader of poetry, becomes easily apparent; in the way, for instance, in the poem “Mint,” one plant is regarded with a sense of bafflement, as if it were a flower growing from a pile of rubble (a living object in an environment of discarded objects):
"It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice."
... only to let the object (i.e. the plant) grow to a dimension that imposes questions. Questions not about the object but the humans it may be standing for:
"Let the smell of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we'd failed them by our disregard."
Heaney's multifaceted approach (at the same time political, historical, literary, and academic) makes the objects shine with their own luminous stances (and stanzas) on the page. You never know until you've read the poems twice, three times, a hundred times, where to place these objects – where to situate the poems, where, in the vast network of possible references, they are supposed to perform the role of their utterance. Often, their place remains a challenge to the mind – one as good as any riddle. But equally often, these objects are pinned down as aids to memory:
"The dotted line my father's ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won't wash away."
("The Strand")
The attachment to objects considered, one thing needs to be clarified: in these poems, sentiment doesn't develop into fetishism. While not exactly props but rather active participants in a dramatic plot of large proportions (at the end of the day, Beowulf didn't happen out of the blue!), the things that inhabit these poems are meaningful in precise senses. To see this, one has to read the Heaney interviews.

There, it's impossible not the notice how munch everything meant at one point or another in the poet’s personal history. There are precise memories that go hand in hand with precise objects ("When the thorn tree was cut down / You broke your arm"). Or maybe it's the other way round – reading, I find it difficult to decide over priorities.
"The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling around you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow."
("Keeping Going")
As here, explosions of objects are felt throughout the volume; throughout the oeuvre, to be more precise. They send shards of poetry off into the land of speech, where the poems of Seamus Heaney can be read aloud, with the same intonations of a bard setting about telling his tales.