Archive | May, 2012

‘Terra Nostra’ by Carlos Fuentes

17 May

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

Carlos Fuentes, who died this week, wrote a great number of novels and stories, as well as some exceptionally fine essays. He was, along with Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Octavio Paz, representative of a generation of Latin American authors who took the world by storm in the 1960s and 70s.

My first and most lasting encounter with Fuentes took place when I was 22 years old and recovering from an accident, when I read the fabulous and hallucinatory Terra Nostra, the opening lines of which are reproduced above. In spite of the far greater success of his other novels, such as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Change of Skin and The Old Gringo (made into a movie with Gregory Peck), for me it is Terra Nostra, a sprawling, futuristic epic, concerned with the beginnings of Europe’s occupation of America, the phantom marriage of Elizabeth, Queen of England, with Phillip II of Spain, and dark investigations into medieval Paris, all tied up and shaken (as far as I can remember) with lashing of surrealist humour and a good deal of neo-baroque terror, that will summarize  Fuentes’ achievement.

Funnily enough, Andrés Neuman’s description of his own novel, Traveller of the Century, as ‘a futuristic novel that happens in the past’ comes to mind as an entirely appropriate description of Fuentes’ antecedent.

In his Introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition, Jorge Volpi writes: “Terra Nostra is not a simple novel. It is a malfunctioning time tunnel; the entrance to a labyrinth of mirrors; a hell – or a purgatory – in which all memories and echoes intermingle; the gigantic rotting place of history; a jig-saw puzzle put together incorrectly or Chinese boxes that become deeper every moment . . . the underwater tunnel that joins Europe and America; the black hole that connects past, present and future . . .”

I have Terra Nostra in front of me now, the 2003 edition, with an afterword by Milan Kundera. Nearly 800 pages of it, and the pages are big. I wonder if re-reading can ever re-capture the excitement and hunger of reading a great book the first time round? Maybe the pleasure of re-reading are entirely distinct from those of first-time discovery. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just peek inside, flick through the pages, see what leaps out . . .  perhaps this is a preferable way to revisit old favourite books and places.

Traveller of the Century

13 May

 

Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here

I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:

 

 

One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.

Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.

But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”

Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature:  a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.

 

This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just see where it takes you

7 May

Bible Dam by Jacek Yerka

 

Here at the end of things, a big drop, endless forest. Things fall away.

Here at the end of things where the forest is the world. A book falls on my head and I start into wakefulness. Never could I understand the cruel logic of beginnings.

Whoever might have predicted that I would wake up here?

Many years ago, I read a book by Ursula Le Guin called The Word for World is Forest. I can’t remember anything about the book, other than liking its title. It is a science fiction story with ecological leanings, that much I remember, and was apparently the inspiration behind the film Avatar. I probably wouldn’t read such a book now, my tastes have changed. In those days I read whatever was around. There is, as far as I know, no library in that book. Here, though, the library is the world. There are probably no dogs, but I can’t be sure of that.

 

Here are two pictures of dogs by Franz Marc, the German expressionist painter.

Hund Weiss by Franz Marc

 

We know that Franz Marc had a dog, but not whether this is it, in the painting titled White Dog, or another, Dog in the Snow, in which the animal appears to have a yellow or a tawny coat, perhaps in contrast to the snow in which it lies.

 

Dog lying in the snow

 

I suspect that the pictures are of one and the same dog, Marc’s companion, with whom he took long walks in the Bavarian hills.  So the story goes, at least.

I rely on a mix of biographical snippets, picked up in some art book, many years ago, remembering only the detail that Marc took long strides (he was a large man) and that his dog resembled his master in distinctive ways, the two of them sharing a strength of character and mildness of disposition as noted by the unknown, possibly fictitious memoirist.

And now I take this memory for granted, have even placed the reference to character and disposition in italics, because I have convinced myself.

The story cries out for authentication. The dog, in two portraits, offers something that approaches evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Godot and Caspar David Friedrich

1 May

 

How wonderful the little connections that pile up in the day to day. Blanco has long had an interest in the German expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, and was interested to learn, while reading about them the other day that Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter of lonely figures cast against majestic landscapes, was resurrected by the expressionists after falling into obscurity during the latter part of his life (when he was deemed ‘half-mad’) and after his death in 1840. (Friedrich was also taken up by the Nazis, as embodying the concept of heroic individualism, but he can hardly be blamed for that, and would, in any case – had he lived in the 1930s and 40s –have been incarcerated by them as a madman.)

 

Caspar David Friedrich, who died "half mad" in 1840

 

Samuel Beckett had a great love for the visual arts, and – largely as a consequence of a love affair – during the 1920s and 1930s made several trips to Germany, followed by a longer trip in 1936-7, in which his diaries detail extensive visits to art galleries.

It is interesting therefore, to learn that the author of Waiting for Godot, considered by many to exemplify the most profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity in Western literature, and the absurd insignificance of mankind, should have identified a work by Caspar David Friedrich as the inspiration for his play. According to his biographer, James Knowlson (whose work is based on extensive interviews with Beckett himself) the writer told his friend, theatre critic Ruby Cohn, while looking at the 1824 painting Mann und Frau den Mond betrachend (Man and Woman observing the Moon) in Berlin: “this was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.

 

 

However things are rarely as simple as they appear. Beckett, it seems, might have been confusing two paintings, according to Knowlson, because “at other times he drew attention of friends to Zwei Männer betrachten den Mond (Two men contemplating the Moon) from 1819.” As you can see, the two pictures are not wildly different (and there are various versions of both, it seems).

 

 

The point is, the image of the two tramps, Estragon and Valdimir gazing out over an alien landscape, makes a lot of sense in relation to these paintings.

But there is more.

Caspar David Friedrich is regarded as representing the apogee of the Romantic movement in the visual arts, setting down images of the Byronic hero, manfully facing down the forces of nature, the unknown, the abyss. Romanticism is precisely this: it arose at a period when the idea of God was being translated into the idea of nature. Poets set out on hikes into nature (Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping through Wales and the Lake District, Byron in the Alps writing Manfred . . . and with Shelley in Italy). Posh chaps didn’t walk in the countryside until then – no one did except the peasant farmer and the humble shepherd – and suddenly ‘Nature’ was opened up as this vast, wild, unexplored terrain (which in turn informs an understanding of the Romantic Imagination).

According to the art critic Robert Hughes, in an article on Friedrich,

“If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich’s pictures it is “longing”: the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.”

How does this lead back to Beckett? Is Waiting for Godot, in essence, a play about longing? Longing for union with the godhead, with a distant nature, absorption with the Great Other, as conceived by a Romantic painter such as Friedrich?

Blanco can’t say, in fact is rather bowled over by all this and in need of a lie down. Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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