September 17, 2012
Small books, slim books, often with lots of white space on the page due to wide margins and generous leading, hold a certain promise. They suggest a quick read, a snack rather than a meal. But small books – like the two below – can often be high-powered distillations, full of suggestions rather than answers.
Both of today’s books deal with appetites and desires that become obsessions. Elise Blackwell’s 2004 novel Hunger (my 2008 softcover edition is from Unbridled Books) centers on a man of many appetites (mostly women and food). He’s a scientist at a Soviet institute dedicated to saving and studying the world’s plant seeds. Hunger is set in Leningrad in World War Two at the time of the German siege, which lasted two and a half years at a cost of a million and a half lives. As the siege and resulting famine wear on, the scientist is tempted and then obsessed by the very seeds he has circled the earth to gather and protect. Blackwell’s taut language focuses on the visual and the physical. Ideas and emotions are all embedded in objects and bodies.
Cold in the skin. Cold in the bones of the arm. Cold in the eyes. Feet gone from feeling, from knowledge. There was pain only in odd places, centered on a heavy, aching groin but otherwise intense in its asymmetricality, the finger of one hand, two knuckles on the other, a nostril’s interior, a shrapnel-sized piece of a jawbone, a small concentration in the kidney.
Jacques Bonnet’s recently translated book Phantoms on the Bookshelves is so slim it almost eluded my eye in the bookstore. I’m a little wary of books that extol the virtues of books and plumb the curiosities that line the author’s library. Was this tiny book going to be Alberto Manguel-lite? No, as it turns out. Bonnet (described as “a publisher, translator, and the author of novels and works of art history”) really uses books and he really know his books. Early on he asks himself “But why keep tens of thousands of books in one’s private library?” The answers – and there are many of them – make for delightful and sometimes thought-provoking reading. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book who isn’t impelled to head for the nearest bookstore as soon as possible with the intention of adding more books to their own library shelves.
My systematic acquisitions have come firstly from habits I have acquired as an eternal autodidact…[for example] by following a chain of affinities between different authors – for example, Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste led me to Tristram Shandy, Arthur Rimbaud sent me to Germain Nouveau. Leonardo Sciascia to Luigi Pirandello, and Pirandello to Giovanni Verga. Or perhaps a book by a single author has encouraged me to try and discover a whole body of literature. Let me take the example of Pan again… That single book drew me first to read all the rest of [Knut] Hamsun’s books…Then I embarked on reading all the Scandinavian literature translated into French that I could lay my hands on…
September 1, 2012
“What happened to the general?”
“He was captured by the Allies, I believe, but I’m not sure whether or not he was hanged at Nuremberg.”
“Mr. Visconti must have a great deal on his conscience.”
“Mr. Visconti hasn’t got a conscience,” my aunt said with pleasure.
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt
It might be a thousand miles to the nearest beach, but, still, August meant doing some “beach reading” in my easy chair. I plucked two classics off my shelves of ready-to-read books: John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt (1969), two books born under the long shadow of World War II.
Consuming them back to back bought into sharp focus the uncertain moral landscape of the 1960s. Greene, a professional foreigner, always seems happiest when sending his characters upriver to a seedy outpost far from everyday morals. The central trope of Travels with My Aunt is that of countless movies and novels – the amusing introduction of a naive retired banker to the seductions and corruptions of the world (drugs, prostitution, smuggling). Greene’s characters abandon dear old England for the Third World, where there are often real wars still taking place, to try to recalibrate their own moral compass. At the end of Travels with My Aunt, the once meek banker Henry Pulling finds himself happily ensconced in Paraguay, making a good living as a professional smuggler and on the verge of marrying the sixteen-year old daughter of the Chief of Customs. Le Carré’s cynicism is deeper. He prefers to send his characters into the no-man’s-land of spy-craft (facetiously called “intelligence”), where everything from passports to morality are counterfeit. Those who work for British Intelligence turn out to be every bit as cold-blooded and calculating as their Eastern Bloc counterparts. Alec Leamus (the spy trying to come in from the cold) claims to believe in absolutely nothing, although, in truth, he believes in old-fashioned morality. While Liz, a British working-class Communist, believes in History. Both end up shot to death at the foot of the Berlin Wall, disposable pawns of East and West alike.
After the exhaustion of the Second World War, it’s as if – at least in the eyes of Greene and le Carré – a morally-spent and bankrupt Britain had nothing left to fight for beyond the petty comforts of middle class lifestyle. Asked what philosophy drove the members of British Intelligence, Leamus can only suggest “I suppose they don’t like Communism.” In all of le Carré’s George Smiley novels, those who make up British intelligence and political circles are half-heartedly fighting their mean-spirited, petty Cold War as a poor substitute for the clarity of a real war.
Just as a final tidbit, in Travels with My Aunt, Greene (an avid book-collector) offers an interesting piece of advice on the importance of a well-rounded library.
One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have all been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.
Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris. New Directions, 2011. Vila-Matas’ usual practice is to subvert literary forms – along with his reader’s expectations for consistent narrative flow. Originally written in 2003, Never Any End to Paris purports to be a very long lecture on the subject of irony that the narrator (a writer not unlike Enrique Vila-Matas) is delivering at a symposium in Barcelona over the course of three days. But Vila-Matas soon tucks the lecture format into the background and lets his book quietly devolve into something more-or-less resembling a traditional writer’s memoir of youthful years in Paris. Never Any End to Paris is a playful homage to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (from whence the book’s title is derived), with Vila-Matas’ narrator a bumbling, meek echo of Hemingway, with a bit of writer’s block thrown in for good measure. It’s mid-1970s Paris and the young Spanish narrator finds himself living in an apartment rented from the French writer Marguerite Duras, who gives him “a piece of paper that looked like a doctor’s prescription” on which she had written out a list of thirteen useful tips for anyone writing a novel: “1. Structural problems. 2. Unity and harmony. 3. Plot and story. 4.Time. 5. Textual effects. 6. Verisimilitude. 7. Narrative technique. 8. Characters. 9. Dialogue. 10. Setting(s). 11. Style. 12. Experience. 13. Linguistic register.” Needless to say, deciphering the list and turning it to good use in his novel-in-progress, proves both challenging and amusing. (For all of my posts on Vila-Matas, click here.)
Chris Darke, Light Readings. Wallflower, 2000. Darke writes about the moving image, whether it be in the cinema or in the gallery of a museum. This is a collection of reviews an essays from the 1990s, mostly from Sight and Sound. Two-thirds are concerned with cinema, especially of the French variety, where Darke’s cinematic sympathies lie. But the essays that really came alive for me were those grappling with the use of film and video by contemporary artists. Darke adroitly marries his knowledge of the history of cinema and his background in film theory with a solid understanding of contemporary art practice to produce clear-headed and articulate essays. His writings on artists such as Steve McQueen, Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola and others, made me think about their film and video art with new eyes.
March 14, 2012
Robert Walser, Berlin Stories. New York Review of Books, 2012. Many of these brief prose texts, done between 1907 and 1917, were written for the feuilleton sections of various newspapers. Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 eager to soak in the city’s energy and diversity. It was almost like a strange and wonderful zoo for him, populated with characters that stimulated his imagination. But ultimately, as the later pieces show, Walser came to see that this competitive, venal, egocentric world was not his preferred milieu.
Venture into that savage metropolis, dear reader, and you will see for yourself how abruptly glamour and good fortune alternate there with deprivation and worry, and how people undermine each other’s subsistence, as each does his best to cast down the other’s successes and tread upon them so as to make success his own.
Albert Cossery, A Splendid Conspiracy. New Directions, 2010. Translated from the French novel Un Complot de Saltimbanques, originally published in 1975. (New Directions erroneously states on the copyright page that Complot was “originally published” in 2000.) At first glance, Cossery (1913-2008) seems charming and quaint, a bit like a distinguished, worldly uncle who settles in to tell a story of a backwater Egyptian town surprisingly laced with debauchery and treachery. Written thirty-six years before the Arab Spring, everyone and everything still seems pleasant and forgiveable, including the local chief of police, who mistakes the amorous adventures of several young men for a conspiracy against the government. By the end of the book, the gentle rhythms of Cossery’s prose won me over.
His myopia, growing worse every year, was the bane of his acting career because Imtaz, not wanting to disappoint all those women who admired his tremendous good looks, refused to wear glasses. Wearing glasses on stage seemed unbefitting given the virile, womanizing roles that ordinarily fell to him. He did not even wear them in town, and so people took him to be haughty and distant, an attitude completely foreign to his nature. And indeed, his short-sightedness gave his gaze the impenetrable and secretive air that lay at the very heart of his legend. All his power over crowds – and especially over women – he owed to the perpetual dim surroundings in which he moved: human beings, with their indistinct outlines, seemed to have absolutely no influence over his fate. His indifference to the attentions of his enthusiastic public, to feminine smiles and glances – for the simple reason that he could not see them – made him appear to be a charismatic, disdainful idol convinced of his own flawlessness.