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Thursday
Dec082016

Envy

Of all human vices, Schadenfreude is most likely the worst: those afflicted do not seek their own success but the failure of others. Hoping that your neighbor, your brother, or that lovely girl in the office meets with some disastrous circumstance just so that you may feel better about your own mediocrity hints at another form of malicious glee. The one which arises when you daydream about stripping a fellow human of his or her accolades, spouse, money, or anything else they might have earned. In countries where egalitarianism is promoted and preferred, it is not uncommon to see others looking over their shoulders at your small plot of land which, in essence, is just like everyone else's. Or so you think. Upon further scrutiny you realize that in contradistinction to adjoining plots yours boasts, in a small, shaded, almost inconspicuous corner, one dark blue violet of infinite beauty. You have not really noticed this violet before, but everyone in your vicinity cannot take their eyes off it. After a certain amount of time, you begin to hear rumors of others' having had similar flower seeds and good earth, only to have seen their flowers killed by an errant footprint or simply scooped up by an enterprising passer-by. What you will never hear is that everyone tried with equal effort but unequal talent to grow such a violet, and only you succeeded. In fact, you will soon learn that you, of all people, tried the least and were also granted by whatever grants people such powers, the least amount of talent to make a violet bloom. And yet only you have it, which can only mean skulduggery. Germany, a country of unabashed egalitarianism, even coined a word for such a "conspiracy of feelings," a Neidgesellschaft, or society of envy, a place where people are supposed to be equal or close to equal, or at least given as many opportunities as possible to be equal, but where oftentimes human beings' competitive nature gets the better of them. Which brings us to this sensational novel.

The time is the 1920s and the scene is the New Russia. Today we have, admittedly, another New Russia; but back then the legacy of the Soviets was yet to be sensed by anyone except the most prescient and cynical among us. A new society meant reinventing not only the wheel, but also poetry, government, sexual relations, sports, and, perhaps most importantly, simple creature comforts such as sausages and pillows. The sausage maker is a man called Andrei Babichev. He is a large, boisterous fortyish businessman – appropriate socialist terminology is "Director of the Food Industry Trust" – drunk on his own salubrity and boundless, throbbing volition (calling him energetic would be incredibly unfair to marathon runners and other such slouches). As all good citizens do, he dreams of a new world where everything is better than it once was, and where men like Andrei can rule because they have the greatest amount of resilience to creeping mortality. He sings, bellows, and generally expects to be the center of attention wherever he finds himself drumming up business. Despite being a self-made man, he was attacked by some hooligans about ten years ago and survived only thanks to the timely intervention of a burgeoning soccer star, Volodya Markov. Since that fateful incident Markov and Andrei have been like son and father to the point that Andrei would like Markov to marry his lovely niece Valya. Valya is sixteen and Volodya twenty-seven but soon to be capped by the Soviet squad and therefore very eligible. His stated goal is to become a football "machine," to have no superfluous movements or thoughts in the perfection of his craft – the purest allegorical illusion that the Soviets could foist upon their supporters and citizens. This all sounds like a dandy setup for a new, improved society bereft of any malice, underachievement, or selfishness. And it would be were it not for the introduction of two characters – Andrei's older brother Ivan, and a mysterious fellow called Nikolai Kavalerov.

Once upon a time, we are told, there were three Babichev brothers: Roman, the eldest and most gung-ho about defending the homeland; Ivan, a devout non-conformist and a bit of a parasite; and Andrei, the bright-eyed baby who went abroad to pursue his studies and whatever else needed to be pursued. Roman was executed for his role in a revolutionary force's terrorist actions, and we all know what happened to Andrei. But what about Ivan? It is an accepted premise that artistic types, bless them all, often have little inclination to do anything else except engage in their art, a formula which this philosopher rationalized and ultimately justified in a famous discourse. Ivan is most definitely such a man: creative, moody, impractical to a preposterous degree, he too dreams of transforming the New Russia – but not by means of the platitudinous robotic achievements that would so typify Soviet culture at its apex and nadir. No, Ivan is a true artist, which means his genius stems from both originality and a thorough knowledge of the work of his forerunners. While Andrei wants to build a better salami, Ivan's brazen mind envisions a dream machine, soap bubbles that would expand to the size of a hot-air balloon, and his most enigmatic creation, the so-called "Ophelia" machine. What this latter construct entails is not immediately revealed, although it is clear that Ivan considers it his masterpiece and legacy. He finds, however, few sympathizers. Andrei wants no part of him and is only interested in Valya for the sake of Markov; everyone else seems to think him raving mad, a Bohemian louse or some combination of the two. His disheveled appearance and crushing negativity regarding the achievements of his younger brother are reflected in his overwhelming ambition to annihilate Andrei, an ambition shared by Kavalerov, who dances innocuously across the novel's stage without affecting anyone or anything. He and Ivan share a striking number of opinions on matters great and small, and even end up bedding the same widow despite her repulsive demeanor and shape. Kavalerov talks to Andrei, but is brushed aside as if he doesn't really exist; Ivan does exist, or at least we think he exists, and is given similar treatment. Neither one can dissuade Valya from her upcoming nuptials with Volodya, and the effete duo continue to stir up trouble in local pubs with the overt intent of overthrowing Andrei or some substantial chunk of Andrei's world. Ivan – or Kavalerov, a bit hard to tell them apart at times – even mistakenly absconds with a letter from Volodya in which the goalie recommends that Andrei sever all ties with Kavalerov. This infuriates Ivan and Kavalerov in equal measure, which leads them to do, of course, nothing of consequence except scheme.

There are more than a few indications about Ivan and Kavalerov's real identities, although secondary literature conveniently tends to overlook them in lieu of more traditional reading approaches. One important clue is Valya's reaction to both men: she does not treat Ivan like her father, nor does she even acknowledge that Kavalerov, who becomes obsessed with her, actually breathes much of the same air she does. Another hint might be derived from a solid knowledge of the oeuvre of this writer, who specialized in long-winded diatribes about the humiliated, those in life who do not have voices because they are drowned out by guffaws of ridicule. Unlike Dostoevsky, Olesha presents his tale in the most compact of forms, and one that bends in a green arch over every last sumptuous detail. The "Vainglorious and Thoughtless Man," Kavalerov, will be known forever and ever for his envy, just like Iago – and just like, for that matter, Ivan, who once grew a blue violet out of a wart after claiming he had a remedy. But some people have more ambition than simply growing exotic flowers.

Saturday
Dec032016

Bely, "Меланхолия"

A work ("Melancholy") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

An empty bistro by first glow,                                      
Makes whispers and soft organs mate.                     
Smooth leather mats that fairies know,                                      
Show lackeys rumbling with their plates                     

Between the cabinets. Like shade                         
I wander through the smoky webs.              
Soon golden day will launch its raid                       
On window panes as dreamtime ebbs,                      

And cut off cinder in its fist,                 
Aflame in mirrors, diamond-bright...             
Gas lanterns fill with fiery mist                
And pierce each window with warm light.                           

Above the city and the streets,                       
Black cinder clouds from earth-mounts rise.
Beyond our ken, our senses meet                        
Unanswered arias' demise.                         

I lived and died in yearning pure,                      
My tears unseen upon my face.                           
The ceiling waxed in light demure                        
As garlands of ethereal lace                                     

Stretched past our eyes.  And for a time  
All seemed burned hot by tawny light.           
By mirror's glare my double rhymed;           
My silhouette with endless night.                 

He nears, and nods to me alone;                                 
In torture I cannot escape;                          
Then breaches depths of mirrored gloam                  
His hands aflail at life's mad cape.

Sunday
Nov272016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 2)

The conclusion to the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

The final periods, made more somber by oratory pauses, were supposed to be eloquent; Unwin guessed that Dunraven had tried them out many times with identical aplomb and identical inefficacy. In feigned interest he asked: “How did the lion and the slave die?” The incorrigible voice answered with somber satisfaction: “They too had their faces destroyed.” The noise of their steps was now joined by the noise of the rain. Unwin thought that they would have to sleep in the labyrinth, in the central chamber of the story, and that this great inconvenience would be an adventure in his memory. He kept silent; Dunraven couldn’t contain himself and, like someone who cannot forget a debt, asked him: “Isn’t this story inexplicable?” As if thinking aloud, Unwin answered: “I don’t know whether it is explicable or inexplicable. But I know it is a lie.”

Dunraven broke into a litany of filth, then invoked the testimony of the eldest son of the rector (who, it seems, had died) and of all the neighbors of Pentreath. No less astonished than Dunraven, Unwin apologized. In the darkness, time seemed to run on and on; the two men were afraid that they had strayed from the path and were very tired when a thin clearing above showed them the first steps of a narrow stairway. They went up and came upon a circular room in ruins. Two signs of the ill-fated king’s fear persisted: a constricted window ruling over the uplands and the sea, and in the ground a trap door that opened over the curve of the stairway. The room, however spacious, had much of a prison cell about it.

Urged on less by the rain than by an eagerness to live through memory and narrative, the friends spent the night in the labyrinth. The mathematician slept in tranquility, but not the poet, plagued by verses his mind deemed detestable:

Faceless the sultry and overpowering lion,
Faceless the stricken slave, faceless the king
.

Unwin believed that the story of Bojarí’s death had not interested him; nevertheless he awoke with the conviction of having deciphered it. That whole day he was preoccupied and unsociable, adjusting and readjusting the pieces. And two nights later, he summoned Dunraven to a London brewery and told him these words or words like these: “In Cornwall I said the story I heard from you was a lie. The facts were certain, or could be certain, but recounted as you recounted them they were very clearly lies. I will start with the greatest lie of them all, that of the incredible labyrinth. A fugitive does not hide in a labyrinth. Nor does he have one built on a high point on the coast, a crimson labyrinth which sailors could see from far off. If someone truly wished to hide, London would be a better labyrinth than a vantage point to which all the corridors of a building led. The wise reflection to which I now subject you came to me last night as we listened to the rain fall upon the labyrinth and waited for a dream to visit us; admonished and bettered, I chose to forget your absurdities and think about something sensible.”

“The theory of mathematical sets, let’s say, or the fourth dimension of space,” observed Dunraven. “No,” said Unwin in all seriousness, “I thought about the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth whose center was a man with the head of a bull.” Well versed in detective fiction, Dunraven thought that the solution to a mystery was always inferior to the mystery itself.  The mystery took part in the supernatural, if not in the divine, while the solution was the game of human hands. To postpone the inevitable, he said: “On medals and in sculpture it is the Minotaur who has the head of a bull. Yet Dante imagined him with the body of a bull and the head of a man.” “This version works for me, as well,” agreed Unwin. “What matters is the correspondence of the monstrous house to the monstrous inhabitant. The Minotaur wholly justified the existence of the labyrinth. No one would say the same thing about a threat perceived in a dream. Once the image of the Minotaur was evoked (a fatal evocation in the event there was a labyrinth), the problem was for all intents and purposes resolved. I confess, however, I did not understand that this ancient image was the key, and as such was necessary for your story to grant me an even more precise symbol: that of the spider’s web.”

“The spider’s web?” repeated Dunraven, perplexed.

“Yes. It would not astonish me in any way to learn that the spider’s web (the universal form of the web, we understand, the web of Plato) could have suggested to the assassin (for there is an assassin) his crime. You will recall that el Bojarí, in a tomb, dreamt of a web of serpents and that upon waking he discovered the dream had been prompted by the web of a spider. Let us return to that night when el Bojarí dreamt of this web. The vanquished king, the vizier, and the slave flee to the desert with their treasure. They seek refuge in a tomb. The vizier, whom we know to be a coward, sleeps; but sleep does not come to the king, whom we know to be valiant. So as not to share his treasure with the vizier, the king kills him with a dagger; the vizier’s shadow menaces him in his dreams for nights thereafter. All this is unbelievable. I understand the events to have happened another way. That night it was the king, the valiant king, who slept; and it was Zaid the coward who lay awake. To sleep is to be distracted from the universe, a distraction difficult for those who know they are being pursued by drawn swords. Greedy, Zaid leaned over the sleep of his king. He thought of killing him (perhaps even fumbled with his dagger), but did not dare. He called the slave, and they hid part of the treasure in the tomb and fled to Suakin and then England. Visible from the sea he built an old labyrinth with red walls, not to hide from el Bojarí but to lure him and kill him. He knew that ships at the ports of Nubia would bring rumors of the red-haired man, the slave, and the lion, and that sooner or later el Bojarí would come to look for him in his labyrinth. In the final corridor of the web awaited the trap. El Bojarí underestimated him severely; he did not stoop to take the least precaution. The coveted day arrived.  Abenjacán landed in England, made his way to the door of the labyrinth, considered the blind corridors, and had already set foot, perhaps, on the first steps when his vizier killed him, maybe with a bullet from the trap. The slave would then kill the lion and another bullet would kill the slave. Then Zaid disfigured their three faces with a stone. He had to do it this way; one body with a disfigured face would have hinted at a problem of identity, but here the beast, the black man and the king formed a series and, given the first two terms, the last would be assumed by everyone. It is not strange that he was seized by fear when talking to Allaby; he had just finished carrying out his horrible task and was preparing to flee England to recover his treasure.”

A thoughtful, or perhaps incredulous, silence followed the words of Unwin. Dunraven requested another tankard of stout before commenting.

“I accept,” he said, “that my Abenjacán is Zaid. Such a metamorphosis, you will say, is one of the genre’s classic artifices, a true convention whose detection makes demands on the reader. What I hesitate to admit is that a portion of the treasure remained in the Sudan. Remember that Zaid fled from the king and the enemies of the king; it is simpler to imagine him absconding with all the treasure than delaying himself by burying a part of it. Perhaps there no coins were found because there were no coins remaining. The bricklayers had exhausted a fortune that, in contrast to the red gold of the Nibelung Alberich, was not infinite. So we would have to see Abenjacán crossing the sea to reclaim a dilapidated treasure.”

“Not dilapidated,” said Unwin. “Invested in a land of infidels in the arming of a large circular trap of bricks designed to lure and annihilate him. If your conjecture is correct, Zaid was urged on by hate and fear and not by avarice. He stole the treasure and then understood that the treasure was for him not the essential part. The essential part was that Abenjacán would die. He imitated Abenjacán, killed Abenjacán, and in the end was Abenjacán."

“Yes,” confirmed Dunraven. “He was a vagabond who one day, before being nobody at death, would remember having been or having pretended to be a king.”

Friday
Nov252016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1)

A translation of the first half of the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

... They are comparable to the spider who builds a house.  

                                                                                    — The Koran, XXIX,  40

“This,” said Dunraven with a great gesture that did not refuse the cloudy stars but covered the black upland, the sea, and a majestic and decrepit structure that seemed to be a rundown stable, “is the land of my elders.”  Unwin his companion removed a pipe from his mouth and emitted some modest and approving sounds. It was the first evening of the summer of 1914; tired of a world without the dignity of danger, the friends appreciated the solitude of this corner of Cornwall. Cultivating a dark beard, Dunraven was the author of a considerable epic which his contemporaries almost could not scan and whose motif had not yet been revealed. Unwin had published a study of the theory that Fermat had not written in the margin of one of Diophantus’s pages. Both of them — could what I say be true? — were young, absentminded and impassioned.

“It will be a quarter of a century,” said Dunraven, “since Abenjacán el Bojarí, the leader or king of some or other Nilotic tribe, died in the central chamber of that house at the hands of his cousin Zaid. Now years later, the circumstances of his death continue to be murky."

Unwin tamely asked why.

“For many reasons,” was the answer. “In the first place, that house is a labyrinth. In the second place, the house was under the watchful eyes of a slave and a lion. In the third place, a secret treasure vanished. In the fourth place, the assassin was already dead when the murder took place. In the fifth place …”

Tired, Unwin stopped him.

“Don’t multiply the mysteries,” he said to him. “They ought to be simple. Recall Poe’s purloined letter and the locked room of Zangwill.”

“Or the universe remembers complicated things,” replied Dunraven.

Sloping over sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. As they approached, there appeared a straight and almost interminable wall, bricks without end, almost as high as a man. Dunraven said that it had the form of a circle, but its area was so dissipated that you could not perceive its curves. Unwin mentioned Nicholas of Cusa, for whom all straight lines were the arc of an infinite circle … Towards midnight they discovered a door in ruins which gave onto a blind and perilous hallway. Dunraven said that inside the house there were numerous crossroads, but that if they kept left, they would arrive in a little more than an hour in the center of the web. Unwin agreed. Their cautious steps resonated in the stone floor; the corridor forked into other, narrower corridors. The house seemed as if it wanted to drown them, the ceiling was very low. They had to advance one after the other through the complications of darkness. Unwin went along slowly. Dulled by the roughness and angles, his hand flowed endlessly along the invisible wall. Slowed in the somberness, Unwin heard the story of the murder of Abenjacán from the mouth of his friend.

“Perhaps the oldest of my memories,” related Dunraven, “is that of Abenjacán el Bojarí in the cove of Pentreath. He was followed by a black man with a lion; they were doubtless the first black man and the first lion my eyes had ever seen, apart from the engravings in the Scriptures. So I was a boy, but the beast the color of the sun and the man the color of night impressed me less than Abenjacán. To me he seemed very tall; he was olive-skinned with black, half-closed eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips, a saffron beard, and proud chest, sure and silent in his gait. At home I said: ‘A king and a vessel have arrived.’ Later, when the bricklayers were working, I enhanced this title and made him the King of Babel.

“The news that the stranger had installed himself in Pentreath was received with pleasure; the extension and form of his house with astonishment, if not with scandal. Few seemed to accept that a residence of one person might have leagues and leagues of corridors. ‘Moors might have such houses, but not Christians,’ said the people. Our rector, Mr. Allaby, a man of strange learning, exhumed the history of a king whom the Divinity castigated for having erected a labyrinth and spouted such information from the pulpit. That Monday, Abenjacán visited the rectory; the circumstances of the brief interview were not known at that time, but no more sermons ever alluded to its grandeur, and the moor was able to hire the bricklayers. Years later, when Abenjacán was killed, Allaby made known to the authorities the substance of their dialogue.

“Abenjacán told him, standing, these words or words like these: ‘No longer can anyone censure what I do. The sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to repeat for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, it would not be sufficient to mitigate even one of my torments; the sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to kill you with these hands, it would not worsen the torments of Infinite Justice to which I am destined. My name is unknown in all lands; I am Abenjacán el Bojarí and I have ruled the tribes of the desert with an iron scepter. For many years and with the assistance of my cousin Zaid, I despoiled them; but God heard their clamor and allowed them to rebel. My peoples were worn out and riddled with stab wounds; I managed to flee with the treasure collected in my years of exploitation. Zaid guided me to the tomb of a saint at the foot of a mountain of stone. I ordered my slave to watch over the face of the desert; then Zaid and I were overcome by sleep. That night I dreamt I was imprisoned by a web of serpents. Waking in horror, I found Zaid sleeping at my side as dawn appeared. The friction of a spider’s web on my flesh had made me dream such a dream. It pained me to see that Zaid, who was a coward, was sleeping so restfully. I came to think that the treasure was not infinite and that he might claim a share. In my belt was a dagger with a silver hilt; I unsheathed it and cut his throat. In his agony he gurgled forth some words I could not hear. I looked at him; he was dead, but I feared he would rise so I ordered the slave to smash his face with a rock. Then we wandered underneath the sky and one day we came across a sea. On it sailed very tall ships; I thought that a dead man would not be able to walk through water and decided to look for other lands. The first night we sailed I dreamt that I killed Zaid. Everything repeated itself, but this time I heard his words. He said: I will blot out your dregs, wherever you may be. I swore I would thwart this threat; I would hide in the center of a labyrinth until his ghost was gone.'

"That said he went on his way. Allaby tried to convince himself that the moor was crazy and that this absurd labyrinth was a symbol of and clear testimony to his madness. Then he thought that this explanation coincided with the extravagant construction and extravagant story, but not with the energetic impression with which Abenjacán left the man. Perhaps such stories were common in the sandy regions of Egypt, perhaps such rarities corresponded (like Pliny’s dragons) less to a person than to a culture … In London Allaby reexamined back issues of the Times; he checked the truthfulness of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat of el Bojarí and his vizier, who was rumored to be a coward.

"Hardly had the bricklayers concluded their work when he installed himself at the center of the labyrinth. He was no longer seen in the village; sometimes Allaby feared that Zaid had managed to reach him and annihilate him. At night the wind brought us the lion’s roar, and the sheep of the fold squeezed together with old fear.

"Then ships from oriental ports were said to have dropped anchor at the small bay, direction either Cardiff or Bristol. The slave came down from the labyrinth (which then, I recall, was not pink but crimson in color), exchanged some African words with the crews, and appeared to be looking among the faces of the men for the ghost of the vizier. It was rumored that these ships carried contraband, and if alcohol and ivory, why not then shadows of the dead?

"Three years after the house was erected, the Rose of Sharon dropped anchor at the foot of the hills. I was not one of those who saw this ship, and maybe in the image I have of it lurk lithographs of Abu Qir and Trafalgar. But, in any case, I understand it to be one of those elaborate ships that do not appear to be the work of seamen but of carpenters, and more of cabinetmakers than of carpenters. It was (if not actually, then in my dreams) burnished, dark, silent, and stealthy, and manned by Arabs and Malays.

"It dropped anchor at dawn on an October day. Towards dusk, Abenjacán burst into Allaby’s house. He was seized by the passion of terror; hardly could he articulate that Zaid had entered the labyrinth and that his slave and his lion had been killed. He then asked in all seriousness whether the authorities would be able to protect him. He left before Allaby could answer, as if plagued by the same terror which had driven him to this house for the second and last time. Allaby, alone in his library, thought in astonishment that this frightened creature had oppressed tribes in the Sudan and knew that fighting and dying were two different matters. The next day he noticed that the ship had already set sail (direction Suakin in the Red Sea, it was later learned). He thought it over and decided that it was his duty to verify the slave’s murder, so he set off to the labyrinth. El Bojarí’s breathless tale seemed fantastic, but at a bend of the galleries he came upon the lion, and the lion was dead; at another bend he found the slave, who was also dead; and at the central chamber he came upon el Bojarí, whose face had been destroyed. At the man’s feet was a chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl; someone had forced the lock and not a single coin remained."

Sunday
Nov202016

The Vane Sisters

Many years ago now, I happened to be visiting one of America's most ravishing college campuses, a green Gothic strip where I would end up completing my graduate studies. Fresh air, the charm of the young and untried swimming nearby, one of the most awesome libraries machines and minds could ever erect, and a friendly welcome from the professors all settled my choice. One of those erudite gentlemen, himself a Russian émigré, was kind enough at the end of our chat to autograph one of his books as a parting gift. Since we shared an unabashed admiration for the book's subject, this was as fine a token of goodwill as could possibly be expected between two people who had been verbal strangers only twenty minutes before. I read most of the book in one sitting, filed it away as I almost always do for reevaluation, then swallowed the rest in small chunks during my coursework. The tome and scholar need not be mentioned here; anonymity is one of the blessings of non-conformist genius. But his theory was groundbreaking, original, and meticulous, and is perhaps best buttressed by the motifs in this sensational work of art.

Our narrator is a nameless and perhaps typical Frenchman (one who prefers "the grape to the grain"), with an atypically magnificent command of written English and a literature professorship in 1950s New England. Not ours to worry, in any case, since in more than one way he will only serve as a conduit for the descriptions and jeremiads of others. He begins his eerie tale by observing, with the cautious glee of someone who has lived his life for art's thrills, "a family of icicles" drip down the ultimate gables of a roof and defiantly into the setting sun. After staring at a multicolored windshield's reflection, he is nearly run over by an almost as anonymous acquaintance and fellow academic, D. D. immediately informs him that Cynthia Vane, a painter and the elder of two somewhat flighty sisters known all too well to our professors, has died of a weak heart. The news is as shocking to us as it is to the narrator because no one called Cynthia Vane should ever really be dead. 

In time we learn the links. D. slept with and discarded that other sister, Sybil (a borrowing from this work), to whom our narrator once administered a disastrous French exam that concluded with Sybil's quite finite jest: "Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than life without D." The next morning she is no longer among the quick, her own hand blamed by her own handwriting. Four or five months later, the narrator consoles the sister with the warmth of all his hairy strength and discovers to his mild chagrin and amusement that our survivor believes she is puppeteered by specters. He initially imputes this to a heterodox form of Puritan fatalism, underpinned as it simply must be by charlatan chums and astrological calculations. And yet (igniting a domino-like trend) he turns out to be wrong:

For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said. I tried to argue that she might not always be able to determine the exact source since not everybody has a recognizable soul; that there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send; that, in fact, what Cynthia called 'a usual day' might be itself a weak solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel. 

Amidst these phantoms Sybil's personality "had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus" – what one might reasonably expect given the age and method of her extinction. Actually, "extinction" is most definitely not the right word. Their affair drags on, as all affairs of physical convenience do, well past any semblance of affection or mutual understanding (one is reminded of that old, women's monthly adage that every failed relationship devotes its latter half to dysfunction). One especially fateful night collects the narrator, Cynthia, and a gaggle of "sociable weekend revelers" into a single bourgeois home for what would pass to most people for amusement, but can only horrify someone who finds society at large, well, repellent. Does this antipathy explain the added antipathy to the shaded powers of the afterlife? Or is our narrator simply an overeducated snob toying with a fragile, frowzy woman who probably enjoys this lack of control when confronted with the tools of adult pleasure? Our narrator mulls these and other oddities, but does not land at the conclusion we think these oddities might deserve.   

You may strum your fingers or race to your shelves, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better short story in this century or any other. Nabokov's genius resides in his ability to take forceful, almost unnecessarily subjective opinions and coax therefrom a choir of paradise. With the possible exception of this incomparable man of letters, no other writer has possessed this talent to such a degree. The ending, so famous and yet so unprecedented in serious prose, brought Nabokov his first accolades as an inventor, a fact that would be painfully obvious to those of us who do not suffer gimmicks fondly. Cynthia does not, however, see matters that way. And since we and the narrator seem to like a few things about Cynthia, we can, should, and must be sympathetic; it is the only way we know how to relate to lesser beings. So when we coddle her with kindness and platitudes ("These rather tasteless trivialities pleased Cynthia hugely as she rose, with gasps, above the heaving surface of her grief," one of the most exquisite sentences ever composed) – the two are so coterminous at times we can almost claim they come naturally – we are doing the right thing. Her sister is dead, after all. We can also aver that icicles and parking meters will never feel quite the same again, nor will the sounds of those things that go bump in the night. You know, those things.

Wednesday
Nov162016

The Elephant Man

It is rare among reviews of this film to find something negative or dissuading about the affective power of the title character's plight. There are such opinions; yet the dissent voiced inevitably comes off as captious. For whatever reason – the biographical discrepancies, the poverty of London, the dim, piebald tenements, the elephants and the nightmares they trample through at the film's beginning – some element rings false, as if we were not watching a tragedy with its necessary melodrama and instead scrutinizing the real life and times of Joseph Merrick. This approach is fundamentally incorrect yet, as we shall see, no impediment to enjoying the film. 

The fictionalized version of the story is better known than the truth: rambling around late Victorian London, a celebrated physician, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), comes across a circus sideshow featuring a being known only as the Elephant Man (John Hurt). What or who this man could be is not immediately apparent; whether he is even fully human can be termed dubious by the superstitious soul. In any case Treves, a man both of science and faith, pays his way to a viewing and discovers a sad, horribly misshapen being that he hopes secretly is an ament. The sentiment behind such a whispered wish is clear: should this poor creature actually be able to recognize his hideous separation from the majority of mankind, his fate would be all the more intolerable. Treves's medical interest in the Elephant Man may be likened rather coldly to a philologist's interest in an undeciphered manuscript: he does indeed pity this being, the origin of whose malady is at once both fantastic and terrifying, but is not so much interested in attempting to cure him as in availing himself of the obscure knowledge that might explain his disease. Treves mentions his credentials and prestigious jobs at the London Hospital and Medical College, is summarily dismissed by the wicked handler Bytes (Freddie Jones), and retreats to his offices with his imagination racing. We understand that the Elephant Man will find Treves and continue the conversation they never had, but we cannot possibly foresee the subjects of their discourse.  

Shortly thereafter Treves's offices are visited, to the great chagrin of the nursing staff, by a man with his head under a makeshift mask that makes him resemble a mummy, although he may be more accurately compared to this fictional character. Treves ultimately finds him crouching alone in the shadows, asks for names, how long he has been in this state, and, as a medical precaution, about his parents. But the masked man does not answer and stares like a ghost waiting for its victim to guess the reason for its spectral visit. We next see some of him in a lecture hall full of, one supposes, London's most renowned physicians and anatomists. Against a light and curtain with his silhouette now resembling that of this famous movie monster, he is subjected to objective comments on his affliction as well as a few pseudo-comforting asides ("entirely intact genitals; perfectly normal left arm"). He eventually identifies himself as John Merrick, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman of humble birth but some learning; this latter detail is not made evident until Merrick recites the twenty-third psalm, again recalling the cultured and sensitive Frankenstein's monster. In many ways the film hitherto has proceeded as such films are supposed to proceed: the misunderstood creature is discovered by chance by a scientist who has both a kindly and self-aggrandizing side; numerous peripheral characters deride him and suggest that making him a patient is pointless; and the scientist is in turn protective and frustrated with his creature as if it were an impudent child. It is also quite typical that the cruelty everyone inflicts upon him is due to the notion that he is somehow not quite human, a bestial hybrid of heavy breathing and mummy wraps, a degradation and insult to the human condition itself.  

Yet the twist comes when Merrick is accepted as an intelligent and righteous Christian who has been dealt one of the hardest of lots. For a while our black-and-white pictures come alive with color: Merrick has been redeemed; Merrick is one of us. After a letter from Victoria carried by Alexandra, the Princess of Denmark, establishes Merrick as a permanent resident of the London Hospital (overriding the barbarous rant of an allegedly beneficent doctor who claims he only wishes to help the poor), we know that this bliss will not last the entirety of the film and not only because we know something of the real Joseph Merrick (mistakenly called John in the film following the error in Treves's memoirs). Merrick is constantly harangued by the mobs wishing him no real harm apart from the mockery to which they believe that he, as the circus sideshow freak, must be relegated. In a strange way, he goes along with it; one can tell when they show him his mirror and he waits a few seconds before uttering a histrionic howl. He is both appalled at such ridicule and playing along in a role he cannot avoid, a fate not dissimilar to that of the bullied child tired of denying his tormentors. And alas, despite the differences between the life of the real Joseph Merrick and the slightly Romanticized screen version, we are well aware of how matters will end.  

About those few who did not admire the film: dissent against The Elephant Man has been uniform, which means there is at stake a philosophical not an aesthetic argument. Critics seem to believe that the extremity of Merrick's condition coupled with the smoothing over of a couple of important facts – most notably, that the real Merrick required several jaw operations before being able to speak – point to a schmaltzy attempt to win hearts and minds. As it were, this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the unnecessary opening nightmare scene (repeated much later with factory workers or stokers, a mob with a mirror, the long trunk of an elephant, the boot of a lyncher, and swirling, ominous clouds as if he were born from God's turmoil), the film does not veer from a straight dramatic plot. It does less to tug on our heartstrings than present a situation whose every facet could easily be deemed tragic. Merrick's favorite words are "my friend," on which he lingers, relishing them like the name of the person he will always adore. When a well-known actress (Anne Bancroft) invites him to the theater, he states as plainly as in a police report: "I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know that I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not say that were it not for you." At that same production Merrick sees the woman in the cage, the fairy, the swans, the whole atmosphere of discovery and wonder, and understands that he must always view this world from the outside. And indeed, each scene of The Elephant Man is ended so abruptly we are allowed but a moment to mull it over; ripostes are not provided, simply the mood is broached and left as that, a shift of mood. The brevity of these vignettes suggests that we are leafing through a photo album, the last remains of a tired existence. So Treves is quite right when he admits to his spouse that, "I'm beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike." For him and most everyone else, the life of Joseph Merrick will always be a spectacle he can watch in a comfortable seat from afar.

Friday
Nov112016

The Untouchable

I wanted to tell her about the blade of sunlight cleaving the velvet shadows of the public urinal that post-war spring afternoon in Regensburg, of the incongruous gaiety of the rain shower that fell the day of my father's funeral, of that last night with Boy when I saw the red ship under Blackfriars Bridge and conceived of the tragic significance of my life; in other words, the real things; the true things.

Why do so many betray all that they love?  An expert or three will aver that these traitors are ashamed of what they love, ashamed either of humble roots or past generations, or simply and unavoidably attracted to the garish limelight (which soon will resemble the pale moonlight, but anyway). There are other reasons, of course, reasons that involve one's own identity, so quietly and carefully folded up in a hidden suitcase, a suitcase that one cannot help but look at every time one enters the room. A suitcase one begins to imagine, as one begins to imagine entering the room and finding it again and again to make sure it's still there intact, undiscovered, sealed from oxygen and mankind. It is then, we may suppose, that the dreams commence. The nightmares or day-mares about walking in one dire day and not finding a suitcase anywhere. Because the suitcase was never there; nothing was ever hidden; and one's past comes crashing into one's present like two mirrored doors in close collision. A summary of the life and fate of the narrator of this novel. 

That our man is called Victor Maskell should not influence our impression: he has lost and will continue to lose, and the masks he has chosen are facsimiles of his own countenance. As we begin our tale, Maskell has been outed as having been far less patriotic than he might have seemed in the preceding decades establishing himself as one of Britain's finest Baroque experts, in particular of this painter of genius. Now at the threshold of his eighth decade on an ungrateful earth, he has become a widower, a lover of his "own kind," and an occasional parent, his son loathing him for what he was, his daughter pitying him for what he wasn't. He has long pondered the nature of his quandary:

In the spy's world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail up and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy. Attraction, because in the midst of such uncertainty you are never required to be yourself; whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering. This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always two versions of myself, so all others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way.

And where did Maskell split his being, dividing the poor son of an Irish preacher from the soon-to-be Soviet informer ("the fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist")? Cambridge University of the 1920s and 1930s, a hotbed of radical thought and, on occasion, even radical action. The Great War has led to a peace once unimaginable, and the fervent idealism that courses through the veins of able-bodied intellectuals when serenity and prosperity have been secured has now embraced a new approach to humanity: a destruction of greed. The atmosphere in those years, says Maskell, "had something thrillingly suppressed in it, as if at any moment the most amazing events might suddenly begin to happen." And what events might he mean? Oh, the downfall of capitalism, the founding of a worker-based government which would control the means of production – and I believe we don't need to go on. Himself a distant relative of the queen, Maskell was not alone in his endeavors: there is Boy, who splits his day evenly between cottaging and stealing state secrets; Nick, a rich, ambitious, and rather sleek operator, whose sister Maskell would eventually marry, even if it is her brother he more greatly desired; and Leo Rothenstein, who buys Maskell his first Poussin, although maybe not for the reasons supplied at the time of purchase. There were others, of course; but their roles were mostly as supporting actors, which is another way of saying they were granted brief spurts of magniloquence then killed for the cause. One exception to this rule is the man known as Querell.  

Querell is a spy alright, but unlike his confederates he is also a writer of a series of potboilers ("He was genuinely curious about people  the sure mark of the second-rate novelist"). Maskell wonders and wonders some more about Querell, who does not seem to eat or sleep or do anything except lurk, smoking "the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up." A rather revolting scene early on in the novel, coupled with his professed Catholic faith, make Querell an even more unlikely human being and a much more likely Frankenstein's monster. So when someone informs Maskell, that "that Querell now, he has the measure of us all," our art historian begins to reconsider the popular novelist:    

Querell would come round, tall, thin, sardonic, standing with his back against the wall and smoking a cigarette, somehow crooked, like the villain in a cautionary tale, one eyebrow arched and the corners of his mouth turned down, and a hand in the pocket of his tightly buttoned jacket that I always thought could be holding a gun .... You would glance at the spot where he had been standing and find him gone, and seem to see a shadowy after-image of him, like the paler shadow left on a wall when a picture is removed.

If Querell is meant to represent, as some have surmised, this writer, then this is cruelty indeed. And it should not detract from our enjoyment of The Untouchable that Victor Maskell is modeled, hewn, and traced on this infamous figure (with the name a punning reference to this scholar), nor that many other characters, most notably Boy, have historical archetypes. Blunt was a spy, an art historian, a Communist, and a homosexual, basically in that order, and the proud Briton will always shudder at the mention of his name. Maskell knows very little about the cause he supposedly serves, probably because, for a spy, he is a very poor judge of man. An orphaned chapter segment prattles on about this anarchist, the idol of many a collegiate ignoramus, a quickly-abandoned tactic which, while oddly out of line with the narrative, spares us the stale biscuit aphorisms of the hidebound comrade. The passage is fake just like Marxism is fake, the lazy imposition of an artificial understanding on a world far more natural and complicated than even the most perspicacious Marxist could ever suspect. The only thing we are convinced of is Victor Maskell's utter selfishness, which he admits, his flimsy homosexuality (which, for most of the novel, he experiences vicariously through Boy), his family feelings (which he barely senses), and that the only thing he truly seeks is to imbue his life with some profundity, to be as memorable as the Poussin masterpieces he knows he can merely admire but never replicate.  

As in all of Banville, passages of extreme beauty grace page after page ("The Daimler .... vast, sleek, and intent, like a wild beast that had blundered into captivity and could only be let out, coughing and growling, on occasions of rare significance"; "We sat opposite each other ... in a polite, unexpectedly easy, almost companionable silence, like two voyagers sharing a cocktail before joining the captain's table, knowing we had a whole ocean of time before us in which to get acquainted"; "You will find my people at the top, or if not at the top, then determinedly scaling the rigging, with cutlasses in their teeth"), but to his credit Maskell does not drift into unabashed sentimentality, even when he fully succumbs to his genetic programming. And who is the female interlocutor in the quote beginning this review? One Serena Vandeleur (whose name recalls characters in both this novel and this one), in principle a young journalist yearning for a breakthrough as the biographer of an outcast, although Maskell has his suspicions about her true agenda. As, it should be said, he comes to have about everyone's agenda; such are the wages of duplicity. Perhaps he could just take a group photograph of his backstabbing brethren for his biography and title it The Shepherds of Arkady.

Sunday
Nov062016

Sideways

The history of art is generously peppered with odd couples, a conceit that in the cinema of more recent years has engendered the label “buddy movie.” Whether the twosome actually has to get along is unimportant provided they gain a better understanding of one another – and, one hopes, of themselves – by the end of their journey. Without disparaging the happy endings required of many popular films, the odd couple may be considered happy because they are not alone. In fact, the old adage about opposites attracting has much to do with each member of that couple embodying the qualities that the other lacks. The most visceral evidence of such a phenomenon can be found in high school and colleges around the world: the good-looking girl and her ill-favored best friend; the interethnic couple misunderstood in different ways by society at large; the quiet nerdy guy who cannot procure bathroom directions from a female yet somehow gets along with his ebullient, rambunctious stud of a roommate. One cannot help but notice that such strange pairings are fewer over time, perhaps because most people who age and survive in this world become more complete. They develop aspects of both odd couple members, making themselves less of a caricature and more into a genuine human being. And it is a textbook example of the last duo and a certain level of immaturity that drive this acclaimed film.

Our protagonist is the fortyish Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), but you may know him from your high school or college yearbook as someone else. Nature has not blessed him with looks and he has chosen to go along with that assessment. Little is done in the way of exercise, grooming, or presentability, but drinking and reading are habitual and daily. Miles is shown driving while reading, using the toilet while reading, and stealing money from his mother presumably so that he can consume the expensive wines he values almost as much as books as a source of intoxication. He was married to a woman now with a much more successful husband; he teaches English to schoolchildren immune to subtlety; and he has been writing a novel that keeps getting longer and more preposterous – a lot like life itself. He has not recovered from any of these disasters and believes, as good writers invariably do, that the sum of his failures can be transformed into a fantastic work of art, which is why writers often believe in redemption as strongly as other people of faith. The gaping chasm in Miles’s life is clearly structure, which explains his continued friendship with his former college roommate, Jack Cole (Thomas Hayden Church). 

Jack and Miles have plain, Anglo-Saxon names and in general act their parts well. They communicate through shared memories, not real-time emotions, and the bulk of their conversations involve agreement on the past. Jack is particularly parsimonious when it comes to sympathy or despair, as both of those sentiments could derail his perpetual mirth so handy in his profession as an actor. Now enough has been said about the perils of spending too much time with people paid to be something they are not. But Jack is a real person insofar as his emotions and thoughts suggest a teenage boy who has yet to fulfil his potential – this despite the fact that apart from some soap opera work, Jack’s “acting” consists mainly of voiceovers for commercials. Jack is the back-slapping polyanna that everyone needs from time to time, but who cannot be thought of as a sustained source of comfort. For that reason, when Jack decides to marry an Armenian-American heiress and go beforehand on a week-long bachelor junket through the California wine valley, the project appeals to Miles’s sense of both taste and camaraderie. 

Trips like these have three ostensible aims: debauchery in whatever form fate allows it to assume, reputation among one’s peers, and the rather nebulous activity known as “male bonding.” Jack gladly hands the car keys to Miles who, as a hard-core alcoholic with the vague semblance of a budget, knows the finest places to visit. It is then of small coincidence that the duo ends up in an establishment staffed by Maya (Virginia Madsen), a lovely single woman in her late thirties who, as a server with the vague semblance of a flirt, is the prototypical crush for any barfly. Jack and Miles discuss how nothing has ever happened between them and Jack sets himself the ambitious goal of getting Miles bedded before the week is up. This seems like a nice, best-buddy thing to do, especially considering the penury Miles has experienced since his divorce. But astute observers know that such gambits on the part of vapid lustmuffins such as Jack are usually doubled when applied to themselves. And Jack selects a vulnerable target in Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mother working as a pourer who happens to know Maya and is amenable to a harmless little double date. 

What happens on that date and the rest of the week may be inferred with little difficulty. Jack and Miles will imbibe until no iota of reality has been spared; Maya and Stephanie will become increasingly besotted in their own fashion; Miles will have his novel rejected and drown his constantly revived sorrows in the finest grapes that California can offer; and platitudes will be exchanged that gain in relevance as our heroes slip from sobriety. That said, the acting is superb and pleasantly meek (only one member of the quartet explodes, and for very good reason) and what could easily have devolved into hysteria given some poor choices is always restrained. Hayden Church breathes life into a very old mannequin, imbuing Jack with the sort of fragility usually reserved for, well, people like Miles. There will be numerous revelations along the way, a good indication that the film was originally a novel, but we already sense what these "secrets" will involve. The best secrets, you see, are the ones whose general outline you might have guessed but whose details are unexpected. Not unlike those fine wines stored on their sides to keep their corks moist.

Tuesday
Nov012016

Vallejo, "París, Octubre 1936"

A work ("Paris, October 1936") by this Peruvian poet.  You can read the original here.

From all this only I shall be departing.  
From this lone bench, and from my two socks' tracks, 
From my great state, my actions, and my acts,
From my own number clove apart by parting, 
From all this only I shall be departing.

From the Champs-Élysées, or turning down  
The curious little alley of the Moon,  
My death will go and leave my cradle's swoon,  
My human likeness lost amidst a crowd,  
Will also turn, dispatching as allowed,   
One shadow at a time, as if in tune.   

From everything my distance I defend, 
All things remain to forge my alibi:  
My shoe, its eyelet, and its muddy lie,  
Till the duplicitous soft elbow bend 
Of my own shirt, all buttoned to the end.  

Friday
Oct282016

Novalis, "Wer einsam sitzt in seiner Kammer"

A work ("Who sits forlorn within his room") by this German poet.  You can read the original here.

Who sits forlorn within his room,
And cries such grave and bitter tears,
So will this region then appear
Besmirched by misery and gloom. 

Who, thinking of times long ago,
Too deep inspects the bleak abyss,
In which from every side persists
Sweet pain that draws him down below,  

It is as if wild treasures lay 
Beneath in heaps for him alone;
And he with breathless breast forayed  
Against their castle ramparts' stone.  

Repulsed and fearful he espies   
His future trapped in dryest dunes; 
Alone, unwell, he roves and swoons, 
And seeks himself in tumult's eye.

I cry and fall into his arms:
I, too, was once like you, it seems.
But I learned much from wicked harm, 
E'en how to find eternal peace.  

You need for comfort, as I too,
A heart that's loved, endured and died; 
Who joyfully put pain aside, 
To perish variedly for you.  

He died, and yet still every day, 
You sense his love, you sense his face; 
Consoled but by thoughts gone astray 
Of him once more in your embrace.   

With him arrives new blood, new life,
In your decaying pile of bone;
And if your heart was his alone, 
So is yours his, bereft of strife.  

What you have loved he will provide;  
What you have lost he since has found: 
Forever will remain so bound, 
What his firm hands choose not to hide.

Monday
Oct242016

Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg

I have often been to Heidelberg. I studied, as it were, not one hundred fifty miles away, in another small German town renowned for its university, and would travel north, west and south through Heidelberg to other, fabulous German cities. Those cities are fabulous because, in the most complimentary way possible, they are indistinguishable from one another. Surely many were razed in those dozen demonic years that converted Europe's most civilized nation into its most barbaric; but since Germans are sticklers for documents, details, and archives, many of the buildings were reconstructed according to the original blueprints. One can compare pre- and postwar photos and detect an uncanny continuity. That they were so akin in genteel beauty, in cleanliness, and in comfort to begin with is not lost on the circumspect historian, who smiles that they will now remain so forever.   

One thing I did not do that most people do in Baden-Württemberg is make use of that most basic of human vehicles, the proverbial two wheels on a stick, the smokeless, dirtless bipedal Draisine, invented two hundred years ago in a town immediately outside Heidelberg. Embarrassingly enough, I, an urban stripling par excellence, never quite mastered what was the only activity some of my toddling contemporaries (a few of whom could barely speak, much less read or write) could do well; heaven knows they practiced long enough. Perhaps had I bothered to rectify this problem I would have slipped more seamlessly into the green-hilled splendor of Freiburg, or the evening harbor lights of Hamburg, or even the artisan throb of Berlin. In all these places bicycles were replacing cars, the wicked metal boxes which a century ago had tried – in devastating portention – to annihilate them. The motorized death traps were ultimately unsuccessful in Germany, although they still reign supreme in countries more abstentious from democratic habits. Yet among Germany's moneyed stratum – a slim but robust layer, a bit like a champion arm wrestler – you will find some of the most exquisite cars the world has ever known, crafted for and in Drais's homeland. You see, despite its intellectual and economic clout, Germany prides itself on equality. It believes, and rightly so, that you may snarl and snicker all you want in the Kneipe, but in the public eye and print, you must champion the ideals trumpeted by their famous compatriot. A Moonlight Sonata may evoke the lonely, Romantic poet and his eternal dreams, however grandiose or wishy-washy they may be; but there is little doubt as to the meaning of the brotherhood of men. 

One such brother is a young German by the name of – well, we are never actually given his name. It may not be an important omission. I mean, when do we hear stories about people that don't have names? Doesn't everyone have a name, even if, as we get older and accumulate lists of names and faces attached to those names, we as readers automatically scrutinize a protagonist's identity? In any case, our nameless German seems to be a fine young man in his mid-twenties, the springtime of intellectual and spiritual development. He lives somewhere in the vicinity of Heidelberg – one of the most magnificent regions on our divisive planet – and makes the most of it: he keeps in shape with long, early-morning bike rides; sees his parents and his older brother Karl regularly, even if the three treat him as one might relate to a bright schoolchild who mistakes his reinventions of the wheel for epiphanies; studies for his exams, including an unusual minor – Spanish language; and is engaged to an equally fine young woman called Carola. We know he is serious about Carola because he picks tulips with which to surprise her mother, who, with that intuition unique to mothers, suspects he would be the type of young man who might do just that. And one day, as he is about to leave to see Carola and her parents, his father steps out towards our man's car, checks the tires, and poses what seems to be a "random, harmless" question: "Do you still often drive to Heidelberg?" Whether the question may safely be deemed harmless will depend on its recipient; but when our man's mother tells him, in that tone of voice unique to mothers, that he shouldn't "drive to Heidelberg that often," the notion of randomness loses a great deal of plausibility. That his mother then punctuates her warning with the afterthought "in that car" sounds just as dimly coincidental.

What car, you say? An old car, obliged to make "an eighty-kilometer round trip two or three times a week," which may be a lot to ask of such a banged-up lemon. Our hero explains to his father that one reason why he still drives such an unseemly metal box is because "it will be a while before [he] can afford a Mercedes" – not that it appears as if he would burden himself with such luxuries even if his finances permitted them. Indeed, although our narrative is in the third person, we have more than a hunch that the omniscient voice that refuses to reveal the narrator's name – perhaps now, we consider, to protect him – shares his character's world view:

The terrace was larger; the blinds, if somewhat faded, were more generous; the entire scene was more elegant; and even in the hardly noticeable decrepitude of the lawn furniture, in the grass which grew between the gaps of the red tiles, was something that irritated him as much as loose talk had at many a student demonstration. Such things and clothes in general were subjects of annoyance between him and Carola, who always accused him of dressing in too bourgeois a fashion. He talked to Carola's mother about different types of vegetables and her father about cycling, found the coffee worse than at home, and tried not to let his nervousness devolve into irritation. They were, however, nice progressive people who had accepted him without any prejudices whatsoever, even officially, when the engagement was announced. Since that time he had come to like them genuinely, even Carola's mother, whose oft-uttered epithet 'charming' had initially annoyed him.

On second thought, perhaps the narrator – he is supposed to be omniscient, after all – does know a few things our man does not. As the title work in this collection should we take the query, that is so much more of a warning than a query, at face value? Does our man really travel to Heidelberg too often? And what on earth might he be doing in that serene and scholarly town known for its cosmopolitan learning and library? If you recall, our man, apart from being a conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring fellow – just what the world needs more of, if you ask me – has for a while now studied Spanish. In fact, his parents frequently ask him whether he knows the Spanish word for this or that, even though one never gets the sense that they care about the response. Perhaps they are simply loving parents indulging their child's creative whims? This is unclear, although we come to suspect the narrator knows a lot more than he is letting on. And we haven't even mentioned a man known only as Kronsorgeler.

Thursday
Oct202016

Pasternak, "Во всем мне хочется дойти"

A work ("In everything I want to grasp") by the Russian poet more immediately associated with this famous novel.  The original of the poem is here.

In everything I want to grasp
The essence underneath the nerve;
In work and on my chosen path
The languor that my heartstrings serve.

The essence of the days long past,
What are their purpose and design?
Which principles, which roots will last,
What core within the ball of twine?

And all the while to hold this string
Of life’s events and sundry fates:
To live, to love, to feel, to think,
To enter new and uncrossed gates.

If I could but elucidate
My passion whole or just in part;
Then I’d describe in lines of eight,
What sparks reside within my heart.

Outlaws and sins would be my stars,
Pursuits and flights their lone resort;
And happenstance beguiled by scars
Would hasten palms and elbows forth.

Its law I would uncover bare
And show its source, its wellspring pure;
Its name I would repeat and wear
Upon my sleeve and soul demure.

And verse would grow in gardens mine,
A quiv’ring vein in every patch;
And there would bloom a linden line
Of single file and common back.

This verse would bear a rosy scent
And breaths of mint, and meadowed gaps;
And hay and sedge would too be lent
To scenes beneath my thunder claps.

So did Chopin infuse his staves
With wondrous life in greenest green;
Etudes of parks, of groves, of graves,
Estates which lived behind his sheen.

Both pain and joyous play arise
In all victories achieved;
A bowstring taut before our eyes,
Released in triumph unretrieved.