"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 28, 2013

"The Name of the Rose" (1980) by Umberto Eco (Book Review)

The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980; English translation by William Weaver 1983) by Umberto Eco is a typical postmodern novel: a pastiche of a detective novel and a mixture of high and low culture, it is also a historical novel written from a great familiarity with the Middle Ages, and a philosophical novel in which the plot mirrors the theological discussions of the age, such as the millenarian heresies (the interest in sects is characteristic of Eco, fully developed in his second novel Foucault's Pendulum). Numerous philosophers are referenced throughout the novel, some even anachronistically!

What is amazing about this novel is its immense popularity – despite the many Latin citations (usually left untranslated) and the arcane discussions and long descriptions, this book sold 50 million copies worldwide – a true sign of the mastery with which Umberto Eco wrote his first novel.

[Umberto Eco - Photo from Wikipedia]

Eco provides more than only an imitation of the detective novel style: we also have a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes in the “hero,” William of Baskerville. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his Benedictine novice and scribe Adso of Melk (his young Watson, so to speak – likewise, Adso serves as the narrator) travel to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological dispute. As they arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide (or murder?) and in the next days, more monks mysteriously die. William is asked by the abbot of the monastery to investigate the deaths. His exploration leads him to the labyrinthine library of the monastery where the clue to the mystery seems to be hidden.

There are various subplots, for example about heretical and rebellious religious movements and the Inquisition. Eco often translates these medieval religious controversies into modern terms. As a true postmodernist, Eco enjoys every opportunity for lengthy digressions and stories in stories. He also enjoys making lists of things, something in common between Medieval authors and postmodernists. Another strong characteristic of the novel is its intertextuality. As Eco says: "Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told." It is the postmodern ideal that texts refer to other texts, rather than external reality. The Name of the Rose contains references to several stories by Borges (such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Secret Miracle,” “Death and the Compass”), to Conan Doyle, to Aristotle (an intertextual reference to a lost text by this great philosopher!), and to countless medieval texts – the Inquisition trial in the novel, for example, paraphrases an Inquisition record. The “poisoned page” method used by the murderer, finally, appears in an apocryphal anecdote about the purported author of the Chinese novel Jinpingmei, Wang Shichen, but I am not sure Eco was aware of that (popular but unverifiable tradition attributes the Jinpingmei to the Confucian scholar Wang Shicheng, who is said to have dashed off the huge novel in just six weeks to get revenge on the decadent Yen Shifan, the son of the man he blamed for his father's death; Wang sent Yen the manuscript as a gift after rubbing grains of poison into the corner of each page so that Yen would ingest them when he wet his finger in his mouth to turn the pages).

[The monastery of San Michele formed the inspiration for Eco's fictional abbey]

These are the Middle Ages, but true to the scholastic method, William demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning, and does not believe in demons or the supernatural. He keeps an open mind and following his intuition, collects the necessary facts. By the way, the name “William” points to William of Ockham, who around the years in which the novel is set, put forward the principle known as "Ockham's Razor," that one should always accept as most-likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts.

True to the postmodern sensibility, the solving of the murder mystery is also a metaphor for the reader's interpretation of the text. That solution interestingly hinges on the contents of Aristotle's Book on Comedy, of which no copy survives. Eco however plausibly describes it and skilfully mixes fact and scholarly conjecture. It is highly interesting that the murderer, a monk, had as motive that he wanted to keep this book and the subversive power of laughter out of the hands of others – the Church has never been fun-loving. By the way, despite his intricate reasoning, William discovers the murderer by accident – he was in fact misled by his theory that the murders are based on the Revelation of John, just as the detective in Borges' “Death and the Compass” was misled by his intellectual reasoning.

It is wonderful how everything in The Name of the Rose comes together in the form of texts and books: we have a postmodern novel with heaps of intertextuality, the largest library in the medieval world (a secret place, fitted out with mirrors and built of seemingly endless galleries), a book that is used as a tool for murder, and the same book that is also the cause of the crime (The Book on Comedy which had to be kept from the world). The detective, William of Baskerville, has read so many books that he needs glasses – here presented as a new-fangled invention – and the murderer, of course, is a blind librarian. To make the circle round, this librarian was based on Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories as mentioned above formed a major influence on Eco - Borges was blind during his later years and was also director of Argentina's national library.

Finally, Eco is also a semiotician, and that is how the title comes into focus. What does the name “rose” point at – how are name and reality linked? Eco gives an ambiguous Latin citation here, but could it not be from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” - in other words, even when you change the name, the thing remains the same? This would then mean that any title for the novel will do, for ultimately the book itself remains the same. Or, as Eco writes in his Postscript, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”

This post incorporates suggestions and references from the English Wikipedia article on the novel.

The Name of the Rose was made into a film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as Adso. Film and novel are different media, but I was pleasantly surprised at the faithfulness with which the novel was translated in filmic terms. There are some changes to the plot, but the basic set-up remains intact and the atmosphere of the monastery on the lonely mountain peak is skilfully realized. The only serious blot on the film is the miscasting of Sean Connery in the main role.

January 23, 2013

"Elective Affinities" (1809) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities (in German: Die Wahlverwandtschaften; also translated as "Kindred by Choice"), Goethe's third novel, published in 1809, is a strange book. Even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to deal with it: was the great author in his tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even mistakingly thought to argue for the chemical origin of love! But what was the meaning of this novel written in a strangely detached tone (one could even speak of an “august style” - a far cry from the liveliness of English contemporary Jane Austen) and composed with the utmost care, but dealing with a highly emotional content? The principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how fierce their feelings.

Elective Affinities tells the story of Baron Eduard and his wife Charlotte, wealthy aristocrats who have married each other for love after earlier marriages of convenience. They live on a country estate (to which the action of the novel is limited) and spend most of their time managing and improving the estate. No expense is spared on garden design, the construction of a summer house, road improvement and church restoration. Then they decide to bring some variation into their life of rural idyll by inviting a couple of visitors: Eduard's best friend, Otto - in the novel usually called "the Captain" - and Charlotte's beautiful, docile niece, Ottilie.

[Goethe portrait from Wikipedia]

Goethe here introduces the chemical metaphor of “elective affinities” - as in an experiment in chemistry, also in human relations instant recombinations may take place - this is what the title of the novel points at. Or is there a free choice ("Wahl")? When Eduard and Charlotte start playing games with their own and other's lives, they will notice that things can easily get out of control – human nature is different from the nature in their park and cannot be so easily mastered. There are perfectly good reasons for inviting The Captain and Otille, but doing so can very well upset the balance between Eduard and Charlotte.

And indeed, the inevitable happens. At first these four people get along famously: they take long walks together and in the evenings make music. But is gradually becomes clear that Eduard is irrevocably attracted to Ottilie and Charlotte to the Captain. Charlotte and the Captain, two rational characters, struggle against their inclination, without transgressing any borders; but Eduard helplessly succumbs to it and the young Ottilie also falls for the older man. They are both emotional natures.

Charlotte confronts her husband but refuses to agree to a divorce. Eduard and the Captain leave the estate for a trial seperation - Eduard starts living apart on one of his farms and later decides to go to war (it was the time of the Napoleonic Wars), even though Charlotte has just given birth to his baby. The second part of the novel introduces new characters, such as an architect who decorates a chapel in the village church; and the Assistant of Otillie's college who is in love with her. We also see Charlotte's exuberant, hyperactive daughter and her extravagant wedding party to a rich Baron as a contrast to the quiet and serious Otillie. Otillie, for her part, grows more and more ethereal and has started a diary in which she mainly writes impersonal maxims.

But when Eduard returns, things come to a head. When he unexpectedly appears before Otillie, who is out in the park carrying his and Charlotte's baby, she panicks so much that she ends up dropping the baby in the lake. The first victim has been made, but it will not end here. Seemingly harmless at first, the experiment which toyed with real feelings has gotten out of hand and finally has deadly results. Eduard later commits suicide, and Otillie in the end dies of anorexia. She is buried in the newly decorated chapel of the village church, in a glass coffin, and the villagers adore her as a saintly figure...

That last thing sure is irony. But then, Goethe himself was a bit in love with her character – although married, even until high age he entertained spontaneous passions for various young women. One could say that he has written what can almost be called a postmodern novel about the conflicts those passions caused in him.

I have read the German version available on Gutenberg (another one can be found at Zeno); an English translation is available at Archive. There are also excellent English versions in Penguin and Oxford Classics.

January 21, 2013

"The Seventh Seal" & "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman (Movie Review)

There is some justification for taking these two films together: both The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet) (1957) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) (1960) by classical Swedish director Ingmar Bergman are set in the Middle Ages and they are existential struggles with the (non-) existence (silence) of God. The Seventh Seal was the Cannes prize-winning film that made Bergman famous over the whole world, the landmark art film that stood at the beginning of the art house. The Virgin Spring is conceptionally a lesser work, later even discredited by Bergman  (although winner of the "best foreign picture" Academy Award), but it shares the same high level of performances and beautiful images. In both films, Bergman shows he is a disciple of the Japanese director Kurosawa (especially Rashomon) and his countryman Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc).

In The Seventh Seal a medieval knight, Block (Max von Sydow), who has returned from the Crusades together with his squire Jöns, trecks through a landscape ravaged by the Black Death on the way to his castle. By challenging Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess he is able to keep him at bay. During the trip, he meets a juggler with his young family, but also groups of religious nuts, flagellants, a young women who is going to be burnt on the stake "as she has had intercourse with the devil," and a degenerate priest who steals from those who have died in the plague.

In The Virgin Spring, a beautiful young woman, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is on her way to bring candles to church, is raped and murdered by three goatherd brothers, who later – ironically enough – happen to ask for lodging in the castle of the woman's father (Max von Sydow). One of the men offers the clothes of the dead girl for sale to the mother, an even greater irony because this is how they are found out. The father then prepares himself for battle in a pagan way and in cold blood executes the killers, one of whom is a mere boy.

Although the stories are different, there are several similarities between these films. Both films have an archaic quality and feature archetypal characters living in a remote and vague past and speaking high-minded dialogues. They also share a certain mannerism, although the evocation of the Middle Ages with simple means is very natural (just as the Japanese past was evoked in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa).

Both films question the existence of God, the one by relentless images of war, plague and the falling apart of society, the other by questioning how God could allow the so cruel death of a young, innocent woman. Both films are morality plays, in which Everyman faces Death and Evil.

The Seventh Seal is often reduced to that one iconic image of the chess game on the beach, with the sea as background, and as opponents the medieval knight Block and the black-hooded, white-faced Death. The Virgin Spring is built around another iconic scene, the rape and murder of Karin, which in its brutality shocked 1960 audiences.

Both films end with an epiphany: in The Seventh Seal the final images are of a near-silhouette "Dance of Death," where Block, his wife and his friends are claimed by Death after losing the chess game (Block has however been able to save the entertainers and their young child, and so given meaning to his own existence); in The Virgin Spring, the fresh spring that miraculously bubbles from the ground where the daughter had been killed.

Both classical films inspire us to look for meaning in the world around us, before Death has us checkmate.
9 points out of 10 for both films. Ingmar Bergman official website. The "Seventh Seal" of the film title refers to Revelations, where the seventh seal to be broken on the day of last judgment, will reveal "the secrets of God." The Virgin Spring was based on a Medieval Swedish ballad. The film served as the basis for the trashy shocker The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven (1972).

January 20, 2013

Bach Cantatas (46): Trinity XIII

The thirteenth Sunday after Trinity treats the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Galatians 3:15–22, law and promise
Luke 10:23–37, parable of the Good Samaritan


  • Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, BWV 77, 22 August 1723

    Coro: Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben
    Recitativo (bass): So muss es sein!
    Aria (soprano): Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen
    Recitativo (tenor): Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz
    Aria (alto): Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe
    Chorale: Herr, durch den Glauben wohn in mir

    ("You shall love God, your Lord") Cantata based on the parable of the good Samaritan. The opening chorus is rich in religious and musical symbolism, an expression of the theological foundations of both the Old and New Testaments. Trumpet and continuo play a choral tune by Luther (“Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot”), representing the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The choral is played in a canon and “canon” not coincidentally also means “law.” In the canon, the trumpet playing in its highest register is twice as fast as the bass part and there are a symbolical ten entries of the instrument. Against this background, the chorus sings the New Testamental theological addition of the dualism of love of God and brotherly love, “You shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The melody to which the chorus sings this is cleverly derived from the canon – the vocal parts are diminutions of the chorale theme turned upside down and backwards, something which has been compared to “a giant oriental carpet in which the front side is the choral music and the back side is the Old Testament underpinning.” After a short secco recitative, the cantata continues with a soprano aria (“My God, I love You from my heart, my entire life depends on You”), accompanied by two obbligato oboes playing in tender third parallels. This simple aria forms a lovely contrast to the contrapuntal fireworks of the opening chorus. The alto aria (“Ah, in my love there is still nothing but imperfection”), which follows after a second recitative, features as its obbligato a haunting trumpet, the only instance in Bach's cantatas where this instrument is used in a quiet soulful manner rather than a military way. The aria has the form of a Sarabande and Bach conveys the imperfection of the human attempt to live by the law of love, by composing "awkward intervals" for the valveless instrument. An austere setting of the Luther Chorale "Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein" ends the cantata.

  • Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 33, 3 September 1724

    Coro: Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
    Recitativo (bass): Mein Gott und Richter
    Aria (alto): Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte
    Recitativo (tenor): Mein Gott, verwirf mich nicht
    Aria (tenor, bass): Gott, der du die Liebe heißt
    Chorale: Ehr sei Gott in dem höchsten Thron

    ("Towards you alone, Lord Jesus Christ") Chorale cantata with the original chorale melody by Konrad Hubert (1540) appearing in the first and last movements – and only an indirect reflection of the readings for this Sunday. In the opening chorus (“Only upon You, Lord Jesus Christ, does my hope rest on earth”) the cantus firmus is sung by the soprano, but what attracts our attention first and for all, are the expansive ritornellos by oboes and strings, with an energetic forward propulsion through upward rushing scales, that almost eclipse the hymn. It is like a small concerto. The alto aria (“How fearfully my steps wander, yet Jesus listens to my pleas and shows me to His Father”) is in contrast quietly accompanied by muted first violins and pizzicato in the other strings, while the fearful, shaky steps appear in syncopated lines – this all in a typical “stepping” rhythm. After a recitative follows a duet (“God, You who are called Love, ignite my spirit,”) for tenor and bass accompanied by two oboes that are playing a duet themselves. It depicts God's love in consonant parallel sixths and thirds, forming a symbolical image of unity. The cantata is concluded by a rich, melismatic harmonisation of the choral tune.

  • Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet, BWV 164, 26 August 1725

    Aria (tenor, strings): Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet
    Recitativo (bass): Wir hören zwar, was selbst die Liebe spricht
    Aria (alto, flutes): Nur durch Lieb und durch Erbarmen
    Recitativo (tenor, strings): Ach, schmelze doch durch deinen Liebesstrahl
    Aria (soprano, bass, flutes, oboes, strings): Händen, die sich nicht verschließen
    Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte

    ("You, who call yourselves of Christ") A more personal reaction to the parabel of the Good Samaritan, dating from Bach's Weimar period and essentially chamber music. The cantata starts with a tenor aria (“You, who call yourselves of Christ, where is your mercy”) in gently flowing 9/8 rhythm, a contrast with the text scolding the professed Christian for his stony heart. Rather than anger, it expresses Christ's sadness at the hypocrisy of his followers. The following bass recitative is tougher in tone. This is followed by a gentle alto aria (“Only through love and through mercy will we become like God himself”), accompanied by two gorgeous flutes, depicting the consolation brought by the Good Samaritan. A second recitative is followed by a pleasant duet for soprano and bass which is introduced by an orchestral accompaniment. Forgiveness is expressed by music in the treble instruments, in canon with the bass instruments. This has been compared to two open hands moving together, expressing the text “To hands that do not close will heaven be opened.” The cantata closes with a straightforward setting of a beautiful chorale melody.

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

January 7, 2013

"Zeno's Conscience" by Italo Svevo (Book Review)

Even if James Joyce had not written Ulysses, he would still be important for world literature for he was the discoverer of the Italian author Italo Svevo, whose major work, Zeno's Conscience (La conscienza di Zeno, 1923 - tr. by William Weaver, 2001), I want to discuss here.

Italo Svevo (1861-1928), whose real name was Aron Ettore Schmitz, was born in Trieste (a city in northwestern Italy, at that time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) into a Jewish family of German-Hungarian and Italian descent. His schooling was in the first place German, and he felt never completely comfortable when writing literary Italian (which was based on the Tuscan dialect, not on the Triestine one he heard around him). Svevo cherished the dream of becoming an actor, but a reversal in his father's business forced him to become a clerk in the Trieste branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. Outside office hours, he avidly read literature, with Zola as his idol. In the 1890s he published two short novels at his own expense, A Life (Una Vita, 1892) and As a Man Grows Older (Senilità, 1898), but as they were not very succesful, he abandoned literature. Svevo then married into a prominent Trieste family and joined the successful marine paint company set up by his his father-in-law.

[Italo Svevo. Photo Wikipedia]

In 1907, this company - which had a patented product that slowed down corrosion - , decided to set up a branch in London. Svevo was going to establish the branch office and needed to learn some English. He took a private tutor and by a happy twist of fate, that teacher turned out to be the young James Joyce (!), who was then working in Trieste at the Berlitz School. They talked about literature and Svevo showed Joyce his novels. Joyce expressed his admiration, and so stimulated Svevo to start writing again. It took until 1923 before the fruits of that renewed endeavor were published: Zeno's Conscience – and James Joyce, by now famous, promoted it by arranging a French translation. As a result, the 62-year old Svevo became famous, also in Italy. Svevo was working on a sequel when unfortuantely he was killed in a car crash in 1928.

The narrator of the novel, called Zeno Cosini, tells five stories; the book is not arranged chronologically but according to subject matter: Zeno's attempts to quit smoking, the death of his father, his courtship and marriage, his mistress (or rather, one of them), and the story of his business partnership with his brother-in-law. At the time the novel was written, psychoanalysis was popular and this provides the frame for the novel: the middle-aged Zeno feels there is something wrong with him and visits a psychoanalyst. For starters, the doctor wants him to write about his life – and when Zeno suddenly stops the treatment, the doctor publishes the manuscript in order to compensate for lost fees.

Zeno is a hardcore nicotine addict, who can't stop smoking and uses endless reasonings with himself that the next cigarette will be the last; he is also a guilt-ridden adulterer, who continually justifies his awkward affairs while convincing himself that he loves his wife; and a bumbling businessman who is caught in a doomed partnership with hs brother-in-law. As the narrative unfolds, the creative bookkeeping of his conscience becomes increasingly intricate. “Resolutions existed for their own sake and had no practical results whatever.” At the same time, he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions, he is caught in the paradox of his own convoluted rationalizations. But his constant whitewashings are also alarmingly like the fictions many people tell themselves on a daily basis.

This may come over as rather serious, but the novel is above all extremely funny. Svevo learned much from Kafka. Zeno's tale is a comical exercise in self-revelation, that is as false as it can be, and the psychoanalytic treatment leads not surprisingly nowhere at all. Zeno never finds a solution for his problems – Svevo is not only skeptical about psychoanalyssis, but also more fundamentally about the notion that people can cure themselves - , but Zeno's not so honest confessions and extravagant fantasies make a great story, not in the least because he accepts everything he sees with humor.

The most funny part is the one about Zeno's courtship. Zeno is invited into the home an important businessman to select one of the four daughters for marriage. All daughters have names starting with an A, Zeno is of course a Z. The eldest daughter, Ada, is a classical beauty; the second, Augusta is out of the question as she has a squint; the third one is interesting but prefers intellectual pursuits to marriage and the fourth one is still too young. Of course, everything goes wrong - when Zeno tries to make polite conversation, he ends up uttering insults; when he leans nonchalantly on his umbrella (a Freudian symbol), the umbrella snaps in two, causing general mirth. And as could be expected Zeno ends up marrying the daughter with the squint – Ada dislikes him and already has promised herself to Guido, a German suitor. The whole family schemes to push Zeno into the marriage with Augusta – finally putting her next to him in a dark room so that he mistakes her for Ada and asks for her hand! But Augusta proves to be an excellent wife, who puts his chaotic house in order.

In the end, the sickness of Zeno, of which he doesn't want to be cured, is the civilizational crisis of Europe itself, the mal du siècle, which led to the wars of the 20th century. Svevo is remarkably silent about the major political events that shaped history during his life, just as there are no overtly Jewish characters or themes in his work. Although the Habsburg Empire broke apart in 1918, his comfortable life in Trieste continued without major upheaval, at least until his death. But later history would overtake his family with a vengeance: during WWII, his wife and daughter had to hide for the Fascist “purification” squads; of his three grandsons, two died at the Russian front, the other was killed when he took part in a rebellion against the Nazis in 1945.

The best English translation is by William Weaver (who has also translated work by Eco, Calvino and Pirandello), published by Vintage. There is an interesting essay about Svevo in Inner Workings by J.M. Coetzee.

January 6, 2013

"The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" by José Saramago (Book Review)

José Saramago (1922-2010) is one of Portugal's major novelists, who in 1998 received the Noble Prize in Literature.

Saramago had come late to literature. His parents were poor farm workers, his mother never learned to read. Because of lack of funds, Saramago couldn't go to grammar school, but had to start working in odd jobs at a young age. Among these jobs was also that of translator and critic for a publishing company. He educated himself by spending long hours reading in libraries. At age 25 he published a first novel, which was not succesful, and Saramago decided he “had nothing to say” at that time and stopped writing. But finally, in the mid-seventies, after finding himself out of a job due to the cooling down of the 1974 democratization process (the “Carnation Revolution”) in which he had whole-heartedly participated, Saramago decided to become a fulltime writer. His first novel of this new writing period appeared in 1977 (when he was 55), and from then until his death at the advanced age of 87, he wrote more than 15 novels plus nonfiction work, such as personal memories and a travelogue, on such a high level that already in 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

[José Saramago. Photo Wikipedia]

Saramago was a man of strong opinions. Politically, he was a communist, perhaps as a reaction to the fact that until 1974 he lived under a fascist dictatorship. Besides being politically against the grain, he also harbored strong stylistic idiosyncresies, as readers will immediately notice. He skips quotation marks, dialogue is only indicated by a comma followed by a capital letter. This gives his writings a dreamy quality, as if even discussions are filtered through the mind of the narrator. His rambling sentences run on and on and he uses paragraphing only sparingly. Saramago also frequently digresses from the story, giving ample authorial philosophical comments on the significance of situations encountered in the story.

Saramago finds his themes in Portugal, its culture and politics, but always with a wider relevance for the general human condition. He also criticized religion and when his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was sidetracked for a European prize by the Portuguese government, in order “not to offend Catholics,” he left Portugal and started living on the island of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canaries.

One of Saramago's best works is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis), a surreal, magic-realist novel published in 1986 (English translation: 1991) and in my view one of the great novels of all time.

Ricardo Reis is a medical doctor and poet who after having lived for 16 years in a sort of self-imposed exile in Brazil, returns to Portugal in the last days of 1935. Alone, he stays in a hotel and in the rainy winter weather walks the streets of Lisbon. On his strolls Reis observes the changes that have taken place since he left for Brazil; the city almost becomes a character in the novel. Reis also is an avid newspaper reader, even studying the advertisements to see what they reveal about modern culture. In this way he also learns about the gathering clouds of European fascism. Portugal itself, which has lost its empire but not its pride, has become a European backwater and fallen into the hands of the Fascist dictator Salazar. The newspapers warmly applaud the rise of Hitler in Germany and the coup by General Franco in neighboring Spain, as well as the "heroic" war against Ethiopia by Mussolini.

Reis strikes up relationships with three persons: two women, and a dead poet. The first woman is the hotel-maid, Lydia, who secretly shares his bed at night, and later, after Reis has rented his own apartment, in addition provides free house-keeping. Saramago stresses the class difference between doctor and maid (still a factor in the 1930s), which always keeps them apart, but also shows that Reis gradually learns this warm person has her own mind and sense of independence.

The second woman is Marcenda, an aristocratic, virginal women with a paralyzed arm who once a month comes to Lisbon with her father to see a specialist (her father uses that as a cover for his own visit to a prostitute). When Reis once happens to touch Marcenda's broken hand, there is a romantic and even sexual surge that surpasses any more physical encounter. Marcenda is, however,  circumspect about their friendship and in the end disappears from Reis' life.

Reis also meets an old friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa, who has died a few months ago but whose ghost, passing through walls and doors and clad in his funeral suit, visits him at odd times for various deep discussions.

A visitation by a dead poet almost seems like a ghost story, but here we have to step outside the novel for a moment as Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is a historical person – in fact, Pessoa was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century. And the character of Ricardo Reis was not made up by Saramago, but was one of the many pseudonyms under which Fernando Pessoa wrote his poetry. In fact, “pseudonym” is not the right word. Pessoa gave his numerous adopted personages their own biographies and he wrote poetry in a different style for each character. Pessoa therefore didn't speak of pseudonyms or personae, but he called these multiple authorial selves “heteronyms.”

[Fernando Pessoa. Photo Wikipedia]

So this is also a novel about Ferdinand Pessoa, a literary figure of surprising postmodernity, who left most of his oeuvre on thousands and thousands of fragmentary slips of paper. Pessoa himself was a great flaneur, like Reis in the novel – he even wrote a walking guide to Lisssabon. He was born in Portugal, but educated in South Africa where he learned to speak and write in English. He spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon where by day he worked as translator and by night was a figure on the local modernist literary scene.

Among Pessoa's different personae, the one called "Ricardo Reis" was a meditative pagan who wrote classical odes, with as philosophy: “'See life from a distance. Never question it. There's nothing it can tell you.” After all, even the gods look upon us with indifference. Reis accepts fate with tranquility, also in Saramago's novel where he is a pure observer, even of the people around him – only Marcenda fills him with life and he withers away after he cannot see her anymore. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saramago talked of his love for the poems by Ricardo Reis / Fernando Passoa – he knew many of Reis' poems by heart and indeed, individual lines lie scattered throughout the novel.

Saramago writes in a style that is extremely dense, full of conceits and circumlocutions and echoes of other Portuguese literature. There are also subtle in-jokes, such as the frequent references to a book Reis is reading – it is The God of the Labyrinths by one "Herbert Quain," and readers of Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones will recognize this as a non-existent book invented by Borges in his short story “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

And in the end, when time is up also for Ricardo Reis, he meekly accompanies his dead companion Pessoa to the tomb. After all, what life has a heteronym after its author is already dead?

A true masterwork by one of Europe's major writers who deserves to be better known. I read the novel in English translation as a Harcourt paperback.

January 5, 2013

"A Bend in the River" (1979) by V.S. Naipaul (Book Review)

V.S. Naipaul (1932) has been called "the finest contemporary writer of English prose fiction." Unaffected by literary fashion, he has wrought a style of his own, and in his later works he even transcends the borders between fiction and non-fiction. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad from Indian parents; since his university years starting in 1950 he has been a resident of England, but he has also been a great traveler, to India and Pakistan, Southeast Asia, South America and Africa (starting in 1966 with a period as writer-in-residence at Kampala University in Uganda - see Sir Vidia's Shadow). To date, he has written 15 works of fiction and 19 works of non-fiction. As the Nobel Prize website puts it: "Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished."

Naipaul is very much a cosmopolitan writer, partly by necessity due to his lack of roots: his ancestors are Indian, but he feels alienated from that country; he was born in Trinidad in the Caribbean but is unhappy about the cultural poverty of the island; and in the U.K. he has embraced the language and the literature but remains aloof from the general society, living in a sort of retirement in a small village near Stonehenge.

A Bend in the River (1979) is considered as one of his greatest novels. It is set in central Africa, in the area described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Although unnamed, the town that features in the novel must be Kisangani (formerly called Stanleyville), and the river in which bend the town lies, is the Congo River. The novel is narrated by Salim, an Indian whose family had lived for generations on the East Coast of Africa. He has come to this other African country inland to be free from his family - and because of a business opportunity - Salim can take over a shop with stock.

So he does and we follow him as he settles as an outsider in the nameless town which shows the traces of willful destruction. During decolonization the population has vandalized the buildings put up by the colonists, but as nothing new has taken their place, the town is a ruin. The same is true for the whole country, which - as seems to be the fate of every country liberated from colonialism - is ruled with an iron hand by a dictator, the "Big Man," a character based on Mobutu, who in reality ruled the country that he renamed "Zaire" from 1971 to 1997.

Despite everything, there is a short-lived economic boom and Salim has success with his store. He also becomes involved with Yvette, the French wife of a scholar, Raymond, who in his turn has an ambiguous relation with the “Big Man.” But finally the emerging chaos in the larger political scene causes the renewed disintegration of the local economy, which is paralleled by the disintegration of Salim and Yvette’s relationship. Salim is an outsider, a rootless person, and he realizes he has no place in Africa: "The bush runs itself." Eventually he must give up everything.

A Bend in the River is not driven by a superficial plot, but floats on the stream of the thoughts of the narrator, about Africa, about history, about the corruption of mankind. Naipaul possesses a hard-edged sort of wit; his personal vision refuses to pay homage to political correctness on either side: he unflinchingly demonstrates the absurdity of life in a decolonized but dictatorial failed state, but also evades the cliff of nostalgia for colonialism. In the end the question for Salim and other uprooted people is: what is one's place in the world? "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it."
I read the Vintage edition of the novel. 

January 4, 2013

"Legend of the Holy Drinker" by Joseph Roth (Best Novellas)

When watching the New Year Concert from Vienna on TV this week, I was reminded that Strauss' polkas and waltzes formed the popular music of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while his marches were played by the imperial army bands. That Empire, governed from the "musical" capital of Vienna, consisted of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech, northeastern parts of Italy, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, parts of Ukraine and Poland, etc. It was a truly multinational state, and that was also its problem, as the second half of the 19th c. was a period of rising national consciousness - the Double Monarchy came to be regarded as a "prison of nations." As long as it lasted, it was the second largest country in Europe (after Russia) and the third most populous (after Russia and Germany).

The First World War was caused by an act of Bosnian-Serbian terrorism against the Habsburg crown prince. Austria-Hungary immediately declared war on Serbia, which was joined by Russia and later Italy. Although the Western front, opened by ally Germany against France (joined by the U.K. and later the U.S.) became more "famous" because of the terrible trench warfare, there was also this eastern front, the origin of the whole war, which led to the synchronous demise of the two main participants, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The large multinational state fell apart and only its core, the small country Austria with Vienna as a sort of water head, remained.

Those who were most negatively affected by this desintegration, were the two million Jews living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had no national affiliation and felt at home in the multinational empire, where they thrived and were able to come to good positions in the army, in medicine, science and in music. But after 1918, in the small nation states, Antisemitism became virulent.

This rambling preamble brings me to my topic: the author Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Roth grew up as the son of a Jewish family in Brody, at the easternmost reaches of the Empire. He studied in Vienna and was devastated by the end of his country, which came when he was in his mid-twenties: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."

Roth started writing for newspapers and in 1922 moved to Berlin, to work for the "Neue Berliner Zeitung." He also started writing fiction. His greatest achievement is generally considered to be the novel Radetzky March (1932), which tells of the flourishing and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seen through the fate of one family.

After Hitler came to power, Roth fled from Germany to Paris, where he continued writing during the thirties  until his death (brought on by alcoholism) in 1939. He wrote about 20 novels and a number of short stories; his collected works consist of six volumes, of which half is journalism.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker ("Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker", 1939) was Roth's last work, published posthumously in Amsterdam. It is a secular miracle-tale, a self-ironic fable into which Roth transformed his personal tragedy. Set in Paris, it follows a drunken vagrant, Andreas, a Polish miner who had come to France to work in the mines, but has lost his job due to trouble. Now he tramps through Paris without any papers, living under the Seine bridges like a true clochard. Then he has a series of lucky breaks that let him briefly taste of another life. A stranger gives him 200 francs and asks him to repay these, if he can, to the shrine of St. Theresa. As an honorable man, Andreas indeed tries to do so, but he is continually sidetracked - he either spends the money on wine and Pernod, or on lovemaking and a hotel room. But each time he runs out of cash, more is provided by another miracle... And in the end, Andreas repays the debt with his life in a beautiful epiphany. Convinced in his befuddled state that a little girl called Therese he encounters in a bar is Saint Therese, he drops dead at her feet with just the right amount of money in his pocket.

Roth himself seems to have been the most prodigious dinker of his time, but there is nothing of the alcoholic about this story written in a beautiful inspired and elegant style. The story is dry-eyed and witty, rather than sentimental. It is also full of innocence, an improbable twinkle of sweet light in the gathering darkness of Fascism. The Legend of the Holy Drinker is generally considered Roth's best novella, second only to the novel The Radetzky March - about which another time.

My attention was drawn to Joseph Roth by an essay of J.M. Coetzee in Inner Workings. I read the novella in the German complete works which are hosted at Archive.org). Many of Roth's novels and stories have been expertly translated into English by Michael Hofmann and others and published by Granta (here is "The Legend of the Holy Drinker").

Best Novellas

Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

January 3, 2013

Best Stories by Jorge Luis Borges

In 1961, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) finally arrived on the radar screen of readers and critics when he received the first Prix Formentor, the (European) International Publishers Prize, at a time that he was already in his 60s - Borges' best work had appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Now many translations of his short stories followed, in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths appeared in 1962) and other languages. Until that time, Borges had - except in his native country - only been known in France, where translations had appeared already in the 1950s, and Italy where Italo Calvino had enthusiastically written about his work.

 [Jorge Luis Borges - Photo from Wikipedia]

The rest is history - the mirrors, labyrinths, dreams and endless libraries of Borges now occupy an immensely important position in world literature.

In 1998 Viking/Penguin published Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, in a new translation by Andrew Hurley - until then, there had been several different translators, and although many were good enough, it is nice to have all Borges' stories in one and the same English voice, in what is evidently the most complete collection. Viking has also published companion volumes with anthologies of Borges' poetry and essays. The Collected Fictions is relatively complete, with only the strange omission of all works written in collaboration with others, such as The Book of Imaginary Beings (published separately by Penguin) and the many stories written together with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Another editing decision I do not approve of is to translate only the prose from The Maker and leave the poetry out - although Borges clearly meant this as a unified work. And a third point of criticism concerns the notes, which are too scanty. One now has to keep Google open next to the book (luckily easier thanks to the recent proliferation of pads and pods). Why are publishers afraid of notes?

Borges stories were originally published in the following collections:
  • A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935)
    Mostly retellings of historical legends about famous impostors, including the Japanese Chushingura in "The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké." Original is the last story, "Man on Pink Corner" ("Hombre della Esquida Rosada"), a violent tale about gaucho machismo and a knife fight that brought Borges some notoriety.   
  • The Garden of Forking Paths (El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941)
    The eight stories in The Garden of Forking Paths are all sublime, vintage Borges at his best. Borges explores the labyrinthine nature of reality and the impact of language on literature and philosophy. Several stories are concerned with imaginary books penned by fictional authors; reality and fiction have been seamlessly rolled into each other.
  • Artifices (Artificios, 1944) [together with the previous volume also brought out as Ficciones]
    Nine stories that continue in the same vein and on the same level as the previous collection.
  • The Aleph (El Aleph, 1949)
    The third great collection, although these 17 stories about the relationship between consciousness and reality and time and eternity are a bit more sprawling and less concentrated than those in the earlier collections. 
  • The Maker (El Hacedor, 1960).
    Aphorisms and sketches mingled with poetry. The complete book has been translated into English as Dreamtigers.
  • Brodie's Report (El informe de Brodie, 1970)
    11 new stories, written by Borges after he became world-famous - the popularity of his earlier stories must have formed an incentive to write another collection. Emphasis on gaucho's, like in the last story of A Universal History of Infamy, rather than imaginary books.
  • The Book of Sand  (El libro de arena, 1975)
    13 more stories. This time back to the theme of infinity.
  • Shakespeare's Memory (La Memoria de Shakespeare, 1983)
    Four final stories, published by Borges in a Spanish-language collection of short stories from the whole world which included tales by his favorite authors as Stevenson, Meyrink, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Bloy, Kafka, Poe, Wilde, Saki, Pu Songling, etc.
In all, Borges' fictional prose consists of about 100 stories, sketches and aphorisms. Many of Borges' works are hybrids - part story and part essay. Borges has been called "postmodern," in the sense that his stories are built on a huge range of other literature. Borges also employs fake sources, literature he himself has made up. His great examples were Poe, Kafka and, perhaps more surprisingly, Chesterton (Father Brown) - several of Borges' stories take the form of detective fiction (Borges is not very fond of Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes, who in his "puzzles" withholds crucial information from the reader).

Here are ten stories which I consider among the best (although this is very relative: all Borges stories are of the highest level, especially those in the Ficciones):
      • "The Library of Babel." ("La biblioteca de Babel", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        In this story the universe consists of a labyrinthine library, built of interlocking hexagonal rooms, containing on infinite number of books, imprinted with every possible ordering of letters on a fixed number of pages. The majority of the books, of which the order is random, are pure gibberish, but in this infinite number of books the library must also contain, somewhere among its billion billion billion (etc.) books, every book written or possible to be written in the future. In other words, the library contains all useful information, but in such a random way that it is completely useless (there was no Google yet). Borges himself was a librarian - he served for many years as Director of the National Public Library of Buenos Aires. This story was the inspiration for Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980), which features a labyrinthine library, presided over by a blind monk named "Jorge of Burgos."
      • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A spurious volume is found of a famous encyclopedia, containing an article about a mysterious country (Uqbar) which turns out to be part of an imaginary world (Tlön). As later becomes clear, behind this article is a conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön, as an exaggerated form of Berkeleian idealism. In Tlön, the 18th c. philosophical idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and materialism is considered as heresy. Physical objects can be willed into existence by sheer force of imagination. The story later turns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of earth. In this way, the story is also a protest against totalitarianism (which in the early 1940s when the story was written had the world in its grip).
      • “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A story in the form of an essay, a mock literary review of Pierre Menard, a fictional 20th-century French writer. After listing up Menard's work, Borges talks about his magnum opus, a word for word recreation of the Don Quixote in the original language. Borges uses this set-up to pose the problem of the interpretation of literary works, for Menard's Don Quixote, written in the 20th c. and therefore of necessity seen through different critical glasses than the original by Cervantes from the early 17th c., is "more subtle and richer" than the original - although both are word for word the same! "Every time a book is read or re-read... something happens to the book."
      • “The Babylon Lottery” ("La Lotería en Babilonia", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A vision of a society ruled by a random, invisible, and godlike corporation. All activities are dictated by a huge lottery. But the lottery gradually changes in a sinister way, when punishments are introduced, and participation becomes mandatory for all but the elite. Secrecy also increases:  "The Company has never existed, and never will." Rather than an allegory for the role chance plays in life, this is a dark vision of a dictatorial society. 
      • “The Garden of Forking Paths” ("El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan", from The Garden of Forking Paths) A unique spy story about the elaborate strategy employed by a Chinese scholar, operating as a spy in England during WWI, for sending a message to his contact person in Germany. In the short compass of under ten pages we find an intricate plot, featuring Borges' trademark labyrinth, riddles, cross-cultural confusions, duplicitous role playing and an alternative reality angle. Borges also describes the concept that a novel can be read in multiple ways - in other words, he "invents" the hypertext novel long before its time! (This idea was put into practice by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar, whose 1962 novel Hopscotch can be read via various paths). 
      • “Funes, the Memorius” ("Funes el memorioso, from Artifices)
        An accident leaves a teenage boy, Funes, paralyzed, but with such a strong memory that every incident in his life is preserved in his mind and he can forgot nothing. But because Funes can remember every physical object he ever saw, he has no need of generalization and therefore lacks that ability. This in fact means that he is worse off than ordinary people - his detailed memory serves no purpose. In order to think, as in science and philosophy, it is necessary to make generalizations and abstractions. "To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details."
      • “Death and the Compass” ("La muerte y la brújula", from Artifices)
        A private investigator attempts to solve a mysterious series of murders which seem to follow a kabbalistic pattern; the principal clue is the unspeakable four-letter name of God (near the scene of the first murder is found the text "The first letter of the Name has been written"). The scholarly efforts of the detective, however, lead only to his doom - known to the criminal via newspaper accounts, they are used to set a deadly trap. In the story Buenos Aires is presented as a labyrinth, and the end takes place in the southern, lawless part of the city, the final frontier.
      • “Emma Zunz” (From The Aleph)
        I have selected "Emma Zunz" as it is a rarity in Borges' work: the only story where a woman is the protagonist! It is a seemingly straightforward - but shocking - tale of how its eponymous heroine avenges the death of her father, by killing the industrialist who drove him to suicide. She commits the "perfect crime" as well... (But one that in our times of DNA testing would not be feasible anymore).
      • “Borges and I” ("Borges y Yo", from The Maker)A one page story about Borges, the "I" (the Self) and Borges the famous author (the public persona). Gradually the author is taking over the "I", although, as the "I" claims, they are not at all the same and have different preferences. "Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything."
      • "The Gospel According to Mark" ("El Evangelio según Marcos", from The report of Brodie
        A naive student is trapped by heavy rains in the house of a rural family in the deepest Argentinian countryside. To pass the time, he starts reading to the illiterate farm family from an old Bible. The family is captivated by the story of the crucifixion as told in the Gospel of Mark, and he has to read it again and again, not realizing that the ignorant peasants see him as the Savior and have already erected the cross... (hear this story in a reading by Paul Theroux)
      From the time I obtained a copy of Labyrinths when I was at University, Borges has been one of my favorite authors. 
      Website on Borges
      Trivia: In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco one of the central characters is called Jorge of Burgos; the library in the novel is also based on Borgian notions, as in The Library of Babel. And in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, the detective outwits an evil computer with poetry based on Borges.