Sunday, April 9, 2017

...and be the greatest reader in the world.

Joyce was afraid of thunder,
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Zurich or Trieste?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks: they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory's end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Derek Walcott.

Hans Fallada : Every Man Dies Alone (1947)

Nowadays Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (1947) , a true story of quiet back-room rebellion of a middle – aged couple against the Nazi regime, seems to be included more often than before in canonical lists of German literature.

It is one of those books that was written not solely for the sake of the story but also as an early attempt to show the World and especially the Germans themselves, that there had been a few decent people left in Nazi – ruled Germany. While the story is closely based on true events ( my edition includes pictures and official documents ), a few details are too good to be anything else than an attempt of propaganda: a fellow prisoner in a Gestapo prison, one of the last decent and kind men left, is a music conductor whistling a whole range of high Art tunes : Beethoven, Bach and other examples of high German culture. This symbolic feature is respected by both his fellow inmates and prison guards.

I belong to those who in trying to understand what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945, refuses to separate the Germans from the Nazi’s.To me, with a grandfather executed by Wehrmacht soldiers, it was the same people. Nazism was the rule of the Bully and a mass that let the Bully rule.
The book’s main achievement, beside the merit of a well told story, is without doubt  the recreation of the atmosphere of oppression and fear that permeates daily life in Berlin during the darker years of Nazi rule. Fallada narrates the story of the little people and I must confess that the description of how the Nazi rule of law works is often chilling and gives the reader a good idea of how daily life is lived in a Police state, be it under the Nazi’s, Stalin’s Russia or nowadays in the Arabic countries under the rule of an extremist Mullah.

Every Man Dies Alone  is a book well worth reading. It is a  gripping and well structured story . At moments however it feels a bit like the narrative is stretched too much or diverting away too far from the main story line, but at the end all the threads come back into a single horrible knot.

With a last page turned, you remain with a few deep questions : What for instance is the physiology of these acts of resistance. Why do people rebel ? How much bravery goes into it and  most of all, is it worth doing it against a much stronger opponent?

The fact that the story is still read and praised is an answer by itself.

Maria Vargas Llosa : "The War of the end of the world"

Guerra de Canudos. 7º Batalhão de Infantaria. [Fonte: Arquivo Histórico do Museu da República]

Vargas Llosa’s famous eschatological novel, "The war of the end of the world”, recounts the bloody uprising of the poor that took place in the Brazilian badlands in the northern state of Bahia at the end of the 19th century.

It would have been a barely noticed hiccup in Brazilian history had this uprising not evolved into a full scale civil war featuring a rebellious community of 30.000 souls fighting back successfully the multiple attacks of the regular Brazilian army. This two year - conflict, known as the Guerra de Canudos, came to a bloody end in October 1897 when the Brazilian soldiers, despite suffering heavy losses, finally overran the rebellion’s stronghold and exterminated the insurgents, men, women and children to the last.

It remains an intriguing story, worth telling and certainly worth reading.

In the hostile Brazilian backlands known as the Sertao, a poor region plagued by drought, violence and political corruption, an enigmatic messianic figure known as the Conseilheiro ( the counselor), attracts followers through simple actions of faith : repairing decrepit churches, weeding bad herbs in abandoned cemeteries and enduring long praying sessions.

The people who join him in the early days of the crusade are those that have nothing to lose, the very poor, the excluded, the abused. Their motivation is fueled by an Apocalyptic mood that has appeared in the wake of a great drought that has decimated man and faun alike and a period of great national turmoil caused by the abolishment of slavery and the transition from Monarchy to a young and hesitating Republic.

In the following months, more and more believers inspired by the actions and sayings of the charismatic leader join the army of the destitute. Repentant criminals, people in need of a vision and religious searchers strengthen the ever-growing army.

The expanding group moves from village to village, camping in the open, living from the land and the gifts from sympathizing villagers. But soon enough the erring tribe has grown too large and a need for a permanent settlement is urgently felt. The counselor and his flock establish their own village on top of a hill. Their community is build on their own rules and organizations. They reject property, the use of money and they decide not to pay any taxes.

This of course attracts attention and the Bahia government sends a first small army detachment to quench this kernel of insurgence…

Llosa’s book is dedicated to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, the writer of Os Sertoes, an early account of the military expeditions against the rebellious village of the Canudos.

This is more than a detail. Da Cunha was a Brazilian journalist and sociologist whose book Os Sertoes, written a few years after the war, was the main source of information of what happened in the desert available to a larger public. It was also the inspiration and contemporary source for the writing of "The war of the end of the world”. Book and the persona of the writer might partly explain the two strange characters in Vargas Llosa’s book : the revolutionary Scot and the near-sighted journalist.

I haven’t read Os Sertoes, but according to the available information, da Cunha, although sympathizing with the rebellion tried to explain the insurgents’ backwardness, their racial degeneration and their ”objectified insanity" with outdated and debunked racial and psychiatric theories.

In the “War of the end of the World”, we follow two characters, two witnesses who, they too, try to make sense of the weird pilgrims and strange development of this pauper - revolution.

The first one is a foreigner, a devilish Scottish revolutionist and phrenologist ( an outdated physiological theory too ), complete with red curly hair and a red goatee, follower of Proudhon and Bakunin who is trying to join the revolutionaries in order to present them, we assume ,his blueprint of a new communist state. He claims to understand the revolutionary movement better than anyone else but his attempt to reach Canudos is hampered by the harshness of the backlands and the people. He will disappear in the desert, murdered or not, after having transgressed all his own social, moral and ethical standards.

The second character, who comes more to the foreground in the second part of the book, when the fall of Canudos needs to be recorded and explained, is an unnamed cynic reporter, traveling with the army. But this journalist is (oh irony ) very nearsighted and prone to sneezing fits when stressed or scared. As he is constantly stressed and scared, he is at the most a very unreliable narrator. When he gets into a fighting melee, before being captured by the revolting peasants, he brakes and looses his glasses and witnesses the last stand of the revolutionary village through a blurred image and through the information he gets from others.

The undoing of both characters seem to indicate that Vargas Llosa’s conclusions are that no theory, scientific or pseudo-scientific can satisfactorily explain what has happened at Canudos and second that no one really witnessed how the peasant revolt resisted so long to an adversary so outnumbered and extremely more powerful and finally that all historical interpretation and explanations in the aftermath are spoiled by political near-sightedness, unreliable information sources and biased mental blur.

So if we cannot explain Canudos, what is it then ?

Canudos is simply a miracle.

"The war of the end of the world” is a long and demanding read. It is a complex story, following many characters with a lot of developments happening at the same moment and crisscrossed by political and religious digressions. But Vargas Llosa is a master storyteller, he holds the narrative reins firm in hand, the novel is impeccably structured and organized. This for the benefit of the leisurely reader, who needs but a shortlist of characters to help him through the 600 or so pages.

It is also a gruesome read, the pages bulk of countless horrors men inflict on fellow men. It is a feast of self flagellation, of primitive religious extremes in sync with the bleakness of the Sertao. The reader is spared nothing.

The fighting chapters in the last part of the book however, come over at times as tedious, especially since we know the outcome of the war. But again Vargas Llosa, deploying all the tricks of the trade…analepses, prolepses, anecdotes keeps the reader with his eyes on the page.

The most intriguing and fascinating chapters are ( at least for me ) those that introduce the most loyal disciples of the Conseilheiro by telling their miserable life stories. It is a series of hagiographic cameos, not unlike those written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the early days of Christianity, often containing scenes of extreme religiosity and abject suffering : Pajeu the cangaceiro with the slashed face, the most evil man of the sertao, Pedrao the enormous brute , the nameless “little blessed one” who tortures himself to express his love for the Conseilheiro, A dwarf terrified of dying, big Jaoa, a runaway slave, Maria Quadrado, devoted Maria Magdalena to the Conseilheiro, the Lion of Natuba, a creature half man half animal saved in extremis from the stake…

There is all along the reading of the War, a sense of familiarity, a strange déjà - vu.

The last centuries have seen dozen of similar insurrections of the desperate, set in movement by a charismatic religious or social leader. All of them leaving an immense trail of blood and terror in their wake. They are the histories of the poor, easily forgotten or overlooked in our history books.

I think it is not too far fetched, if we even recognize in some elements of the Taliban, Isis and the new caliphates, other Canudos. Here too, a backward and violent movement fueled by the frustration and hopelessness of a whole army of poor, encourages lost individuals to sacrifice themselves for an ill-directed cause. Our fogged and damage Tv - glasses do not always let us see things that clearly.

The War of the end of the world is basically an alternative history of the world. In the development of the War of Canudos, a model appears that has been played out numerous times in the history of our civilizations. The fact that these insurrections keep repeating themselves, also in our Modern times, is proof enough that many states have grossly failed to care of their armies of poor and disadvantaged.

If you want to visit Canudos today, say for an innocent pilgrimage or a remembrance of those who suffered, you won’t find it. The ruins of the town are covered by a water reservoir of the Cocorobó Dam, built by the military regime in the 1960s.

What needs to be forgotten must disappear.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Roberto Arlt : The Seven madmen


Bolano compares his fellow writer Roberto Arlt to a character from one of Dostoyevsky’s later novels, and indeed it is Raskolnikov that comes to mind most often when reading about the ordeal of Remo Erdosain. With this difference I must add ,that Raskolnikov’s self-mortifying rambling takes place after the crime and that of Arlt’s character before the crime.

Erdosain, a nobody lost in a great city, himself acting and reacting on the basis of his own mad illusions, moves through a world of hookers, pimps, murderers, thiefs, thugs and other looneys, characters all who live their lives in accordance with their own mad and criminal logic, their self-constructed desperate schemes, their perverse apocalyptic nightmares.

For the reader of the 21th century it is chilling to realize how all these evil plans have turned out to become  painful reality in our last century and that Argentine’s most forgotten writer, Roberto Arlt, has turned out to be one hell of a prophet.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Doctor Faustus chapter 3 : Adrian's father

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin : L'enfant au tonton, 1738; Louvre

Chapter 3 of Doctor Faustus presents us Adrian's father : "... Jonathan Leverkuhn was a man of finest German Stamp..."

After a short physical description, an attempt is made to capture his mental being, by describing what preoccupies this man's mind when he is at leisure. 

Smoking his porcelain pipe ofcourse and reading his ancient "mammoth family Bible, bound in smooth pigskin and secured with leather clasps...".

But besides that there was ..." another trend that in certain ages might have been characterized as a desire to speculate the elements. That is, on a modest scale and with modest means, he pursued studies in natural sciences - biology , and even chemistry and physics, too.

This dabbling in chemistry and especially with the natural phenomena of inorganic matter acting as if it were alive, gives the inocent experiments an alchemistic,caballistic hue.

"It all comes close to sorcery...'

This alchemistic spielerei is ofcourse a clear allusion to the Faustian theme. 

Interesting enough in Rüdiger Safranski biography of Goethe, similar experiments are described as done by the young writer, who was, he too, looking for the mysterious transition of the mineral into the organic. ( Chapter 3; P 76 ). These experiments would later appear in Goethe's Faust as the search for the Erdgeist, the Earth Spirit, a force of nature competing in its creativity against God. 

Turning the inorganic into something alive is nothing less than imitating the Creator, to play God.

Wyndham Lewis in Canada

In my Reading Oscar post I already celebrated Hugh Kenner's book "The Pound Era" as a masterful, one of a kind, critical masterpiece.

It speaks, as said, not only about Ezra Pound, but also about a handful of writers and artists revolving around Pound. Wyndham Lewis is one of them.

While Kenner met and spoke Ezra Pound many times, he totally missed Wyndham Lewis, who'se exile adress however was very near to that of the University of Toronto, the university where Kenner graduated.

In one of the last chapters of his book, titled "The Last European", Kenner regrets this deeply and cannot understand that none of the academici of the  University cared or at least mentioned to their students that there was a famous writer in exile ( craving for contact ) living nearby ( one mile ). 

A Titan is what Kenner calls Lewis. A fantastic painter and writer.

Lewis in exile in Canada was a sad appearance. The man had left everything behind in war-torn England, especially his reputation and social network. He suffered terribly from the cold. His sight failed and he wrote one of his last books "Self -condemned" blind...

" He wrote it longhand , the ball-point scrawling its way till it bumped off the edge of the pad on his lap, then commencing a new line three finger-breadths below the previous one, a sheet with five or six wandering lines at last torn off and dropped on the floor to be retrieved by mrs. Lewis and typed."

Pound, still locked-up in the house of loonies, in St. Elisabeth Hospital, thought that Lewis' "Self - condemned" deserved the Nobel prize.

They gave it instead to Papa Hemingway.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reading Oscars 2016

2016 was a disappointing reading year as far as numbers of books go and I am not at ease with that at all. Reading has always been like oxygen and food for me and the constation that I get it in fewer doses is truly alarming me.

Too much work, too much hazzle, too many distractions... you name it.

Best Novel in English

* Synge : The Aran Islands. One of my companion books on my holiday trip around Ireland. Not really a novel, more a travelogue by the famous Irish folklorist relating his voyage to the most savage part of the Irish west coast. A good read.

Best Novel in Translation

* Alfred Dôblin : Berlin Alexanderplatz. The tragic story of an ex prisoner trying to stay on the right path in a Berlin enjoying herself between the two wars. Captivating and well written.
* Karel Capek : An ordinary life. An intriguing and profound book about the meaning of life.
* Hermann Broch : Death of Virgil. A challenge and a masterpiece of Modernism. Only three quartered finished.
Winner : Alfred Doblin

Best Poetry

* WB Yeats : Collected poems. Another companion book on my trip to Ireland. I am not really a poetry reader but I like Yeats. And it is the only poetry book I read during the year anyway.

Best Non-Fiction

* Valery Larbaud : Ce vice impuni : La lecture. ( Reading , that unpunished vice ). You would swear that Valery Larbaud was one of us: a kind member of the Tropics. He dissects in this short anatomical essay the evolution from childhood to old age of a very peculiar species : the reader. Tongue in cheek, self-mocking and educated fun. Loved it.

* Hugh Kenner : The Pound era. This book, written by the Canadian literary critic is by far the most exciting discovery of the year. Kenner has completely disappeared under the radar nowadays but this book needs to stay. Here is a quote by Guy Davenport : “The Pound Era is a book to be read and reread and studied. For the student of modern letters it is a treasure, for the general reader it is one of the most interesting books he will ever pick-up in a lifetime of reading”. It is no exageration : The Pound Era is in a class of its own.
* Gordon Craig : The Germans. A book I read in the wake of the Mann's Doctor Faustus experience. Ian Bostridge mentions Craig in his analysis of Schubert's Winter Journey. Craig says interesting things about Thomas Mann, Faustus and the Magic Mountain. Interesting for those who are interested.

* Moses Finley : The world of Odysseus. This one has been on my shelf for several years. The real historic world behind the Illias and the Odyssee by the famous classical scholar. A must read for anyone interested in that period.

* David Van Reybrouck : Against elections. Feeling uncomfortable since many years ( since in fact the election of Coluche in France and La Cicciolina in Italy ) about what I thought was a failure of the Democratic System, I understand now that it is not democracy that is the problem but the technique of elections associated with democracy. The election of the Trump, the Brexit, Kascinsky in Poland and Erdogan In Turkey show us the constant danger to democratically elect the next world-threatening demagogue.

Winner by far ; Hugh Kenner The Pound Era

Best Reread

* Timothy Severin : The Brendan voyage. The inlet where Tim Severin started his epoch making crossing of the Atlantic in a hand-sewn leather Curragh was a compulsive pilgrimage destination when I was in Ireland. The book after all describes a breathtaking sailing adventure and at the same time an exciting inquiery in the boat building skills of the craftsman in medieval Christian Ireland. Read Saint Brendan on the island of Skellig to understand why people need to believe in God and in the skills of a good boat builder.

* Paul Cronin : Werner Herzog. Cronin added a few chapters to his fantastic book made up of a dozen conversations with the incomparable Werner Herzog. Everything you wanted to know about the great man in a single book. And what you did not want to know too !

Winner : Cronin with his fabulous Herzog.

Overal Winner : Kenner with the Pound Era