Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Power of Harmonia

•Bhishma Xenotechnites: Monochord Matters: or, The Power of Harmonia..
Online here at http://shere.org/Leedy/MonochordMatters.pdf; 19 pages.
Eastside Road, January 27, 2015—
AMONG THE MEN and women I have met in the course of nearly eighty years, many of them people of considerable intellectual and ethical substance, none, I think, has impressed me more than the friend I have occasionally referred to here as "my reclusive friend in Corvallis."

He is reclusive, having long ago developed a thorough scorn for Western Civilization — he would put that last word in quotes — and having developed an intense pessimism on the likelihood of our planet surviving the terrible things humanity is doing to it. And because he is reclusive I'll say no more about him at present; it feels like betrayal having gone even as far as I have.

I do want to make it known, though, that he has published what I think is a significant monograph on a subject of considerable interest to him, as both musician and classicist. I had something to do with the publication, as I had volunteered to set it in (computer) type and arrange for placement on the internet.

The monochord, a single string, as the word suggests, stretched over a resonating block or box, is, Xenotechnites suggests, one of the oldest technological inventions. It was used by the Greeks for the exploration of ratio and proportion, and stands, I would say, at the intersection of music and mathematics, of concrete demonstration and abstraction, of reason and mystery.

MonochordextractIn a series of eighteen or twenty short sections, inspired perhaps by Wittgenstein and Whitehead, Xenotechnites elegantly describes the implications of the Hellenic discoveries. Of course there is a great deal of technical matter in his description, and I'm afraid my typesetting could go only so far in rendering the discussion either clear or attractive to a lay reader. Yet some of these items have astonishing beauty and arrest the reader with their insight and vision:
14. Mathematics "is given to us in its entirety and does not change, unlike the Milky Way. That part of it of which we have a perfect view seems beautiful, suggesting harmony." (Kurt Gōdel, quoted in Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time (Basic Books, 2005), 184.)
As that quotation shows, Xenotechnites ranges wide among his source material, quoting Homer, Lady Murasaki, the composers J.J. Quantz and John Dowland, Pythagoras, and Claudius Ptolemy; and going to Aristotle, Helmholtz, and Wittgenstein among others for his own instruction. Xenotechnites is comfortable in ancient Greek and Latin, and reads well enough in a few modern European languages. He respects his sources, quoting them in their original languages as well as in English translation (generally his own).

I can't pretend to grasp the mathematical and philosophical implications of Xenotechnites's monograph, but I can admire the clarity and beauty of his prose style, through which I can glimpse, I think, what he is getting at:
The proportional relationship of two string-lengths we know as a ratio, the Latin word that also means reason (the Greeks’ word was logos, a word with many other meanings). We apprehend the musical interval between the pitches through the faculty of perception, and we note the relationship of string-lengths associated with that interval through the faculty of reason, which we can expand into principles that qualify under the modern meaning of “scientific.”
If I think I can glimpse the substance of this fascinating argument, then I think almost any reader will. I believe Xenotechnites comes close to poetry here, the kind of poetry that is close to philosophy that Charles Simić was contemplating in my previous post. I repeat: Monochord Matters is, I think, an important piece of writing, as well as a beautiful one, even, at times, moving.

Charles Simić

•Charles Simić: A Fly in the Soup..
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 182 pages.
ISBN 978-0472-08909-9.
Eastside Road, January 27, 2015—
ALTHOUGH A STUDENT of English literature when at university, I have never developed the habit of reading poetry. Oh, there are many poets I love to read: Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore (lordy how I date myself); later Anselm Hollo, Kenneth Koch, the San Francisco Beat poets to an extent, my friend Andrew Hoyem; abroad certain poets in French and Italian. But I don't read verse habitually.

And here is why: when I read short lines my mind wanders. Perhaps my mind is attached to my eyeballs. I like, in spite of recent musings here about a dislike of narrative, I like a long sentence, even a long paragraph. Nothing more beautiful than a block of text on a page, a nice big rectangle of letters, justified top, bottom, right and left. And where does the mind wander to? Why, to writing poetry of my own, of course — it always looks so easy — and of course I can't write poetry, not worth a damn. If I want to get that far from prose, I'll keep going just a bit farther: to music. Or, more likely, to total mindlessness.

One of the few regrets I have is having lived all those years across the street from Ron Silliman, and virtually never having had a conversation with him. Well, we were both busy, with marriage, and children, and bill-paying work; there wasn't a lot of time, it seems, for conversation. But I do regret that; it would have taught me to transform my latent appreciation of poetry into an abiding passion, I think; would have taught me to come to terms with poetry's tendency toward universal perfection, and its generous overlooking my my uniquely individual flaws.

All this occurs to me as I consider a marvelous book I've just finished, Charles Simić's memoir. Born in then-Yugoslavia in 1938, he left that country, with his mother and brother, when he was sixteen, joining a father he hardly knew, spending his adolescence in Chicago, settling in New York, working at a number of casual jobs, reading reading reading, finally turning to professional poetry and literature, teaching at the University of New Hampshire, editing poetry at The Paris Review — you can read all this stuff at Wikipedia, where I got the funny thing on the final letter of his name.

The memoir is beautifully written to the reader, in short sentences and chapters, often very funny, full of improbable anecdote and memorable events and characters whose unlikeliness seems to puzzle the writer as much as his reader. There are rural peasants in Simić's past, but his was essentially an urban childhood and youth; and his story often mediates The Bicycle Thief (which he fondly discusses) and Down and Out in Paris and London (which he doesn't mention).

Thanks to the accident of birthplace and year, Simić knows things most of us have only heard about, or seen in movies. And he doesn't take long to make note off that:
I knew something they didn't, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are!
A Fly in the Soup, p.4
And, always with humor and a degree of wonder, Simić leads us through petty crime, corruption, espionage, jails, dangerous border crossings, petty scams, ineptness at love, and always a great zest for life.

Until you get to the final five chapters, when the book takes a very profound turn, harvesting all the fruits and sweetmeats the author had been artfully concealing in his jokes and escapades, the overheard profundities at drunken parties, the improbable everyday beauty of vacant lot or neighboring window.

Although not directly stated, these chapters center on Poetry, God, Society (and bad language), and Philosophy. (The final chapter is about Mozart and fire, but I'll leave that for you to discover.) On Poetry:
The poet sits before a blank piece of paper with a need to say many things in the small space of the poem. The world is huge, the poet is alone, and the poem is just a bit of language, a few scratchings of a pen surrounded by the silence of the night. … Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat, and the poem is as much the result of chance as it is of intention. Probably more so.
Ibid., p.160-61
On God, a marvelous anecdote about a visit to a monastery, a nuns' monastery in Mesić, Serbia, near the Romania border, where he is struck by the combination of silence, tranquillity, intelligent conversation, and discipline. "Every poem, knowingly, or unknowingly, is addressed to God," he remembers a friend telling him long ago. At that time Simić, an atheist, objected.
No more. Today I think as he did then. It makes absolutely no difference whether gods and devils exist or not. The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about them even as it acknowledges their absence.
Ibid., p.169
Finally, on Philosophy, which is to say still about Poetry:
The pleasures of philosophy are the pleasures of reducction— the epiphanies of hinting in a few words at complex matters. … In both cases, that need to get it down to its essentials, to say the unsayable and let the truth of Being shine through.

History, on the other hand, is antireductive. Nothing tidy about it. Chaos! Bedlam! Hopeless tangle! My own history and the history of this century like a child and his blind mother on the street.

Ibid., p.180
It is a lively and beautiful book, because it records the immediacy, the pleasures, the zest of life fully lived, and arrives, at the end, at insights, even vision.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


•Daniel Klein: Travels with Epicurus:
A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
New York: The Penguin Group, 2012. 164 pages.
ISBN 978-0143-12662-1.
Eastside Road, January 18, 2015—
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS ago I was handed a serious diagnosis and an appointment with surgery. I was already retired, but barely sixty years old, not really ready to face mortality. On arriving at the doctor's office to discuss scheduling a nurse noticed I was carrying a small book with me.

The nurse was slim, tall, rather elegant, probably in her thirties; clearly of Ethiopian stock, with that beautifully chiselled brow and nose that I associate with the heritage. I see you're reading Epicurus, she said. Good. Especially read the Letter to Menoeceus. Oh: and be kind to your wife, who is suffering, and who will work hard for you.

The surgery was successful; the recovery took only a month or so; I'm still living with the diagnosis; I've treasured Epicurus ever since. I think it one of the great tragedies of human history that Christianity did such a solid job of shouldering Hellenism aside — co-opting what it could distort to its ends, of course. In this no doubt I am influenced by my mother, who was a stoic and an agnostic, and who subtly shaped me in the only way that made any sense to her.

Last month at Christmas Lindsey and I played the O. Henry game, giving one another the very same book, Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus. We will be eighty years old this year, and we're aware of the lessend span ahead of us. It's time to begin putting things in order, setting aside vain thoughts of works and legacy, enjoying the rich though simple pleasures of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, daily routines, the table, contentment.

Epicurus believed that the purpose of life was pleasure, and that pleasure lay in the avoidance of pain — by renouncing commerce and industry as far as possible, and complex and costly tastes, and ostentation and concern for position. According to Klein's refreshing, easily read narrative, Epicurus treasured above all a simple life, eating from the garden, with friends of all backgrounds (women as well as men, exceptionally for his society), with conversation at the center of daily activity.

Klein is an interesting author, a man with one foot in philosophy and the other in humor. He's written half a dozen mysteries, a couple of plays, and three novels, as well as a series of little books aimed at presenting the parade of western philosophy to the general public. Last month I enjoyed a quick read through Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, which he wrote with Thomas Cathcart.

Travels with Epicurus finds the 72-year-old Klein spending a few weeks on the Greek island of Hydra, where he's gone with a few books and the intent to ccome to terms with the great conundrum of post-career life: How To Live Well (in the face of the Grim Reaper). The books on his his list are on my own reading pile — the pile of Books Currently (or Constantly) Being Read, be it understood, not Books To Read Some Day. They are Montaigne, William James, Erik Erikson. Also a couple that have been on the To Be Bought list for years: Huizinga, Lars Svendsen, Eva Hofmann.

Reading them confirms what is learned more readily by the simple observation of life on this apparently relaxed island, where there are no motor vehicles, where old men spend their time eating simply, drinking ouzo, playing cards, and conversing gently about not very important but eternally rewarding mundane things. Oh: and occasionally dancing — seriously, intently, ritualistically.

What emerges is a short course on practical philosophy:
…the prime purpose of a philosophy: to give us lucid ways to think about the world and how to live in it.
Travels with Epicurus, p. 26
…pleasures are to be aoided if greater pains be the consequence, and pains to be coveted that will terminate in greater pleasures.
Montaigne, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 32
…[to want to reactivate] one's libnido… amounts to wanting to want something you currently don't want
ibid., p. 89
Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, smiles, and says yes.
Wm. James, The Variety of Religious Experiences, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 116
We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter permits.
Aristotle, quoted ibid., p. 159
You get the idea. The book is calm, persuasive, sensible, friendly, easily read, easily kept at hand for late night re-reading. It should be given to every retiree.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Soviet food memoir

•Anya von Bremzen: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:
a memoir of food & longing.
New York: Broadway Books, 2013. 350 pages.
ISBN 978-0307-88683-5.
Eastside Road, January 17, 2015—
THIS IS TRULY an engrossing book, one that grows more interesting, more complex, more successful as it continues: and truly a memoir, focussed on the table both as the author experienced it in her childhood in Moscow and as she imagines it — knows it, in fact, by direct testimony and from books — in her native Russia throughout the twentieth century.

Von Bremzen tells the story in ten chapters, one per decade beginning with the 1910s — "The Last Days of the Czars" - and running through the first decade of the Putin years.

Von Bremzen was born in 1963; her mother in 1934; but the author knew her grandmothers, and tells most of the gripping story of her country's sad history through the eyes and ears of participants. She was only eleven when she emigrated with her mother, arriving in Philadelphia in 1974; but children grew up quickly in the Soviet Union; she had already reluctantly bought into the system; she was even a practiced black market operator by then.

I can't imagine how this book will strike American readers under the age of, say, fifty — it's a little shocking to realize the Soviet Union has been gone for nearly a quarter of a century now. Von Bremzen's book does a good job, I think, of presenting the Soviet century, its tribulations, the impossibility of its ambitions. From the Bolsheviks' impossible dream of a successful technocratic state, through Lenin's impossible challenges of war and famine, through Stalin's increasingly paranoid and inhuman dictatorship, then the increasingly bumbling improvisations of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and the forgotten Chernenko, to the hapless Gorbachev (praised abroad but scorned at home), the history of Russia (for the book centers on Moscow) is inseparable from food shortages, starvation, mismanaged economy, ineptitude on all sides.

Through it all, of course, the survivors managed to eat — something. There might be eighteen families to a kitchen in the communal apartments, but there would be a pot of cabbage soup, perhaps even a few bits of meat floating in it. And, of course, vodka.

Alongside the history of the desperate search for food, and the constant awareness that there had once been better times, even a proud national cuisine, this is an insightful memoir of domestic life in absurdly crowded conditions, in a society with no real hope, where generations of people went missing in war or worse, where science and superstition were equally consulted by a superstitious and suspicious government, where daily life was all too often reduced to the most basic, mechanistic, desperate series of actions.

I think the most valuable aspect of von Bremsen'z book is a subtext that is never really stated: many of the inadequacies of the Soviet century were mirror-images of inadequacies of the American one. Hype and propaganda tried desperately to determine the course of history there as it has all too often here, the difference being that the Soviets tried to organize it toward a rational political economy serving all, and the Americans have organized it toward a profit-making consumer society. Von Bremzen clearly states the irony of the ultimate Soviet failure to attain the American ideal without recourse to the American technique, market capitalism; and she makes it clear that the ordinary Russians were rarely taken in. It remains a mystery to me that anyone could ever have believed that an ideal system could be conceived, let alone successfully put in place.

(The contrast between the two systems comes to life when the author describes her first visit to an American supermarket:
My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle with toilet paper. Certain men knelt and wept at the sight of forty-two varieties of salami, while their wives—smelling the strawberries and discovering they lacked any fragrance—cried for opposite reasons. Other emigrants, possessed by the ur-Soviet hoarding instinct, frantically loaded up their shopping carts. Still others ran out empty-handed, choked and paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices.

The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager refugee stipend resounded with food stories. The stories constituted an archive of socialists' misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya and Rays complained about the flavor of American butter—after smearing floor wax on bread. The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch meat cans with cure pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were the intended consumers. Voychik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his first American shiksa and stormed out indignant when she offered him Triscuits. Desiccated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming bowl of borscht?
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, p. 199
Toward the end, after the collapse, as the center is gone and the individual nations drift, at first apart, then individually, the story is ever more gripping. Pluralism fails, and artificially drawn borders, around "nations" which had no precedents, reveal their inadequacies. One senses there is no end to the failure of empire.

But Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is throughout a warm, humane, affecting narrative, often quite funny. Chekhov and Gogol are never far from its stage. The Slavic taste for bitter irony is frequently cited. You get the feeling it has to substitute, at times, for bread:
A popular Stagnation-era gag sums up what historians dub the Brezhnevian social contract. Six paradoxes of Mature Socialism: 1) There's no unemployment, but no one works; 2) no one works, but productivity goes up; 3) productivity goes up, but stores are empty: 4) stores are empty, but fridges are full; 5) fridges are full, but no one is satisfied, 6) no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.
ibid., p. 189
And then, finally, shockingly, they vote No, at the polls or on the streets. And then, inevitably, chaos reigns. And then, most likely, a strong man appears to try to nail it all back together, getting rich and powerful in the process, until he too oversteps. And on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile there's kulebiaka and gefilte fish, pilaf and Russian salad, blini and kotleti — the recipes are here, and I have half a mind to try some of them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


•Cheryl Strayed: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail..
New York: Vintage Books, 2013. 336 pages.
ISBN 978-0307-476074.
Eastside Road, January 14, 2015—
THIS BOOK has gathered decidedly mixed reviews, even in my own family: some of us dislike the author's tone and style; others are sympathetic with her story and her emerging character.

Abandoned by her father early, raised with a brother and sister, in poverty, by an unconventional mother and stepfather, Strayed reacted to her mother's early death (at 45) by falling to pieces, experimenting with drugs, seeking comfort too casually with too many men, until finally a chance encounter with a trail guide on the bookshelves of a sporting good store led her to an almost whimsical decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — or, at least, the section from Mojave, California, to Ashland, Oregon.

It's a mistake, I think, to believe she did not prepare. She clearly put in a fair amount of research as to equipment and planning. That contrasted, though, with an almost casual approach to physical preparation, in terms of preparing her own physique, rehearsing the pack, even carefully choosing the shoes. Further, she had the bad luck to pick a heavy snow year for her trek, requiring a bypass of the high Sierra (and consequently extending the original itinerary to the Columbia River).

This curious collision of preparation and impetuousness characterizes almost every aspect of the young Cheryl Strayed: intelligent, well read, thoughtful, but clueless about so many aspects of rational living. It's easy to explain this by her upbringing, not only her father's abandoning her but also her cheerfully impoverished mother and the unconventional childhood in a rural setting where material comforts were denied in favor of blithe free-spiritedness: but you can also read that upbringing, in the 1980s, as symptomatic of the times, of a fundamental schism in American society.

The book has been made into a film (which we saw the other night) that's been criticized for its irritating and frequent intercutting. The book itself proceeds by flashbacks, alternating between description of the trek and memories of the childhood and the crisis. Like others, I found this intercutting mannered at times. I'm not fond of the writer's prose rhythm, which alternates extended paragraphs with choppy single sentences; and like others, I found the book's final pages rushed.

But having done a little long-distance walking of my own, though without carrying tent or stove, I recognize the tedium, the meditation, the pain and what can only be called the transcendence of her experience.
…what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable day. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what Iknew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
Wild, p. 207
Although she hiked alone, a good-looking young woman under a ridiculously big and heavy back-pack, Strayed apparently met with few really scary situations — although she was conscious of risks. She had very little money, and describes the hunger and thirst, in many senses, that accompanied her. She also describes, beautifully, the alternating desire for companionship and solace of solitude that comes to many on the trail — or, perhaps, drives them to it.

More than once I thought of Patti Smith's marvelous book Just Kids, describing her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. Whatever you may think of casual sex and drugs, there's a sweetness in both these accounts, a wistful innocence that I think expresses the awareness that something is seriously lacking in the mainstream contemporary American address to life; that in the absence of conventional family structures damaged adults, discontented with the cult of the individual, emerge craving affection, affirmation, companionship.

I think this is an important book in spite of its flaws, a provocative, dogged, generous narrative of things that go wrong, of damaged children and lost adults, but also of daily kindnesses and, ultimately, the lofty, uncaring, objective serenity of the Nature we must all confront, whether disease, privation, discipline, death, or sublime beauty. It makes me want to hit the trail again — finally, perhaps, alone, and with a tent and a stove.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Walking with Walser

•Robert Walser: The Walk..
Translated by Christopher Middleton with Susan Bernofsky.
New York: New Directions, 2012. 89 pages.
ISBN 978-08112-1992-1.
Berkeley, January 12, 2015—
FOR DECADES I was unable to deal with Central European literature, probably because of an early encounter with Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. That prejudice lingers, but has been overcome from time to time, probably through a more recent (but now long ago) encounter with the novels of Italo Svevo. Robert Walser was Swiss, and his writing has a German flavor; but he feels to me closer to Svevo than to Mann. But what do I know: this was my introduction to him. The book is charming, easily read, with a lingering finish. Told in the first person by the writer who writes it as he lives it, it simply describes a day spent walking through an apparently small town, Swiss no doubt, surrounded by forest and open country, dotted with inns and cottages, boasting a modest business district (bookshop, butcher, bank, barber — I think all these B's are coincidental) in which the narrator has various errands to perform. The Walk made me think of Hawthorne, specifically the story "Rills from a Town Pump," and also of Pessoa. Hawthorne's careless, sunny objectivity is filtered through Pessoa's melancholy, unachieved sensitivity. The narrator is discursive and repetitive but always amusingly so, but his insistent cheerfulness is tinged with a neurasthenic sadness, and the curve of his day, his story, is gentle but conclusive. George Fragopoulos reviews The Walk intelligently in The Quarterly Conversation, discussing the narrator's frequent confrontations with authority figures. I think the insight sound: but I also think of the novella as an allegory on the political context of Switzerland during the first World War. (The Walk appeared in 1917.) It's also a meditation on man's intrinsic orientation toward Nature as it is disrupted by commerce and society — itself an analogy with the distractions tearing a writer from his work:
On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me. while shut in at home, ! would lamentably wither and dry up. Walking is for me not only healthy, it is also of service—not only lovely, but also useful. A walk advances me professionally. but also provides me at the same time with amusement: it comforts.delights, and refreshes me, is a pleasure for me. but also has the peculiarity that it spurs me on and allures me to further creation, since it offers me as material numerous more or less significant objectivities upon which I can later work industriously at home. Every walk is filled with phenomena valuable to see and feel.
Walser's style, or at least his narrator's style, is not only discursive and repetitive, it is also amusingly pedantic, a parody, I think, of German convolution; I suppose Carlyle is in the vicinity, along with Hawthorne. Reading this has made me want to go back to Hoffmann, too. Where has that tomcat Murr got to? Is he out walking too?
(Thanks to my friend Jonathan C. for introducing me to this marvelous book…)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Moment of Silence

•Toma Longinović: Moment of Silence..
San Francisco: Burning Books, 1990. 134 pages.
ISBN 093605008-X.

Portland, January 10, 2015—

Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation. 

—Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed

THE EPIGRAPHS AT EACH chapter-head in this beautifully designed book are in a font so light and small as to be nearly invisible, no doubt deliberately, as Longinović's novel is deliberately obscure, the investigation of the closed and occasionally deranged mind of a writer living in the fatigued and pointless days near the end of Tito's Yugoslavia. "Bubblehead," he is called, in reference to his large moon-faced head, I suppose, which harbors thoughts alternating between paranoid Burroughs-worthy obsessions with evasion and, in what might be called more lucid moments, speculations on the possible literary description of and response to the suffocations of his impoverished Communist consumer society.

Toward the close of the book, for example, the narrator is rehearsing a couple of actors in his new play, trying to persuade them of his views. His actress challenges them:

"All right, but how can you be no sure that things are that way ... Is your vision so . ."

"No, it's not. But I have no other choice. As soon as I say something it doesn't belong to me anymore, and I can't tell whether it's right or wrong. But at the moment of speaking, as the word is shaped by my lips, I know that it's close to the real, that it finds its fullness At that moment I know I'm there ... That's how I wrote the play ..."

Longinović: Moment of Silence, p. 88

and we know that he is speaking to us, his readers; we are his actors. Longinović has designed this novel cunningly: the short chapters, each with one off those irritatingly fugitive epigraphs, move from surrealist obscurity to persuasive narrative. Twenty-five years old, it is postmodern but not dated. Cult, communism, and Christianity compete with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in the minds and activities of his intriguing and often memorable characters, from Uncle Boris digging his well to Cross-Eyed Mary mistakenly ascended as a saint. It's an intriguing and interesting book, and I'll have to see what he's written since…

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Considering Zero

•Charles Seife: Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea..
New York: The Penguin Group, 2000. 247 pages.
ISBN 978-0140-29647-1.
Portland, January 10, 2015—
A LITTLE GLIB, this book, and concept-driven, linking such diverse topics as cosmology, calculus, and single-point perspective through a common dependence on the concept of zero. It's an attractive idea, but not pursued very consistently. The "danger" of the title, for example — that the idea of void (and its opposite, infinity) was just too weird and threatening to be accepted in many cultures — promises to offer insights into the history of ideas and knowledge, but the author is content to state his case and rarely enlarges on its historical significance. He's particularly sketchy on the ancient Greeks, but does write interestingly on Renaissance and early modern thinkers on the subject. The style is brisk, sometimes gee-whiz, and often repetitive, by no means up to such writers as George Gamow and James Gleick. There is an extensive bibliography and the book seems well indexed.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Evidentiary realism

•Juan José Saer: Nothing Nobody Never.
Translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane.
London and New York: Serpent's Tale, 1993
ISBN 218 pages
Eastside Road, January 4, 2015—
THERE IS SO MUCH I have neglected: among it all, the literature of Latin America. This can be attributed to the late Gabriel García Márquez, whose Hundred Years of Solitude were, at least when I tried them decades ago, decades too much for me. Let me disclose my prejudices: I am not fond of escapist literature, of science fiction, of fantasy, of Magic Realism. And so I have treated Latin American Literature as I have treated Chinese Cuisine: rather than investigate it, finding the channels that conform to my taste and exploring those that may lead to unsuspected pleasures and perhaps even insights, I have excluded these huge continents wholesale.

But I know this is wrong, and try to correct myself from time to time, though there's increasingly little time left for voyages of discovery. So when I read an interesting review of a new translation of the last (and unfinished) novel by the Argentine writer Juan José Saer, and particularly when I read that his work stands apart from Márquez, I looked for him in a fascinating little bookshop (Alley Cat Books) that we ran into last week in San Francisco; and there came across a second-hand copy of an early novel of his, one not mentioned, as far as I recall, in the NYRB article.

Nothing Nobody Never (the original title is nadie nada nunca, cited without capital letters in the frontmatter of this translation) is a beautiful little novel, set in a hot, dry, riverside community, a village really with unpaved dusty roads, in Argentina, where the two principal characters, Cat and Elisa, presumably like the other villagers, go through domestic routines while uncanny crimes are committed around them. The crimes, like everything else — weather, cuisine, conversation — are presented simply as present facts, not plot devices. There is plenty of story here; the novel is certainly narrative; but nothing is meant to go anywhere; everything is simply present.

When, on opening a novel, I see phrases like "he said," or "she countered," or "X thought," I usually close the book immediately and set it back on the shelf. Dialogue-driven fiction in which the characters' thoughts and motivations are known and describe by an omniscient author no longer interest me. I'd rather not know what happened, or be promised that I will know what will have happened. As I admire Chekhov, Stein, and Henry James, so I prefer to be presented with an event, or a situation, or even a character or two, with no obligation to pretend to understand them. Such understanding I feel is impossible. Further, I think a good deal of mischief has resulted from the belief that life and individuals can be known and "understood."

Don't get me wrong: the observation and analysis and speculation of such things, which is the province of writers par excellence, is interesting and ultimately beneficial. In the hands of really good writers, and Saer is certainly among those, the result can even be gripping during the reading and memorable at the close. More is learned about humanity, I think, from reading really first-rate "fiction" than through any other means, though conversation can come close.

Saer's style, at least in this early novel — the only one of his I've read — is calm, steady, looping, realistic yet fractured. He writes in his own version of Gertrude Stein's "continuous present," a
strange, nameless state, in which the present, which is as wide as the whole of time is long, seems to have risen, from who knows where, to the surface of who knows what, and in which what I was, that in and of itself, in no way amounts to much, now knows that it is here, in the present, knows it, without being able however to pursue its knowledge any farther and without having sought, in the fraction of a second prior to that state, by any means whatsoever, to catch a glimpse of it.
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 86. Italics in the original.
The novel makes me think of Stein, though it is more accessible than, say, Lucy Church Amiably, because of its extraordinary clarity, its lucidity. It makes me think of early Perec — Things and A Man Asleep — because of its neutral observation. It brings Robbe-Grillet to mind, and I'm glad to be reminded of the French New Novel now, fifty years later. More than any other novelist it makes me think of the Catalan Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring, similarly haunting, stifling, cuddling, and watery.

"The thing is that everyone" — I hear myself say — "seeks in his or her own way, and finds, a particular thing that thereupon becomes impregnated with its own magic. Don't you think so?"
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 83.
The narrative I rarely appears in the book; does so only, I think, in an attempt — largely successful —- to allow the reader's mind, momentarily, to fuse with that of a character, usually Cat but occasionally (and most movingly and successfully, I think) Elisa. There are other characters, and given the author's unwillingness to play God with their minds and motivations it is remarkable how immediate their presence is, how well we feel we know them. The Beach Attendant, for example, who once remained afloat in the river for seventy-two hours, and who hears, over the course of several pages at almost the center of the book, from a previously not present informant never really fleshed out, the narrative of the crimes, a simple description of them as inexplicable events, but who then returns — the Beach Attendant — to the endlessly but focussed present moment in which continuous action, even that by which light reveals objects, or sound reveals events, is broken, fractured, into
a sort off whirlpool of twinkles when the line of light broke up, and which made him drowsy. And at a certain moment — in his memory the beach attendant could not say wen —, the line did not become one again: in the light of memory, one could rationally argue that the sun, which the beach attendant had ceased to see, had doubtless risen slightly higher in the sky… What is beyond question is that all around him the surface of the water had turned into a series of points of light, indefinite in number and perhaps infinite, very close to each other but not touching each other as was proved by the fact that despite their continual twinkling an extremely thin black line could be seen between one and the next.
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 118.
The book is, as you'll have gathered, extraordinarily visual, full of light and modulated light and shadow, colors and blacks and whites. Even the clouds of dust raised by occasional cars are granular and physical, existing without doubt because seen and thus able to be described — not with adjectives, though Saer doesn't methodically avoid the use of adjectives, but with the patiently repeated statement that they are there. One never sees motion; one sees evidence of motion. The novel is evidentiary. I can't wait to read the ones that follow.

More — much more — on Juan José Saer: a fine essay by Marcelo Ballvé online at The Quarterly Conversation.