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Archive for February, 2009

Melmoth réconcilié (Melmoth Reconciled) (1835)

Honoré de Balzac

Thompson Publishing Company, 51pp

Translation by Ellen Marriage

A longer short story from Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, from the Études Philosophiques, and a marked improvement over Jésus-Christ en Flandre. As one may have already deduced from the title, this story is a sequel to Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin.

Maturin’s tale, we must remind ourselves, is one of the best works of Gothic fiction, a book that H.P. Lovecraft called “an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale.” It tells the story of John Melmoth, a man who sells his soul to the Devil for another 150 years of life and then spends the rest of his life searching for someone to take over the pact. Melmoth, as a character, has become indicative of much – in Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert calls the car he takes Lolita on a journey across America in Melmoth, and Oscar Wilde called himself Sebastian Melmoth during his travels made after his release from prison.

Balzac’s story, written just fifteen years after Maturin’s tale, reveals to us a crooked cashier “of the house of Nucingen and Company, in the Rue Saint-Lazare,” named Castanier. Castanier is a military hero who “wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor at his button-hole, for he had been a major of dragoons in the time of the Emperor.” Only Castanier has fallen on hard times and is about to forge a signature to steal the money to pay his creditors. As he is about to do so a man appears beside him, an Englishman, who forces Castanier to reconsider. This Englishman is revealed to be John Melmoth. Melmoth offers Castanier his deal with the Devil, and Castanier to save himself accepts, but only after persuasion – Melmoth shows Castanier how he will die by hanging for his crime, and how his daughter will desert him.

Just as in Maturin’s tale, Castanier is tortured by the power this curse brings him – he can have everything, anything, but this does not bring him happiness. This curse mirrors the curse bought upon Raphaël de Valentin in La Peau de Chagrin, when he accepts the power of the shagreen into his life. The tension this develops between Castanier and his daughter is wrought tightly, and breathlessy one sees Castanier begin to unravel his life, the curse wrecking everything, sending him mad.

“”What is all this about ?” said she. “Come, now, promise me that if I had a lover you would still love me as a father; that would be love! Come, now, promise it at once, and give us your fist upon it.”

­”I should kill you,” and Castanier smiled as he spoke.”

He loses everything, pushing away even his own blood, even though he has the power to change any event, save anybody, he does not save them.

“­”Why?” shouted Castanier, and his voice made the ceiling ring. — “Eh! it is my revenge! Doing evil is my trade!””

­

Castanier begins to wander, seeking someone to pass the curse onto.

“The torrents of pain, and pleasure, and thought that shook his soul and his bodily frame would have overwhelmed the strongest human being; but in him there was a power of vitality proportioned to the power of the sensations that assailed him. He felt within him a vague immensity of longing that earth could not satisfy. He spent his days on outspread wings, longing to traverse the luminous fields of space to other spheres that he knew afar by intuitive perception, a clear and hopeless knowledge. His soul dried up within him, for he hungered and thirsted after things that can neither be drunk nor eaten, but for which he could not choose but crave. His lips, like Melmoth’s, burned with desire; he panted for the unknown, for he knew all things.”

Melmoth réconcilié reaches a torturous, breathless finale, but then unfortunately undermines itself by taking us away from Castanier and introducing us to the next victim of Melmoth’s curse. For those forty-five or so pages where Castanier is the centre Melmoth réconcilié remains a truly powerful and affecting short story, meditating on life, love, destiny, faith and all those usual Balzacian concerns. Available for free on Project Gutenberg, this is a recommended read.

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Jésus-Christ en Flandre (Christ in Flanders) (1831)

Honoré de Balzac

Thompson Publishing Company, 19pp

Translation by Ellen Marriage

As one of the short stories that makes up La Comédie humaine, Jésus-Christ en Flandre (Christ in Flanders) is a minor work. It forms part of the Études Philosophiques (of which the previously reviewed La Peau de Chagrin is part), Balzac’s fantastical sequence of works in his epic cycle.

The story concerns itself with the appearance of Christ (or a Christ like figure) to a group of people on a ferry from the Island of Cadzand to Ostend. It has been an ordinary day, but as:

“Streaks of fiery red glared from behind the masses of crimson-flushed brown cloud that seemed about to unloose a furious gale. There was a smothered murmur of the sea, a moaning sound that seemed to come from the depths, a low warning growl”

A storm builds and threatens to wreck the ferry.

“These simple folk were indifferent to thought and its treasures, ready to sink them all in a belief; and their faith was but so much the more vigorous because they had never disputed about it nor analyzed it.”

Faith saves them, and Christ is revealed, the power of belief, of religion. Only Balzac then changes the scene, to a first person narration, of another miracle, a revelation in a church – the sight of a thousand cathedrals. Then another shift and a man wakes:

“Belief,” I said to myself, “is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.”

In this short and erratic work, Balzac espouses his own beliefs, swamping his story in religious imagery. Christ in Flanders is not a great work, nor an overly interesting one. The most intriguing part of this story – a group of passengers on a sinking ship – is not played for the drama it should have, and its shift to another unconnected story is ultimately distracting. Balzac can certainly do better.

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Q & A (2005)

Vikas Swarup

Black Swan, 361pp

Q & A, a 2005 debut novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup, is now more famous as Slumdog Millionaire, following Danny Boyle’s 2008 critically acclaimed movie that used this novel as its genesis, and indeed has now been repackaged under that more familiar title. I came to Swarup’s novel with hesitation: like a lot of people I thoroughly enjoyed Boyle’s film, its energy and its pace were truly cinematic, and I wondered how this format could successfully work on the page. Well, the first thing to note is that Q & A is not at all the same story as Slumdog Millionaire, other than it has a contestant winning the big prize on a game show and being accused of cheating, and that he is an Indian peasant, from the slums. But we are not here to catalogue the difference between book and film, but to comment on the book that is a wholly similar and yet entirely different thing.

Ram Mohammad Thomas – so name we learn as nobody is sure, when he is abandoned, whether he is Christian, Hindu or Muslim – he lives for a time with a Christian priest, who gives him the Thomas and very soon afterward, so as not to offend any god, he is given the others. Immediately we can see that Ram is a changeling, he will be able to change to fit any situation, any life – he has the potential to become anyone. What follows his arrest for alleged cheating on W3B (a game show with a top prize of £1 billion) is a picaresque adventure through all levels of Indian society – he lives, at various times, with the aforementioned Christian priest, a professional hitman, a fading movie star, a princess and other slum dwellers – he even falls in love with a prostitute.

The events of Q & A at times seemed clichéd, and perhaps that is Swarup’s point – everything is a cliché of modern India – but Ram subverts them, fights through them – and anyway, at times, we are not even sure we believe him. It is the conceit of this book that makes its work – each chapter tells the story of how he came to know the answer to the next question – so the chronological structure of the book remains scattered, and it is not until the end that everything truly comes together, and everything is revealed to be more connected than it first appears.

There are flaws: if Ram has a gun with him throughout the recording, why doesn’t the host, when he finds out, simply inform the producers – they would have had reason, then, to boot him off the show, rather than allow him to answer the £1 billion rupee question; and they would not have had to cheat him out of a question he knew, thus appearing more crooked, thus remaining, as Swarup must have them, as the villains of the piece. Nevertheless, this is a piece of fantastical fiction, so one must forgive Swarup these conceits.

Q & A is an enjoyable romp – I read it in two brief sittings – over quickly and a lot of fun. In Swarup a good storyteller is revealed, and in his novel, a great raconteur has been released upon the world.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)

James Agee & Walker Evans

Penguin Classics 512pp

Writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans received assignment in 1936 to produce a magazine article on the lives of sharecroppers in the US south. Three years into President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” – a sequence of economic planning aimed at alleviating unemployment in America – and Agee and Walker were billeted with three families in the south, and told to write their stories and take a few photographs. Over this eight week assignment Agee began to envisage a deeper story, a larger series of writings, and began the first of a planned trilogy, entitled Three Tenant Families, of which Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the first and only volume.

The book sold poorly upon its publication in 1941 – estimates say about 600 copies – and it was not until a 1960 reissue, following Agee’s untimely death, that its genius was recognized. In many ways Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book before its time – it anticipates the change in journalistic writing that would occur in the 1960s with Norman Mailer.

James Agee, a notorious hell raiser in Greenwich Village, a man enamored with city life, with the fast life, seemed a strange choice for such an assignment, but in July 1936 he found himself, with Walker Evans in the “house” of a taciturn Alabama family, whom he called the Gudgers. These were simple people, living in a house open to the elements, with no running water or electricity, families that received land off the landowners in exchange for their work in bringing in the cotton crop each year. It was a tough work, work that paid poorly, and left those indebted to such a lifestyle with nothing. The families Agee meets are dressed in clothing made out of flour sacks and passed down the generations. They often go barefoot because they cannot afford shoes. The portrait Agee paints of these people is not a maudlin one, it is not a judgmental tone he adopts, or one of sympathy – Agee simply tells it as it is, sometimes in great detail. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands as one of the most well documented of studies, the perfect resource if one ever wished to recreate such a life, for everything is here, from the decoration of their homes, to the style of the clothes, to the dust on the step.

Only to achieve all of this, Agee does not always use prose. In a book that uses poetry, prose and photographs to build up its resonant image, the portrait of these families becomes more wholly complete than in anything else I have ever read. The families come alive. They breathe through Agee & Walker’s work, they live still. We are in this land with them.

“Here I must say, a little anyhow: what I can hardly hope to bear out in the record: that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacing of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt by invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.”

Okay, so at times he is overly-wordy, overly enthusiastic – and any section like this taken without the context of what has come before it might not work – but Agee’s work is a hymn to this life, its parts, in becoming a whole, become magnificent.

This is not to say that it is a book without flaws, because it does have some. There is a moment early on in his book where he describes an incident: he and Walker Evans were photographing a church and a black couple walk past. Agee goes after them to ask about the church and the couple panic, obviously fearing attack, and Agee understands at last the tensions that ripple throughout the south. It is a vivid moment in a book full of them, but instead of continuing in this vain he begins to detail, in great length, the minutiae of the homes – 30 pages on clothing, 40 on education (or lack of it), and though all of this is necessary, during it one wishes to feel people in this narrative, for it becomes almost a museum piece, the life drained out of it. However, come alive it does, during part three of the book known as “inductions” – when Agee describes meeting the families for the first time and his first road trip alone into the south. The writing here is experimental at times, and Agee’s work comes soaring to life: The beginning:

“Down in front of the courthouse Walker had picked up talk with you, Fred, Fred Ricketts (it was easy enough to do, you talk so much; you are so insecure, before the eyes of any human being); and thee you were, when I came out of the courthouse, the two of you sitting at the base of that pedestal wherefrom a brave stone soldier, frowning, blows the silence of a stone bugle searching into the North; and we sat and talked; or rather, you did the talking, and the loudest laughing at your own hyperboles, stripping to the roots of the lips your shattered teeth, and your vermilion gums; and watching me with fear from behind the glittering of laughter in your eyes, a fear that was saying, ‘o lord god please for once, just for once, don’t let this man laugh at me up his sleeve, or do me any meanness or harm’ (I think you never got over this; I suppose you never will); while Walker under the smoke screen of our talking made a dozen pictures of you using the angle finder (you never caught on; I notice how much slower white people are to catch on than negroes, who understand the meaning of a camera, a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye): and then two men came up and stood shyly, a little away; they were you, George, and you, Mr. Woods, Bud; you both stood there a little off side, shy, and taciturn, George, watching us out of your yellow eyes, and you, Woods, quietly modeling the quid between your molars and your cheek; and this was the first we saw of you:”

I could quote the whole chapter. Just from that we know Fred and Bud and George, we know this time, this town, this life. It is a piece of writing full of stunning work, of great images: the tight menace of a diner in an unfamiliar town for an unfamiliar man; the sun, cutting through the sky, and the heat; and a nighttime in one of these cabins, being bit at by bedbugs and peeing into the open night.

One of the great sadness’s of Agee’s work is that he knows he cannot help these families. He is simply and observer; the recorder of their life, a man who will know them and leave them, but that they will “outshine the sun”. Let Us Now Praise Men remains a masterpiece of American letters, and one of the greatest works of non-fiction, and throughout it these simple people remain alive and glorious.

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Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) (1998)

Roberto Bolaño

Picador, 577pp

Translation by Natasha Wimmer

Roberto Bolaño has become a publishing phenomenon. This Chilean author, who died in 2003, has posthumously been praised as one of the most significant writers of his generation, with two of his novels in particular being highly praised, 2666 (2004) and this, Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) (1998). In 1999 he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for this novel, a preeminent South American literary prize, indicating that though his work might not have been recognized in English, it certainly was in Spanish.

The Savage Detectives is the first of Bolaño’s novels that I have read, and it is with great relief that I can state that this reputation Bolaño has garnered is fully justified. At times The Savage Detectives is so dazzlingly and dizzyingly brilliant that it makes one wonder why any other style of novel is bothered with, and indeed why anybody else need bother. Bolaño’s prose is that persuasive. And yet…

The Savage Detectives has been called a polyphonic novel – that is, a novel with many voices, all of which report, in the first person, a part of this shaggy dog story. The story goes something like this: It is Mexico, in the 1970s, and a young poet, García Madero, joins a group known as the Visceral Realists. These young poets drink, fight, fuck and occasionally write poetry. They dream of a poetical unity, but are too busy dealing drugs and stealing books to care. They are inspired by an unknown and almost forgotten poetess called Cesárea Tinajero, and whom they set out to find. That’s just the first 100 pages. Then over four hundred pages a series of characters, across the globe and across the decades, tell us the story of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter ego, who has appeared in more than one Bolaño novel) as they travel around the world. There are diversions, non sequitur’s, digressions; there are more fights, spells in prison, travelling and discussions of poetry, of the purpose of poetry and appearances by genuine people, including Octavio Paz. Finally we are reunited with García Madero, a prostitute named Lupe, and Ulises Lima and Alberto Belano, as they travel the Sonora Desert in their beaten Impala, looking for Cesárea Tinajero, and being hunted by a pimp and a corrupt cop. If all this sounds like too much, it isn’t.

What impresses most of all is Bolaño’s ability to control such a large cast of characters, and have their narratives play off each other in the most interesting ways. One example: in one sequence one of Belano’s conquests is summoned by him to a remote beach, asked to park on a ridge, and watch what happens and not to interfere. She arrives and sees Belano and some friends run onto the beach, play fighting, and she leaves with a smile on her face, and a memory of “some clowning around.” From another viewpoint, later in the novel, we see this event from another angle, as Belano challenges a critic to a duel, and they fight on the beach with swords. This clowning around is not that after all. This is indicative of Bolaño’s novel, that events one thought done with play out in another narrative and, like tectonic plates, shift your perception.

Through the main portion of this novel Lima and Belano flicker in an out of focus, and through these discourses a picture is formed in the readers mind of who these people are, or might be, and though we have seen them more clearly through the prism of García Madero’s diary, we are left with questions. Did they publish? Have they found fame? Who is travelling the world, interviewing those who knew them, and why? Not all these questions will be answered, and Bolaño does not care. There is a better game he is playing. As his novel inexorably darkens, including a fantastically bleak and frightening episode in civil war torn Liberia in the 1990s, a friend of Lima’s says: “It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it and what we can regain.” We realize that, though Lima and Belano are still living, The Savage Detectives has become an elegy for a generation, a way of life, and of the future.

There is great comedy in The Savage Detectives, just as there is great tragedy. Bolaño called the novel a “love letter to my generation”, and if it is that, then it is also a love letter to the 1970s, to poetry, to Latin America as a whole, violence and all.

And my favourite observation: “Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn’t say so.”

All of this would be impossible to know if it were not for Natasha Wimmer’s astute and brilliant translation of what must have been a difficult novel to translate, full as it is of slang, word games, and allusions. The Savage Detectives is a fabulous novel, and even if at times its digressions seem inconsequential, we worry not about these problems, for the larger picture to which they contribute is all the more exciting, and in Bolaño we have seen a possibility for the novel.

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