Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Four Books

Marias_Your_FaceMany thanks to Reggie H., who sent me the link to Wyatt Mason's article, "A Man Who Wasn't There," on Spanish writer Javier Marías, which appears in the current (November 11, 2005) issue of The New Yorker. (It will probably be gone soon, so download it quickly if you're interested.) Reggie wondered if he and I together constituted Marías's "small" following in the US, which may not be too far off the mark, though this summer when I went to buy his most recently translated novel Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Margaret Jull Costa translator, New Directions, 20o5), it had sold out at three different New York bookstores (St. Marks, the 8th St. Waldenbooks, and the Barnes and Noble at 21st St.), though the Union Square Barnes & Noble had several copies in stock. I confess that I haven't had time to get too far yet into this novel, which requires maximum concentration, but I did write about a little paean to Marías back in June (though Blogger's search engine could not find it, so I remembered it'd been back when I'd returned to New Jersey), and I look forward to reading it when I have a bit of a break. I've only skimmed Mason's article, but it looks delicious and addresses one of the central issues I've circled back to many times in my reading of Marías's work, which is his narrator's insistent evasiveness and elusiveness. This narrative strategy both intrigues and beguiles me. I'll have to see how Mason analyzes it, but in the meantime, check out Marías.

Recently at my favorite used bookstore in Chicago (though it's not the best one, which would be Myopic, or the largest one, which would be Powells), I picked up a hardcover copy of Alberto Manguel's Into the Looking-Glass Wood (London: Bloomsbury, 1999). I first saw this book the year I taught in Rhode Island, and had never read Manguel, though he was always on my list of writers to check out. Finally a few years ago I decided to utilize that marvelous institution known as the university library, and check the book out. I loved it, and used his essay on the divergence between the progressive (at least in the imaginative and formal senses) vision of Mario Vargas Llosa's fiction and his racist, right-wing politics in Peru for one of my undergraduate writing classes. But I ended up skimming the rest of the book because I had so much else to read, so now I have it before me to plunge into completely. I especially love the title, and above all that Victorian, anachronistic term "looking glass," which I always connect with Carroll's famous sequel to Alice in Wonderland. When I was small and would spend time at my grandparent's house, I'd sometimes fantasize about following Alice's lead and crawling through the large mirror than hung over the mantelpiece in the apartment my cousins from DC lived in into some wondrous alternate reality that had talking decks of cards, tea-sipping hares and drunken mice, Cheshire cats, and all of the other residents of Alice's other world. Books instead served as the mirror then; but I still harbor that fantasy, though I often feel like as a society and world, we've passed through an altogether different, broken looking-glass I certainly want us all to retrace our way back out of.

Speaking of passing through strange mirrors, I recently reread Wilson Harris's Carnival (Faber Faber, 1985, out of print) for the graduate course I'm teaching. I realized upon finishing it once again that it must be one of the most difficult novels written in English in the last 25 (50? 75? more?) years. Though it only runs to 168 or so pages, it serves up prose so densely lyrical, disorienting, distancing, and taxing that I have to admit my reading strategy involved pausing, then rereading, then rereading again certain passages, even though I'd already read the novel several times in the past. My conviction remains that this is a work of manifest artistry that manages tosimultaneously embody multiple genres and modes while also functioning diegetically as an allegorical narrative. I also think it stages, from the level of syntax all the way up to the level of the plot, a very complex textual embodiment and performance of epic and ritual, as a revisionary "Carnival" site in prose (Carnival and the carnivalesque, masking/masqueing, transformation and metamorphosis, performance and performativity, trauma and recovery). In this work, Harris employs a relentlessly dialectic, fractal, negative capability in writing the social, economic, political, and spiritual "history" of Guyana, the Western epic tradition, the Diaspora and diasporas, society and the self. I also suggested to the class that though he was (and is) interested at the time in quantum theory, which is most evident in The Four Banks of the River of Space (yet operative, in terms of ways of reading time and space in Carnival and the carnival), he seems also to have anticipated string theory in this book, at least as I understand it from many articles and Brian Greene's and Lisa Randall's books on the topic (which isn't very well). Harris brain nevertheless strikes me as having been on the branes before almost anyone else--in the literary world, that is.

Rabassa_NDI've only been able to make my way piecemeal through Gregory Rabassa's If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (New Directions, 2005), which is that magisterial translator's memoir about his career as an avid reader, Columbia professor and one of the greatest translators ever from the Spanish and Portuguese into English. I actually skipped over the memoir part to get to his discussion of particular authors, and my first choices were the baroque Cuban José Lezama Lima, Spain's leading avant-garde novelist Juan Goytisolo, the ludic Brazilian Osman Lins, and two of my all-time favorites, the extraordinary pair of Colombia Gabriel García Márquez, and Brazilian Clarice Lispector. Of the García Márquez, Rabassa writes in concluding his entry on his many translation of that great writer and another:

It was strange, magical perhaps, that after I ceased working on García Márquez I went on to do quite a few things by jorge Amado and suddenly I got the feeling that Macondo [the imaginary town of One Hundred Years of Solitude] was located somewhere in the state of Bahia, down in the southern cacao country or perhaps more likely on the Recôncavo as the bay shore is called. It was a nice transference and I even began to see [actress] Sonia Braga walking down the streets of Macondo while I tried to find her place in the Buendía family tree.
There's more of this sort of succint and sparking summing up by Rabassa here!

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