Not much vnlike the wondrer haue ye another figure called the doubtfull, because oftentimes we will seeme to cast perils, and make doubt of things when by a plaine manner of speech wee might affirme or deny him.

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Breyten Breytenbach, Mouroir

Over his white robe in which the wind was trapped like the wings of anxious seagulls he wore a jacket buttoned to the chin and around the head he had wrapped a turban and on his face he had a pointed beard. He thoughtfully fondled the sharpness of the hairy little sword on his chin and carefully and slowly explained to us from deep in his throat that he could, upon request, rapidly accompany us to a place where we might obtain assistance, but only the men would be allowed to come. This after all, was dictated by the customs of Islam. And concerning the women we weren’t to worry excessively for they would be safe here during our brief absence. But we had to take our shoes off. With the guide we clambered over the sandhill and sunk to our knees in the shifts and the slides of the surface. Behind the hill we saw the grey sandflats decorated with shadows of all shapes. Like more palpable shadows there were also broad drawers standing upright, half buried in the sand itself, with shiny knobs by which they could be opened upwards. The Arab with the burnt-out eyes asked us whether we wished to arrive at our destination quickly or less quickly or less slowly or slowly or in God’s own time. We said: as soon as possible, please. Rather, that was my answer, and I assume the others answered in the same way. Thus he opened the left most “drawer” and we climbed in. And with a giddy speed we tumbled down, transported by a vertical conveyer belt, until down below we were spilt head over heels on a square. In the middle of the square was a fountain. Around this square with its fountain there were the fronts of tall buildings – some were even palaces. A crowd of people with smiles wreathed around their mouths strolled up and down and then stopped to listen with cocked heads how the spouting water plunges back with a rinkle-tinkle. It was warm in that place. And it was evening because spray-lights lit up the buildings and shone through the tree of water. I think it must have been in Switzerland. A long long time ago.

Bessie Head, A Question of Power

By Sunday evening, exhausted, she thought quietly to herself: ‘Sello, after all, is just a fool, and he looks like a monkey.’

She closed her eyes, wearily. There was an instant attack from Medusa. She stood next to brown-suit and said, accusingly, ‘You see, she says you look like a monkey. What are you going to do about it?’

As Elizabeth watched, brown-suit’s face slowly changed to the shape of an owl. He said: ‘Oh, no, I’m not a monkey. I’m a wise old owl.’

She jerked upright in bed. What was this? Did it mean she had no privacy left?

Peter Carey, His Illegal Self

Carey, Peter. His Illegal Self. New York: Knopf, 2008.

On the long list of things that Mr. Carey does damn well, I would give top place to children. Those who fear that the child POV was exhausted with high modernism and is now verboten and twee will be glad to meet Che, or Jay, who is rendered with fidelity in his moments of perception and emotion and transgression, who is used neither sentimentally as a miniature adult nor sadistically as a punching bag for the world’s arbitrary cruelty. Both cruelty and love in this book come as surprises, reversing themselves without warning – Carey has the genuine storyteller’s confidence, with no fear of the leaping metaphor or the unexpected lurch in time and perspective. Damn if he doesn’t know how to deploy them. This doesn’t enter the marketplace for another month or so (a friend in high places scored me a review copy), but watch the skies.

Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet

Flaubert, Gustave. Bouvard and Pécuchet; with the Dictionary of Received Ideas (Bouvard et Pécuchet, Dictionnaire des id<ées reçues). Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1976 (1874-1880).

It’s so funny. It’s so mean. It’s so funny. There’s no way to do right by it – one of B. and P.’s principal occupations is mocking the stupidity and unoriginality of other people, and they aren’t precisely wrong to do so. It doesn’t feel unfinished. The tone is so homogenous that it’s easy enough to superimpose it over Flaubert’s plot sketch for the last chapters (with another steel-trap ending, just like L’Éducation Sentimentale), have the received ideas for dessert and go to bed with heartburn.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp, 1996 (1910).

They call it a novel, but the notebook format basically turns it into a series of prose poems held together by the Brigge persona, who sometimes is a solid character with a personal history and sometimes is just a voice – more willfully naive than a lot of Rilke's poetic speakers but recognizably continuous with them. So it's a book of wonderful moments: funny, often scary, circling around anonymity, death and time. My favorite might have been the fable about the man who exchanges his fifty remaining years of life for a titanic heap of seconds, which immediately start to vanish on him – but it's hard to choose.

Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales

Melville, Herman. "The Piazza," "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas," "The Bell-Tower." In Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. New York: Bantam, 1984 (1856).

This Billy Budd edition is rounded out with the entire contents (minus "The Lightning-Rod Man") of the only story collection Melville published in his lifetime. The famous ones are "Bartleby," which was never a huge favorite of mine, and "Benito Cereno," which what do you say about "Benito Cereno," but "The Piazza" is one of the weirdest versions of pastoral I've ever read; the whimsical narrator superimposed on a scene of actual hardship strikes (and strikes hard) that difficult, uneasy note that the early Wordsworth is always trying for. "The Encantadas" is an amazing series of sketches on the Galapagos islands with a lot of quotes from Spenser; Melville allegorizes the Galapagos tortoise with no less ingenuity, though at far less length, than he allegorizes his whale, and then there are these sorts of inimitable moments:

If now you desire the population of Albemarle, I will give you, in round numbers, the statistic, according to the most reliable estimates made upon the spot:

Men…………..none
Anteaters……unknown
Man-haters….unknown
Lizards………500,000
Snakes……..500,000
Spiders…..10,000,000
Salamanders….unknown
Devils………..unknown

Making a clean total of………11,000,000

exclusive of an incomputable host of fiends, anteaters, man-haters, and salamanders.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. Ed. José Carlos González Boixo. Madrid: Cátedra, 1992 (1955).

Since I'm starting the semester with two of my very favorite books, I took the opportunity to go back and read this in Spanish, which I'd never done before. (I wish I could show you the awesome cover of my edition, which appears to depict a skull eating a watermelon.) Páramo in Spanish means a barren stretch of land; apparently Eliot's Waste Land was first translated into Spanish as El Páramo in 1930, but it's unknown if Rulfo ever came across it.

To the extent that there are traces of modernism in this book, it's modernism of a certain stripe only. The jumbled chronology and focus on a rural past could have been another case of Faulkner gone south, but Rulfo's terse sentences give precisely the opposite effect; and if Quentin finds himself in limbo at the end of Absalom, Absalom!, compelled to narrate the past, Rulfo goes one better by putting his young narrator six feet underground and breaking his consciousness completely apart. The narrative that emerges is in a sense historical, but not really interpretive; a tragic structure gradually comes into view, but as with old Aeschylus the facts are formidably bare, somehow discouraging psychological explanation. (The reigning critical controversies tend to do with ambiguities of fact – who kills who at the end, whether the narrator is dead all along, etc.) And the book's brief length draws a sharp limit to what can be said about history — if such a sordid hodgepodge of events even deserves the name. In the end you can only stare at it.

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (Norton Critical)

Henry James, The Awkward Age

James, Henry. The Awkward Age. New York: Penguin, 1966 (1899).

After some initial casting about, the motor for the plot resolves into an older man’s offer of a healthy financial bequest to a younger man on the condition of a certain marriage taking place. The Tragic Muse had a similar situation, but this time around the matter is treated with a great deal more hesitation and indirection; for one thing, a point is made of never mentioning the sum, so that it joins Milly Theale’s mysterious illness and Lambert Strether’s mysterious manufactured item in the list of Crucial Jamesian Unspeakables. On the level of form, the strategy has something to do with modernist ideas of purity: factoring out the contingent. On the level of plot, it has something to do with complete terror of being conditioned by the material world.

Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean

Pater, Walter. Marius the Epicurean. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1900 (1885).

This was a hard book to enjoy, and I didn’t really rise to the challenge. In writing about the present by writing about the past, Pater courts some of the same dangers as Charles Johnson’s The Oxherding Tale - we must cultivate beauty! Roman culture is so belated – how can we write anything when the Greeks got there first? But in general Pater wants to avoid making his second-century Italy into too transparent an allegory, so he overloads on specifics – thus endless translations and general donnish lecturing interspersed with pretty landscapes, behind which one can very dimly make out the moving outlines of the characters. It was like walking through ancient Rome with a towel over my head.