sábado, maio 30, 1981

Unhappy Philosopher: "The Street of Crocodiles" by Bruno Schulz




(Original Review, 1981-05-30)




Why do I read? To learn, to experience worlds, emotions, interactions that I don't experience in my reality, to think, to be, to become.

If not for Huxley - recommended by an English teacher at school - I'd have remained a working class racist, sexist homophobe, would never have smoked haxixe, gone on to study philosophy, met my children's mother, have had wonderful kids or stepped out of a culture of impoverished imagination.
I might have been 'a happy pig' rather than an "unhappy philosopher," (to paraphrase Plato) it's true, but it's been a richer life for it. Reading still throws utterly unexpected poetry and beauty at me, as with some of the lines from 'Street of Crocodiles' by Bruno Schulz, which is a wonderful if not easy read. It really is risible to see a bunch of non-Polish speakers bemoaning a translation because, well, it makes for difficult English! Well, trying reading Schulz in Polish as that’s same friend who speaks Polish told me - it ain't easy, either, for a Polish speaker! His prose is frequently florid, too much, heavy, creaking but then bursts into levity and flight, that is the joy and surprise of his work - transformation, not only within the scenes, but within the writing itself (the same can be applied to Saramago…). 

And I also despair of critics and readers (and this happens in book reviews every week) who comment on the quality of a translation without having a working knowledge of both languages. The problem is that when reviewing work in translation it's considered polite to comment on the translator, and if you've enjoyed the book it naturally follows that you'll want to compliment the translator on the job they've done. It's a bit of a nonsense, but it's usually born of good intentions as opposed to wanting to make people believe you spend your spare time reading Chekhov and Proust in the original. [2018 EDIT: That's why I only do it when I've read the original which invariably only happens when the language to and from involves Portuguese, English, Spanish or German.]

I read because it's in the blood. There is no greater love (or as a friend of mine usually says: "To avoid eye contact with that creepy guy on the subway.").

segunda-feira, maio 25, 1981

Is Taste Personal: "The Decline of Pleasure" by Walter Kerr



(Original Review, 1981-05-25)

Here’s a quiz on “sex in literature”. The problem is I don’t know the answers. This comes from Walter Kerr’s 1962 book “The Decline of Pleasure.” He doesn’t present it as a quiz, but merely describes incidents in recent novels and plays that he evidently expects the reader to recognize. I’ve numbered the entries for ease of response.

What do our novels and our plays show back to us? Almost without exception, an image of sex that is violent, frustrated, shabby, furtive, degrading, treacherous, and – more and more – aberrant.

1) The heroine has taken lovers on the lawn beyond counting; she ends in an asylum;
2) The countess requires the ministrations of a homosexual if her nerves are not to give way; his give way, and he hangs himself;
3) The hero finds gratification with a twelve-year-old child, who is more accomplished than he is; she ends a slattern and he a convict;
4) The virile ex-soldier is close to being spastic because he knows that all women want to “cut it off,” the suburban husband is hopelessly and impossibly enamored of the baby sitter, the wife of a distinguished lawyer futilely says “yes” to a stranger in an elevator, one teen-ager is being raped near a wire fence and another is returning from the abortionist, and there is no lasting love in a summer place;
5) The little college teacher hops on one foot outside his best friend’s bedroom, asking in a piping voice, “Are they doing it?” while a girl abandoned by the sailor who has made her pregnant asks snickeringly of a homosexual friend, “But what do they do?”

[2018 EDIT: Let me see. OK, 3) is obviously Lolita. Is 4) all from one single work as it is in a single sentence? Despite the hint at the end, I’m not sure that it is Sloan Wilson’s “A Summer Place,” which I haven’t read; I’m basing my doubts on the Wikipedia summary, which may have left out the sordid details Kerr emphasizes. Remember, this is a book from 1962, so all the examples come from that year or earlier. I imagine most, probably all, are post-WWII.

Is 1) "A Streetcar Named Desire"? Blanche ends in an asylum for sure. Were there countless lovers on the lawn? (I saw the movie but never read the play, so only know the Hays Code version).

Could 5) possibly be A Taste of Honey? I think the last past of 5) is A Taste of Honey and the first 
part with the little college teacher is something else.

2) Tennessee Williams: “Suddenly Last Summer”? It’s not “Sweet Bird of Youth” because Chance doesn't die.]

I was rather lukewarm on the Kerr book – it looked at a familiar issue: the reluctance of Americans to undertake any activity purely for its own sake without the end goal of deriving some value from it, usually monetary, in the long range if not immediately. Kerr traced this to the philosophy of utilitarianism from the 19th century and analyzed mainly how it affected people’s interest in and understanding of the arts. My favorite parts had to do with his ideas about the formation of taste, which was not the main thrust of the book and only looked at in the final section. 

Two quotes:

"The most serious danger is that the long-isolated specialist, choosing his words more carefully and with some consideration for his listener’s ears, might succeed in reaching the “average man” before the average man was ready to be reached. He might be able to enunciate a set of standards so clear and so imposing that the inexperienced listener would nod in cerebral comprehension and accept them – without having arrived at any of them for himself.“

“That is what is always wrong with the deliberate attempt to acquire taste by reading books in which men of acknowledged taste tell us what is good and what is not. It is easily possible to come to know what is most admired by the well-informed and even to grasp – in a rational way – why it is so admired. Study of this sort will keep us from making social gaffes; it will also place at our finger tips a sort of musical scale in which the higher and the lower will fall intelligibly into place. More than that. By establishing a hierarchy of all values, with Goya a “must” and Latour an interesting “maybe,” it may very well send us in search of the best – with what is established as the best already clear in our heads. By going to Michelangelo first, it is hard to see how we can go far wrong. But we may very well have gone wrong because we have elected to act upon someone else’s “taste’ rather than upon any joyous choice of our own. It is one thing to admire Michelangelo’s Moses, a rectitude that does not look at us but bids us attend only to the law, because a hundred authorities have already admired it. It is another to admire it out of a spontaneous uprush of awe and affection, a swelling of the heart and mind that would have come if no authority had ever noticed the work."

This is powerfully perceptive stuff. Has me thinking of Howard’s End where poor Bast sees reading as a means to social advancement. It also helps to explain the popularity of Ken Follett or even Dan Brown; people feel better about spending time reading good yarns if at the same time they are learning something, however unlikely.

Kerr believes that any appetite for literature, if it’s allowed to be indulged, will lead eventually to better books and the formulation of taste – he maintains that this is even the case with comic books which he considers “the lowest conceivable level”. Since I consider myself a youthful connoisseurship of comic books my first step on the road to my present tastes, I can’t disagree with the result he projects, though I do not share his disdain for the medium. He describes a young reader addicted to mass produced tales of adventure “riding the waves of an appetite that is uncritical because it is insatiable.”

quarta-feira, maio 20, 1981

Tornagusto: "Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi, Gioia Fiammenghi (Trans.)



(Original Review, 1981-05-20)



I am reading the English version of Pinocchio; I read it, obviously many times in my language and the other day I found a small book with this title and I was curious to see how it was in a different language from mine. I also want to "invite him for dinner" as it is the title of a context of a famous Italian newspaper (writing an invitation for a character of a book at your choice) but I have not yet written a word. I am not too keen on inviting to meals, it means extra work and I did it enough. But maybe by reading it I’ll get inspired.

I read Pinocchio in a dual English/Italian text. My Italian is pretty much limited to what I have gleaned from endless listening to the Mozart/da Ponte operas, so I only occasionally referred to the original language. I did come away with the word (and concept) “tornagusto”, a kind of appetizer taken mid-meal, between courses. The word occurs in the scene in which the Fox buys an elaborate meal with Pinocchio’s gold. I’ve since learned that it isn’t a common word in Italian and may be a Collodi coinage. It’s likely that a tornagusto is only needed for overindulged appetites, which definitely happens in my reading from time to time. That’s proven a useful concept in my reading life – having temporarily exhausted my interest in a particular branch of reading, I turn to a short work or essay collection as a kind of mental “tornagusto.”

The peculiarity of Pinocchio is that his nose grows when he tells lies (I bet you didn’t know this…); imagine what would happen if it was so also for us? Particularly politicians...there would be real fun, I suppose.

[2018 EDIT:  Tornagusto is a sort of" feel the taste again", the flavour and the pleasure of life, of reading and of many things, in the end. Nice, I think that from time to time we all need a tornagusto. But the pleasure of music do not need one : it is all over, I can hear the chirping chirping sound of a bird conversation in the garden through my open window and I do not need tornagusto to appreciate the beauty of spring, here again after a long period of cold and rain. And Mozart...I love, I adore him. Since I was a little boy, I always found him absolutely marvellous, and it helped me in several life instances...tornagusto listening to the serenata in sol magggiore opera etc., and it’ll all melt into that fascinating air.]



sexta-feira, maio 15, 1981

Double Entendres Galore: "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar






(Original Review, 1981-05-15)




If you like your novels simple and straightforward, don’t read “Hopscotch”.
If you have an allergy to extended brainy digressions and convoluted debates, you better avoid “Hopscotch”.
If you abhor puns, double entendre and wordplay, I most seriously advise you to stay clear of “Hopscotch”.
If you can’t stand literary, philosophical, musical and artistic references cramming your narrative, I sincerely prompt you to veer off taking “Hopscotch” from the bookseller’s shelf.
If you like your narrative to be free of phrases, expressions and vocabulary from languages you don’t know and don't care for, maybe “Hopscotch”  is not a book for you.

Plot is definitely not what matters most in “Hopscotch”, but I’ll give you the gist of it anyway. Horacio Oliveira is an Argentine expat living in Paris and sharing rooms with girlfriend la Maga. They belong to a multinational group of young people who like spending soirées together discussing books and ideas while listening to jazz. One day Oliveira makes the acquaintance of obscure writer Morelli and then read some of his unpublished essays. Change of scenery: Oliveira returns to Buenos Aires where he meets former best buddie Manú Traveler and his wife Talita. He lives at close quarters and all three work together in a circus before accepting new jobs in a lunatic asylum.

That’s it; and yet so much more than that. As a novel “Hopscotch” seems most difficult to describe and categorise, its main interest lying in the adventurous linguistic tricks in which Cortázar famously excels. In a literary style clearly reminiscent of the French surrealists, he piles allusion upon allusion, citation upon citation to a point an honest soul might find openly extraneous. The references to authors, artists and musicians are so overwhelming one would suspect Cortázar of spending his days skimming aimlessly across Wikipedia entries and lists had he written this novel last month. As it is, in the early 60s internet didn’t exist, and in any case the Argentine clearly knows what he’s talking about (although, in all honesty, he could be a bit less garrulous as regards his cultural tastes and influences, especially when so evidently outweighing their relevance to the narrative).

“Hopscotch” is famous for its unusual structure. Divided in 155 chapters of unequal length and split in three different parts, the reader is invited to take the novel following two different methods: either obeying the customary process of progressing from chapter I until the novel’s last page, or engaging in a ‘Table of Directions’ provided by the author and which displays a different order for the reader to follow. Those who choose the first are not required to go beyond chapter 56, the last part being comprised of ‘expendable’ material not wholly essential to the understanding of the novel (so implies Cortázar); the ones who prefer to follow the Table will jump from chapter to chapter along the book thus getting a more complete vision of the writer’s intention (or that’s what he says).

I suspect Cortázar of using these instructions in order to play with us. His theory relies on the fact that most readers are only interested in the classic plot and will therefore be thankful for being spared the third section of the novel where much relatively unrelated material - mostly theoretical - is hotch-potched. On the other hand, not only the first two sections are also filled with philosophical digressions but the last one includes chapters that provide snippets of the story after the events described in chapter 56. If the reader is really interested in knowing what happened he will do well to read some of this not-so-expendable material. Besides information accessory to the plot, this last part includes a number of pieces titled ‘Morelliana’ which expose Morelli’s literary conceptions that together form a kind of theory of the novel not uninteresting to get acquainted with.

There are two more features worth mentioning about “Hopscotch.” First, Cortázar’s novel is extremely humorous and can only be fully appreciated if taken on its playful grounds - the whole book can be interpreted as one big joke, though one of the chapters sounds clearly more serious in tone. Second, the Argentine’s interest in avant-garde literature and experimental narrative techniques inspires some of the most unorthodox moments in the novel: a whole chapter where two different accounts are overlapped and can only be individually understood if read every two lines in turn; a chapter where an obituary notice is transcribed according to an alternative spelling system where phonemes are ascribed an uniform phonetic realisation; glíglico, a language composed of imaginary vocabulary of amorous terms devised by la Maga and Oliveira. And many other ingenious concoctions.

To sum up, “Hopscotch” is not an easy read. One may even say you’ll only read everything if you’re curious enough about Cortázar’s techniques and don’t mind about brainy discussions and the many nods to high-culture. Jovial playfulness surely seems to be a prerequisite. But most of all, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything; Cortázar clearly wants to play with you and not everything he exposes in such a convoluted way is expected to be interpreted as more than an aesthetic incursion into the fabulous world of literature and art.

On the other hand, and to be honest, I sensed Rayuela's point was somewhere else, and I don't think I was wrong. If you ask me I think the male portraits are only sketches: they all sound alike to me, maybe with the exception of Ferraguto who doesn't sound like anything. But the women are something else; la Maga, Talita, even the few bits with Pola seem remarkably done. They're the only interesting people in the novel. The men are too boring, and bland, and chatty. The beauty of it is that Cortázar doesn't even say if he jumped/fell at all (but he was really surprised when Rayuela was called pessimistic and Oliveira - suicidal). He doesn't explain what happened to la Maga, by the way, not even in the expendable chapters. When it comes to female characters Cuca Ferraguto is my absolute favourite: charming, intelligent, oh wait…

NB: “Hopscotch” is sometimes quoted as one of the literary sources which inspired the Fighting Fantasy adventure books.


terça-feira, maio 12, 1981

Profound Place: "Four Quartets" by T. S. Eliot





(Original Review, 1981-05-12)


I’m always impressed by the influence of mediaeval mystical texts on 'Four Quartets'. This was the subject of a chapter in my thesis. These days, I would probably want to change some of the argument of that chapter, but I would not change the overall conviction that a primary concern of the poems was the maintenance of an almost intolerable tension between the way of affirmations (deriving powerful mystical experiences from chance moments when nature is suddenly transfigured) and the way of negations (detaching oneself for a lifetime from worldly things in order to achieve mystical experience), in the midst of acute personal and public suffering and danger. Eliot surrounded himself with the dogmas and rituals of the church, but the poems reveal that what he actually wanted was "a lifetime burning in every moment" ('Burnt Norton'). Inside that outer crust of formality and reserve, there was a genuine, fiery poet's soul, and it finds its most beautiful expression, in my opinion, not in 'Prufrock' or 'The Waste Land', but in 'Four Quartets'.

With the exception of “Prufrock,” Eliot's poetry comes from a profound place, beyond the pettiness and irritations of his quotidian persona. I don't find it 'difficult', but rather layered, with meanings emerging from repeated reading. “Burnt Norton”, for instance, with its evocations of consciousness, mysticism and cosmology (in his musings on time), is endlessly alive, different every time it's dipped into over the years. And his line from Preludes,

“The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots,”

has stuck with me for decades.

My own favourite Eliot poem is “La Figlia Che Piange.” And I wonder how they should have been together", is for my money, one of the most beautiful lines in literature.

domingo, maio 10, 1981

Kublai Khan: "The Wasteland, Prufrock and Other Poems" by T. S. Eliot




(Original review, 1981-05-10)


It seems to me that the author of 'Prufrock' and that of the Wasteland are so different as to be un-recognisable. A look at the Wasteland reveals a lot of, to me, gratuitous classical referencing for which we might like to blame Pound and while I value its novelty (whereas Prufrock reads like Kublai Khan) the Wasteland reads like deliberate pastiche.

Eliot learned the need to inject stock ingredients into a poem if it is to fly with editors, perhaps explaining why Prufrock languished for so long. Don't tell me Hughes and Heaney weren't aware of a certain formulaic approach to poetry. I'm not saying it is a liability or necessarily a bad thing but I am saying that what is considered 'good' has more to do with vogue than what Eliot referred to as 'the really new'. Again, Auden's earliest published poetry fell into the trap of not pandering to 'the right style', so much so that the work is still un-excavated (properly) with a few notable exceptions. His more public style of the middle and late periods got their promised reward but it speaks to the public and not to his fellow poets as the early work did. At the height of Auden's fame, fewer than a thousand copies of his work were sold).

I recall reading how Joyce, upon first meeting Yeats (at a train station), wondered whether Yeats wasn't too old to understand what he (Joyce) was about. Eliot's first wife and Molly were peas in a pod it sounds to me, antidotes to the ossified world of Cultoor they had to cope with.

Eliot's time at Lloyd's, working by day as a Magritteish clerk while struggling with his real self is a far more attractive (and less educated) persona than the donnish Faber editor. Respectability doesn't seem to have done Eliot, his poetry at least, much good but of course it's all a matter of taste and perspective. Millions love their Eliot the way he be served up to them.

Rilke wins for me against the earlier Eliot, 'Duino Elegies' being far more sensitive, far less showy and show-offy (far less cringely 'erudite'), every bit as precise in its detailed anatomy of the new age then dawning and at least as startlingly wonderful in its imagery. There is, also, no vaudeville (he do the police in different voices but none of it terribly well) and it didn't need that madman Pound to strip it into shape.

quinta-feira, maio 07, 1981

Whateveritis: "The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of The Old Philosopher Lau Tsze" by Lau Tsze





(Original Review, 1981-05-07)


Find myself? I've been trying to lose myself for years. So maybe the trick is to be a more relaxed, healthy, aware, effective and self-attuned idiot?

Piece of advice from a "Master" (myself):

Step 1: Remove head from your anus.
Step 2: Remove shit covering your eyes.
Step 3: Open your eyes.
Congratulations, you are now mindful.

Looking for an authentic, real self is generally understood to relate to spirituality, not the 'self' we are in our daily lives and how this 'self' is different in each situation. Personally, I think it's all empty without a religious component, but whatever floats peoples’ boat. There is some virtue in improving ones state of idiocy with Daoyin/Chi Kung which is an active expression of Chinese philosophies. With the help of Dr Yang Jwing Ming, Da liu (taoist health exercise book) and the Chinese health Chi Kung publications, amongst others, my level of idiocy has really benefitted from Chinese philosophy. It’s a healthier and happier idiocy.

What a BS book. LOL LOL. Confucianism emphasized to live in harmony with the social order, in which it should model after nature. Is largely feudalistic thinking. Confucianism is a social philosophy. Once you get into Taoism and Chan Buddhism, all hell breaks loose. Tao cannot be taught. Enlightenment is more about discovering the reality of the world and this knowledge cannot be learned through books. Must be discovered through wisdom and insights and can only be taught through the mind transmission from another master or through an immortal being.

[2018 EDIT: If you cannot complete the micro cosmic orbit (the circulation of the inner chi inside you), you are not even on the path!!!!! I keep on doing my Chi Kung every day, but I'm still stupid...What am I to do? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.........ah yes, just because my limited mind can't control my chi energy and does not get mind transmission from another master or another enlightened immortal, it does not mean they don't exist. Hahahahahahahahahaha...........there are evidences but you just don’t see it because I lack the mind and the tool. A Chi Kung master can see the future and to do remote and energy healing. Here is one…go google him: Michael Lomax Normally, it takes a gifted individual 10 years to awaken his chi and to complete the micro cosmic orbit. For others, they may never know what Chi is....]

Seriously, this is all much more real than merely sitting in a cave of Zen with your eyes closed, a scented candle and an empty mind is what I read into the words. Yes, yes it is. There's nowt wrong with reality but just like ancient Chinese, it’s a matter of interpretation, understanding and application as in the antics of the 'Journey to the wests' characters' in their quest for enlightenment. Perhaps, as with Gestalt psychology and Prägnanz, there is something there but it’s not the whole picture since neither Confucius or Laozi could've had any but vague insights (by modern standards) into the human condition, e.g., medicine, biology, diet, human nature, environment and psychology but the truths that they established have echoed down the ages and we can find paralells and applications today but it’s a matter of defining and refining and building upon the truths of the past. It's basically Chi Kung, and you benefit by doing it but you cannot benefit just by thinking about doing it. It's life so live it.

[2018 EDIT: Bottom-line: Chinese/Eastern tradition has a name for the phenomena, "Hungry Ghost", a person who continually seeks out an external supply of whateveritis when actually the problem is an internal lack of self-responsibility. I still do my Chi Kung’s 8 brocades every day before leaving for work.]

terça-feira, maio 05, 1981

WWI Front Line: "The Dark Lantern" by Henry Williamson


(Original Review, 1981-05-05)


The best fictional writing about the First World War is a series of novels written by Henry Williamson. In a long fictional cycle with the overall title of "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight" there are 5 novels that deal with the period 1914 - 1918.

These are: How Dear is Life”, A Fox under My Cloak”, The Golden Virgin”, Love and the Loveless”, A Test to Destruction.

Henry Williamson joined up in August 1914 and first saw action in November of that year. He was wounded several times and was a soldier until the end of the conflict In this fictional cycle - "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight" - Williamson creates an alter-ego, Phillip Maddison, and it's through this veil of fiction that we see the horrific events of the World War One. I use the verb "see" because first and foremost Williamson is a descriptive writer who is able to convey in extreme detail life on the front line and, also, the life of his family in the suburbs of London.

These novels are just crying out to be turned into a top quality TV series by Auntie BBC; details stay in your mind years after you've read the books. The famous football match of Christmas '14 - Phillip finds a push-bike and goes for a ride behind enemy lines; when they first go up to the front line, they haven't received any rifle training; the horrific injuries and conditions of the soldiers' lives and, despite it all the spirit of camaderie .. When he goes back to England on leave, the gap that exists between civillian and military perceptions of the conflict...

Please read these novels. They haven't been published for years -sometimes you'll find the odd one at a good second hand shop. Otherwise you can order them from the Faber and Faber web-site.

Wonderfull (2 ls or one?) totally involving reading, unputdownable!!! [2018 EDIT: ROTFL!]