The Acrobats — Xiao Guo Hui

The Acrobats, 2020 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Attributes of the Moon — Ithell Colquhoun

Attributes of the Moon, 1947 by Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988)

The Old Man Stays Behind — Eric Fischl

The Old Man Stays Behind, 2021 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)

Antonio di Benedetto’s The Silentiary (Book acquired, 6 Jan. 2022)

This afternoon I finally jumped in to Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary (the original title, El silenciero means something like “the silencer,” I think). We have an unnamed narrator living in an unnamed Latin America in a not-entirely unspecified time (“as of the late postwar era”). Our narrator is an office worker who lives with his mother. He dreams of being a writer and is in love with a neighbor. He despises noise, which is too bad because an autoshop has just opened up right next to his bedroom wall.

There’s a Kafkaesque vibe to The Silentiary—everything’s a bit uncanny, a wavelength off. The narrator is a wavelength off, I suppose. The prose is sometimes crisp and economic, and then zips out into wonderfully estranging images, like this odd sentence just a few pages in:

At dawn, the daylight a glaze of watery milk on the widowpanes, as my mind, jerked into a state of alertness, discerns a noise attached to the rear wall of my room, something like my heart grows agitated within me.

Or this little moment, longer than a haiku but still in the same spirit:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

It took me a few dozen pages to attune to the humor of The Silentiary. It’s just as odd and dry as the dark humor in Di Benedetto’s 1965 novel Zama,  but again, a wavelength off, a different flavor from the same palate. An episode of drinking that ends with our narrator carried home by his fellows is particularly entertaining. When I type out the description the bit seems hardly subtle. But it is.

More thoughts to come, but for now here’s NYRB’s blurb:

The Silentiary takes place in a nameless Latin American city during the early 1950s. A young man employed in middle management entertains an ambition to write a book of some sort. But first he must establish the necessary precondition, which the crowded and noisily industrialized city always denies him, however often he and his mother and wife move in search of it. He thinks of embarking on his writing career with something simple, a detective novel, and ponders the possibility of choosing a victim among the people he knows and planning a crime as if he himself were the killer. That way, he hopes, his book might finally begin to take shape.

The Silentiary, along with Zama and The Suicides, is one of the three thematically linked novels by Di Benedetto that have come to be known as the Trilogy of Expectation, after the dedication “To the victims of expectation” in Zama. Together they constitute, in Juan José Saer’s words, “one of the culminating moments of twentieth-century narrative fiction in Spanish.”

Spinner — Jacek Malczewski

Spinner, 1922 by Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929)

Ari Reading — Dorothy Thornhill

Ari Reading, 1973 by Dorothy Thornhill (1910–1987)

Secrets of the Constellations — Anton Evgenievich Frolov

Secrets of the Constellation, 2021 by Anton Evgenievich Frolov (b. 1982)

The Cave of Sleep — Pavel Tchelitchew

The Cave of Sleep, 1941 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)

The Enchantress — Remedios Varo

The Enchantress, 1950 by Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

Reading by the Moon — Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Reading by the Moon, 1888 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892)

Still Life with Fruit, Lobster and Silver Vessels — Willem van Aelst

Still Life with Fruit, Lobster and Silver Vessels, c. 1660-1670 by Willem van Aelst (1627–1683)

“Power” — Tom Clark

Moon in Alabama — Lynn Chadwick

Moon in Alabama, 1963 by Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003)

Two by Pessoa and Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated (Books acquired last week and late last year)

Last week I finally got into a collection of Fernando Pessoa’s writing called Writings on Art and Poetical Theory. The books contains pieces that Pessoa composed in English, and is out next year from Contra Mundum Press. Their blurb:

Writings on Art and Poetical Theory contains a selection of Fernando Pessoa’s writings (or those of his heteronyms) on art and poetical theory, originally written in English. In Pessoa’s oeuvre one finds not only literary and fictional works but also a multiplicity of theoretical texts on the most diverse subjects concerning artistic movements, literature, and writers.

In this book, we witness Pessoa explore, through various heteronyms, general theories on poetics, the poetries of other heteronyms, the uses and abuses of criticism, and more. Also included are essays on sensationism (an aesthetic movement Pessoa dubs a new species of Weltanschauung), translation, and a brief history of English literature, which is comprised of fragments on Shakespeare, Milton, the British Romantics, Dickens, Wilde, and others, as well as additional material, such as Pessoa’s own poem Antinous.

This edition, prepared by Nuno Ribeiro and Cláudia Souza, allows us to have an overview of Pessoa’s writings on art and poetic theory — most of which are presented here for the first time to English readers —, thus opening the way for future studies on one of the most significant authors of Portuguese modernism.

Dabbling about in Writings reminded me that I’ve never made a stab at Pessoa’s monumental work, The Book of Disquiet. I picked up New Directions’ recent Complete Edition in translation by Margaret Jull Costa. I ended up reading a big chunk of it that night and have dipped into it all week and I’m not sure if I love it or hate it. It’s like the anti-Leaves of Grass, if that makes sense. It also seems like the kind of book to just pick up and read and random, which I’ve been doing since my initial fifty-page jog into it. In a short doses the fragments are lovely, poetic, aphoristic, but in longer dives the language becomes oppressive, the spirit draining and even venomous.

While I was at the bookstore I also spied a copy of Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated. I’d found a used copy at this same story maybe ten years ago and thought twenty bucks was too much for it, and have regretted that decision for years now. Here’s the first page:

Jan Six — Rembrandt

Jan Six, 1647 by Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-69)

Schoolgirl Reading — Jacques Villon 


Schoolgirl Reading, 1929 by Jacques Villon (1875–1963)

Blood Meridian — Aaron Morse

Blood Meridian, 2006 by Aaron Morse (b. 1974)