Blog about some recent reading

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From bottom to top:

I finally started Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia last week. I took the book with me to a place we rented near Black Mountain, North Carolina for a week. I purposefully took only Animalia, leaving behind two books I was in the middle of—Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent and Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine. I used the adverb purposefully in the previous sentence, although I’m not sure what my purpose was. I think I just wanted an associative break from the past few months. I read geographically, even in my own home. I read the first section of Animalia, often overwhelmed by its abject lifeforce. The novel begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on a family farm. The preceding sentence is a bad description: Animalia is, so far anyway, a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as intrigued as to how a novel was translated, either. In Frank Wynne’s English translation, Del Amo’s prose carries notes and tones evocative of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Del Amo employs precise Latinate words, using, for example, genetrix, instead of mother, as in this paragraph:

The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.

The paragraph, from early in Animalia, conveys the prose’s abject flavor. Read the rest of the excerpt at Granta.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman. I loved it.

I will be posting a proper review of Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine some time this month, so I won’t remark at length on it. I’m a little under halfway through (had to restart after returning from the mountains), and it seems to me that the plot is impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s really simple: A rural couple, Norabole and Bernard, escape from their small town and move to the big city (“Big City”). Norabole very quickly becomes the CEO of a huge company, with an eye toward creating “the world’s first Gothic conglomerate” (she plans to get an exorcist on the board, as well as having the company partake in an annual seance). Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find employment and whips up seven course meals for his Noarbole. He also has apparently contracted (contracted?!) xenoglossiaLake of Urine is energetic and very funny and so so weird. Stitch seems to be doing whatever he wants on the page and I dig it.

I really enjoyed Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan), mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself. Good stuff.

Four by Muriel Spark. I’d never read her until May, and I’ve just been gobbling these up. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is fantastic, and then read The Girls of Slender Means, which I liked even more than Prime. Slender Means unself-consciously employs some postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The novel unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany. (And the whole thing coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I then read Loitering with Intent, which is my favorite so far—just sharp as hell, and chock full of patterns and loops that I want to go back to again. I definitely will reread that one. I’m near the end of Memento Mori, a novel that concerns aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark seems to inhabit their consciousness with a level of acuity that surprises me. Memento Mori is sharp and witty, but, barring some last minute shift, it’s not been my favorite Spark—but it’s still very good, and I want to read more. Any suggestions?

Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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A few days ago, a perhaps-not-unprecedented-yet-still-weighty crop of books arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. Five, to be clear, which is a lot of good mail in These Uncertain Trying Unprecedented Challenging Difficult Fucked the Fucked Up Times™. At first I felt electric joy, and then I felt overwhelmed, burdened even—I’m in the middle of Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge and I’m reading this really great as-yet-unpublished novel by Adam Novy and I’m still making my merry way through the voluminous volume The Complete Gary Lutz. (And how did Tyrant, the publisher, get that name? Do they plan on assassinating Lutz to ensure their book is truly complete?) I’m also doing my job, which is a bunch of reading and writing, and trying to do the homeschool thing. Is this a complaint? It is not. I am okay.

But so well and anyway—

The five books that showed up initially were a source of joy but then caused a weird panic. I picked up Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan, btw) this afternoon because it was on top of a neat stack I’d stacked. (A big part of my day is going around and stacking things and wiping down surfaces.) I started reading, and the sentences were good. The first sentence made me want to read the next sentence, a pattern that continued. I read the first eight chapters (I love short chapters, and I love short books—books should be over 700 pages or under 200), and really dig the voice Ramos channels here. Let’s take these early paragraphs, which might could maybe perhaps be the germ of its own separate novel:

Until I was eighteen, I hoed a hard roe, earning five tostoes for twelve hours’ work. That was when I committed my first act worthy of mention. At a wake that ended up in a free-for-all, I moved in on this girl, Germana—a sarara, a blond mulatta, flirty as hell—and tweaked the stern of her ass. The kid about wet herself, she love it so much. Then she flipped and made up to João Fagundes, a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses. The upshot was that I knocked Germana around and knifed João Fagundes. Sot the police chief arrested me. I was beaten with a bullwhip, took my medicine and stewed in my own juices, rotting in jail for three years, nine months, and fifteen days, where I learned to read with Joaquim the shoemaker, who had one of those tiny Bibles, the Protestant kind.

Joaquim the shoemaker died and Germana was ruined. When I got, she’d gone downhill—had an open-door policy and the clap.

(lmao — “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses.”)

Our narrator is a charming brute who brutally charms his way into ownership of São Bernardo, a ranch gone to seed.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Paulo Honório is a sometime field hand who has kicked and clawed and schemed his way to prosperity, becoming master of the decrepit estate São Bernardo, where once upon a time he toiled. He is ruthless in his exploitation of his fellow man, but when he makes a match with a fine young woman, he is surprised to discover that this latest acquisition, as he sees it, may be somewhat harder to handle. It is in Paulo Honório’s own rough-hewn voice that the great Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos, often compared to William Faulkner, tells this gritty and dryly funny story of triumph and comeuppance, a tour de force of the writer’s art that is beautifully captured in Padma Viswanathan’s new translation.