Blog about some recent reading

img_5662

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?

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (Book acquired 21 April 2020)

img_5359

A number of people whose literary taste I admire and have learned from (including this guy) have told me to read Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia. (English translation is by Frank Wynne, by the way.)

I avoided any reviews or descriptions (although a bit of chatter and stray lines have led me to believe the book has an abject grimy grittiness to it—and the back of this copy compares it to Cormac McCarthy), but trips to my beloved bookstore never yielded a copy over the past six months or so. I was looking for the Fitzcarraldo Editions edition, which was probably a mistake. Those are hard to come by in the States.

A few weeks—days? —I don’t know man, time has been weird, we all know that right? Like this virus, a post-postmodern moment, has shifted again our human relationship with time/space, revealing that the modernist schedules and movements and timelines and tics that we’d been following, perhaps even believing in, were fictions—which of course, those of us birthed in the postmodern era understood, either fully or at least intuitively—but we had to subscribe to those fictions to like, survive—but now, now, hey, now what is our relationship to time and space?—does anyone else wake up at 3am and then go back to sleep at 7am?—has anyone else ordered a book off the internet, possibly drunk, or possibly in a weird mix of sleep aids and melatonin, or possibly just a bit crazed?—these aren’t real questions—

So—

At some point in the recent past, Fitzcarraldo Editions tweeted about an ebook sale that reminded me to get Animalia. (A basic twitter search reveals that my previous paragraph is as idiotic as you no doubt took it to be, if you bothered to even read it. This happened on 30 March 2020.) Of course, I could not get the ebook in the States.

I’m not sure when exactly I ordered a copy of Animalia from an indie bookseller online. When it showed up the other day I was a bit surprised: first that I’d ordered it, second that it was an uncorrected proof. But I was happy that some idiot version of myself from the past sent me this gift, the first physical book I’ve gotten in what seems like a long time.

From an excerpt of the novel at Granta:

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.

One October morning, alone in the sty, tending to the sow about to farrow, the genetrix is felled by a pain and, without even a cry, falls to her knees on the freshly scattered straw whose pale, perfumed dust is still rising in whorls. Her breaking waters drench her undergarments and her thighs. The sow, also in the throes of labour, trots in circles, making high whining sounds, her huge belly jiggling, her teats already swollen with milk, her swollen vulva dilated; and it is here, on her knees, and later on her side, that the genetrix gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed with sweat. Slipping a hand between her thighs, she feel the viscid mass tearing her apart. She buries her fingers in the fontanelle, rips out the stillborn foetus and flings it far from her. She grips the bluish umbilical cord attached to it and from her belly pulls the placenta which falls to the ground with a spongy sound. She stares at the tiny body covered in vernix caseosa, it looks like a yellowish worm, like the grey and golden larva of a potato beetle ripped from the rich soil and the roots on which it feeds. Daylight filters between loose boards, streaking the sour, dusty air, the bleak half-light that reeks of a knacker’s yard, and falls on the lifeless form lying on the straw. The genetrix gets to her feet, split in two, one hand under her skirt touching the swollen lips of her sex. She steps back, horrified, and leaves the sty, careful to latch the door, leaving to the sow the afterbirth and its fruit. For a long time she leans against the wall of the sty, motionless, gasping for breath. Bright blurred shapes float in her field of vision. Then she leaves the farm and takes the road towards Puy-Larroque, limping through a heavy drizzle that washes her face and the skirt stained brown with lochia. Without a glance at anyone, she crosses the village square. Those who see her notice the soiled skirt she is gripping in one fist, the pallid face, the lips pressed so tightly that the mouth is white as an old scar. Her brown hair has escaped her scarf and is plastered to her face and neck. She pushes open the church door and falls to her knees before the crucifix.