Italo Calvino on one of my favorite books, Voltaire’s Candide (these are the first few paragraphs of the essay “Candide, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity,” from Calvino’s indispensable collection Why Read the Classics?):
Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.
What most delights us today in Candide is not the ‘conte philosophique’, nor its satire, nor the gradual emergence of a morality and vision of the world: instead it is its rhythm. With rapidity and lightness, a succession of mishaps, punishments and massacres races over the page, leaps from chapter to chapter, and ramifies and multiplies without evoking in the reader’s emotions anything other than a feeling of an exhilarating and primitive vitality. In the bare three pages of Chapter 8 Cunégonde recounts how having had her father, mother and brother hacked to pieces by invaders, she is then raped and disembowelled, then cured and reduced to living as a washerwoman, bartered and sold in Holland and Portugal, torn between two different protectors of different faiths on alternate days, and in this condition happens to witness the auto da fé whose victims are Pangloss and Candide himself whom she then rejoins. Even less than two pages of Chapter 9 are enough for Candide to find himself with two corpses at his feet and for Cunégonde to be able to exclaim: ‘How did you who were born so mild ever manage to kill in the space of two minutes a Jew and a prelate?’ And when the old woman has to explain why she has only one buttock, she starts by telling the story of her life from the moment when as the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Pope, she had experienced in the space of three months poverty, enslavement, and almost daily rape, before having to endure famine and war and nearly dying of the plague in Algiers: and all this before she can get to her tale of the siege of Azov and of the unusual nutrition that the starving Janissaries discover in female buttocks . . . well, here things are rather more leisurely, two whole chapters are required, something like six and a half pages.
The great discovery of Voltaire the humorist is a technique that will become one of the most reliable gags in comic films: the piling up of disaster on disaster at relentless speed. There are also the sudden increases in rhythm which carry the sense of the absurd almost to the point of paroxysm: as when the series of misfortunes already swiftly narrated in the detailed account is then repeated in a breakneck-speed summary. What Voltaire projects in his lightning-speed photograms is really a worldwide cinema, a kind of ‘around the world in eighty pages’, which takes Candide from his native Westphalia to Holland, Portugal, South America, France, England, Venice and Turkey, and this tour then splits in turn into supplementary whirlwind world tours by fellow protagonists, male and especially female, who are easy prey for pirates and slavers operating between Gibraltar and the Bosphorus. A huge cinema of contemporary world events most of all: villages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War between the Prussians and the French (the ‘Bulgars’ and the ‘Abars’), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the auto da fés organised by the Inquisition, the Jesuits of Paraguay who reject Spanish and Portuguese rule, the legendary gold of the Incas, and the odd snapshot of Protestantism in Holland, of the spread of syphilis, Mediterranean and Adantic piracy, internecine wars in Morocco, the exploitation of black slaves in Guyana, but always leaving a certain space for literary news, allusions to Parisian high life, interviews with the many dethroned kings of the time, who all gather at the Venice carnival.
Roberto Bolaño, from an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, republished this month in Melville House’s Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview:
I suppose that within his brutality and his courage–he is a very courageous man–my father loved me as I love my son. In the end, one could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.
Okay, so sons didn’t ask to be born, but what about daughters? How did Bolaño feel about his daughter?
I won’t say anymore. I’ll start to cry. The only explanation I could give would be to cry. It’s beyond the beyond.
Reading these quotes, I thought about two of my favorite depictions of fathers and children in Bolaño’s work. First, there’s Bolaño as the son, “B,” in the title track from the collection Last Evenings on Earth. The story is a strange mix of sinister and funny, with the (perhaps overly literary) son fearing for his dad, a boxer who, at least in the son-narrator’s view, doesn’t seem to be paying attention to just how bad things seem to be turning on the pair’s vacation to Acapulco. Then there’s (possibly) Bolaño as parent, this time in the form of Oscar Amalfitano in 2666. If Bolaño would cry for his daughter’s safety, for anxiety and wariness of a cruel world, then Amalfitano becomes a literary center for those fears. And, if you’ve read that book, you know his paranoia is justified. In any case, it’s clear that Bolaño loved his children deeply. In another of the the book’s interviews–literally, “The Last Interview,” Bolaño, the exile who lived everywhere said, “my only country is my two children.” He even asked that his masterpiece 2666 be divvied up into five parts in the hopes that it would provide steady income for his son and daughter.
It’s 1972 and I can see V.S. Naipaul strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires. Well, sometimes he’s strolling, but sometimes, when he’s on his way to meetings or keeping appointments, his gait is quick and his eyes take in only what he needs to see in order to reach his destination with a minimum of bother, whether it’s a private dwelling or, more often, a restaurant or a café, since many of those who’ve agreed to meet him have chosen a public place, as if they were intimidated by this peculiar Englishman, or as if they’d been disconcerted by the author of Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas when they met him in the flesh and had thought: Well, I didn’t think it would be like this, or: This isn’t the man I’d imagined, or: Nobody told me.
So there he is, Naipaul, and it seems that all he can notice are outward movements, but in fact he’s noticing inward movements too, although he interprets them in his own way, sometimes arbitrarily, and he’s moving through Buenos Aires in the year 1972 and writing as he moves or perhaps only wanting to write as his legs move through that strange city, and he’s still young, forty years old, but he already has a considerable body of work behind him, a body of work that doesn’t weigh him down or prevent him from moving briskly through Buenos Aires when he has an appointment to keep—the weight of the work, that’s something to which we shall have to return, the weight and the pride that he takes in his work, the weight and the responsibility, which don’t prevent his legs from moving nimbly or his hand from rising to hail a taxi, as he acts in character, like the man he is, a man who keeps his appointments punctually—but he is weighed down by the work when he goes strolling through Buenos Aires without appointments to exercise his British punctuality, without any pressing obligations, just walking along those strange avenues and streets, through that city in the southern hemisphere, so like the cities of the northern hemisphere, and yet nothing like them at all, a hole, a void that someone has suddenly inflated, a show that is strictly for local consumption; that’s when he feels the weight of the work, and it’s tiring to carry that weight as he walks, it exhausts him, it’s irritating and shameful.
Read the rest of the essay at NRYB. From The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews, new from New Directions this month.
The BBC and other sources report that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the first South American to win the Nobel in lit since Gabriel García Márquez won in 1982.
According to the Nobel website, the prize was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”