A FAILED ESSAY ON READING WHILE MOVING, MANGUEL’S A READING DIARY, BOLAÃ‘O’S NAZI LITERATURE IN THE AMERICAS, MARGINALIA, SEI SHONAGON, AND HOW TO BE A BROWN GIRL AS A TEDIOUS PASTICHE.[admin / November 9th, 2010 / Young Bright Things ]
All the features and habits of moving, all of which I now know too well. In the past eight years, I have lived in eight different cities.
Madness of packing—though I am an exemplary packer, the best packer of my people, have been called a Boy Scout (though I lived with no one who had Boy Scouts in their formative cultural landscapes, and not even I did, really—only on television, like most everything else that had great cool without real charm, mystery, drama, or glamour—these things, at least, my formative cultural landscape had in excess) because of my native ease at finding space where things can go; rearranging, fitting, slipping, seeing a crack.
My mother was obsessed with Tetris when I was a child, would play it late into the night. It was supposed to help her sleep, though we all knew the help was the cause. Though, being a nurse in America for over half her life, she is familiar with the notion of help being the cause. Help in this case meaning medicine; though it is all right to think it means her.
For this latest move I had no interest in being the Boy Scout; I made no inventories, did not even number or label boxes. Everywhere there were blank, which is to say wasteful, which is to say wasted, spaces.
All the features and habits of moving. Madness of packing. One of these madnesses is chance, especially in reading. When I am moving, I don’t read the books I’ve been reading lately, the reading that in that moment is currently a part of my writing’s blood, the reading that I read to write. No, when moving, I read the books easiest to extract from the pile.
(The pile in England, which is about 0.1% of the greater pile, the real pile, still in a garage in California, making me suffer like a long distance lover. When will I send for them, when will I have a space fit for them.)
This may be somewhat related to the genre of “vacation”Â reading; the genre of transitory reading. Related to this genre: exilic reading, sickness reading, grief reading. And, perhaps, reading in translation.
And so, moving reading. Which lead me to Alberto Manguel’s A READING DIARY, bought for 50p in a London charity shop vaguely dedicated to Romanian orphans. The shop was empty and gutted a few weeks before I left.
Now, I sometimes like Manguel, but not wholly, for his writing and style sometimes reminds me of Carlos Fuentes, whom I definitely do not care for at all. Did Carlos Fuentes really have an affair with Jean Seberg? That, I’m interested in.
But not the Carlos Fuentes of THE CRYSTAL FRONTIER, Carlos Fuentes of the story where a wealthy Mahattan businesswoman is uplifted and healed by the wise Mexican window-washer she glimpses outside her building. I have long had enough of brown people healing white people. Then grow your own cocoa beans.
Manguel, who wrote that review of Roberto BolaÃ±o’s NAZI LITERATURE IN THE AMERICAS and called it a tedious pastiche.
I disagree with Manguel.
Or, better yet; I agree with Manguel, and this therefore is what is awesome (awesome, struck by awe, shock and awe, of course, and awe as terror, terrorsome) about NAZI LITERATURE IN THE AMERICAS.
How to love and need tedium, how to love and need pastiche. Joyelle McSweeney on “boring, boring dread”Â in BolaÃ±o’s 2666. How to run far away from the clean, the elegant, nails with no blood beneath them.
From Manguel’s review: “Like a joke whose punchline is given in the title, the humour is undermined, and all that is left is a series of names, dates and titles that, since they don’t come across as funny, become merely irritating.”Â
That kind of joke sounds wonderful to me; there are ways of being irritating that I adore practically religiously. Irritating to a certain type of person, irritating to a certain type of humour.
How irritating to read a list of fascists. How irritating to read a list of dead and mutilated women and how they came to be dead and mutilated.
(Here I wrote humour instead of humor, not because I live in England but because I am referring to the humour of lymph fluid, phlegm, bile, mania, melancholia. These are the humours that are easily irritated, though certain humors share the condition.)
My only copy of NAZI LITERATURE IN THE AMERICAS is LA LITERATURA NAZI EN AMERICA, a PDF file. So many of my books are PDF files now. Thank you, AAAAARG.
Still, the first page looks like this, and that is happiness enough:
The last paragraphs of LA LITERATURA NAZI EN AMERICA, when novel!BolaÃ±o (fandom gifts us with the loveliest of grammars, does it not?) sees the aged fascist poet RamÃƒÂrez Hoffmann in a bar:
PedÃ una botella de agua mineral. Entonces llegÃ³ RamÃrez Hoffman y se sentÃ³ junto al ventanal, a tres mesas de distancia. Lo encontrÃ© envejecido. Tanto como seguramente lo estaba yo. Pero no. Ã‰l habÃa envejecido mucho mÃ¡s. Estaba mÃ¡s gordo, mÃ¡s arrugado, por lo menos aparentaba diez aÃ±os mÃ¡s que yo, pensÃ©, cuando en realidad sÃ³lo era tres aÃ±os mayor. Miraba el mar y fumaba. Igual que yo, descubrÃ con alarma y apaguÃ© el cigarrillo e hice como que leÃa. Las palabras de Bruno Schulz adquirieron por un instante una dimensiÃ³n monstruosa, casi insoportable. Cuando volvÃ a mirar a RamÃrez Hoffman Ã©ste se habÃa puesto de perfil. PensÃ© que parecÃa un tipo duro, como sÃ³lo pueden serlo â€” y sÃ³lo pasados los cuarenta â€” algunos latinoamericanos. Una dureza tan diferente de la de los europeos o norteamericanos. Una dureza triste e irremediable. Pero RamÃrez Hoffman no parecÃa triste y allÃ radicaba precisamente la tristeza infinita. ParecÃa adulto. Pero no era adulto, lo supe d inmediato. ParecÃa dueÃ±o de sÃ mismo. Y a su manera y dentro de su ley, cualquiera que fuera, era mÃ¡s dueÃ±o de sÃ mismo que todos los que estÃ¡bamos en aquel bar silencioso. Era mÃ¡s dueÃ±o de sÃ mismo que muchos de los que caminaban en ese momento por las calles de Lloret o trabajaban preparando la inminente temporada turÃstica. Era duro y no tenÃa nada o tenÃa muy poco y no parecÃa darle demasiada importancia. ParecÃa estar pasando una mala racha. TenÃa la cara de los tipos que saben esperar sin perder los nervios o ponerse a soÃ±ar. No parecÃa un poeta. No parecÃa un ex oficial de la Fuerza AÃ©rea Chilena. No parecÃa un asesino de leyenda. No parecÃa el tipo que habÃa volado a la AntÃ¡rtida para escribir un poema en el aire. Ni de lejos.
Se marchÃ³ cuando empezaba a anochecer. De pronto me sentÃ con hambre y feliz. PedÃ pan con tomate y jamÃ³n serrano y una cerveza sin alcohol.
Al cabo de un rato llegÃ³ Romero y nos marchamos. Al principio pareciÃ³ que nos alejÃ¡bamos del edificio de RamÃrez Hoffman pero en realidad sÃ³lo dimos un rodeo. Â¿Es Ã©l?, preguntÃ³ Romero. SÃ, le dije. Â¿Sin ninguna duda? Sin ninguna duda. Iba a aÃ±adir algo mÃ¡s pero Romero apurÃ³ el paso. El edificio de RamÃrez Hoffman se recortÃ³ contra el cielo iluminado por la luna. Singular, distinto de los demÃ¡s edificios que ante Ã©l parecÃan difuminarse, desvanecerse, tocado por una vara mÃ¡gica que surgÃa del aÃ±o 1973. Romero me seÃ±alÃ³ el banco de un parque. EspÃ©reme aquÃ, dijo. Â¿Lo va a matar? El banco estaba en un discreto rincÃ³n en penumbras. La cara de Romero hizo un gesto que no pude ver. EspÃ©reme aquÃ o vayase a la estaciÃ³n de Blanes y coja el primer tren. No lo mate, por favor, ese hombre ya no le puede hacer mal a nadie, dije. Eso usted no lo puede saber, dijo Romero, ni yo tampoco. No le puede hacer daÃ±o a nadie, dije. En el fondo no lo creÃa. Claro que podÃa hacer daÃ±o. Todos podÃamos hacer daÃ±o. Ahora vuelvo, dijo Romero.
Me quedÃ© sentado mirando los arbustos oscuros mientras escuchaba el ruido de las pisadas de Romero que se alejaba. Veinte minutos despuÃ©s regresÃ³. Debajo del brazo traÃa una carpeta con papeles. VÃ¡monos, dijo. Tomamos el autobÃºs que enlaza Lloret con la estaciÃ³n de Blanes y luego el tren a Barcelona. No hablamos hasta llegar a la EstaciÃ³n de Plaza Catalunya. Romero me acompaÃ±Ã³ hasta mi casa. AllÃ me entregÃ³ un sobre. Por las molestias, dijo. Â¿QuÃ© va a hacer usted? Me vuelvo esta misma noche a ParÃs, tengo vuelo a las 12, dijo. SuspirÃ© o bufÃ©, quÃ© asunto mÃ¡s feo, dije por decir algo. Claro, dijo Romero, ha sido un asunto de chilenos. Lo mirÃ©, allÃ, de pie en medio del portal, Romero sonreÃa. DebÃa andar por los sesenta aÃ±os. CuÃdate, BolaÃ±o, dijo finalmente y se marchÃ³.
Those first two sentences, especially. This is how horror happens: “I ordered a bottle of mineral water. Then RamÃÂrez Hoffman came and sat down next to the large window, at a distance of three tables.”Â
In A READING DIARY, Manguel quotes Auden’s “MusÃ©e des Beaux Arts”Â on horror and suffering: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well, they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
Often a poem becomes more beautiful to me when I write it into a paragraph and add the slashes in myself. Replacing breaks with slashes. There may be a grammar or pathology there, I don’t know. I am more attentive to the paragraph than the sentence, that is true.
But what is fascinating in this copy of Manguel’s A READING DIARY is the quite conservative marginalia inside it, accompanying an already quite conservative work. Conservative in precisely the sense described by one of Ariana Reines‘ recent blog entries: “O, you mean those other poets, the suburban world-haters with a boner for elegant syllogism?” “Yeah. Them.”Â
Manguel’s A READING DIARY is written in aphoristic form, a favorite form of mine, though there are better, wilder incarnations of it than this one. Jalal Toufic’s books, for example.
And so I read them, the disdainful comments written by the person who owned this book before me, whom I have taken to calling Marginalien. I know, that is far too interesting a name for this person who is a snobby philistine and does not deserve it, but well, the best kindness is the undeserved kindness, probably. Sometimes I have the time to learn to be good.
The first amused, eyebrow-raised comments come in the foreword:
Manguel: “Reading is a conversation. Lunatics engage in imaginary dialogues which they hear echoing somewhere in their minds; readers engage in a similar dialogue provoked silently by words on a page.”Â
Marginalien: “AM as lunatic—-sweet, capricious, whimsical idea”Â
Manguel: “It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a common place book”Â
Marginalien: “quaint, pretty notion”Â
Manguel: “On the plane, I pull out a copy of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ THE INVENTION OF MOREL, the tale of a man stranded on an island that is apparently inhabited by ghosts, a book I read for the first time thirty, thirty-five years ago.”Â
Then Marginalien, explaining to me, explaining to himself (for I am somewhat unkindly assuming Marginalien to be an Englishman, revealing my own prejudices) what the book will consist of: “travelogue, personal history.”Â
Next to this passage on Bioy Casares, Marginalien hastens to educate me, lowly as I am: “Some you will have read—-others like this one less likely.”Â
THE INVENTION OF MOREL was my favorite book ten years ago.
Growing up I read almost exclusively literature in translation, the result being that I have unbelievable, scandalous gaps in my Anglophone reading, gaps I now treasure like some models treasure gap teeth.
Marginalien has underlined, with great indignance, this line by Manguel: “The ignorance of the English-speaking reader never ceases to amaze me.”Â
But maybe I am mistaken, maybe I am too unkind, maybe it is not indignance; maybe he agrees with Manguel. I doubt it, though, considering his tone thus far. In any case, that would be happy irony.
Happy for me, that is. Their unknown heir; their unexpected, unlikely daughter.
I am reading the less likely things, Marginalien. I am a person who exists.
Manguel: “Picasso used to say that everything was a miracle, and that it was a miracle one didn’t dissolve in one’s bath.”Â
Next to this, Marginalien (I can hear his nose wrinkling): “lots of aperÃ§us, aphorisms, well-honed thoughts and pretty sentences that skip around, dilettante-like, butterfly-like, from one idea to another”Â
A great crime, in literature: to be a dilettante.
On our first viewing of the place we have now moved into, there was a philosophy graduate student who was also considering it, whom my partner and I gently manipulated into deciding against it.
I asked her if the reports about Oxbridge’s fervid anti-Continental philosophy bias were true, or wildly exaggerated. Remembering the fury over Derrida’s honorary degree in the early 90s.
The student said that the reports were absolutely true and unexaggerated, adding that they were taught syllogisms like so: “Sartre is a Continental philosopher. All Continental philosophers are stupid. Therefore, Sartre is stupid.”Â
Instead of “like so,” I originally wrote “thusly,” knowing it to be wrong.
This is how wrong, Wiktionary tells me: “dating from the 19th century, seemingly coined by educated writers to make fun of uneducated persons trying to sound genteel,” “originated in the U.S., and it is still more common in American than British English.”
Am I the educated writer or am I the uneducated person trying to sound genteel. The parody or the parodied text. I am a tedious pastiche.
Beautiful use of the word “thusly” in Carla Harryman’s GARDENER OF STARS:
Because loss is as close as skin.
Such that the statement, “pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a little death,”Â is rescripted thusly, “pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moments of climax as a little dance,”Â and waste in this unmade time, in so far as it is material for use, is a gift.
Marginalien has definite ideas about how books ought to be written!
Manguel: “The magazine stands are full of glossy publications that track the lives of the rich and famous in exultant banality.”Â
Marginalien: “this kind of insight we can do without”Â
Manguel, tracking back to something he had forgotten earlier: “(I now remember an earlier example: the shadows in Plato’s cave.)”Â
Marginalien: “jottings that revise previous paragraphs “â€œ otherwise would be removed”Â
Removed by whom, when? And in what Otherwise? In the Otherwise of standard literary hygiene, in the Otherwise of Good Writing. But we are not in that Otherwise. We are reading a book by a foreign person (though he has written it in English). We are in some Other-un-wise. When you visit a foreign country, you have to adapt to their culture, you know, like, they do things differently here, it’s like, exotic.
Two nights ago German friends tell me how amaaaaaaazing Bangkok is. I feel myself getting stabby. Later, a French girl who works in banking, says to me very passionately, “I HATE INDIA!” We are eating at a pan-Indian restaurant that makes a point of serving lesser-known regional dishes, with a menu that changes every month. The server behind her pretends not to hear as he puts her chicken tikka masala (of course!) in front of her.
I want to catch his eye and say, Look at me, I am not part of this, I am not implicated in this, but I am and he does not look at me. Though later I realize he is not looking at me because he has developed a bit of a crush on me, and is looking at me exactly when he thinks I do not know he is looking at me.
Manguel: “For years, for lack of space, I kept most of my books in storage. I used to think I could hear them call out to me at night.”Â
Marginalien, not fucking around anymore: “nutcase”Â
Manguel: “List of my favorite detective novels:
- Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die
- Reginald Hill, Bones and Silence
- Ruth Rendell, A Judgment in Stone
- Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Akryod
- John Dickson Carr, The Black Spectacles
- Marco Denevi, Rosaura a las diez
- Margaret Millar, How Like an Angel
- Fruttero & Lucentini, La Donna della domenica
- James Cain, Mildred Pierce
- Philip Kerr, A Philosophical Investigation
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
- Leo Perutz, The Master of the Day of Judgment
- John Franklin Bardin, Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly
- Ellery Queen, The Tragedy of X
- Anthony Berkeley, Trial and Error
- Sebastien Japrisot, Compartiment Tueurs
- James McClure, The Steam Pig
- Raymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve
- Georges Simenon, Les fianÃƒÂ§ailles de Monsieur Hire
- Patrick Quentin, My Son the Murderer
- Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem”
Marginalien: “lots of lists to take up space “â€œ self-indulgent feel to book”Â
Manguel: “Tender scenes of male friendship in Conan Doyle”â„¢s staunchly macho world. Holmes to Watson: ‘Lie down there on the sofa and see if I can put you to sleep.’ He then takes up his violin from the corner, while Watson stretches himself out. ‘I have a vague remembrance,’ Watson says, ‘of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face, and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound, until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me.’
That ‘sweet face of Mary Morstan’ seems tagged on, as a precautionary afterthought.”
Marginalien, approvingly, with an air of being surprised by his approval: “quite a nice line “â€œ certain subtlety to lit crit”Â
Now I especially like this one, not least for pointing out one of the best slash pairings of all time, Holmes and Watson. Who watched that new BBC show, SHERLOCK? I thought it was fantastic, until the crazy Orientalizing second episode, with the Black Lotus villains and the Chinese circus and a hot Chinese girl in a cheongsam pouring tea over an ancient pot with extreme delicacy. I told my partner, “This plot has Power Rangers-level subtlety.”Â (For better hoyay, please see the show MERLIN.)
I already know very well that the 19th century has never ended.
I’m also amused by the possibility that Marginalien might be slightly kinder (without perhaps being even aware of it) when treading upon the well-worn territory of English homosocial intimacy.
By homosocial, I obviously mean homoerotic. Thinking about now-dying Christopher Hitchens and other Tory boys having boarding school sex. Thinking about Harry Potter slash fanfiction; though I’ve never read it, or the original series. A beautiful and badass opera singer kindly recommended the books to me a few days ago. I was touched by her passion for them, and by her in general.
Manguel: “I’m astonished by the ease with which British xenophobia of the late nineteenth century slips into a particularly nasty anti-Semitism in the twentieth. By the ease with which the Jewish caricature is introduced into the plot of the detective novels of the golden age: Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C.R. Lorac”Â¦. Even before Hitler, there seems to be, in the British imagination, a fixed caricature of the Jew, often damned with ludicrous praise, as in Anthony Berkeley’s The Silk Stocking Murders. The detective is an English gentleman, Roger Sheringham; his assistant, the murdered woman’s sister, Anne; the murderer (revealed in the last pages, of course) is a sauve, rich, refined Jew called Pleydell. After meeting him, Anne comments, “I’ve never met a Jew I liked so much before.”
“ËœThe real pure-blooded Jew,” Roger tells her, “Ëœis one of the best fellows in the world. It’s the hybrid Jew, the Russian and Polish and German variety, that’s let the race down so badly.”
“This is England, 1928.”
Marginalien underlines BRITISH XENOPHOBIA twice. Writes: “this is what AM identifies in Conan Doyle.”Â
That Conan Doyle’s work might be seen to contain imprints of British xenophobia appears to offend Marginalien, such that he has to emphasize that this is only Manguel’s opinion.
Don’t worry, everyone. This is only what ONE FOREIGN GUY identifies in Conan Doyle.
Sentence spoken to me in London: “Filipinas, yeah, they’re supposed to make really good maids.”
Audre Lorde, THE USES OF ANGER:
“I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket in Eastchester in 1967, and a little white girl riding past in her mother’s cart calls out excitedly, ‘Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!’ And your mother shushes you, but she does not correct you. And so fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous. But I hear your laughter is full of terror and dis-ease.”
“Claro que podÃÂa hacer daÃ±o. Todos podÃÂamos hacer daÃ±o.”
Manguel: “I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories in a rented summer house in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, one book after another, unable to stop.”
I read them like that, too; in French, in Paris, in a maid’s room, six floors up with no elevator, freshly missing an appendix and the love of my life, though I got the second one back. “One book after another, unable to stop.” Every day, not throwing myself off a balcony.
I have never read the Sherlock Holmes stories in English.
Manguel, writing about Sei Shonagon’s THE PILLOW BOOK, another book I loved in high school.
Revealed as an American because I say high school.
Manguel: “I’ve noticed that women who observe things closely seem to make men uneasy. Schiller writes to Goethe about the observant Madame de StaÃ«l: “She wants to explain, to understand, to measure everything, she accepts nothing obscure, unfathomable, and for her nothing exists that cannot be illumined by her torch.” And he concludes, “She hasn’t the slightest feeling for that which we call poetry.”Â
Manguel: “Sei Shonagon never needs to clarify anything.”
Manguel: “Sei Shonagon is snobbish, venerates the imperial family, despises the lower classes, shows no interest in the lives of those outside the court. And yet her fragments acquire meaning for us, their future readers, outside their historical framework. We ignore the conventions that rule her daily transactions, her trains of thought, her displays of emotion, and yet we feel her observations to be true. For instance, “When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.”
I have nothing really to say about Sei Shonagon, only that I loved THE PILLOW BOOK in high school, but it is an easy book to love, especially in high school, especially if you love the fragment. THE PILLOW BOOK and Barthes’ A LOVER”â„¢S DISCOURSE [FRAGMENTS D'UN DISCOURS AMOUREUX]. Destroyed by both.
Now that I think of it, this would be a good gift to someone you were in the early stages of courting, especially if you were very young: those two books, tied together with a silk or velvet ribbon, color depending on the level of desired sexual suggestiveness.
Like/unlike the one red rose among the white roses in a bouquet given to the narrator in Anne Carson’s THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, which I do not have with me now because it is in the pile in California, and which therefore I am probably quoting with error: the one red rose among the white roses, which “did not, as [the narrator's mother] thought, mean hymen.”Â
But of course you think: It did mean hymen, didn’t it.
Manguel’s dedication: “This book is for Craig.”Â
And there is, indeed, a beloved C., throughout the book. Trimming back roses. Pointing to a swallow and quoting Ruskin.
Manguel’s THE LIBRARY AT NIGHT is also a book for Craig.
One of my favorite dedications is the one by Jalal Toufic, in the second edition of OVER-SENSITIVITY: “Dedicated to the Jalal Toufic who wrote the first edition of this book.”Â
The book I finished writing will be dedicated to my mother after July 1975, and my father before October 2006. It is good when a dedication is like an arrow thrown (not shot, but thrown with the hand, badly, certain of failure) into a specificity.
By “specificity,” I mean, a body. A body as it was once and only. The body of Jalal Toufic who wrote the first edition of OVER-SENSITIVITY. The body of my mother in July 1975. The body of my father anytime before October 2006. Arrows of love into these bodies.
I have definitely never read A READING DIARY before this time, at least not all the way to the end, but I find the ending words are: “I don’t know yet to what book Machado [de Assis]‘s words will lead me.”Â
But I wrote a story that ends in a similar way, before reading this line. Why? Having met a ghost I did not know was haunting me. I am beginning to learn that books leak.
Manguel quoting Flaubert: “Yes, stupidity consists in the desire to conclude.”