Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Madness of Quixote

I’ve been reading Don Quixote again. I had put it down when we came back from Spain. Recently, something that has always troubled me about the book and its protagonist suddenly became clearer.

We know that Don Quixote is mad and imagines things. The book derives its comic power from the fact that windmills stay windmills and from Don Quixote’s belief that they are giants, and yet also from how he excuses his behaviour when he realises that they are not giants. But his persistence in the face of opposing reality is such that he begins to take on heroic dimensions, and we cannot help but admire him, even when we laugh at his absurdity. He finds the adventures he sets out to find, or creates them if he has to. He has, in fact, become greater than the “real” knights he sought to emulate. For all the beatings he gets, there are just as many times that he deals them out to others, with the result that just when we are sure he is nothing more than a decrepit bag of bones, he turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes his victims are reasonable people who become hapless fools because they don’t understand his madness, or because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes they are actually scoundrels and villains who deserve what they get from him, or if they are abusing him, have their villainy confirmed for us by their abuse of him.

In his introduction to Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation, Harold Bloom says, “No critic’s account of Cervantes’s masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic’s impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader.” I believe this is because we are never quite sure what is really real, what the true nature of Don Quixote is. Reality, just beneath the surface of things, seen through an endlessly shifting prism, is always changing form, as if we readers shared his madness, and could not tell giants from windmills.


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Bit of Disquiet

Life, for most people, is a pain in the neck that they hardly notice, a sad affair with some happy respites, as when the watchers of a dead body tell anecdotes to get through the long, still night and their obligation to keep watch. I’ve always thought it futile to see life as a valley of tears; yes, it is a valley of tears, but one in which we rarely weep. Heine said that after great tragedies we always merely blow our noses. As a Jew, and therefore universal, he understood the universal nature of humanity.

Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting  that we can hardly say we think about it.

That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.

[Number 405, Zenith edition]

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Bit of Disquiet

We generally colour our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs, and we live off crusts that we call cakes, like poor children who make believe they’re happy.

[Number 66, Zenith edition]

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Another on Pessoa

Leafing through The Book of Disquiet a couple of nights ago, I found the exact phrase “nostalgia for the future”, the title of my post on him. I know it’s been used before, and it’s precisely the kind of paradox you’d expect from Pessoa.

And yet what nostalgia for the future* if I let my ordinary eyes receive the dead salutation of the declining day! How grand is hope’s burial, advancing in the still golden hush of the stagnant skies! What a procession of voids and nothings extends over the reddish blue that will pale in the vast expanses of crystalline space!

I don’t know what I want or don’t want. I’ve stopped wanting, stopped knowing how to want, stopping knowing the emotions or thoughts by which people generally recognise that they want something or want to to want it. I don’t know who I am or what I am. Like someone buried under a collapsed wall, I lie under the toppled vacuity of the entire universe. And so I go on, in the wake of myself, until night sets in and a little of the comfort of being different wafts, like a breeze, over my incipient self-unawareness**.

Ah, the high and larger moon of these placid nights, torpid with anguish and disquiet! Sinister peace of the heavens’ beauty, cold irony of the warm air, blue blackness misted by moonlight and reticent to reveal stars.

From 184.

*an alternate version reads: “what regret that I’m not someone else”

**an alternate version reads: “incipient impatience with myself”

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I recently bought Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I had been seeing his name around a lot. The first time I’d seen it was in the Greek translation of Antonio Tabucchi’s Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. Various blogs started mentioning him a lot last year, including The Blog of Disquiet (404’d). Then, last summer, in Lisbon, I saw his statue outside the cafe A Brasileira. I promised myself that when I got back, I would get his book. (I was surprised that I could not find a single English edition in any of the shops I went into in Lisbon.)

The book is, to say the least, very strange. To begin with, the first thing a reader has to deal with is Pessoa himself, who is everywhere in the book, and yet not quite there. Throughout his life, he wrote through over 70 different personae (he called them heteronyms) with elaborately imagined lives, and in some cases even deaths, filled with details that didn’t even enter into what he wrote under their name.

Pessoa was a dreamer, in the sense that he lived the life of the imagination, removed from the life of action and or experience, and as a writer he was a dreamer in that he knew that any book he imagined he could write would be an imperfect shadow of the book he had imagined and planned and outlined. Nevertheless, for most of his life he worked on this constantly changing book, a book of fragments and scraps, a record of his uneventful, nonexistent life, a “factless autobiography”, a book about the impossibility of writing the book of his dreams and imagination.

I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower. I dissent from life and am proud of it. (103)

Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. […] I’ve dreamed a great deal. I’m tired from having dreamed but not tired of dreaming. No one tires of dreaming, because dreaming is forgetting and forgetting doesn’t weight a thing; it’s a dreamless sleep in which we’re awake. In dreams I’ve done everything. I’ve also woken up, but so what? How many Caesars I’ve been! […] I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything. My armies are defeated, but the defeat was fluffy, and no one died. I lost no flags. […] How many Caesars I’ve been, right here, on the Rua dos Douradores [the street that Bernardo Soares, the book’s heteronym, lived]. (102)

I’ve always been an ironic dreamer, unfaithful to my inner promises. Like a complete outsider, a casual observer of whom I thought I was, I’ve always enjoyed watching my daydreams go down in defeat. I was never convinced of what I believed in. I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest of the sand that had always been. (221)

Perhaps the personae facilitated writing for him. If his life was as uneventful as he said, it’s logical that he could only write if it was through someone he had dreamed up. Persona, the Latin word for an actor wearing a mask, is thought by some to mean a sounding-through (sonare = to sound, per = through). If this is not actually the case, it’s still insightful. If Pessoa took off the mask, he would fall silent.

(Thanks to the Dude for pointing out that pessoa is actually Portuguese for person.)

When Pessoa died in 1935, the manuscript of The Book of Disquiet, a collection of loose sheets of paper, not a “book” at all, ended up in a trunk with all his other writings until it was published in 1982. More complete editions followed in 1991 and 1998. Richard Zenith, writing about the fragmentary nature of the book, says

Since a loose-leaf edition is impractical, and since every established order is the wrong order, the mere circumstance of publication entails a kind of original sin. Every editor of this Book, automatically guilty, should (and I hereby do) (1) apologise for tampering with the original non-order, (2) emphasise that the order presented can claim no special validity, and (3) recommend that readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.

When I started reading the book, and Zenith’s introduction, I had the confusing sense that Pessoa had suffered from some kind of insanity. Bernardo Soares was, according to Pessoa, a “semi-heteronym” because he most closely resembled Pessoa, was a “mutilation” of Pessoa. As a result, one can assume that it’s a self-portrait, albeit a mutilated one. The book is so odd that one feels it must be sincere.

And it occurred to me that we are of the first or second generation to read this book, and that a body of exegesis has not yet grown around it, that we don’t really have a fully developed critical apparatus with which to approach the work. And I wonder if the fragmentary, disorderly nature of the book, the fact that there can never be an authoritative edition of it, subverts or undermines any attempt to develop such a critical apparatus.

* * * * *

In my last year of university, I went one afternoon to the Robarts Library and sat down in some corner of the seventh or eighth floor, by a window that overlooked the west end of the city. I thought about how many of those streets below I had never walked down, and would never walk down, although I felt that the city was actually part of me. I thought about all the various houses on those streets, the rooms in those houses, the people who lived in them, the rooms in their lives, rooms I would never walk through, people I would never know. (A large part of this was due to the fact that I knew I would be leaving in a year or two.) I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something like a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for all the possibilities and opportunities that I would never be able to take advantage of.

The Book of Disquiet is a book of self-absorption, but it is not boringly so. There are passages of exquisitely lyrical nostalgia of the kind I describe above. I would like to quote extensively from two such passages, for the benefit of anyone who’s not sure if this book is for them.


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Goldberg: Variations

Back in January (was it really that long ago?!) I blogged about Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes. I had prepared another post, but in the end decided I didn’t want to say anything more about it. I had also ordered Goldberg: Variations, which came about month later for some reason.

Everything Passes is apparently simple, but remains elusive in its complexity (and this is its greatest charm, I think). Goldberg: Variations, when viewed one chapter at a time, is easier to “understand”, but the various settings and characters of the book, when viewed as a whole, pose the greatest challenge. They are connected by various metaphors and concerns.

I filled several pages in my notebooks about Everything Passes, but I didn’t find as much that interested me in Goldberg: Variations, despite the fact that it was a fuller book. There is, however, one small detail I’d like to concentrate on, because it represents what I think was an interesting missed opportunity.

There is a story that Count Kaiserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, suffered from insomnia and had the musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who lived with him, play music to soothe him at night. Kaiserling mentioned to Bach that he wished he had some soothing but lively music for such occasions, and Bach is said to have given him the piece of music which has come to be known as the Goldberg Variations.

Josipovici’s book is about a writer named Goldberg who is hired to read to an insomniac named Mr Hammond. Logically, a recurrent theme throughout the book, in addition to literature and writing, is sleep. There is a thread in the book that particularly struck me, and it deals with Odysseus.

In chapter 8 (pp 56-61) Hammond asks Goldberg, “What is the reason, do you think, that makes Homer depict Odysseus as an inveterate liar?” (p 56)

Goldberg describes one of the significant differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, he says,

knows that if he kills Hector he himself is doomed to die young, but kill Hector he must, to avenge his beloved Patroclus. If it had been possible it would have happened, as someone has said. If the alternative had been possible he would have chosen it. It was not possible. … It is different with the Odyssey. Odysseus is ready to use all his wiles and all his powers of endurance, even if it means humiliation, in order to ensure his safe return and, once he is home, the routing of the suitors and the cleansing of his house. […] But for Odysseus humiliation is temporary; the end always justifies the means.

Goldberg later adds:

As the Iliad ends with the burial of Hector’s body, so the Odyssey ends with Odysseus and Penelope finding each other through the riddle of the bed, which is an integral part of the house itself. Only then does Odysseus sleep soundly. Until that moment his fate is to lie awake, making plans while all the creatures of the earth sleep the sleep of the just.

Goldberg’s answer to the initial question does not really concern us here, so I’ll pass over it for now. I want to stress the part about sleep, and move on to chapter 24 (pp 165-170). Goldberg is writing to his wife.

We spend a third of our lives asleep, if we are among the lucky ones, and yet, curiously, very little has been made of sleep in the literature of the past. For obvious reasons. It is not interesting. Nothing happens. Only dreams, or the inability to sleep, are interesting. But does that not tell us something about art? It purports to speak of man and all his doings, but in effect it speaks only of those things most amenable to speech. Homer, of course, is the exception in this as in everything else. Indeed sleep could be said to be the secret theme, perhaps even the secret goal, of both his Iliad and Odyssey. In the former Achilles will not sleep until he has been avenged first on his own comrades who, he feels, have inflicted shame upon him, and then on Hector, who has killed dear friend Patroclus. […] And is not the climax of the Odyssey the return of Odysseus to his beloved wife and to his own secret bed? Then at last both he and the poem can fall asleep.

What does this suggest? Why, simply this, that sleep is the goal of art as it is of man. And it can only be the sleep that truly ends if it has in some way been earned by the protagonist and earned by the writer. In that sense it is also the goal of the reader. But only a true work will allow him to sleep well when he has closed the book.

There is a curious part in the middle of the book, beginning on p 107, in the 15th chapter, written by Mrs Goldberg. She is writing of their children, Annabel and Danny. She writes about their son’s shiftiness in argument, and his desire to emulate and impress his father. She gives the following example. In the 19th book of the Odyssey,

where the disguised Odysseus recounts to Penelope that he has seen Odysseus and welcomed him as a guest in his home in Crete, [Danny] pointed out the contiguity of the words Odysseus and I in the line: “There Odysseus I saw and gifts to him gave”, suggesting that for a moment the reader or listener imagines the disguise is about to drop and Odysseus to reveal himself. When you pointed out that this was far-fetched he triumphantly showed that in the that line in the Greek, Odyseia [sic] and ego were followed by the caesura, and that this was an extremely rare example of such a thing, there being only eight examples, he said, of such an “illicit” hiatus in the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. The implication was thus that one would have to pause after ego and the line would momentarily read “And there I, Odysseus”, before concluding “saw and gave guest gifts to”. Even you had to admit that he had a point there.

But he doesn’t. Nowhere near, in fact. There is, of course, the possibility that Danny is twisting things to convince his father, but I want to point out a significant error in his argument. And to do this I have to say a few things about how the Greek language works.

Greek, like Latin, is an inflected language. What this basically means is that nouns and adjectives have endings which clearly show what grammatical role they are playing in the sentence. Take the word for man, or human, anthropos. When it has the -os ending, it means that the word is the subject of the verb. If the word ends with -on, then it is the direct object of the verb. If it ends with -ou, then it is showing possession, like ‘s in English. These are called cases. The three I’ve mentioned are called nominative, accusative, and genitive. There is another one, the dative (which exists in German too), and the vocative, which is used when addressing the thing or person the noun represents.

The result of all this is that Greek syntax is a great deal more flexible than English. A simple sentence like Dog bites man could be written

Dog bites man.
Man bites dog.
Bites man dog.
Bites dog man.
Man dog bites.
Dog man bites.

and the meaning would not change. Only the emphasis would be different. Names, like all other nouns, follow this rule, so there is no way a Greek would have read or heard the name Odysea in the line Danny discusses and even momentarily think what he says they might be tempted to think. They would know right away that Odysseus was the object of the verb saw, just as they would know that I was the subject of it. This possibility exists only in English, because it is not an inflected language.

There is only one such case of ambiguous contiguity that I can think of in English, (I’m sure there are many) but it comes later than Goldberg’s visit to Hammond — although readers of the book will know that this would not have been a problem for Josipovici. It is the last line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “No worst, there is none.” Hopkins writes “all life death does end”. The contiguity of life and death makes it possible to read it as “death ends all life” or “all life ends death”. It would have been an appropriate choice. The full last line is

all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

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Words, words, words

Ten years ago, I calculated that if I could read a book a week, I would need thirty years to read all the books in my library. And when I thought about how long it actually takes me to read one, I realised how absurd the situation was. I already had more books than I could possibly read in the rest of my life, and I was still buying more.

What did I want them all for?

I brought most of them to Greece with me, thinking that it would be difficult and expensive to get them here. I sold or traded in the ones I didn’t want any more, and bought a lot of others that I thought I’d want or need here. In some cases it was a bit of a gamble; some of the books ended up not interesting me enough.

(I once contacted an acquaintance from a Toronto, a novelist and poet, and he mentioned in his email that he had once been browsing in a used bookstore and had found all the books of his that he’d inscribed to me. I had a bit of explaining to do.)

When I came to Greece I started working full time, and the number of books I read declined. I didn’t have as much time, and when I did, I didn’t have as much energy. Over the past year, I’ve been horrified to find myself drowsing after I start reading. My eyes close and my mind wanders. I’m awake, but my eyes are closed and I’m holding a book in front of my face. I have become something which a few years ago I would have mocked.

I should start getting rid of my books, I tell myself. I look at their spines and I think I hear them laughing at me. “You think you can write one of us?” they say. “You can barely read one of us!”

When we leaving Athens to come to Crete, I got rid of a few hundred of them, to make the move a little bit easier, and because we had agreed that they would stay in one room, here in my office.

(This was taken shortly after I filled the shelves. There are others, too.)

It was difficult, almost painful, getting rid of the ones I gave away to friend, and I know I didn’t give away enough. N. says I should put shelves up on the wall across from these two bookcases, but I don’t know.

And yet, I still want to read. I feel restless if I’m not reading something. I dip into them a lot, and sometimes read several books at the same time. This invariably means I won’t finish any of them. I cannot sleep at night if I don’t open a book and read at least a paragraph. I’ve even come home late at night, so drunk I can’t walk straight, and still tried to read a bit before I turned out the light. It feels like an act of self-assertion: one last attempt, after all the demands that were made on me that day, to claim my time as my own.

So why is it so hard for me to stay interested in a book? What has happened to me that I fail to enjoy all that I know a book offers me, that I fail to enjoy what I so much want to enjoy?

It’s not laziness, because when I look back at the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, I see that they have all been relatively challenging — not escapist stuff. They are books I found compelling and something of whose composition remained a mystery to me. I read all the Coetzee I could find and grappled with the question of how he achieved his complexity. Sebald was a revelation, and yet an impenetrable mystery. I loved DeLillo’s Underworld, and White Noise and The Faces, although I soon went off him completely. Roth’s American Pastoral was gripping, but when I finished The Human Stain, I’d had enough. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Chatwin. Herzog. All of which had some sort of authority of voice, which I wanted to master.

Part of my problem is impatience. Anna Karenina was one of the best examples of what I want in a book, but at some point I put it down too. I think its length daunts me: in the amount of time it would take me to finish it, I could read two or three of the other books that call out to me, and which in the end I don’t read either. I want that satisfying feeling of finishing a book — a feeling so enjoyable that I always feel I have to start immediately on another. I want to swallow the book, and often don’t have the patience to chew through it page by page.

Is it the feeling that so few books seem to live up to their promise? I don’t want to impute to books my own shortcomings as a reader. I know not to expect from a book something it can’t give me.

I keep buying books, although I buy almost as few as I manage to read. I have learned to resist the temptation. I don’t buy books if I feel they belong to a type that’s already well enough represented in my library. I bought Josipovici because I knew the two books I ordered were unlike any other I had. Next I will buy Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’ve been thinking of making a separate shelf for all the strange authors whose work sets them apart for me somehow: Zweig, Bernhard, Kadare, Gombrowicz, Svevo.

I have been putting off buying the Pessoa as I had put off buying the Josipovici books. It had ceased to be a desire and become a necessity. I bought them to rid myself of the nagging desire to get them.

I don’t know how to answer the questions I’ve raised here. Please comment, and share your thoughts, insights and experiences.

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