Friday, November 26, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa

Sixteen years ago, the NYRB ran an article called The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa [link], by Alma Guillermoprieto, which was both a book review, of A Fish in the Water [link], Llosa's account of running for President in Peru, and a loose précis of the political situation in Peru at the time. And, even though the facts of the matter have dated, the article is still, I think, an informative one:
[...]Perhaps saying that I love my country is not true. I often loathe it,” Vargas Llosa states in his memoir. And, “Although I was born in Peru, my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism.” This, in the course of explaining how he happened to decide to run for president. Can such a man triumph in politics? Should he?
[...] Barnstorming the country, addressing Amazonian Indians in Iquitos, Quechua-speakers in the Andes, mulattoes and mestizos on the coast, everywhere braving crowds he had no appetite for (“I had to accomplish miracles to conceal my dislike for that sort of semihysterical pushing and pulling, kissing, pinching and pawing”), Vargas Llosa eschewed facile promises in his speeches and campaigned instead holding aloft the banner of reason. He might have known better, but, after all, rationalism, and cordura—level-headedness—had been the ropes he had used to pull himself out of his own Peruvian chasm: although A Fish in the Water skips over the author’s middle years, we know that by the time he gets into politics the disorder of his earlier life has been replaced by an orderly contemplative existence in which reading and discussion have their scheduled places. Why now should he not offer the same salvation generously to his compatriots? In the early part of the memoir he describes his extended flirtation with Marxism and the world of clandestine conspiracy so beloved of the Latin American left, but rationally, over the years, he had concluded that Marxist movements were doomed. He had evolved into a neoliberal who admired Mrs. Thatcher, and it was as a Thatcherite neoliberal that he campaigned in Peru.
[...] One hardly knows whether to wince or laugh at his description of some of his rallies. Addressing the country’s largest labor confederation toward the end of his campaign, he instructs his listeners on the evils of job security, which make it impossible for Peru “to attract investment and stimulate the creation of new businesses and the growth of ones that already existed.” The workers who benefit from job security are a tiny minority, he points out gently to his audience—to those very beneficiaries, that is, of job security, men and women clinging with their nails to the last raft in the economic shipwreck. “It was not a happenstance that the countries with the best job opportunities in the world, such as Switzerland or Hong Kong or Taiwan, had the most flexible labor laws,” he tells them. And then he adds, describing this scene, “I don’t know if we convinced anyone.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guy Davenport

Another extract from a fascinating interview I found in the Paris Review archives, this time with Guy Davenport [link]:


Is it the application of the theory that you take issue with?


No, I think what upsets me is that I know good and well that these academics are sheep following the sheep in front of them, and I doubt if the people who throw around the names Bakhtin and Foucault have really read more than four or five pages of either or understand what's going on. The French adore ideas. They've been playing with them since Thomas Aquinas. They sit in their cafés, and the more outrageous, the more clever you can be (like Derrida or whoever else at the moment), the more you are loved. But they don't really take these things seriously. The young French student at the Sorbonne, excited by Lacan and Bakhtin and whatnot, his whole idea is to outdo these people, you know, in two or three years to publish his own book, explaining that everything we think is rightside up is actually upside down. Americans don't possess this sense of play.



Let's move on to your own books. You have experimented quite a bit with formal design—the stanzaic paragraph, for instance. I think for one of your books you actually inked in rows of identical black rectangles on sheets of paper and wrote only what would fit inside them. Can you talk about what draws you to these arbitrary constraints?


Not unless I talk for the rest of the day. About abstraction as scaffolding in any work of art, about the Dogon concept of toy (the ideal shape of a house, or village, of which the actual house, or village, is an approximation). The Shaker “love to lay a good foundation in the line of outward things.” When Albert Barnes was showing his collection of paintings to Horace Pippin, Pippin said, “That Matisse, he put the red in the wrong place.” At a showing of Clouzot's film about Picasso at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, a child's voice could be heard in the audience: “Mama! He's ruining it!” Such sound criticism is hard to come by, and has absolute authority. So there are all sorts of comments about works of art. Maurice Leenhardt said that the intelligible is first of all beautiful. I would say interesting or attractive. I doubt that there are more than two people who can read the first page of Ulysses; that is, give an account as to what's going on, who's doing what, yet it's a beautiful, magical page with as much on it as Rimbaud could pack into a poem. No illustrator could paint it, nor a film depict it. It is a new way of writing, approached afterwards only by Eudora Welty. For all Pound's saying that Joyce's technique was une affaire de cuisine, it's ultimately the technique that's making it all beautiful. Getting the red in the right place.



What about this interest in utopias, which is everywhere in your work?


I don't think it's there, in the abstract. My interest is in Fourier, who I think was one of the great analytical sociologists of all time. Practically everything Freud got hold of Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated. Every once in a while, of an evening, I will take down one of the volumes and read around in it. You always find delightful things, such as parades of four-year-olds riding on German shepherds.

Fourier's great word was harmonie, and his perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live. He said the family is a suffocating, murderous unit; a biological unit, he called it, for begetting and feeding children, which could be done much better by a “phalanx.” He approved of all the vices. Greed, for instance, could be a marvelous thing. He saw that religion was a childish myth. Yet the Harmony had a church in it, for those people who wanted a church. The church was facing a theater. He felt that somehow the church and the theater were answering the same need. The thing that made him so interesting to nineteenth-century Americans was work. Work should be play; work should be the supreme joy.

He's a very complex person, and of course he is not coherent. There is really no scholar who has sat down and tried to figure it all out. Tony Vidler, a professor at Cooper Union, came to visit once; we had a lovely time talking about Fourier's architecture, which Vidler says is the most revolutionary ever known. Vidler had been to the Bibliothèque nationale, and they'd shown him a room of cardboard boxes. In the boxes were manuscripts of Fourier's, unpublished, unread. They showed him a page that laid out which houseplants you were to put in your windows in the Harmony, 365 days a year. For each day he'd prescribed the appropriate plant.

The whole world, he said, is a correspondence. And everything comes in a chord. The chord contains eight items. The center of the chord is the pivot. At one end of the chord is the avant-garde, and at the other end is the arrière-garde. In a fruit chord, let's say, you have at one end the ripest golden pear, and at the other end is the quince, which never ripens. It remains as hard as a rock. And all of these corresponded with personalities (I've know plenty of quinces). Fourier felt that monogamy is simply one mode in the sexuality chord; I don't think it's even in the middle. At one end is what he calls the butterfly, the man who has to have a different woman every hour. And at the other end is chastity, which he correctly saw as not a denial of sexuality but another of its modes. For Fourier there were people who could live a life perfectly satisfied with a best friend, with whom they'd play checkers, and there was a place for this as there was for prostitution, which he considered a noble trade.

Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it's impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that. One of the really satisfying dimensions is his belief that all children are geniuses, and that in the world we live in we systematically stifle the little Beethovens and Einsteins. But in the Harmony their talents would be spotted, and the little Beethoven would be given a violin. Every Harmony is run by a twelve-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, and they have to retire at thirteen. I think he was right that at twelve the mind is as bright and intelligent as it will ever be.

He was very, very lonely. There are people who say he had no sex life at all apart from masturbation. He lived with his plants and his cats, and was desperately poor. He worked as a clerk, like Bartleby, in Lyon. He died in Paris, where he had begun to collect disciples, including lots of young socialists. Both Marx and Lenin read Fourier.


The Paris Review interviews are always prefaced by a short, idiosyncratic biography written by the interviewer (I assume), which act as a introduction. Guy Davenport's profile is so good that I want to repost it here:
On first picking up a copy of Guy Davenport's Tatlin! (1970), his first of eight volumes of stories and the book that initiated the major (and ongoing) phase of his career, you find on the cover a lovely, rather conventional telescopic photograph of the moon, three-quarters full, its craters and mares starkly discernible. Yet when you flip the book over, before so much as cracking the spine, you read—beneath a photograph of the author seated at a Greek ruin, his face, like that of the moon, partly obscured by shadow—this note: “front jacket: The Face of the Moon, 'painted from nature' by John Russell, c. 1795. Birmingham, The City Museum and Art Gallery.”
You will have stumbled, unwittingly though not by accident, onto the author's method, for this is a writer who, in the classic modernist style, is incessantly sending us back, reminding us that what seems newest is old, if not beyond time, and that what appears, or is, most radical in art and culture often has for its source “the archaic,” as Davenport has said in a previous interview, “the dawn of things, before betrayals and downstream mud.”
Davenport has published forty-six books of fiction, essays, and poetry, not counting the many to which he has contributed chapters and introductions, and for fifty years he has supplied magazines and newspapers with articles and reviews. He has translated Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Anakreon, Poliziano's Stanze, the Mimes of Herondas, and in his fiction one can find translations of Rilke, Cocteau, and others. He is also an accomplished visual artist. Six years ago Erik Anderson-Reece's A Balance of Quinces, a study of Davenport's graphics and paintings (and one of the most useful and perceptive introductions to his writing), was published by New Directions.
Despite threats of giving up writing after his receipt of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1992, Davenport has continued during the past decade to generate, if less prolifically, short stories and essays. His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.
Born in South Carolina in 1927 and having lived the past thirty-nine years in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport has spent most of his life in the American South, but it would be hard to imagine a writer for whom the regional tag embraced by, or forced upon, so many of his contemporaries is less appropriate. His milieu has always been the world, his period the span of time between the Aurignacian, when the first daubs of pigment were applied at Lascaux, and this morning; his characters come from wherever people have fought to assert feeling and intelligence against tyranny and “illiteracy,” a word that Davenport repeatedly uses in the somewhat specialized sense of cultural oblivion. These characters, with few exceptions, are artists and philosophers, but Davenport's heroes are most often the crushed, the silenced, the annihilated, those whose triumph consists solely in the survival of some fragment of their ideas or of their example.
A painterly perception is one of the constants in his writing. It is Davenport who notices that if you set any of James Joyce's books on its spine and let gravity open it to the center, you will find a verbal allusion to “The House that Jack Built” and thereby (as Davenport shows) to the Labyrinth. It's he who writes, in A Balthus Notebook (a short volume singled out by the painter himself as “an exception among the texts about him” for its sharp, non-moralistic eye), that “in all of Balthus I find no clocks.” He is a master of the idiomatic sentence that seems commonsensical until it is read with the concentration that went into shaping it, at which point it reveals its depths, as when he writes, in the postscript to his Twelve Stories, “Making things is so human that psychology and philosophy have gotten nowhere in trying to account for it.” Another recurrent Davenport theme: that what is most essential to humanity lies at the point furthest from conventional scrutiny, where it remains inaccessible to minds bent on categorizing and, in the end, controlling it—safe, and sacred, in its unknowability.
This interview took place over the telephone and during three evenings in front of the fireplace at Davenport's house in Lexington, throughout which he drank black coffee and smoked Marlboro Reds, “not inhaling.” His tomcat, Ejnar (the name reflecting Davenport's confessed “Danophilia, or -mania,” a regular feature of his work) spent the hours in Davenport's lap or weaving through his legs. The living room is well described by Erik Anderson-Reece as “a monument to high modernism.” Books and paintings go from floor to ceiling, and several times during our conversations Davenport suddenly popped up from his chair, pulling down a book from one of the shelves in order to illustrate a point. Off to the right, as one enters the door, is an open study containing a table built according to a Rietveld design, on which sits an electric typewriter. Also in the study is the color copier used by Davenport in making his illustrated letters, a custom he borrowed from his old correspondent, James Laughlin. (The first page of a letter from Davenport will typically have, in the place of letterhead, a photograph or drawing—either one of his own or an image from somewhere that has interested him—followed by a short caption expanding on or explaining it.) 
A politely but stubbornly private man, Davenport's reluctance to express himself publicly other than in his work could account for the relatively few published interviews with him. Frequently, when some question strayed too close to what he deemed personal, he would interrupt by saying, matter-of-factly, “I thought we were talking about my work,” a boundary that was respected throughout. “Live unknown” (Epicurus) is one of his mottoes. Suffice it to say that he is not married but has been sharing his life for the past thirty years with Bonnie Jean Cox, whose name pops up occasionally in the books. He maintains a vigorous and far-flung correspondence. Davenport's tone in conversation tends to be not pedantic but didactic, as befits a man who made his living lecturing to undergraduates. In spite of that, he does suffer fools, as demonstrated by his graciousness and cooperation during the months it took to complete this interview.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

James Laughlin

I recently discovered that the entire archive of the Paris Review [link] is available online. Since then, I have become almost addicted to reading the interviews. One of the best I have come across is with James Laughlin [link], the famous American publisher who founded New Directions [link]. Reading the interview, which acts as something as an early history of New Directions, I couldn't help wondering how  the list of authors  (recently, for instance: W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, Anne Carson, Robert Walser, Enrique Vila-Matas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and so on) who have been published with New Directions, might compare the list those who have won the Nobel Prize (or any other prize for that matter).

What were your impressions of Stein?
She had great natural charm, tremendous charisma. Marvelous head. Those wonderful flashing eyes. A deep, firm voice. So I couldn't help but be very much impressed by her at times, except that often she'd erupt with crazy ideas. She thought Hitler was a great man . . . this before the war, of course, but how a Jewess could be attracted to such a notion at any time is difficult to understand. She was certainly a woman of strong opinions—indeed to the point of megalomania. She felt she had influenced everyone. We had a big fight one day when I mentioned I was reading Proust. She said, “How can you read junk like that? Don't you know, J., that Proust and Joyce both copied their work from The Making of Americans?” She finally cooled on me. I simply didn't accept everything she said. That was disrespectful.

And then you met Pound that same year?

Dudley Fitts, my old teacher at Choate, who had been corresponding with Pound for a number of years, gave me a letter of introduction to him. Fitts was a great linguist; he'd read everyone. He was a wonderful letter writer—his letters entranced Pound because here was someone who'd read in all the languages. Pound must have remembered. Because that fall, after my experience with Gertrude Stein, I went up to Paris, lived in a tiny room in an insurance office which I rented for seven dollars a month, and after a while, I wrote to Ezra, not expecting a reply, really, just asking if I could come down to Rapallo to see him . . . and to my astonishment he sent me a telegram: “Visibility high.” So I went down then to Rapallo. Ezra and I hit it off immediately. He found me an eager student, and certainly he was the thwarted professor. He found a room for me in the flat of an old German lady and I was enrolled in what he called the “Ezuversity.” No tuition.

I think that perhaps in earlier interviews or talks I may not have sufficiently stressed the way that Ezra completely changed, to use one of his phrases, my forma mentis, my way of looking at the world. I went to him with fairly conventional views about almost everything, and I left him with either very eccentric or radical views about everything— views which have persisted with me to the present day.

Social Credit?

Social Credit, political things, literary concepts. Poets whom I still like to read for my own pleasure are the ones he told me I should, the Pound canon as you find it in the ABC of Reading. Pound pushed me away from the kind of literature which was embalmed in the “beaneries” to a much more interlingual, international literature. That has persisted to this day. A great deal of what we do now at New Directions is still translations of foreign books. Last winter we did a Swedish novel, a Hungarian novel, and a Brazilian novel. And if you look at our annual anthology you'll find that often a third of it is made up of translations of foreign poets from all over the world. That concept came largely from Ezra, who in his critical writings was always saying that you could not understand poetry if you only worked with one language. He was a comparatist in the good sense of actually looking at texts in different languages and seeing what the writers were doing with them and comparing them one with another. He loved to compare Flaubert with Henry James, for example. He made judgments of that kind. To him it was all one world literature, even including the Chinese.

Friday, November 12, 2010

T. S. Eliot

[...] Far from its being accidental, Eliot’s fame was planned for, carefully cultivated, and nurtured once it arrived. From the first volume of Eliot’s letters, newly revised and just released in Great Britain*, we learn that, in 1919, when he was 31, he wrote to J.H. Woods, his philosophy teacher at Harvard: “There are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little.” He chose the latter: to write very little but always to dazzle. “My reputation in London is built upon a small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year,” he wrote. “The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Eliot worked at Lloyd’s Bank between 1917 and 1925 as the head of a small department stationed in the basement and assigned the translation of foreign documents and overseeing the analysis of the economic behavior of foreign governments. When friends formed a foundation of sorts to bail him out of what was thought drudgery taking him from his creative work, or when he was offered a sub-editorship on the Athenaeum magazine, he eschewed both, preferring to remain at the bank. He felt that, as he put it, he could “influence London opinion and English literature in a better way” by remaining slightly outside of things. The bank, moreover, with its distance from the standard literary life, lent him, as he noted, “aura.” He wrote to his mother in 1919: “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and [working in the bank] I can also remain isolated and detached.” Those are the words of a man carefully but decidedly on the make. [...]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Daniël Robberechts

The writing below is the opening passage from Arriving in Avignon [link]by Daniël Robberechts, which was first published in Flemish in 1970, and has just appeared in English. I cannot appraise the book, because I haven't read it, which would normally prevent me from mentioning it, however, I can't help myself. There is something about the passage below, which attracts me (and quite a lot more of the book can be read at Google Books [link]). Besides, I have ordered my copy...  
In the diary that he has kept since he was eighteen, the name of the town is mentioned explicitly at least ten times within a period of four years. An investigation of the routes that he probably followed on the various journeys documented in the same diary and spread over eight years, including the abovementioned four, leads one, moreover, to the conclusion that he must have got into or out of a train in that town's station, or else must have traveled through that station on a train, or traveled in some other vehicle through or around the edge of that town, about twenty times. These are facts and figures that are difficult to argue with, and yet it’s quite possible that he’ll nonetheless maintain that Avignon means little or nothing to him. In response to that one should say that he ought to know better; that it is unlikely at best for someone who is not a professional traveler "just happening" “with impunity” to be repeatedly in the same place, about nine hundred kilometers from his hometown, on average three or perhaps four times a year over a period of eight years, and whose view of that place, because of his various visits, their dates often falling outside the usual holiday periods, must of course have differed considerably from that of those tourists for whom this town is just the first leg of a trip through the South of France, and then too from that of the vacationers who stop in at the town on their way to the Mediterranean coast and are only urged on to greater haste by all its southern features; and given, finally, that Avignon, though primarily a transit hub, has none of the cosmopolitan neutrality of other such cities—for instance, Paris, which he had to pass through whenever he traveled by rail—that it is, again, unlikely at best for someone like him, and a northerner to boot, to be so often in the same town and have it make no impression upon him. Alternatively, one could ask him curtly: Have you been to the town or not, yes or no?—“Of course I have.”—On more than one occasion?—“Definitely.”— Including at times of the year that for most of us would be unusual?—“Certainly.” Though actually, the main thing is to get him to accept that his experience of Avignon as an essentially arbitrary town (which could thus be replaced either by Prague, a town he’s never set foot in, or indeed by his hometown) and perhaps even as an arbitrary object (just not so central an object, so exclusively personal, that any statement about it would become problematic)—however fragmentary and unsystematic this experience, however inadequate for a historian, a geographer, an economist, a sociologist, an archaeologist, a compiler of travel guides, or even a tourist—precisely because of its randomness, its physical, synthetic innocence, offers the chance of an exploration, of course lacking the thoroughness of a scientific research project, but being therefore a report that would have room for everything that scientists must neglect for the sake of objectivity: an ordinary human statement that might satisfy in us precisely what all scientific literature fails to satisfy.

And then it turns out that his very first contact with the town on the Rhone (apart from a purely verbal one, when as a toddler he had learned to sing the dance tune that goes: Sur le pont / d’Avignon / on y danse, on y danse / sur le pont d’Avignon / on y danse tous en rond—and it was only recently that he’d heard that the lyrics originally went Sous le pont d’Avignon, when the Pont Saint-Bénezet still spanned the river and people crossed in the shadow of its arches to dance on the île de la Barthelasse) actually predates the earliest entries in the preserved diary by several years: He was fourteen, and the first and ultimately last full-force family trip in the first post-war car through Southwest France and Northern Spain had been interrupted at the start of the return journey in the village of Remoulins (near Pont-du-Gard on the right bank of the Rhone) by a breakdown requiring the replacement of parts that in the France of the time were obtainable only in Paris; for him, however, since he had passed the entrance exam to a boarding school where the academic year began earlier than elsewhere, a speedy return to Brussels was required, so it was decided that he would travel home with his mother by train, his older brother accompanying them as far as Paris, while the father, sister, and younger brother would stay in Remoulins. That’s as far as the anecdote goes.

Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers of Arriving in Avignon, have a small biography of Robberechts on there website [link], which I have copied below:
The Flemish writer Daniël Robberechts (1937-1992) refused to identify his books as novels, stories, or essays, according them all equal status as, simply, writing.  This liberation from genre gives his work, for all its apparent simplicity, an elusive, hypnotic quality, and no more so than in his debut, Arriving in Avignon, which records a young man's first encounter with that labyrinthine city, and his likewise meandering relationship with a girl from his home town--and indeed virtually every woman he meets.  Hesistant and cautious, unable quite to enter nor turn away, the young man seems to circle Avignon endlessly, in the process attempting to delay his inevitable descent into maturity and monogamy.  What seems at first like a cross between a memoir and a guidebook comes in time to be the story of a young man's dogged yet futile quest to know his own mind--unless it's the ancient city of Avignon itself that is our real protagonist: a mystery that can be approached, but never wholly solved.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Marguerite Duras

 [...] Before her cure, she was holed up in her château dictating one much-worked-on line a day to Andréa, who would type it up. Then they would start uncorking cheap Bordeaux and she’d drink two glasses, vomit, then continue on till she’d drunk as many as nine liters and would pass out. She could no longer walk, or scarcely. She said she drank because she knew God did not exist. Her very sympathetic doctor would visit her almost daily and offer to take her to the hospital, but only if she wanted to live. She seemed undecided for a long time but at last she opted for life since she was determined to finish a book that she’d already started and was very keen about. [...]
The passage above is from the article, "In Love with Duras," by Edmund White [link], which I read out of curiosity, provoked by a strong admiration for Duras's novel The Lover[link].