June 2020

days 51-61 Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 25 September 1964 – 19 June 2020, RIP, and the friends he didn’t know he had

Kundera’s description of Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, ’68:

“A system was born (with no advance planning, almost by chance) that was truly unprecedented: the economy 100 percent nationalized, agriculture in the hands of cooperatives, nobody too rich, nobody too poor, schools and medicine for free, but also: the end of the secret police’s power, the end of political persecutions, the freedom to write without censorship, and consequently the blooming of literature, art, thought, journals. I cannot tell what the prospects might have been for the future of this system; in the geopolitical situation of the time, certainly not great; but in a different geopolitical situation?”

— Milan Kundera, Encounter, Trans. Linda Asher, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009). Original work published as Une Rencontre, 2009.

Alejandro Zambra writes, “I think that the story can’t end like that, with Camilo Sr. crying for his dead son, his son who was practically a stranger to him. But that’s how it ends.”

This is from the same work, in which the writer calls the present a suspiciously stable place.

From the same place, “thinking about … the future, which wasn’t my favorite subject … we had imagined a life full of flying cars and happy teleportations, or maybe something less spectacular but still radically different from the soulless and repressive world we lived in.”

And: “she drew a too-thick line around her eyes, as if fencing them in, as if she wanted to keep them from jumping out of her skull and escaping.” But: this last sentence is beyond the page I read up to, the page I mean to return to when I at last pick up this book, Documents, again, page 61. For now I’m putting it on display.

The topic for the display is Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 25 September 1964 – 19 June 2020, RIP, and the friends he didn’t know he had.

I am writing this on the 5th anniversary of Fr Craig Larkin’s death. I wrote this piece for him. Fr Costello in his homily said about Craig, “He generated life wherever he went.” (The homily was delivered at Craig’s Requiem Mass.) I get the feeling Ruiz Zafón would approve if these words were to be applied to him.

Zambra and Ruiz Zafón–both writers who are not overly literary: Zafón the classic story-teller; Zambra the conversational writer, Valeria Luiselli talked about as being like a late-night phonecall, the relaxed voice of night-time intimacy.

I remember being in the South of France, chez la famille Chaigne, at a time when Catholics talked about tours of the Holy Land.

In fact, they didn’t just talk about it. We had slideshows. And included in the tour of the Holy Land were shots of the pyramids. It was not so unlike the episode in Brideshead Revisited of Mr Samgrass with Sebastian always out of shot, showing his slides. And when I say we, I mean the family at Aix, on the occasion of a visiting South American priest. Was he Argentinian? He was from a meat-eating country and I remember M. Chaigne taking charge of the gigot, the leg of lamb, whereas previous to the visit it had always been Madame to whom the territory of the kitchen belonged.

He pierced the leg of lamb with a small knife and stuffed it with slivers of garlic and rosemary and doused it with olive oil. He had the oven as hot as it would go so the house filled with smoke, searing the lamb, cindering the rosemary spines, then reduced to a moderate temperature, cooking it for only as long as the flesh would remain pink, and sitting it for as long as it was cooked to absorb the blood. It was a performance.

It had nothing on the priest’s. In what had been a household as spartan as a seminary–where young seminarians were routinely housed: a crucifix hung above the bed in my cell of a room–the wines flowed, through and beyond the lavish meal, then M. produced cigars, which, if I rightly recall, I was offered as well, from the humidor.

No, it was Colombia: the Colombian priest had come directly upon reaching France from his tour of the Holy Land, with his slides, to the maison Chaigne. A lowlying white stucco villa with terracotta Roman tiles.

M. Chaigne had cooked the meal for our special guest and even the errant daughter and prodigal son were present. I detected from the son some animosity towards the daughter. It seemed she had greater lee-way around the town than he. And with the priest present it was an excellent opportunity to land some sarcasm-cloaked blows to her reputation as a cyclist and trampolinist. If I recall, she accepted from her father the offer of a fat Cuban cigar. And he cut the end without comment but with teeth clenched. And she glowered at her brother from behind the volumes of smoke she emitted that we would today call a fat vape.

What I most remember is the unwonted profligacy of the household. That I had up until the evening of the tour of the Holy Land slideshow and the appetites that everyone in the household was for once permitted to admit at the excuse of the presence of the Colombian priest and his own Gargantuan capacities for wine and food and hilarity, that I had only known the family’s austerities, and the barely concealed distaste for me M. displayed. He had his own coffee bowl for the morning. And Mme. would entertain no distraction to his morning rule, of reading the newspaper in its entirety, without interruption.

And it wasn’t fair of the son as far as I could see, given his own flouting of his father’s, and mother’s, Catholic-church-approved codes, to lambaste his sister for hers. I recall admiring Mlle. Chaigne that night, practically the only time I saw her, particularly for seeming to have escaped the family’s rigidity. She lounged, smoking a cigar.

She left before the slideshow; her boyfriend picked her up. I was even more impressed with him, then more impressed with her again. The boyfriend roared in on his motorbike. Her brother’s crew all rode vespas. She brought him in to introduce him to the visiting Colombian priest, representative of God. She was cool, and, it seemed as though M. already had met him and approved, because he was offered a glass of red wine from a bottle from the cellar. M. was disappearing regularly throughout the evening, returning with another label to pass under the gaze of the Colombian priest, who nodded, drained what he had, and held out his glass.

The boyfriend was on the verge of accepting when Mlle. took his arm before he had a chance to get out of his leathers. I remember the opportunity given M. to make the offer: she was absent for a second, coming back in a black leather jacket.

I thought, Who is this priest, turning everything I had been led to expect from this family around? I loved him for it. I wondered if he was not just a priest but someone higher up. A bishop? But surely even a bishop if he came from Colombia would not have been treated this well? An Anti-Pope?

He laughed as hugely as he ate and drank. He laughed when I said where I was from and he said we were near neighbours. And it was probably his approval that got me M.’s, who was suddenly proud to have me in his house. Who refilled my glass, offered me a Cuban.

The next day everything returned to normal.

The slideshow was indescribable, just like Mr Samgrass’s. I missed Mlle. Chaigne. She would have been like Julia but there was no Sebastian to ask after.

I am recalled to it by a line in Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep comparing the gables of Durston Manor receding behind the young priest Fairfax to the pyramids, because, at that time, I was surprised a tour of the Holy Land should take in Egypt; but of course: then escape from the strictures of Pharaoh, parting seas, exodus.

It wasn’t the connection of priests, although there is a connection, to what I was intending to say–rabbitholes, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Secret Passages in a Hillside Town–which was about hypocrisy.

As usual, now I haven’t said it.

It is remarkable in an era of networked moral censure, the too-much bruited #metoo-ness of it, that the networks, the providers of it, the platforms, are free from censure, are neutral, are technologies. Progress.

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days 40-50 – or, walking in circles

Doug McEachern, says his bio, in the book I have in my hand, left school wanting to be a writer. The book I have in my hand evidence he succeeded.

Having left school, he was caught up in the ’60s. The bio puts it that he was “led astray by the political urgency of the campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription.” This was in Australia.

It gives some indication of what is to follow, Stardust and Golden–the name of the book I have in my hand.

The author then enjoyed a long and “successful” academic career, where is not stated, before leaving university tenure for South Australia “to become a writer.”

This, his first novel, might give us a clue: Stardust and Golden is published by The University of Western Australia, 2018.

It returns us to the 1960s–

Several days of persistent heat forced forward memories of life before all-pervasive air conditioning.

–runs the first line of the novel, making redundant all of the foregoing.

We might recall the opening line of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers: It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

And we might consider there is no common measure.

Or we might consider the 1 million planets Raymond Ruyer invokes to demonstrate “that the power of chance is very limited”:

“Consider 1 million planets, each inhabited by 2 billion humans. Each of these humans (106 x 2 x 109) during 1 billion years, tosses every day a die forty thousand times (in one thousand series of forty), that is, practically does nothing else. Approximately how many times would a series of forty sixes arise?” The impression is that such a series will be produced at least some of the time. We can wager 19 against 1 that it will be produced, because (106 x 2 x 109) x (109 x 365 x 103) is still 20 times smaller than 640. Because the duration of life on earth is approximately 2 billion years, it is easy to see why it is extravagant to attribute to chance alone the formation of a nervous system, a circulatory system, the eye or the internal ear, whose ordered complexity has no common measure with the arrangement of a series of forty sixes.

— Raymond Ruyer, Neofinalism, Trans. Alyosha Edlebi, (Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163. (Note: original work published in French in 1952.)

From the puffline of Graham Swift’s Booker Prize winning Here We Are the phrase–

pulls back the curtain on the human condition.

The removal of the statue of Hamilton in Hamilton, Morgan Godfrey writes, augurs in a new age: …”and after him every statue celebrating the men who made the empire. It’s 2020, after all, and postcolonialism is giving way to decolonisation.”

There are then in his article for the Guardian some nice turns of phrase with “the tragics” and “the nostalgics” used to call out the empire defenders. That is defenders of the misbegetting of colonial monumentation in the present time of decolonisation.

Morgan Godfrey ends with, “The only way to acknowledge the history they made–invading the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Taranaki–and the society they’re responsible for–where Maori are on the wrong side of every statistic, from incarceration to joblessness–is to tear it all down.”

There are many wears of tearing it all down.

Consider the work of Nicola Samorì:

– from the Cannibal Trail series, 2017, oil on copper, detail
– from the Malafonte series, black Carrara marble, 2018

Donna Tartt recently described the process of writing a novel as like “painting a large mural with a brush the size of an eyelash”. My own favourite–

writes Edward Docx, also for the Guardian

is that it’s like trying to fill a swimming pool with a syringe. Or, in a different mood, that writing a novel is like trying to hold a vast and intricate maths equation in your head that seeks to represent reality and through which you are trying to lead people without them ever getting wind that said equation is, in fact, impossible to solve or that, actually, it might not represent reality at all.

Docx, a writer, is introducing his review of Daniel Alarcón’s novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, which, he writes, makes gains (walking in circles?) on the side of the equation, while losing on the side of “immediacy, intimacy and involvement.”

Docx, the writer, answers the question, what we might call the ontological question, on his personal website, of the meaning of the writer’s existence, by writing that being a writer means “to give precise and enduring expression to the human experience”.

Alarcón is not found to have failed in this regard. But the assumption that immediacy, intimacy and involvement are what is being calculated in the above equation is not given as part of the equation.

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream makes me think of two other perfect short novels, or novellas, Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami, and The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

I just noticed that the puffline on the front of Alexandro Zambra’s novel Documents is Daniel Alarcón’s.

On page 51 of Documents, Zambra writes this suggestive phrase–

I sometimes think, from this suspiciously stable place that is the present

From this–the same?–suspiciously stable place that is the present, I think–

the poem

is much better

now you

are looking at it.

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days 31-39

My copy of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read in its white card cover blue inside embossed with the logo of Fitzcarraldo Press, having taken as long as it does to push a ferryboat over a mountain, has arrived. The day of our return from Rotorua.

Its translator says about writing: “We write to multiply ourselves.”

Its writer, on the other hand, Alejandro Zambra, in another, a beautiful book written about being a secondary character, against the notion the author is (ever? always?) a primary character, Ways of Going Home, says about writing:

“To read is to cover one’s face …

“To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

Faces might be understood in the fullest sense Levinas then his translator, Lingis, gives: an absolute imperative to which we respond because we must, for which we are responsible.

Faces call on us to respond. With all sorts of ruses, cupidity, nudity–eyes rolling in viscosity, entirely as exposed as uncovered genitalia; entirely as penetrating as the genital (and other, neuroliberal, for example) penetralia.

J. went running in Rotorua. A good place I have discovered is a place where water comes out of the ground hot.

In this period following the COVID-19 call not to let aerosol spit loose, not to be promiscuous in our gazes or exchanges, face to face, she found the ones she encountered while running on the path through the redwoods would set their faces and not meet her eye. She remembered, as I do, as we do, the New Zealand of threat: and she speculated that we still do not meet each others’ eyes because we might want to beat each other up.

Well, this is true. You don’t meet my eye on the street if you think you are being confronted with the threat of violence.

Whatchoo lookin at?

or, then you answer, and:

Come ere n say that!

In this NZ, reading a book is not hiding or saving face, it is exposing it to:

fuckin poof!

Reading? clearly an elitist white colonial pastime.

(It’s always intriguing to know what translates poof to the female equivalent. Lezzie it ain’t. Doesn’t contain the requisite threat of violence.

(fuckin bitch! perhaps. But this is more likely to be preceded by a short interchange in which presumptions to intellectualism are invoked and questioned.

(fucking bitch! Think you’re smart! & so on.)

J. had been worrying, running on, worried, about the averted gazes and looks of the women she passed. Turned a corner, then, at the beginning of a track leading uphill she had intended to take at a walk, she saw a group of patch-wearing men. And she decided to take the uphill track at a run.

But what were they doing there amongst these giant trees? They were of course walking. Not on bikes. They were walking in the trees.

And how can anyone amongst the redwoods not be affected by them?

Lingis writes of the sequoia in the way that they face us with an imperative too. We take it on ourselves to breath in to our cores and to pull ourselves up from the depths of ourselves upright. We learn not rigidity but the reaching up of our uprightness from them. We stand straighter and breathe deeper from them. And we discern in them the deepness of life into which they plunge and from which they soar upwards. Their solidity. Not their stolidity. Their airiness, their breath and rootedness. Not their territorial uprootedness. Not the threat they experience of that territorial rootedness being challenged.

So there are challenges to the colonial experience of Maori here. The redwood is an import. The plantation of redwoods here at the edge of Kaingaroa forestry is a colonial imposition on the landscape.

Driving through this landscape, from Auckland to Matamata to Tirau to Rotorua the “home of Maoridom” as a sign by the Blue and Green Lakes put it, how can anyone escape from the sense of a colonial imposition that has razed the forests, impregnated the land with foreign grasses, and, in autumn, with trees which colourfully lose their leaves? Land for which the use is farming and the economic advancement of populations in a global marketplace for primary produce?

Striking vacant land, you ask, seeing no meat or milk producing occupancy of animals, you ask, What’s the use?

Then these gangmembers in the redwoods, as J. said, aren’t they enjoying the trees? Isn’t this good for them and for us?

I didn’t need to think too long about this theme we, because we grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, have often revisited–of the threat of violence every look may contain–to say:

But it is their exposure that is in these eyes. They feel exposed.

And probably more now since COVID-19. They are exposed to a threat of invisible violence. They are also socially exposed: someone may be judging them as to how well they follow the rules, social-distancing, self-isolating, uniting against the virus.

We feel and have felt so vulnerable in this country, that we do or do not choose to expose ourselves.

That we hide as if from the threat of violence. But strangely the cultural order tends to be maintained that we do not expose ourselves in writing or film-making or dancing or theatre-making or composing music or poetry and do not write books to expose ourselves and do not appreciate those who do. As if we ourselves were being exposed.

Then, by the same wariness of local censure and fear of the threat of violence, we still now look to cultural production–to even the production which is that of our own culture–to put us on the world stage, to take us to a global audience, which exposure we will not experience as our own, personal exposure but claim as national pride.

So we are proud of ‘Jacinda’ and of our efforts in the world and we look to the ways in which we may capitalise on our success in fighting COVID-19–and we find culturally we are succeeding, inviting Avatar here, getting Benee airplay, without the least exposure of the facts.

And isn’t it good to be exposed in this way?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9dEYauEROs

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