Friday, June 14, 2013

"Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel" by Rafael Dieste

So I found this book at a Goodwill a few years ago. For whatever reason it caught my eye, and I've just gotten around to reading it. There is practically no information it anywhere online that I can find (in English, that is), so yay, I get to be first to the well.

Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel is a series of thematically related short stories, some as short as a couple of pages and others as long as 40. Characters occasionally recur (for example, the main character of the story "The Blank Book" reappears in the subsequent story, "The Rock and The Bird"), but for the most part they can be read independently of one another.

Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel was originally first published sometime in the 1940s. The edition of the book I have is unclear on the exact date of the book's original publication: the back flap copy indicates that it "was published in Spain in 1974, more than thirty years after the first edition came out in Argentina."

The book is itself an interesting thing to behold. The text of the stories is surrounded by a thin black border, and the table of contents is in the rear of the book as opposed to the front (which I presume to be a convention of Spanish publishing). The paper stock is an 80-gramme, white verge, with the cover cardstock a 220-gramme white conqueror bristol board. Meaning it's pretty nice to hold and look at, not to mention read. 

Dieste's writing (as interpreted by translator Sheila Ingrisano) is extraordinary. The language is clear and precise; Dieste can set a scene with one brushstroke of a sentence that seems so perfect as to be inevitable.

But for all he depicts, he implies multitudes more. The stories twist and curl through digressive philosophical asides, earthy comedy, and poignant ruminations on Dieste's pet themes: the slippery nature of memory and its inexorable relationship with self-identity. Here's a wonderful selection from "The Rock and The Bird," as the main character, Anselmo, a man in the mid-1700s wandering through the countryside on a journey of self-discovery, struggles to decide the best path while confronting the finality of death:
"If I were able to choose and if I had a good club on hand or if I had time to make one, I know very well which of all the risks or enemies that you have described I would prefer for this struggle in which I will find myself and that apparently is unavoidable; and that is the fabulous monster with fangs, horns, clawing everything at once, that you started out with. But if I go with a club and it's useless, its weight and my determination to wound a shadow can turn against me, especially since by carrying certain arms one deprives oneself of others, and to carry all possible arms, even if one could foresee all those necessary, would mean being crushed. So on this point I don't know what to do. And the other point at which I don't know what to do is the matter of the detour: if I should go right or left, if the way around is short or long and if I should climb up or descend."
The best part about Dieste's storytelling skills are his elegant, supremely perfect endings. They're not O. Henry twists; rather, the concluding lines are dramatic whipcracks that snap the proceedings into a perfect thematic framework.

Take the volume's fourth story, "The Stuffed Parrot": The narrator, a young boy, introduces the reader to a shop owner's stuffed parrot, the tale then travelling circuitously through a seemingly nonsensical tale of the parrot's path to the shop, only to resolve itself into unexpectedly poignant lesson in compassion from the narrator's father.

Did I mention Dieste can be awfully funny too? Here's a great bit from "Pliny's Garden", about a pet dog named Pliny who encounters a hedgehog (to disastrous results):
Pliny went up to get his pat and still tried to play at something else. Seeing the embroidered slipper, he took it up in his teeth. But he let go of the inoffensive prisoner right away, looked sideways at the impossible and, with an air of carelessness and other ambiguities, started to circle it again. As soon as he seemed to ignore it, he would concede it a bit of curiosity and, immediately, putting his nose to the ground as if solicited by a highly interesting trail, he moved away again, thus showing that anything else was worthier of his attention. Until he fancied running, barking noisily at everything and at the hedgehog as if it were just one more thing. Finally he lay down and, with his neck straight out and his paws stretched out like a sphinx, he sat unmoving in front of the other enigma. But suddenly he began to grumble, moving up a scale of annoyance and barks that sounded higher and higher, ending up in unleashed fury against the four cardinal points and even against Faustino himself, whom he suddenly seemed to ignore. Who are you? What are you trying to do? Out! Out!
The dog then spirals into depression, unable to reconcile himself with the intruder, leading to another of Dieste's sublimely perfect conclusions -- moving but unsentimental, ambiguous but with the right amount of finality.

Here's all that Wikipedia has to offer on the writer, Rafael Dieste:
Rafael Dieste (Rianxo, 1899–Santiago de Compostela, 1981) was a Galician poet, philosopher, short-story writer, and dramatist writing in the Spanish language. He began to write with the encouragement of another Galician poet, Manuel Antonio, wrote for the theatre and wrote widely on aesthetics. His stories have been compared to the other-world approach of the graphic art of M. C. Escher.
 His nephew was the Uruguayan structural architect Eladio Dieste, whose approach to architecture may have been in sympathy with his uncle's poetry.
Here's a bit more on Dieste, from the inner flap of Tales and Inventions:
RAFAEL DIESTE (La Coruna, 1899-1981) began his career writing in the language of his native Galicia, but ended it as a wholly bilingual author and a master of both Galician and Castilian languages. Dieste was a poet -- Rojo farol amante; a playwright -- Viaje, duelo y perdicion; and philosopher -- El ama y el espejo. Founder, in 1936, of the famous magazine Hora de Espana, he was forced to go into exile at the end of the Civil War. His thorough knowledge of both arts and sciences is deeply ingrained in his writing (he is author of an admirable scientific work, Testamento geometrico), but his understanding of the importance of an accessible style gives his work an apparent ease that partly disguises the perfect fusion of his penetrating mind with his mastery of language. 
Buy this bad boy at Amazon and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the lie of nostalgia

"...I try in vain to escape the obsessions that are certainly real, permanent, and true, and that weave the final chain of events, the evident destination of my journey through the world...

...To learn, above all, to distrust memory. What we believe we remember is completely alien to, completely different from what really happened. So many moments of irritating, wearisome disgust are returned to us years later by memory as splendidly happy episodes. Nostalgia is the lie that speeds our approach to death. To live without remembering may be the secret of the gods."

-- from Maqroll: Three Novellas by Alvaro Mutis, translated by Edith Grossman

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cain lives again

Maybe there's some more Jim Thompson out there too...
Telling of a beautiful young widow who takes a job in a cocktail bar after her husband dies under "suspicious circumstances", The Cocktail Waitress was the last book written by Cain before his death in 1977, but it was never published. Charles Ardai, the founder of American publisher Hard Case Crime, was alerted to its existence by the author Max Allan Collins, and has spent the last nine years tracking down the original manuscript and securing rights in the novel.

He called his discovery "like finding a lost manuscript by Hemingway or a lost score by Gershwin – that's how big a deal this is". The author of classic crime novels including Mildred Pierce – adapted into the acclaimed HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet – and Double Indemnity, Cain, together with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, "is universally considered one of the three greatest writers of noir crime fiction who ever lived," said Ardai. The Cocktail Waitress is "the Holy Grail" for crime fans, he added.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

He's at it again

Among other things.

Baker's OCD style is an acquired taste, but not many other writers out there have an iota of his exuberant linguistic playfulness.

So to speak.
One of the ways Baker surmounts this particular technical difficulty is by describing the innumerable, odd sexual encounters in a new language. He invents an ebullient, evolving slang that itself becomes the subject of the book: It is the play on words, the creation of a crazy, babbling new idiom that staves off any feeling of repetition or monotony. He is, at points, writing exclusively in made-up terms, an energetic, playful jargon that bears no resemblance to the words people actually use for sex: "I was bouncing up and down like a horse thief." "Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry." "She twizzled her riddler." "She DJ'd herself," he "angled his Malcolm Gladwell." In a way, Nicholson Baker has more in common with the Lewis Carroll of " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves" than conventional dirty book writers like Henry Miller or Philip Roth. The obscene subject matter is somehow subjugated to the sheer energy of expression: One suspects he could just as easily be riffing on plastic straws or shoelaces as blow jobs.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Coover deconstructed

  • Hari Kunzru interviews Robert Coover in The Guardian.
But it was Pricksongs & Descants, Coover's 1969 short story collection, that cemented his reputation, standing today as one of the landmarks of postwar American fiction.

The title is a metaphor for a method that Coover has elaborated throughout his career. In manuscripts of medieval European music, the notes were physically "pricked" or marked with holes or dots. The melody (the cantus firmus) could be ornamented or counterpointed with an extemporised part, known as the descant. It's common enough for musical terms to be used to describe narrative (theme, leitmotif and so on) but Coover's usage is more precise. The collection contains his most anthologised story, "The Babysitter", which is told in a hundred or so paragraphs, each separated from its neighbours by white space. The cantus firmus is conventional. The babysitter arrives to look after two children. The parents go out. She spends the evening in their house. The parents come home. Coover's innovation is to produce descant-like variations on the possibilities of this scenario, possibilities that open up a grand guignol underworld of sex and violence beneath this suburban surface. The father fantasises about the girl. The girl's boyfriend and his buddy plan to come over and rape her. She plays with the little boy's penis as she gives him a bath. These events are not definitive. Contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously. The girl is raped and unraped. The father acts and does not act on his lascivious fantasies. The reader is expected to hold the story open, thereby exposing the mechanics of narrative for inspection. The effect is like the quantum-theoretical notion of "superposition", in which an unobserved particle exists in both of two possible states, before "collapsing" on to one or other possibility. The story ends with the mother exclaiming from the kitchen "Why, how nice! . . . The dishes are all done!" but also being told "your children are murdered, your husband gone, [there's] a corpse in your bathtub, and your house is wrecked".

Monday, June 20, 2011

Get in the ring

Mamet began the book more promisingly, by undertaking to review political disagreements between conservatives and liberals in the light of his own craft: “This opposition appealed to me as a dramatist. For a good drama aspires to be and a tragedy must be a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right.”

That was certainly Hegel’s definition of what constituted a tragedy. From a playwright, however, one might also have expected some discussion of what the Attic tragedians thought: namely, that tragedy arises from the fatal flaw in some noble person or enterprise. This would have allowed Mamet to make excursions into the fields of irony and unintended consequences, which is precisely where many of the best critiques of utopianism have originated. Unfortunately, though, he shows himself tone-deaf to irony and unable to render a fair picture of what his opponents (and, sometimes, his preferred authorities, like Hayek) really believe. Quoting Deepak Chopra, of all people, as saying, “Our thinking and our behavior are always in anticipation of a response. It [sic] is therefore fear-based,” he seizes the chance to ask, “Is it too much to suggest that this quote contains the most basic prescription of liberalism, ‘Stop Thinking’?” On that evidence, yes, it would be a bit much.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The ultimate truth, in ten words

Real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares.
- from Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, as translated by Chris Andrews.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whose wing will we hide under now?

Kaufman had a soft spot for writers who were trying to make it big, and she often let them eat for free. Among those who did make it big were Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Gay Talese. Eventually, they paid her back.

She was known as an exceptional listener, with patrons and friends typically sticking around until the early morning hours. Her regulars were fiercely loyal.

...There were complaints over the years that Kaufman banished less-interesting people to the worst tables, but she didn't consider herself a snob and argued that her restaurant simply attracted a sophisticated crowd.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Take a hike, Gideons

Why has this taken so long to start happening? The whole Bible-in-the-hotel-room thing is kinda 19th century, don't you think?
Rushdie is the chairman of this year's PEN festival, which is being held at the hotel and other venues around the city and brings together more than 100 writers from 40 nations.

The British-Indian author's list includes mostly well-known literary classics, including Leaves of Grass, the 19th-century poetry collection by Walt Whitman, and The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness masterpiece. The most recent work is 2000's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, one of only four writers on the list who are still alive today.

Guests wanting to read one of Rushdie's novels, which include the Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children, will have to bring their own copies.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Coover notes

Reading Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, I am often made to feel as though I'm stuck in an elevator with someone who knows he's the smartest guy in the room - an elevator at a convention of smart guys.

Damn, he's good, though. Headsmackingly, depression-inducingly good. The writer he reminds me of most is Richard Powers -- another scribbler equally interested/obsessed with expanding the possibilities of narrative. The flipside of this talent, however, is a lot of the time you feel like you're watching a puppet show where the puppeteer hogs the spotlight.

Coover's stories read like game pieces and improv exercises; extraordinarily accomplished as far as technique, but lacking in a certain I-don't-know-what. Heart? Maybe, but Coover's stories don't feel completely untouched by human emotion. But even the stabs of pain and darkness in his fiction tend to feel like devices like everything else -- you can still feel the strings as they're pulled.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The NSS Awards #31

From the New York Times: "Sheen is Surrounded by a Coterie of Enablers"

Friday, March 04, 2011

The question is the thing

  • Jim Holt reviews Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember in The London Review of Books.
To ponder:
Moreover, as the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus has pointed out, it’s possible to have the benefits of contextual memory without the costs. ‘The proof is Google,’ Marcus writes. ‘Search engines start with an underlying substrate of postcode memory (the well-mapped information they can tap into) and build contextual memory on top. The postcode foundation guarantees reliability, while the context on top hints at which memories are most likely needed at a given moment.’ It’s a pity, Marcus adds, that evolution didn’t start with a memory system more like the computer’s.

Considering these advantages, why not outsource as much of our memory as possible to Google? Carr responds with a bit of rhetorical bluster. ‘The web’s connections are not our connections,’ he writes. ‘When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.’ Then he quotes William James, who in 1892 in a lecture on memory declared: ‘The connecting is the thinking.’ And James was onto something: the role of memory in thinking, and in creativity. What do we really know about creativity? Very little. We know that creative genius is not the same thing as intelligence. In fact, beyond a certain minimum IQ threshold – about one standard deviation above average, or an IQ of 115 – there is no correlation at all between intelligence and creativity. We know that creativity is empirically correlated with mood-swing disorders. A couple of decades ago, Harvard researchers found that people showing ‘exceptional creativity’ – which they put at fewer than 1 per cent of the population – were more likely to suffer from manic-depression or to be near relatives of manic-depressives. As for the psychological mechanisms behind creative genius, those remain pretty much a mystery. About the only point generally agreed on is that, as Pinker put it, ‘Geniuses are wonks.’ They work hard; they immerse themselves in their genre.
My whole thing? The "exponential" growth of knowledge accessible by the Internet only expands our possibilities. Science and technology are not in perpetual motion; they move forward only when we start asking different questions.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In a moment, a multitude

Owing to the ruthless, plangent economy of its brushstrokes, the best way to showcase Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines is to simply quote it:

...M. Colombe, of Rouen, killed himself with a bullet yesterday. His wife had shot three of them at him in March, and their divorce was imminent.

...At census time, the mayor of Montirat, Tarn, nudged the figures upward. His eagerness to govern a multitude cost him his job.

...Fearless boys of 13 and 11, Deligne and Julien were going off "to hunt in the desert." They were brought back to Paris from Le Havre.
[Translated by Luc Sante.]

Friday, February 04, 2011

Inside we are all monsters

I didn't know this, but evidently I'm predisposed towards monstrous luxury and decadent excess, as the main character of Joris-Karl Huysman's Against Nature often seems like he's inside my own head:

Goya's savage verve, his harsh, brutal genius, captivated Des Essientes. On the other hand, the universal admiration his works had won rather put him off, and for years he had refrained from framing them, for fear that if he hung them up, the first idiot who saw them might be obliged to dishonour them with a few inanities and go into stereotyped ecstasies over them.

He felt the same about his Rembrandts, which he examined now and then on the quiet; and it is of course true that, just as the loveliest melody in the world becomes unbearably vulgar once the public start humming it and the barrel-organs playing it, so the work of art that appeals to charlatans, endears itself to fools, and is not content to arouse the enthusiasm of a few connoisseurs, is thereby polluted in the eyes of the initiate and becomes commonplace, almost repulsive.

This sort of promiscuous admiration was in fact one of the most painful thorns in his flesh, for unaccountable vogues had utterly spoilt certain books and pictures for him that he had once held dear; confronted with the approbation of the mob, he always ended up by discovering some hitherto imperceptible blemish, and promptly rejected them, at the same time wondering whether his flair was not deserting him, his his taste getting blunted.
Against Nature is more or less about a man's solipsistic retreat into his own ego. There's no real plot, but Des Essiente's fierce adherence to his own standards is a compelling enough engine for the narrative. There are slow spots -- discourses on endless writers, philosophers, theologians and the like, most of whom I've never even heard of, let alone read -- but it's still a great read, a worthy successor to the likes of Voltaire (despite Huysman's stated dislike of his fellow countryman).

And the bit about the turtle, that's great.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

And I will believe the same about you

Great news; the novel is wonderful, and close to my heart.
Although no one has been cast yet for the lead role of Charlie, two book-based-movie stars have signed up: Harry Potter actress Emma Watson and Percy Jackson actor Logan Lerman.

In 2009, Chbosky’s book hit the #3 spot on the American Library Association’s top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009. The association listed these reasons for the challenges: “anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group.”