19 April 2010

Atlas Sheet 10, Gerhard Richter (1962).

Thinking about this & that, but none of it seems worth a whole piece of writing. I keep running into groups of British tourists stranded in northern Spain by the Icelandic volcano, and I imagine a world in which planes are forever grounded, England inaccessible apart from tunnel & ferry. Strawberries & lilies are in season, & my morning paper reports a new round of ETA-related arrests — 10 people in Bilbao, including lawyers & members of the organization’s political apparatus.

What else? I’ve been checking out a movie a day from that library, too. Very few Spanish films to choose from — with notable exceptions, the bulk of the collection is newish American movies & John Wayne westerns.

The Dark Knight (2008) — Spanish title is El Caballero Oscuro, which if you translate it backwards comes out something like The Shadowy Gentlemen. Rewatching it, I realized I’d forgotten Alfred’s colonial Burmese past, in all of its glancingly referenced weirdness — even to the point of his euphemistic reason for being there (“my friends and I were working for the local government”). And how does one fit together the dour punchline of the first anecdote (“Some men just want to see the world burn”) with the second (“We burned the forest down”)? Just who, exactly, is just looking to see the world burn? And why is there no other sane option for raiding British-sponsored caravans aside from wanting jewels, as though anticolonial insurgents must be either greedy or insane? — of course, if you can’t reason with them, there’s nothing to be done but lock them up on islands indefinitely. I always forget whether this film wants to make me think the Joker is a member of Al-Qaeda.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) — Speaking of insurgencies against the British motivated by neither rubies nor world-burning. I saw the first fifteen minutes of this on Spanish television last year, and it’s radically deformed by dubbing, even more so than usual — Gaellic & English are both rendered in equally accented Castellano, which flattens the film immeasurably & turns that opening scene senseless. Very, very difficult to watch violence rendered with such naturalism — no music, lots of clumsy fumbling, few cuts. I watched Syriana last night, too, which means that I’ve seen men have their fingernails pulled off with pliers twice in the last week.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) — The final shot, holding that lead bird & saying that it’s the “stuff dreams are made of”! Not having seen it before, I was surprised, actually, at how much of an unmoored asshole Sam Spade is allowed to be, even accounting for noir-typical misogyny. Usually when your partner dies, it’s supposed to be a blow, not an excuse to avoid his wife & repaint the windows. Poor Peter Lorre — I always see him playing the same variant on the creepy, unspecified foreigner. I guess being a Hungarian Jew means that in 1940s Hollywood you might as well be from Anywhere.

And finally, an attempt at cataloging the English-language books in the Bilbao municipal library, Casco Viejo branch:

There are 85 books in the collection. They include a surprising smattering of recently published literary fiction — to wit: Amy Bloom’s Away, Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, Ha Jin’s War Trash, Marilynne Robinson’s Gideon, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — that makes me picture a single reader, some expat who ended up donating the books because they weighed too much. Also, The Confederacy of Dunces. No canonized modernists of the kind taught in high schools (Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Woolf), no Twain or James, no poetry of any kind. Of David Foster Wallace’s Great Male Narcissists (Roth, Mailer, Updike), we have one Updike novel — Marry Me — and no David Foster Wallace, either. Aside from Coetzee, no postmodernists of any stripe, actually, not even Paul Auster, who’s very popular here in translation. No African-Americans, not even Ellison or Baldwin or Morrison. No Orwell, & no dystopias not Orwellian. The British 19th century is represented by a single copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities — no Austen, no Eliot, no Brontë, no Shelley, etc. etc.

This has, inadvertently, become a catalogue of omission (and the catalogue of omissions will itself be incomplete, & inadvertently reveal my own blindnesses). So what is there? Genre fiction, of course: 1 Patricia Cornwell, 1 Sue Grafton, 1 Robert Ludlum, 1 Michael Connelly. But — no Clancy, no Michener, not even a pure hack like Balducci, and, in the collection I surveyed, no hint of Dan Brown. No Dick Francis, no Agatha Christie. No fantasy or science fiction that I recognized (not even Tolkein, not even Bradbury).

Perhaps most unnerving: among this catalogue of omissions & recognitions, I’ve only been able to name 12 books. (I should correct: 14. I checked out an omnibus collection of three John Banville novels and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire). In other words, 71 of the books are unrecognizable to me to the point that I can’t even arrange or classify them. These 71 nameless, unclassifiable books include what looks like a trilogy of romance novels set in ancient Egypt, and a book whose cover design suggests that I should know it but don’t. The next time I sit down to emend this catalogue (I’ve been reading too much Perec), it’ll already be a futile gesture; books will have been checked out & returned in the interim, and who knows what I’ll find?

Now that I’ve got some detritus out of my system, we’ll see if I can’t write something with a throughline soon.

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