13 July 2013

Today I found notes for something I was going to write about Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Looking at unfinished pieces is terrifying: you start to wonder whether you’ll finish anything; you don’t recognize this stranger who’s writing; you begin to worry about the continuity of the self, mortality, etc.; worst of all you usually wind up deciding that even if you’d finished it when you still remembered what you were thinking the idea wasn’t all that great to begin with. So. I’m going to try to write this one. It’s more for my benefit than for yours.


The third time I saw Volver (2006) I checked it out from the Casco Viejo branch of the municipal library in Bilbao. This would have been three years ago, sometime in the spring: the fifth floor of an apartment with a balcony overlooking the river, grey-green light, lots of vermouth. There was a director’s commentary. Almodóvar, kind of using Penelope Cruz as a sounding board, started to talk about patios: “En La Mancha,” he said, “los patios son esenciales. Un gran parte de la vida se lleva a cabo en estos patios. … Son patios mucho menos alegres que los andaluzes, mucho más austeros, porque la vida de allí es una de interiores. Las calles … son calles vacios.” And a little later he repeats himself: “Otra vez: Esto es la típica que lleva manchega. No tiene nada que ver con la andaluza: blanca, con zócanos, aspiras en flores, sin ningún adorno.”

Back when it was in theaters Stateside I’d enjoyed the film in the same way as, I imagine, most cinephile international audiences: as another archetypical extrusion from Mundo Almodóvar, all eyepopping reds and darkhaired women with wild eyes and gazpacho and Madrid Madrid Madrid, the same kind of aesthetic place as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). You know, Spain. (Here’s A.O. Scott for the Times: “The action in Volver moves back and forth between a workaday neighborhood in Madrid and a windswept village in the Spanish countryside. Really, though, the movie takes place in a familiar, enchanted land—Almodóvaria, you might call it, or maybe Pedrostan—where every room and street corner is saturated with bright color and vivid feeling…”)

And while I don’t want to suggest that this was a misreading, exactly, it occurred to me that day that Almodóvar was talking about a film that was much more particular and regional than the one I’d watched, full of signals that I wasn’t equipped to decode.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, Ciudad Real, “un pueblo de pocos ricos y muchos pobres.” [1] His mother wrote poems and read to him at night. She made extra money by writing letters for her illiterate neighbors. His father was an arreiro, a mule driver; he made wine at home and would haul barrels of it to market. Trucks and highways put an end to mules, and the family moved to a town outside of Cáceres, one of the two provincial capitals in Extremadura. None of these are places you want to be from: goats, high arid plains, hot as shit in the summer, cold as fuck in the winter, at the edge of all things. They call places like this (and places like Jaén) España profunda: “deep Spain.” But Cáceres had a cinema. Pedro watched movies, remade them in his head. When he was 18 he left for Madrid and never looked back.

Penelope Cruz’s Raimundo is, in fact, a kind of biographical stand-in for Almodóvar— she grows up in a baroquely-named pueblito in La Mancha, flees it for Madrid, severs ties with her past, estranges herself from her mother, who is literally a living ghost. Her escape from it mirrors his; so, too, her eventual reconciliation with her origins. The film basically dramatizes Almodóvar’s coming to terms with his own past. (Also it’s a Technicolor domestic pulp, a multigenerational family saga played for laughs, and a ghost story.) Almodóvar, as it happens, makes this explicit in interview after interview: “He vuelto a mis propias raíces y a la memoria de mi madre. Me baso absolutamente en mi vida, mis recuerdos, y los de mi familia.” And: “Este película me reconcilió con mi infancia.” [2,3]

This autobiographical trajectory, La Mancha to Extremadura to Madrid, intersects with no Spain I ever became fluent in. The center is a blank page; I lived in peripheries. When Volver travels from Madrid to Alcanfor de las Infantas, fictional wind-scoured pueblo with the highest rate of insanity in the country (literally: ‘mothballs of the princesses’) the dialogue suddenly starts picking up manchego inflections. I can just about perceive it, but I don’t actually understand. At one point in the commentary Almodóvar starts laughing with Cruz about how typical of La Mancha something Sole has just said is—está en mala cojónada— which is so colloquially rural I can’t even find an internet reference. (It means she’s in a bad mood, but it seems like the reason why is…her balls hurt?) It’s something like watching Fargo with no sense of Minnesota as a discrete place, a setting where regionalisms are being faithfully rendered and occasionally parodied. This film isn’t set in Spain, because Spain doesn’t exist; it’s set in La Mancha. What’s La Mancha? I have no idea.

When you’re foreign—and n.b., maybe this is only true or surprising if you’re in your early twenties and abroad for the first time in your life, maybe I’m naïvely stating the obvious, but this is how it was for me, back then—you’re suddenly blind to a thousand internal signifiers, coded images meant to be apprehended in an instant. They’re too obvious to articulate. (Here’s Barthes, in Mythologies: “For the Blue Guide, men only exist as ‘types.’ In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a highlander.”) Stereotypes are characters in the stories that cultures tell.

And it becomes important to be fluent in your local stereotypes—quick, show me Cantabria on a map—even if there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down quality to how typologies, more and more specifically-targeted, end up demonstrating their own incoherence. (Spaniards are like this, sure, but then Basques are like that and Andalucíans like the other, and then in Andalucía of course nothing could be more different than the sevillanos, who are all pijos riding like white stallions to the fería and swilling manzanilla and never leaving the capital, and the jiennenses, who are bent over backwards from spending all day in the olive groves and drink beer and…) You know those Levantines and their light-hearted gardening.

Accents display class and status: On mainstream Spanish sitcoms Andalucíans are country bumpkins, the comic relief. To speak in andaluz dialect is actually to already be setting up the joke. And because it’s (surprisingly?) tricky to hear accents in a language you’re learning—certainly almost impossible to notice, in a film with subtitles in a language you don’t speak at all, the different ways that characters sound—you’re blind to this signaling, to the joke being set up. You wonder why everyone in the audience is laughing. Which opacity can be interesting, in and of itself—you know something’s being communicated, but can’t see quite what it is…

(I’m reminded, though no good example comes to mind, of novels of a certain age or cultural remove—you get what’s clearly meant to be a telling detail, but have to kind of guess at what it’s supposed to signify.)

Almodóvar filmed in a pueblo in Ciudad Real fifteen miles from the one he’d grown up in. I’ve gone back to my roots, he said, and to the memory of my mother. And: In La Mancha, the patios are essential. Most of life takes place in them. They’re much less joyful than those of Andalucía, much more austere, because life there is one of interiors. The streets are deserted. Again, he said: This is typical of La Mancha. Nothing to do with Andalucía: white, with zócanos, you breath in flowers, without a single decoration. (Did I mishear? Was it that they were hung with flowers?)

When he was a child he’d sit with the women of his family in the patio—really more of a enclosed courtyard? is that the better translation?—of their home, like the Fellini alter-ego in 8 1/2. Pueblos in La Mancha seem as closed as fists. The film opens in a graveyard on Día de Todos los Santos, dozens of women shrouded in black frantically cleaning gravestones while the insane-making wind blows and the dust settles everywhere—something there, I suppose, about the nature of women’s work: domestic, undervalued, endless, like so many of the details of the murder of Penelope Cruz’s abusive rapist husband, which have to do with once again cleaning up after him. I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find, what on earth a zócano is— some kind of stock or wooden stand for a loom, I think.

This film reconciled me with my childhood, he said.

How much do you miss? How much does it matter? All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the me who watched this in college & liked it & ended up going to Spain & had to reconcile the actual country with the myth of that country he’d built in his head, he was getting a very different enjoyment out of it, seeing very different things, than a Madrid theater audience, or again the audience Almodóvar screened it for in his former hometown, or indeed Almodóvar himself, the resonance of language & gesture, the nostalgia, the reasons he’d made it in the first place. Perfect transmission is of course a fantasy. I like the bit in Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text where he asks rhetorically whether anyone has ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word. “Proust’s good fortune,” he adds in parenthesis: “from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.”

Springtime’s coming—

13 February 2013

album art 2

—that means you’ll be coming back around. (FEB ’13)

Streets, edible

18 May 2012

Constantinople had a thousand churches and insuperable walls landward and seaward. On the main approach to the palace, only the perfume merchants were permitted their trade.

The housing bricks and paving stones, they said, could boil down into soup; the place was steeped in root, and leaf, and fruit.

Lemon peels crushed in the gutters of the streets scented the early mornings where he used to sing . . .


Arcadia, Jim Crace
“Byzantium,” Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, Harper’s Magazine
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon



24 April 2012

At Bookforum, a review by Wayne Koestenbaum of Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait begins:

Parataxis is Édouard Levé’s best friend. Parataxis—also John Ashbery’s best friend—concerns the placement, side by side, of two sentences whose meanings don’t transparently connect. Parataxis, however, as concept, has leached its glories onto the landscape at large; any reader of contemporary culture is contaminated by paratactic energies, a stylistic phenomenon that Levé defends in his penultimate book, a work of unrepentantly naked yet stylistically errant autobiography, Autoportrait. He writes: “Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.”

This paw-swiping gesture is nice: “any reader of contemporary culture is contaminated by paratactic energies.” Parataxis is, too, a good word for rendering the anonymous, deadpan syntactical purity of the Harper’s “Findings” section. (Of Harper’s two dominant flavors, the one I like best is not the prolix old-school progressive-polemical [Thomas Frank’s “Easy Chair” columns, Rick MacArthur’s distrust of the internet] but the hyper-distilled literary-bizarre [“Readings,” the Weekly Review, Jim Shepard short stories]).

Last night I read this May’s delicious, oblique history of Byzantium by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (subhead: “Their ears were uncircumcised”); a part of it is excerpted on the website. Imagine behind its paratactic compression a fanatically precise series of copyediting stress tests, a paragraph of fact-checking appended in pencil to every modifier . . . It reminds me, a little bit, of Calasso, but it’s funnier:

What were the laws and practices of the lawgivers? The Great Code of Theodosius forbade the impersonation of nuns by female mimes and the trampling of Jews by gentiles; the edicts of Leo VI permitted eunuchs to adopt; the Orthodox patriarchs anathematized the Manichaeans’ belief that all things fermented are alive.

The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act. Sometimes cruelty was intended beyond the enucleation itself, as when the emperor Diogenes Romanus was deposed and “they permitted some unpracticed Jew to proceed in blinding the eyes” and “he lived several days in pain and exuding a bad odor.” In 797 the empress regnant Irene blinded her son Constantine VI and caused an eclipse that lasted seventeen days. Basil II blinded fifteen thousand Bulgarian soldiers, and every hundredth man he left with one eye to lead another ninety-nine, and when these men returned home to their king Samuel he looked upon them and died. Michael V blinded his uncle John the Master of Orphans. The iconoclasts blinded the eyes of the icons.

It was said that the city would fall when ships sailed by over dry land.

Édouard Levé

13 April 2012

When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. I can see how drops of water could be torture. A burn on my tongue has a taste.


Bricolage, iii

3 March 2012

They “found that illiterates had a ‘graphic-functional’ way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said ‘dark blue’ or ‘light yellow,’ but illiterates used metaphorical names like ‘liver,’ ‘peach,’ ‘decayed teeth,’ and ‘cotton in bloom.’”

Because I was born into ongoing falsehood,
I have had to learn to think in metaphors . . .
Richard Hoffman

Metaphor is the juxtaposition of disparate elements of the world in which an unsuspected commonality, an illuminating partial likeness, has been discovered, and the more unlikely the juxtaposition, the greater the consequent sensation of the unifying of the world; and so the range of a writer’s metaphor is a measure of the range of his cognition.

Anger is better, as pomegranates are. Andrea of Hungary [IV.v.33]

“An essay is like a glass of water. Dip a spoon into that glass of water and scoop some of it out and hold it over a hot frying pan so that a few drops fall & sizzle & quickly disappear. That’s a poem.”
The Anthologist

My father said, “When in doubt, castle.”

Catachresis: A metaphor that’s become part of common everyday speech & is no longer perceived as a metaphor (bottleneck, eye of a needle).
The Savage Detectives

“violet-flavoured nightmare”: Cheever, of Nabokov’s Pale Fire

“a tint between the colour of an old fence and that of a low cloud”:
Nabokov, of Chekhov’s prose

Da steht der Tod, ein bläucher Absud
And here stands death, a bluish distillate
in einer Tasse ohne Untersatz
in a cup without a saucer

These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse
and fight for bitten apples.
Henry VIII

The most popular fourteenth-century literary genre, sometimes composed in Old Uzbek, was epistolary poetry. Poems during this period took the form of love letters between nightingales and sheep, between opium and wine, between red and green . . .

“As you can see, madam, words are getting staler and staler… idiots have used them like so many wheelbarrows… loaded them up with all kinds of idiotic confessions, with all these ideas, each more stupid than the last… in short, with what people call messages.”

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
no—no . . .
Zbiginew Herbert

“One morning I knew, finally, that lists of examples wouldn’t do any longer, but examples were all that I had. In that country they speak prose. And not only do they speak it, they live it. They didn’t ban poetry — they still encourage it, officially — but they did get rid of the insides of things, the interiors that poetry once, in another era before the fall, referred to. In that sense, they are like us.”
The Soul Thief

“TULIP, drum, camel, ladybug,
glass-blowing, genial arrogance,
Rubens, purple, eroticism as gourmandise,
zamindary, the Caliphate of the Umayyads, Haroun al-Raschid.”
— from “Het Erewhonisch Schetsboek” in Apple and Pears, Guy Davenport



7 December 2011

An hommée is the amount of land a farmer can plough before sundown in Lorraine. In Catalunya, the amount of land in a day’s work if it grows corn is a journal; if a vineyard, an ouvrée; if a meadow, then soiture. An Irish collop denotes quality; it’s howevermuch land will support the grazing of: one sow; or two yearling heifers; or six sheep; or twelve goats; or six geese and a gander. 3 collops graze a horse.

4 royal cubits make an orguia, the distance from middle fingertip to middle fingertip when you stretch out your arms. A trasarenu is the smallest possible thing: the dust mote you see when the sun shines through a lattice.  A meal is the volume of milk that can be gotten from a cow at a single milking, and soma the amount of firewood a mule can carry in Umbria. Stunden are the hours it will take to cover a certain amount of ground by foot, depending on elevation. An ounce, as proposed by Jefferson, would be the weight of a cubic inch of rainwater.

The length of the Harvard Bridge in 1958 is 364.4 Smoots, where fraternity pledge Oliver R. Smoot is the unit of length. Oncia is a measure of silkworm eggs; adarme a weight of silver. There are 2 kinderkins in a coomb, 2 coombs in a hogshead, & 2 hogsheads in a puncheon. A funiculus is 1/6,000th of the Earth’s meridian; a chi is ninety black millet grains, or the length of a huangzhong pitch pipe, and Confucius’ father, who stood 10 chi, was thought as tall as a human could be. A perch is longer than an ell. Double scruples weigh far less than mites or demi-grains. A millihelen is the degree of beauty that can launch a single ship.


Composed using notes taken while reading World in the Balance, Robert P. Crease (2011).