Briefly noted

12 February 2010

Snowing in Bilbao yesterday & today — nothing like the storms 5,000 miles away to my left, but there are hailstones in the street & patches of unmelted slush & on the low hills that circle the city (Bilbao is el botxo, they say here, ‘the hole’) there is a covering of bright, white ice & snow that shines in the morning; I look at them from my window when I wake up. And despite all of this, I’m not as cold here as I was last year in Jaén, shivering in an uninsulated house, the hot water out.

El botxo — I thought something this morning, breath smoking while I huffed my way up the hill to school in Galdakao, something about this city I’d never thought about before: What is Bilbao doing surrounded by hills? This seems like an irrelevent question — it’s on the river, it’s a shipping hub — but it’s really not if you’ve lived in Andalucía, where every old city is elevated and has a fortress at the center. No fortress, in Bilbao. There were walls, but the only trace of them is near the church & bridge of San Antón, symbols of the city. Bilbao wasn’t a city, really, not more than a village, until after the Reconquista, after the colonization of the New World, after iron was discovered in the hills & it became a shipping center — that is, Bilbao, unlike every city in the South, is a post-industrial city, and it feels so natural it was only now, this morning, that I was struck by how strange it was to live in a Spanish city that wasn’t fortified, that hadn’t been built in the face of five centuries of intermittent warfare.

In K2, a bar named after the mountain with free wifi & good music that I use as my office in the afternoons, there are dreamcatchers & Indian headdresses made out of colored paper hanging from the ceilings (Penacho de Toro Sentado, reads one). It’s Carnivale, of course, which is why they’ve decorated — I’m dressing up as Clark Kent, myself — but that still doesn’t explain the weird, cartoony cultural appropriation. (There is a toy ax taped to the wall in front of me.)

In Corazón tan blanco, things are beginning to come to a head — Marías has accumulated a certain number of disparate elements, developed them, brought them to a point where now we are in the present (the present perfect, usually, but that’s Castillian Spanish for you) & he has begun to arrange them on the table & put them in relation to one another. The Macbeth references which began with the epigraph itself (from which the title is taken) have piled up, are beginning to be repeated — the impossibility of translating ‘thinking so brainsickly of things,’ which Marías’ narrator renders as vacillating between pensar con tan enfermo cerebro and pensar tan enfermitizamente con el cerebro (I wonder how this is worked out in the English translation?) — and the English fragment, amidst all this Spanish, repeated: “I have done the deed.”

There is a nice bit that asks whether we read literature or look at art for conocimiento or reconocimiento (that is, for understanding, or just for recognition? The parallel is neater & more elegant, of course, in Spanish).

What else? I learned the Basque word for ‘rainbow’ yesterday. I’m baking an apple pie tomorrow, which is the furthest thing from a tarta de manzana even though it’s the only way to translate it. Over on my tumblr, I’m puzzling over a quotation from Tom McCarthy that ends, “The Internet reifies a logic that was always already there,” & I mention this because I don’t usually use that scrapbook to write at length, but it ended up long, & I could use some help in the comments.

Pillow talk

7 February 2010

Yesterday on the bus, I came upon a wonderful passage in Corazón tan blanco (wonderful, at least, when I read it in Spanish) that displays Marías’ penchant for the sinuous & piled sentence, for narrative catalogues, for listing, & also reminded me — to the point of being almost, it seemed, a direct reply (the last sentence in particular) — of a passage from Georges Perec which I’ll affix below everything else:

Estar junto a alguien consiste en buena medida en pensar en voz alta, esto es, en pensarlo todo dos veces en lugar de una, una con el pensamiento y otra con el relato, el matrimonio es una institución narrativa.


Por amor o por lo que es su esencia — contar, informar, anunciar, comentar, opinar, distraer, escuchar y reír, y proyectar en vano — se traciona a los demás, a los amigos, a los padres, a los hermanos, a los consaguíneos y a los no consaguíneos, a los antiguos amores y a las convicciones, a las antiguas amantes, al propio pasado y a la propia infancia, a la propia lengua que deja de hablarse y sin duda a la propia patria, a lo que en toda persona hay de secreto, o quizá es de pasado. Para halagar a quien se ama se denigra el resto de lo existente, se neiga y execra todo para contentar y reasegurar a uno solo que puede marcharse, la fuerza del territorio que delimta la almohada es tanta que excluye de su seno cuanto no está en ella, y es un territorio que por su propia naturaleza no permite que nada esté en ella excepto los cónyuges, o los amantes, que en cierto sentido se quedan solos y por eso se hablan y nada callan, involuntariamente. La almohada es redondeada y blanda y a menudo blanca, y al cabo del tiempo lo redondeado y blanco acaba sustituyendo al mundo, y a su débil rueda.

Corazón tan blanco, Javier Marías p. 184-85

I’ll try now to give you a translation, with apologies — I’m piecing it together myself, lacking an easier way.

Being together with someone consists to great extent in thinking out loud — that’s it — in thinking everything over twice instead of once, first as a thought and later as a story — marriage is a narrative institution.


Out of love or that which is its essence — to recount, to inform, to announce, to comment, to opine, to entertain, to listen & to laugh, & to make futile plans — we betray all else, our friends, our parents, our siblings, those we’re related to & those with whom we have no relation, our old loves & our convictions, our former lovers, our own past & our own childhood, our own tongue that ceases to be spoken & without a doubt our own homeland, that which in every person is secret, or perhaps long past. To flatter who we love we denigrate the rest of existence, we negate and detest everything else in order to reassure & make content the only one who can leave; the force of the territory marked out by the pillow is such that it leaves our hearts when we’re not upon it; it’s a terroritory that by its own nature does not permit anything on it except lovers or spouses, who feel in a certain way that they are alone and so speak and are never quiet, involuntarily. The pillow is soft & rounded, usually white, and over time its roundness & whiteness replaces the world & its weak orbit.

Anyone with the English translation on hand is invited to correct my errors or offer other version of sentences. Actually, reading this earlier, I’d forgotten almohada meant pillow & thought it meant bedspread, which would make placing Perec side by side even more apropos — but what I like about this isn’t just the quality of the observation, but the way that a relationship becomes analogous to fiction itself (el matrimonio es una institución narrativa), not just a narrative that is created but also a form of betrayal (we could equally write that the author in certain ways betrays everything else when he weds himself to the blank page, a territory delimited & someone private, made to be enjoyed by one other person at a time, so that the act of reading what someone else has written — love letters are proof of this — is a kind of union or relationship, a being alone with someone else). Perec, in a metaphor he extends but doesn’t quite close:

We generally utilize the page in the larger of its two dimensions. The same goes for the bed. The bed (or, if you prefer, the page) is a rectangular space, longer than it is wide, in which, or on which, we normally lie longways. ‘Italian’ beds are only to be found in fairy tales (Tom Thumb & his brothers, or the seven daughters of the Ogre, for example) or in altogether abnormal & usually serious circumstances (mass exodus, aftermath of a bombing raid, etc.). Even when we utilize the bed the more usual way around, it’s almost always a sign of catastrophe if several people have to sleep in it. The bed is an instrument conceived for the nocturnal repose of one or two persons, but no more.

Species of Space & Other Pieces, Georges Perec, trans. John Sturrock

And finally, because writing this has reminded me of it & because I’m quilting this together out of pieces of this & that anyway, here’s a poem by Tennessee Williams:

Life Story

After you’ve been to bed together for the first time,
without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,
the other party very often says to you,
Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you,
what’s your story? And you think maybe they really and truly do

sincerely want to know your life story, and so you light up
a cigarette and begin to tell it to them, the two of you
lying together in completely relaxed positions
like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed.

You tell them your story, or as much of your story
as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, until the oh
is just an audible breath, and then of course

there’s some interruption. Slow room service comes up
with a bowl of melting ice cubes, or one of you rises to pee
and gaze at himself with mild astonishment in the bathroom mirror.
And then, the first thing you know, before you’ve had time
to pick up where you left off with your enthralling life story,
they’re telling you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to all

and you’re saying, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, the vowel at last becoming
no more than an audible sigh,
as the elevator, halfway down the corridor and a turn to the left,
draws one last, long, deep breath of exhaustion
and stops breathing forever. Then?

Well, one of you falls asleep
and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,
and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.

Tasting what you read

4 February 2010

— Contemporáneos, Alicia Martín (2002). Via cloudy1985.

I happily subscribe (yes, like a magazine) to the notion that translation is inevitably partial & in some sense insufficient, a remaking — and if you can read the language that the original’s printed in, why lapse back to your native tongue? — but I also confess that from time to time, reading Spanish fiction, I’ve thought guiltily that I’d be picking up on more things if I were reading the English version. Wanting to go back to translation feels lazy, like giving up — or maybe like surrendering your membership card, having to read in English like everyone else, people who haven’t even tried to learn how! — but it’s true that in Spanish there’s a frustrating opacity, a flat effect that I don’t feel with English. I don’t have as good a sense of the flavor of the words, I can’t taste them, even though can follow the action.

But on the bus the other day I thought to myself that it wasn’t such a surprising feeling, either. Read literary fiction & you see the writer working within or against the language (I’m glossing DeLillo, I just realized — ‘matching with the language’). You have to have a sense of how sentences look when they’re readymade, the coloring of certain words, what the clichés are, or the equivocal signalings that signify an unreliable narrator or the rhetorical flourishes adopted by pedants or what barbed overformality looks like — and in English you’ve absorbed all of these distinctions & weights & flavors from thousands upon thousands books read or alluded to. It’s easy for me to forget just how little I’ve read in Spanish. More than a half-dozen books? Certainly not more than a dozen. A dozen — stack them up and they make a sad little pile set against those thousands upon thousands of English books, the blue Hardy Boys boxed set that was the first book you ever read on your own, big doorstop Michener wheezings, those bent & thumbed Lord of the Rings paperbacks, the time in high school you didn’t like My Ántonia . . . To say nothing of the books I’d say now I love (but with those there’s always a little bit of posturing).

That’s one of the enormous disadvantages of learning Spanish like I did, by bullshitting to people over beers & teaching teenagers & watching daytime television & reading the newspaper sometimes. In this language I’m talkative but not literate. Maybe this gets compounded by the tendency, if we like to think of ourselves as well-read, to cut our teeth on, I don’t know, Cortázar or Borges (or Marías) instead of the boundless & fecund soil of run-of-the-mill fiction they sprouted from. Imagine (in belated honor of his birthday), James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man being the very first book you tried to read in English.

All of which is a long way of saying that Corazón tan blanco has been teaching me a lot of new words, in part because of the narrator’s analytic formality — saying ambos, which I’d never heard before, instead of los dos (both), calling marriage el contrato — and, mostly, in a series of sequencies mired in the past, in looking at photographs of the dead, that seem to be summoning up a more elaborated & colorful language than what was being used previously, more descriptive, using words whose mystery is perhaps unjustifiably enhanced by my unfamiliarity with them.

I don’t know if you find, as I do, that sometimes you plow through foreign language fiction & depend on context to pick up on words & that other times you find yourself looking up practically every word, suddenly sucked in to wanting to know exactly what’s being said, wanting to make sure that you’re really, really understanding what’s happening — and I don’t know whether this has to do, actually, with part of the book itself that we’re reading or whether it depends on us, on our mood, on how lost we’re willing to feel.

I’m reading with a paperback U of Chicago dictionary published the year I was born, & some words it just doesn’t have. I’ve managed to find definitions for the following after writing them down here, but with no internet at home these were mysteries to me for a week: difuminarse (softening, losing clarity, blurring); picaflor (hummingbird, known also as colibrí, pájaro-mosca, or chupamirto, but in this case, a womanizer); atezado (tanned, browned by the sun); irguiendo (raising the head, straightening the back); paulatina (gradual).

Picaflor was particularly frustrating because the narrator’s father repeats it — “yes, I said picaflor” — and the narrator later reflects that his father had been choosing his words carefully. That entire chapter, the two of them talking on the night of his wedding, is actually really well done propulsive tension even in the midst of circular digression, a momentum, a motion building up to a final word: Cuando tengas secretos o si ya los tienes, no se los cuentes. — Y, ya con la sonrisa devuelta al rostro, añadió: — Suerte.

Other examples, from my notes (I don’t know how interesting this is to anyone but me): Nudo is a knot, join, union, bond, or tie — in a play it’s the turning point. Pulcro (neat, trim), carlajada (peal of laughter), atolondrarse (to confuse, muddle, perplex — here, reflexive, it means to mingle, like in a crowd), jactado (bragged, boasted), apaciguada (appeased), silbido (a whistle or hiss).

My latest attempt to describe how Corazón tan blanco is working on me: Marías’ fiction as pearl-making. The fictional world, at first a tableau illuminated, as if by a camera flash, by a shocking & specific moment of violence, is added to & added to, filed in, elaborated, becomes more and more complex & self standing, a living thing in fits & starts, not secrets kept from us & then revealed, exactly, but entire histories that we don’t notice we’re not being told because each digression is so complete, so exhaustive. Or maybe not a single pearl, but stringing a necklace?

Constraint, ii

26 January 2010

For those of you who were interested the last time I wrote about Javier Marías’ reading at New Haven & the constraint (at least that’s what I called it) that he employs, here’s another account of the same event by Andrew Seal at Blogophia Literaria:

Finally, he [Marías] offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don’t believe he said “perfected,” but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn’t change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn’t think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as “suicidal!” He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you’re twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you’re thirty.

I’d wished before I could have been there to ask Marías in more detail, but a stereoscopic report of the answers he gave is the next best thing. It’s fascinating to see two people give such different accounts of the same thing — I know I’m reinventing the Rashomon wheel here, but still.

Seal doesn’t mention the typewriter, which honestly was the first thing that caught my eye in Crowley’s version, but his account is a nice answer to my nagging skepticism over what had before sounded to me a little like a Kerouackian scroll, writing without revision. I wrote before that the essential unit of Marías prose was the long, baroque, redoubled sentence; later I emended that to the paragraph; but now, knowing that he ‘perfects’ or ‘finishes’ a page & then moves on, it’s easier to read the long paragraphs as ‘pages,’ & the effect of the way he writes that I keep trying to describe is the same, a kind of working-out or working-through of a thing, turning it around & around in hand & reconsidering it & then setting it down & moving on to the next. And I still think the typewriter is an especially good vehicle for this kind of writing, the way the sentences are set down immovably & you have to work out what you want to say before diving into them.

All of this, at any rate, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago that turned to the idea of writing in darkness. A couple of lines from a letter Diderot wrote always come to my mind —

“This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . .. not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

— Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

— but also got me thinking about Nicholson Baker, who told the Wall Street Journal that he writes essentially the same way that his protagonist writes in A Box of Matches, at 4 a.m. on an old laptop with the background black & the letters dark blue, the screen lowered so that it’s grazing the tops of his knuckles, staring into a fire; darkness writing. For The Anthologist, though, he’d recorded a few hundred hours of tape narrating as the titular poetry anthologist & then transcribed it, to try to get the voice right.

Method of composition leaves its mark on writing — whether we write it out in longhand, whether we assemble on notecards, whether we dictate or record our own voices or type out & refuse to change pages once they’ve been perfected. I remember reading once, years ago, Walker Evans’ introduction to an edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that talked about James Agee’s ‘night writing’ . . . ah. Here it is, from google books:

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 34) is particularly night-permeated.

— “Forward,” p. vi

You could make method a kind of performance art, define in advance a method of composition for each novel, suited or at odds with the project, to capturing the voice or produce something different from what you’d written before. Dictate one novel via telephone, assemble the other out of napkins, type the third on Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, bought at auction, write the fourth with nothing but a quill pen, the fifth into your second language & then retranslated. I don’t know if constraints of writing method are the same as constraints as in Georges Perec — but aren’t the rituals of our national writers, reported on wide-eyed by journalists in the Wall Street Journal, already performative?

(Speaking of that article, headlined — really? — “How to Write a Great Novel,” here’s Margaret Atwood treating the question with the appropriate level of seriousness:

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No. I don’t have to.”)


20 January 2010

Javier Marías, in a posed photograph from 1997 that is absolutely as serious as serious could possibly be.

In which I talk about Corazon tan blanco
without actually saying anything about the novel itself.

It’s not necessarily that Javier Marías uses extravagant adverbs as a stylistic tic. Better to say, I don’t know whether they’re extravagant to an educated Spanish reader or just to me. And anyway, even though the narrator in Corazón tan blanco is a translator & has an obsessive way of spiraling around a topic or turning a thing over in his head, of seeing actions as modified, Spanish piles on the syllables more than in English. The suffix for an adverb is -mente instead of -ly.

In which I sound words out under my breath.

Maybe it’s just the margins — skinny ones, so that sometimes the adverb is a third of the line. The sentence comes to a stop, as though the serifs had gotten into a car crash. I find myself stopping to sound them out, just to hear them roll off the tongue, endless parade of consonant-&-vowel: apresuradamente, incomprensiblemente, artificiosamente, amortiguadamente, retrospectivamente, momentáneamente, incansablemente, apróximadamente, and my favorite, estereofónicamente.