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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from September 1, 2015 - September 30, 2015

Monday
Sep282015

El muerto

The well-known Borges story ("The Dead Man").  You can read the original here.

That a man from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, a sad upstart with no virtue save an infatuation with courage, would break through the equestrian deserts of the Brazilian border and reach the head of a group of smugglers initially seemed impossible. To those who see it that way I would like to relate the destiny of a certain Benjamín Otálora, of whom perhaps no memory is lost in Balvanera and who died on his own terms, from a bullet, in the confines of the Rio Grande do Sul. The details of his adventure are not known to me; once they are revealed I will have to correct and expand these pages. For the time being this summary may prove useful.

By 1891 Benjamín Otálora was nineteen years old. He was a big lad with a small forehead, light-colored, sincere eyes, and typically Basque brawn; a felicitous knife fight revealed that he was a brave man; the death of his opponent did not bother him, nor did his immediate need to flee the Republic. The leader of the parish gave him a letter for a certain Azevedo Bandeira, of Uruguay. Otálora set out, the crossing torturous and oppressive; the next day he was wandering through the streets of Montevideo in unconfessed and perhaps unexplained sadness. He did not find Azevedo Bandeira; towards midnight in a warehouse in Paso del Molino, he was present for an altercation among some cattle ranchers. A blade flashed; Otálora was not sure who was in the right, but he was attracted by the pure scent of danger like others were drawn to cards or music. During the brawl, one of the laborers stabbed a man in a poncho and dark hat below the belt; this turned out to be Azevedo Bandeira (upon learning this, Otálora ripped up the letter, preferring to keep it all to himself). However robust he may have been, Azevedo Bandeira gave the unjustifiable impression of being deformed. In his face, always a bit round, were the faces of the Jew, the African, and the Indian; in his demeanor, that of the monkey and the tiger; the scar across his face was one more adornment, just like his swinish black whiskers.

Projection or illusion of drink, the altercation ended as quickly as it had begun. Otálora tippled with the ranchers and walked them first to a party and then a large house in the Old City, the sun now quite high. In the last courtyard, which was of earth, all the men set up their things to go to sleep. Darkly, Otálora compared this night to the previous night. Now he was already walking on solid ground with friends. If he had any regrets it was that he didn't miss Buenos Aires. He slept until prayers, when he was woken up by the rancher who attacked Bandeira drunk (Otálora remembered that this man had shared in the night of tumult and jubilation and that Bandeira had sat him to his right and obliged him to keep drinking). The man said that he had been sent by the boss to look for him. At a sort of desk which led out to the hallway (Otálora had never seen a hallway with side doors) Azevedo Bandeira was waiting for him, with a thin and disdainful woman with reddish hair. Bandeira sized him up, offered him a dish of sugar cane, repeated that he seemed to him to be an enthusiastic fellow, and then proposed going north with the rest of the troops. Otálora accepted; until the early morning they were on the road heading for Tacuarembó.

It was here that a different life began for Otálora, a life of wide, almost endless dawns and workdays that had the smell of horses. This was a new life for him, and at times atrocious, but it was in his blood. For as men of other nations venerate and have presentiments about the sea, so do we (as well as the man who weaves these symbols) yearn for the endless prairie that resonates below our hooves. Otálora had grown up in the neighborhoods of drivers and landlords; a year ago he became a gaucho. He learned how to ride, get the horses accustomed to living in herds, slaughter cows, master the lasso and the ranchers who lasso, resist sleep, storms, ice, and the sun, urge on the cattle with whistles and shouts. Only one time during this whole period of apprenticeship did he see Azevedo Bandeira, but he was always present, because to be a man of Bandeira was to be respected and feared. And because, before any man, the gauchos said that Bandeira would make him better. Someone thought that Bandeira was born on the other side of the Cuareim, in the Rio Grande do Sul. This, which should have lowered him, obscurely enriched him with populous forests, with swamps, with inextricable and almost infinite distances. Gradually Otálora came to see that Bandeira had many different businesses and that the lifeblood of his operations was smuggling. To be a rancher was to be a servant; Otálora suggested that he be made a smuggler. Two members of the company were going to cross the frontier one night and return with some batches of sugar cane; Otálora provoked one of them, injured him and took his place. He was moved by ambition and also by some dark loyalty. May the man (he thought) come to understand that I am worth more than all his easterners put together.

A year passed before Otálora returned to Montevideo. They passed along the shores then the city (which seemed to Otálora to be very large), and arrived at the boss's house. The men had their equipment in the last courtyard. Days passed and Otálora did not see Bandeira. They said, fearfully, that he was sick. A dark-skinned man would go up to his bedroom with a boiler and with mate. One evening, this task was entrusted to Otálora. He felt vaguely humiliated but satisfied at the same time.

The bedroom was stripped bare and dark. There was a balcony with a view of the west wind, a large table with a dazzling mountain of Talers, bullwhips, belts, firearms, and knives, and a distant mirror fogged up by moonlight. Bandeira was lying there face up, dreaming and complaining, and the sun's persistence ultimately betrayed his contours. As Otálora noticed the grey hair, the fatigue, the cracks of age, the vast white bed seemed to diminish and obscure him. It infuriated him that this old man was their leader; he began to think that one good smash would do him in. Still immersed in thought, he saw by the mirror that someone had entered the room: it was, he observed, the red-haired woman. She was half-dressed and barefoot and was looking at him with aloof interest. Bandeira sat up. While he was prattling on about the campaign and downing mate after mate, his fingers played with the woman's braids. Finally, he allowed Otálora to leave.

Days later came the order to head north. They arrived at an abandoned outpost which was like any other place on the endless prairie. No trees, not even a stream was there to relieve them, and first light and last struck them in equal force. Quarries belonged to the farm which was horned and indigent, the name of this poor establishment being The Sigh.

Otálora heard from among the laborers that Bandeira would not be making it to Montevideo. He asked why; someone explained to him that there was a foreign gaucho who wanted a little too much power. Otálora understood this as a joke, but it flattered him anyway that this joke might indeed be possible. He later ascertained that Bandeira had made an enemy of one of the political chiefs and that the latter had rescinded his support. This news pleased him.

Then long weapons arrived in boxes; they were followed by a tankard and washbowl of silver for the woman's chamber, baskets of woven damask, baskets of knives, morning, and a cheerless horseman with a sharply clipped beard and a poncho. His name was Ulpiano Suárez and he was the capanga or bodyguard of Azevedo Bandeira. He was a man of few words and a very Brazilian manner. Otálora did not know whether to impute his reserve to hostility, disdain, or mere barbarism; what he did know was that according to the plan he was hatching, he would have to gain his friendship.

Then there entered into the destiny of Benjamín Otálora a brownish-red black-tailed horse from the Rio Grande do Sul that Azevedo Bandeira rode, and which shined from its plated tack with tiger skin trim. This unbridled steed was a symbol of the boss's authority, and for that reason the boy coveted it. He also came to desire, perhaps with some resentment, the woman with the dazzling hair. The woman, the tack, and the brownish-red steed were all attributes of the man he sought to destroy.

And here is where the story becomes more complicated and profound. Azevedo Bandeira was skilled in the art of progressive intimidation, in the Satanic maneuver of humiliating his interlocutor gradually, combining truth and jokes. Otálora decided to apply this ambiguous method to the laborious task which he gave himself. He resolved to supplant, slowly, Azevedo Bandeira. He managed, during workdays of common danger, to gain Juárez's friendship. He confided to him his plan and Suárez pledged his support. Many things would happen thereafter of which I only know a few. Otálora did not obey Bandeira; in fact, he tried to forget, correct, and reverse his orders. The universe seemed to be conspiring with him and accelerating the events. One day around noon in the fields of Tacuarembó there was a gunfight with some locals from the Rio Grande do Sul. Otálora usurped the place of Bandeira and took command of the easterners. A bullet hit him in the shoulder, but that afternoon Otálora returned to The Sigh on the chief's brownish-red horse, and that afternoon a few drops of blood stained the tiger skin, and that night he slept with the woman with the refulgent hair. Other versions changed the order of these facts and denied that they all took place in the course of a single day.

Bandeira, however, was still nominally the chief. He gave orders that were not carried out; Benjamín Otálora did not touch him out of a mix of routine and pity.

The story's final scene corresponded to the agitation on the last night of 1894. That night, the men of The Sigh ate some recently slaughtered pork and drank some troublesome liquor; someone strummed a milonga with great effort. At the head of the table and drunk, Otálora raised exultation after exultation, cheer after cheer, and this vertiginous tower was the symbol of his irresistible destiny. Bandeira, taciturn among those shouting, let the night flow along in riot. When the clock struck twelve he got up like someone who remembered an obligation. He got up and knocked softly on the woman's door. She opened immediately as if expecting his visit. She walked out half-dressed and barefoot. With a voice both feminine and groveling, the chief commanded her:

"If you and the fellow from Buenos Aires love each other so much, it's about time you gave him a kiss in front of everyone."

And here came a rather brutal twist. The woman wanted no part of this plan, but two men took her by the arm and threw her atop of Otálora. Devastated and in tears, she kissed his face and chest. Ulpiano Suárez had already taken out his revolver. Before dying, Otálora understood that they had betrayed him from the very beginning, that he had been condemned to death, that they had allowed him love, power, and triumph, because they had already taken him for dead, because for Bandeira he was already dead.

Suárez, almost with disdain, opened fire.

Friday
Sep252015

Solovyev, "Память"

A work ("Memory") by this poet.  You can read the original here.

Rush me, memory, on ageless wing
To that land my heart holds dear,
Her I see alone still smoldering
In dark winter I so fear.

Bitter pain has rent my soul in two,
And both lives are seared and burnt,
Past this nearness rises something new,
Foil to spring deceased and spurned.

Onwards, memory, on silent wing!
Other images divine!
Her I see on greenish pond’s lush ring
In the brightest summer's shine.

And our Tosna wild reflects the sun
Which these vertical shores spite.
There I see the pines of childhood run
On the deadly sands so white.

Memory, desist! All grief endured
Once again assails my soul,
Tears of sorrows past have now been lured
In a wave reborn from all.

Sunday
Sep202015

Baudelaire, "Conseils aux jeunes littérateurs"

An essay ("Some advice for young men of letters") by this French poet.  You can read the original here. 

The precepts we are about to read bear the fruit of experience, with experience implying a certain amount of blunders. Everyone has made all or nearly all of these mistakes, so I hope that the experience of others will serve to verify my own.

In other words, said precepts have no other aim than that of a vade mecum, no other utility than that of puerile and honest politeness. An enormously useful aim! Imagine a code of etiquette written by a good-hearted and intelligent Madame de Warens, or a mother teaching us the art of dressing practically! This is why I wish to infuse with brotherly tenderness these precepts dedicated to the young literati.   

ON GOOD AND BAD LUCK IN LITERARY DEBUTS 

Young writers who, when speaking of a young colleague with tones admixed with envy, say "This was a fine debut, he really was in luck," do not consider that every debut has always had precursors, and that this debut is the effect of twenty other debuts unknown to these same young writers.

In terms of establishing a reputation, I do not know that there has ever been a bolt from the blue. Rather, I think that any success comes, in arithmetic and geometric proportion to the writer's power, as the result of prior successes often invisible to the naked eye. There is a slow aggregation of molecular successes, but never miraculous or spontaneous generations.

Those who say "I've had bad luck" are those who simply have not had enough success yet and do not know it.   

Here I am taking into account the almost innumerable circumstances that envelop human desire, circumstances which have their own legitimate causes. They form a circumference in which our willpower is enclosed. But this circumference is moving, living, and turning; every day, every minute, every second it changes its circle and its center. In this way are all human desires therein cloistered; as these desires vary from moment to moment in their reciprocal game, there arise the elements of what constitutes freedom.
    
Freedom and destiny are two opposites; yet seen from far and near, they compose one desire.

This is why there is no such thing as bad luck. If you suffer misfortune, it is because you lack something: learn what this something is and study the interplay of neighboring desires and you may travel the circumference of this circle more easily.

One example from a thousand. Many writers whom I love and admire rage against current popular pulp – Eugène Sue, Paul Féval – logogriphs in action. But the talent of these people, however frivolous it may be, is not any less, and the anger of my friends does not exist, or rather, it exists to a lesser degree, because it is of lost time, the least precious thing in the world. The question is not whether the literature of the heart or of the form is superior to that which is currently popular; this is all too true, at least to me. Yet you would merely be half right until you demonstrate as much talent in the genre you wish to enter as Eugène Sue demonstrates in his own; until you ignite as much interest with new means; until you possess equal power and superior power in another sense; until you double, triple, and quadruple the dose up to an equal concentration, you no longer have the right to curse the bourgeois, because the bourgeois will be standing right next to you. Until then, vae victis! For nothing is real but that power which is supreme justice.      

ON COMPENSATION
    
However beautiful a house may be it is, first and foremost, even before its beauty may be demonstrated, a certain number of meters high and a certain number of meters long. Of literature, which is the most invaluable of materials, the same can be said: literature is first and foremost a filling-out of columns. And the literary architect whose name alone does not guarantee any profit should sell at all costs.
    
There are young people who quip: "Since this of so little value, why should I put myself to so much trouble?" They could have indulged in the finest of works; and in such a case they would only have been cheated by actual necessity, by the law of nature. They cheated themselves. Badly paid, they could still have found some honor in such a pursuit; but badly paid, they were dishonored.
    
Everything I could possibly write on this subject may be summarized by this supreme maxim which I offer to all philosophers, all historians, and all businessmen for their contemplation: Beautiful sentiments do not a fortune make!

Those who say, "Why should I kill myself for so little?" are the same who, much later, once they have gained honor and respect, intend to sell their books for two hundred francs per story line, and who, once rejected, return the next day to offer them at a 100-franc loss.

The reasonable man is the one who says: "I believe it is worth so much because I am a genius; but one has to make a few concessions. I will make them, so as to have the honor to be one of your geniuses."   
 
ON SYMPATHIES AND ANTIPATHIES

In love, like in literature, our sympathies are involuntary; nevertheless they must be verified, whereby reason also has a part to play.

True sympathies are excellent because they make two people into one; fake sympathies are detestable because they are only about one person, minus primitive indifference, which is better than hate, the necessary consequence of deception and disillusionment. 

This is why I admit and admire camaraderie, provided that it is founded on the essential commonalities of reason and temperament. It is one of the healthy manifestations of nature, one of the numerous applications of that sacred proverb: United we stand, divided we fall.

The same law of straightforwardness and naïveté must regulate our antipathies. Nevertheless, there are people who fabricate hates as much as admirations, that is, to the point of giddiness. This is highly imprudent; this means making an enemy for yourself without advantage or profit. A blow without meaning harms the intended rival no less, not to mention the harm that may befall a witness on the left or right side of the combat scene.

One day, during a fencing lesson, a creditor came to harass me; I chased him back to the staircase with my foil. Upon my return, the master-at-arms, a peaceful giant who could have thrown me to the ground just by blowing on me, said: "How you pour out your antipathy! You, a poet! You, a philosopher! Ugh!" I had wasted time when I could have made two attacks; I was winded, ashamed, and, what is more, despised by a man – the creditor – to whom I had done nothing too horrible.

Indeed, hate is a precious liquid, a dearer and more costly poison than that of Borgia, because it is made with our own blood, our health, our sleep, and two thirds of our love! With it one should be stingy!

ON INVECTIVE  

Invective should be employed only against the henchmen of error. If you are strong, attacking a strong man means losing yourself; if you are merely in disagreement on a few points, he will always be on your side on certain occasions. 
    
There are two methods of invective: a curved line, or a straight line, which is the shorter route.
    
You will find a sufficient number of examples of the curved line in the sagas of Janin. The curved line plays to the gallery, doubtless, but does not teach it anything.   
    
The straight line is now being successfully employed by several English journalists; in Paris, it has fallen into disuse. Even Granier de Cassagnac himself seems to have forgotten it. It involves saying, "Mr. X. is a dishonest man and, what is more, an imbecile; this is what I shall set out to prove" and, of course, proving it! Primo, secundo, tertio, and so forth. I recommend this method to all those who have faith in reason and hard knuckles.    
    
A failed invective is a deplorable event; it is an arrow that returns, or at least skins your hand as it departs, a bullet whose ricochet may kill you.
    
ON METHODS OF COMPOSITION
    
Nowadays one is obliged to produce a lot. We have to go fast; we have to hurry slowly; we have to make sure that all our blows land, and that not a single stroke is wasted.
    
To write quickly, one needs to have pondered the matter a great deal, lugged around a subject in one's head while out for a walk, in the bath, in a restaurant, almost even at one's mistress's place.
    
Delacroix said to me once: "Art is a thing so ideal and so fleeting that the tools are never clean enough and the means never sufficiently expedient." The same can be said of literature; I am thus no proponent of erasing or crossing out: such an action troubles the mirror of our thoughts.
    
Some of us, those most distinguished and most conscientious – Édouard Ourliac, for example – begin by taking and filling up a lot of paper; they call this covering a canvas. The goal of this confused operation is to ensure that nothing is lost. Then, each time that they recopy their work, they prune and de-branch it. The result, even if excellent, is a waste of their time and talent. Covering a canvas does not mean loading it with colors, but sketching with charcoal, or having light and transparent masses at one's disposal. The canvas must be covered in the author's mind the moment that he takes up his pen to write the title.
    
They say that Balzac filled his manuscripts and proofs in a fantastic and disorganized manner. Consequently a novel passes through a series of geneses, in which not only the unity of the sentence is dispersed but also the unity of the work. It is undoubtedly this bad method which often imbues an author's style with an element of diffusion, of being jolted or hurried, of being still a draft, all of which composes the great chronicler's single flaw.
    
ON DAILY WORK AND INSPIRATION
    
Debauchery is hardly the sister of inspiration; we have finally smashed this corruptive kinship. Rapid enervation and the weakness of certain beautiful natures bear sufficient witness against this odious prejudice.

Very substantial but regular fare is the only thing needed by prolific writers. Inspiration is decidedly the sister of daily work. These two opposites do not exclude one another any more than all the opposites in nature. Inspiration obeys, like hunger, like digestion, like sleep. In the mind there doubtless exists some kind of celestial mechanism of which one should not be ashamed; instead it is from here that we should extract the most glorious part, like doctors remove things from the mechanism of the human body. If we wish to live in opinionated contemplation of the work of tomorrow, daily work will serve as an inspiration, like a legible piece of writing serves to elucidate our thoughts, and like calm and powerful thoughts allow us to write legibly. Because the period of bad writings is long gone. 

ON POETRY   
    
As for those who successfully give themselves over or are given over to poetry, I advise them never to abandon it. Poetry is one of the arts that yield the most; but it is the type of investment whose dividends one receives very late on; that said, the dividends are very large.
    
I challenge the envious among you to quote me some verse which an editor may have destroyed.   

Morally speaking, poetry establishes a demarcation between first-rate and second-rate minds, so that even the most bourgeois readers are not spared this despotic influence. I know people who only read Gautier's serials – often the most mediocre ones – because he wrote La Comédie de la Mort. Surely they cannot perceive all the nuances of this work; but they know that he is a poet.
    
Besides, what could be surprising seeing that every man in good health could go two days without eating, but never without poetry?

Art which satisfies the most imperious of needs will always be the most honored.
    
ON CREDITORS   
    

You will no doubt recall a comedy entitled "Disorder and Genius"! If disorder has sometimes accompanied genius, all this proves is that genius is magnificently strong; unfortunately, for many young people this title expressed not an accident but a necessity.

I highly doubt that Goethe had any creditors; Hoffmann, disorganized Hoffmann, beset by the most frequent of necessities, endlessly aspired to get himself out of such a situation; he died, as it were, at the moment when longer life permitted his genius to soar with even greater brilliance.

Never have any creditors; pretend to have some if you'd like, this is all that I can pass along to you.  
    
ON MISTRESSES

If I wish to observe the law of contrasts which governs the moral order and the physical order of things, I am obliged to place in this class those women dangerous to all men of letters: the honest woman, the bluestocking, and the actress. The honest woman, because she necessarily belongs to two men, which makes her a mediocre pasture for a poet's despotic soul; the bluestocking, because she is a grown-up tomboy; and the actress, because she has been brushed by literature and speaks in jargon, in short, because she is not a woman in the full sense of the word: her public is more important to her than love.   

Can you imagine a poet in love with his wife and obliged to see her play a role in travesty? I think he would do well to set fire to the theater.

Can you imagine that writer forced to write a part for his wife who has no talent?

Yet another sweating as she tries in epigrams to convey to the audience in the foreground all the sufferings which this same audience has caused her in this most precious existence, this existence which the Easterners would place under three locks before they would come study law in Paris? Because all true men of letters detest literature from time to time, I permit you – free and proud souls, exhausted minds who always need to rest on the seventh day – only two types of women: young women or silly women; love or beef stew. Brothers, must I explain these reasons to you? 

Wednesday
Sep162015

Body Heat

You may have heard that what passes for flirtation these politically correct days – days in which, as it were, promiscuity is unprecedentedly tolerated – was once considered very good manners. That is because graces in a male-dominated society will naturally revolve around how to handle the fairer sex. Women, those soft and dainty purveyors of carnal gratification and hot meals, should merit the attention of any man in regular need of such services. And so an unspoken contract, one of billions on this earth, is underwritten; in return, a man will keep a woman plied with clothes, a nice home, and the freedom to consecrate her days to either vapid errands or, far more gloriously, absolutely nothing at all. Nothing at all? While we have often euphemized lazy, Philistine lords into "men of leisure" (men of profligate waste is more like it), our cautious contemporaries cannot abide such denomination for a certain ambitious sort of female. Women who, otherwise capable of forging their own paths, possess the monomaniacal aim of easy living and the steely will to obtain it – by means, we should add, of the right man. A hint at the stratagems afoot in this classic film

Our plot is so simple we may wonder why its simplicity does not occur to its participants; or perhaps it does and is summarily dismissed as unexciting. As we begin, Ned Racine (William Hurt), a suggestible and very single attorney, is contemplating an inferno against the clear black night. In slow incineration is the Seawater Inn, an establishment where his "family used to eat ... twenty-five years ago," a sentimental sidelight that does nothing to persuade the flavor of the week that Racine could possibly be interested in a less casual arrangement. While we will spend most of Body Heat watching him entangle himself in double-dealings beyond his myopic vista, this first scene, featuring an airport employee called in no small coincidence Angela, reveals Racine's basic dilemma: he has not managed to escape the pastures of his forefathers ("My history's burning up out here"). Perhaps owing to financial restraints, his legal education was also in Florida, a fact he will rue when confronted with a character who not only attended an Ivy League law school, but who also scarcely made use of his degree. Why was Racine – whose name is French for "root" – then articled to a local practice? Because parochialization comprises the fate of most of us, even those supremely talented or supremely well-educated. For all his good looks and sexual energy, Ned Racine is average at most everything else, including his chosen profession, and we will come to suspect he suffers from that kiss of death for lawyers: a distinct inattention to detail. Which may explain why he muffles all whistles and bells that should go off upon immediate sight of the woman known as Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner).     

Matty exudes an insouciant air which to some people smells like money and to others like sex, but which may be more properly termed ruthless ambition ("There are some men, once they get a whiff of you, they'll trail you like a hound"). Racine's pickup routine, one of the more celebrated in recent cinematic history, is never fended off by Matty, who does something a clever woman always does to an admirer: she mocks his strengths and praises his shortcomings. The method behind such an approach is brilliant, as men cannot expect compliments, especially about things they question of themselves. That is why of the four faults imputed to Racine – mental dullness, ugliness, laziness, and insatiable sexual appetite – Matty says that he doesn't look lazy, when a tendency to cut corners, both at work and at play, is precisely his tragic flaw. Whether Racine consciously cares about such a ploy, however, may be of secondary importance since, in her youth, Turner was inarguably one of the world's most voluptuous actresses, endued with a husky confidence rarely seen before or since. But Racine is also attracted to Matty Walker because he senses she, too, is someone new to the world of affluence, a person who succeeded in quitting her forefathers' pastures, if only to become the prize trophy of multimillionaire Edmund Walker (the late Richard Crenna). Many critics have alluded to Matty's odd description of Walker ("he's small and mean ... and weak") as indicative of her own deceptiveness, as Crenna was a tall, athletic man; but Matty is talking about the inner person, not the armored exterior, and in that regard Edmund Walker seems every bit the snake. A local prosecutor will later confirm Walker's unscrupulous business dealings, adding that he was a "bad guy" and that his death was "a positive thing for the world." His death? It gives nothing away to disclose that Racine and Matty embark upon the textbook definition of a 'torrid affair,' abetted in no small part by the unremitting heat. The same heat, another character comments, which makes people kill each other, with the rich, sixtyish husband of a dishy twenty-six-year-old a prime candidate for a very unfortunate accident.

Around this love triangle hover other interested parties: the aforementioned prosecutor (Ted Danson); a righteous police detective (J. A. Preston); an explosives expert (Mickey Rourke); Walker's scowling sister (Lanna Saunders); and a high school classmate of Matty's (Kim Zimmer) whose ego Racine unintentionally strokes. For differing reasons, none of these characters sees any sense in trusting Matty Walker; for other, somewhat related reasons, they think much the same of Ned Racine. Do Racine and Matty deserve one another? We ponder this destiny, and still ballot in Racine's favor: even if he is far from a perfect moral actor, some aspect of him induces pity; somehow we intuit that under different circumstances, Ned Racine would not be so liable to depravity. Yet when Matty relates, somewhat unconvincingly, all the troubles she had to overcome to find her way in life ("Whatever's the evilest thing you can think of me now, I did worse things then"), we remain unpersuaded of her redemption. There is also the unsubtle contrast of sound associated with each character: Matty's precious porch chimes, which we come to understand as a sort of alarm; and Racine's thumping, heavy-breathed runs along the sandy beaches that have always delimited his dreams. So when Matty so alluringly strolls from a concert band shell to the boardwalk, we know Racine will not be able to resist such temptation, and yet already realize that nothing good could come of such indulgence. This is why, in one scene, Ned Racine looks so out of place amidst an elevator full of lawyers: he has nothing of their drive, enthusiasm, or interest in their profession. As he says truthfully at several points, he doesn't even care about the money. All he wants is as great a distance as possible from his life hitherto, the "quick score" the prosecutor claims Racine has always sought, the chance to flee the sunny swamp that has been his entire existence. And all that Matty Walker wants is written beneath her yearbook photo.        

Sunday
Sep132015

At the Mountains of Madness

Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place.

                                                                                                            Professor William Dyer

It spoils almost nothing to mention that this classic tale of horror has been declaimed by some abler-minded cineastes as the glorious forerunner to this recent film. I have not seen Prometheus, nor do I anticipate doing so; but if its online summaries are remotely accurate, the comparison may not be specious. There would appear to be, however, at least one very important difference: regardless of the science fiction component of both works, for which I care little, the motif of At the Mountains of Madness does not involve knowledge or the discovery of the origins of mankind. Its anthem is a sheer, relentless dread at the demonic roots of our realm, at hundreds of millions of years of ignorance that dwarf those worthless atheist claims of two thousand years of deception. No, only those who admit that the ineluctable modality of the visible cannot be our only reality are not deceived by it. Which brings us to the baleful travelogue of Professor William Dyer.

Dyer introduces himself as a survivor and geologist, "forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow [his] advice." His advice, as we soon shall see, will consist of henceforth avoiding anything to do with the ice continent of Antarctica. His reason? Something which will be fleshed out in agonizing slowness over the course of our narrative, and which can only be suggested here:

The sheer appalling antiquity and lethal desolation of the place were enough to overwhelm almost any sensitive person, but added to these elements were the recent unexplained horror at the camp, and the revelations all too soon effected by the terrible mural sculptures around us. The moment we came upon a perfect section of carving, where no ambiguity of interpretation could exist, it took only a brief study to give us the hideous truth – a truth which it would be naive to claim Danforth and I had not independently suspected before, though we had carefully refrained from even hinting it to each other. There could now be no merciful doubt about the nature of the beings which had built and inhabited this monstrous dead city millions of years ago, when man's ancestors were primitive archaic mammals, and vast dinosaurs roamed the tropical steppes of Europe and Asia.

This passage leaps forward a few steps, but it typifies Dyer's attempts to caption the unearthliness he has witnessed (one quickly loses count of how often "nameless," "decadent," "horrible," "terrible," and "monstrous" recur throughout the whole story). Given that our journey is an antarctic expedition, the "recent unexplained horror at the camp" can only mean a blizzard, cannibalism, or an inhuman phenomenon. What does occur there is never really described perhaps because it is never really understood by Dyer and his much younger colleague Danforth. When, very late in our tale, two missing members of the party turn up unexpectedly, we gain more information as to the details of the rest of the party's demise, at which point, of course, it is far too late for salvation.

Why have I omitted such a wealth of detail? What city could be millions of years old if we homines sapientes were merely "primitive archaic mammals" at the time? Danforth and Dyer do "a good deal of indecisive whispering" as they wander about the South Pole in search of – and here is where our doubts accumulate.  That a group of scholars and crewmen intended on "securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent" might seem plausible if oddly ambitious; that such an expedition was sponsored by Miskatonic University, the hub of abnormal behavior in the world of this author, will explain what actually transpires, especially the enthusiasm on the part of a biology professor by the name of Lake. Lake's curiosity ("the lure of the unplumbed is stronger in certain persons than most suspect") is transmitted over radio, in what we know will be a doomed broadcast, to many of his colleagues as his party stumbles upon what can only be termed the greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind. Lake vanishes from the airwaves soon thereafter and, just as predictably, it is his camp and allies who fall victim to the "recent unexplained horror." Dyer and Danforth seek out their fellow explorers with solemn hope; this is, after all, the deadest patch of the globe, and Lake was indeed elbow-deep in – well, we don't really know, but "existing biology would have to be wholly revised." The creature or creatures in question possess attributes that promote a human fear that should not, and thankfully is not, ever fully verbalized, and about biology and its revisions we should now be silent.

Lovecraft has engendered a mass following owing to the slime-and-scare aspects of his fictional creations, but his foremost contribution remains his inimitable and gorgeous style. For perhaps precisely these reasons, At the Mountains of Madness, while clearly a work of genius, is ultimately less satisfying than his pieces on individual characters and their dark pacts. Too many turns of phrase echo prior sentiments; too many of those sentiments entail pseudoscientific reports on subjects well beyond science's scope; and too many times are we told that our author doesn't want to tell us anything at all, but is simply compelled to do so to avert further adventure in the region ("It would be tragic if any were to be allured to that realm of death and horror by the very warning meant to discourage them"). Yet our tale has been consistently included among his masterpieces adapted into various media including a much-ballyhooed screen version that, allegedly because of the release of Prometheus, has been scrapped indefinitely. The text is itself an overlapping labyrinth of ineffable shocks and wonders that results in one rather repulsive conclusion regarding those very mountains in the title. The same mountains, mind you, whose height we have been chary of discussing because much like the "specimens" that Lake uncovers, the mountains and their configurations make no sense at all. At least not to homines sapientes.

Thursday
Sep102015

Verlaine, "Dernier espoir"

A work ("Last hope") by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

Amidst the cemetery grows a tree, 
Abask in freedom's fullest sun: 
Not placed as mourning letters run,
Along a humble stone for all to see.

Be it by summer or by winter sky, 
To sit here comes a clear-voiced bird; 
So sad its song of faithful word,
For lo! This tree and bird are you and I. 

Bright memory are you, I absent fog, 
Which passing time recounts so as to log ... 
Ah, at your knees if but to live again!

Ah, life again!  But what, my beauty, then?  
Cold conquest by oblivion's my part ... 
At least tell: do I live on in your heart? 

Sunday
Sep062015

Dark City

I am necessarily skeptical of lavish praise for films that do not maintain a strict artistic agenda, and I am even more dubious about those praised almost exclusively for their visual effect. Most of these effects, you will understand, are just that – effects. Nothing real was filmed; nothing was experienced between actor and director; nothing was improvised, natural, or granted an opportunity to fail. That is the inherent shortcoming of all films which lean heavily on computer-generated imagery, as well as the one very good reason why video games in any way, shape, or form have never appealed to me. Their graphics are extraordinary, although we may admire such advances for but a few awestruck moments until we realize that what we are watching is even less real than a dream. Dreams are so real that we may remember something in our waking hours, something impossible, such as the return of childhood or a lost love, and understand that this is the memory of last night's pandemonium. An excellent way to bring us to this iconic film.

The setup is boilerplate noir: a young man (Rufus Sewell) awakes in a bathtub not knowing his name or his past. Above him a swinging light bulb suggests he may just have missed someone who could have helped to unlock those mysteries. As he rises and instinctively clothes himself (we are all quite bourgeois upon waking), he finds beside him the body of a young woman slain in what can be loosely termed a ritual manner, or at least by someone who was trying to do more than just kill her. Our protagonist lurches on tangled in webs of memories – a woman, affection, bloodletting, some other women, and innumerable flashes of scenes of chiaroscuro. He finds in short order that he cannot explain any of this, but perhaps this task will ultimately devolve to us. And after dressing in the clothes available and leaving the apartment (with doubts about his ownership of both), he then proceeds down that well-worn path of discovering himself even if this involves accepting his murderous psychosis. As he puzzles out meanings in his new realm he is immediately taken by a postcard for a place called Shell Beach. This is one of the many generic toponyms that do not reduce the significance of what is occurring into allegory so much as suggest that the namers do not quite know what is a cliché and what isn't. How could anyone who speaks English as a native language, as all the characters in Dark City seem to do, not comprehend the banality of such nomenclature? Two reasons surface to explain this dissonance: those who named these places are alien to the world that contains them, and this world is a trap.     

In time we and our protagonist become fairly sure that his name is John Murdoch. He traces his life to his wife Emma (a chubby-cheeked Jennifer Connelly), a torch singer whose recent extramarital activity may have incited him to start murdering those for whom promiscuity pays the bills. Murdoch also locates a limping doctor by the name of Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) – a namesake of one of the most notorious of all clinical patients – and a tall, handsome, and rather befuddled detective called Bumstead (William Hurt), a name which will remind some of us of an old comic strip. These four characters, representing in no coincidence the heroism, passion, science, and intuition of a tragedy, will interact and intertwine in the usual series of half-misunderstood episodes, and each encounter will add a line to our own transcript of what precisely makes the City tick. We suspect we know the tickers already. They are very probably that menacing, roving trenchcoated band known as the Strangers since they seem to be the only ones with any degree of autonomy, and exhibit a morbid interest in the fate of John Murdoch. Who or what they are does not need to be explained here; suffice it to say that in appearance they resemble an eerie hybrid of this film's species (if that is really the right word) with the wardrobe of this film's murderer. When midnight strikes – as if one could really measure a middle to this perpetual darkness – the Strangers gather in a subterranean vault that will also remind the thoughtful viewer of M.'s cavern of confrontation and set in motion a giant machine that resembles a human face. The result is an altered surface world, in which all the beings that dwell therein are lulled into deepest slumber, at which point the Strangers decide, almost haphazardly by all indications, that the surface-dwellers' existence should change. To this end they enlist the good Dr. Schreber, who happens to be very handy with a vast arsenal of needles and potions.

Most reviews would now proceed to comment on the why and how of the city's machinations, but that would be giving too much away. Are there profound philosophical questions to be pondered? There are indeed; and yet the aim of the plot's structure, which is plain if ingenious in its plainness, allows us to consider only four. What is the nature of memory, that is to say, why do we remember? Are our personalities constructed upon what we remember or what we believe? How can we be sure that what we remembered actually happened to us, or at least whether it happened to us in exactly the way we think we remember (a corollary would be why do we sometimes recall the same event from two or more different points of view)? And finally, what does our interaction in the slowly dissipating "present reality" do to our memories, does it enhance or detract from them? These are certainly fascinating queries that will, in all likelihood, remain for all of history unanswerable. Dark City does not want to answer them; indeed, its reluctance to do so is one of its most redemptive characteristics. Yet it provides us with a scenario in which each is in fact answered intelligently and coherently, without aggregate simplification, a scenario that accounts for the Strangers, for Emma, for Schreber and Bumstead, and even for most of John Murdoch.

Why is Dark City better than similarly styled works about reality and unreality? Because unlike some much-ballyhooed vehicles which are really just pulp with choreographed fighting (one of cinema's most hideous additaments) and desperate lunges at philosophy about as profound as a contact lens, Dark City faithfully orchestrates a nightmare based on a few old German movies from the 1920s and then maybe this perplexing classic. The texture, and here I echo literally dozens of critics, is so palpable and seamless as to seem realer than reality, which is exactly the sensation of our worst nightmares when we are still in their thrall. There are so many wonderful moments – a scene in which water seems to spill into outer space and yet still accumulate, the look that Murdoch gives one particularly devastating lady of the night before making a crucial decision, the first glimpse at Shell Beach as it resonates in Murdoch's memory, one couple's gentrification literally overnight – that we fairly swoon at the craftsmanship. At length one unbelievable shot towards the end of our tale will eclipse all other shots and all other ideas, and when it first appears, it quickly becomes one of the most breathtaking in the history of cinema. You will know what I mean, and you will gasp in aesthetic awe if you haven't already guessed the secret of the eternal night and how it may be conquered.  Quod nulla nux interpolet, fideque jugi luceat.

Thursday
Sep032015

Port Mungo

Many years ago in a graduate school far, far away, a visiting professor with decidedly limited English inflicted upon his first class's sensibilities a simple dichotomy: all novels are either historical or psychological. The manner in which he gurgled these words (I shall not reveal his provenance for any sum) as well as the hesitance he displayed in convincing us of this brilliant theory remain with me as an example of many things, one of which is that simple thoughts bereft of any subtlety or qualification often smack the nail into the board with astounding accuracy. In other words, a work of art may draw its power from within or without. You know all too well about the latter: the torrid wartime romance, with fates cloven as the battlefield expands and misunderstandings multiplied in the face of increasing danger, as all the while death and history conspire to keep two sweet lovers apart. With very, very few exceptions, most works tailored on this pattern are of a very thin and flimsy fabric. The protagonists love like any other couple loves, but we are supposed to find them infinitely more tragic because they may be killed at any moment and because history, that sentinel of sorrow, will hurt them as it has hurt billions of others. Yet the saddest events in one's life are always personal, always unshared, always unimportant to anyone except the sufferer. And private tragedies inform and steer every line of this novel.

Our narrator will be revealed slowly; that is to say, we know her as Gin Rathbone, a solitary Englishwoman and long-time New Yorker now in her seventies, but her motives for composition remain obscure. We also know before we are even informed that Gin is the type of person born to refract, not to shine. At first she may be seeking to vindicate her beloved brother Jack ("the most remarkable event of my life has been Jack himself"), now dead and forgotten by the artistic world whose adulation he once sought. A later reason develops somewhere towards the middle of the story, and we sense it is a mere contrivance for the sake of padded plot, a peccadillo but not a rarity in serious literature. Still, without this odd shunting the engine of our narrative remains decidedly cold. Cold until we find a young and unsung Jack Rathbone enamored with a mildly older woman by the name of Vera Savage. 

Vera, like Jack, belongs to that generation of souls that does not evince any tenderness towards its predecessors yet is consumed by an urge to ponder its own profundity. In short, the embodiment of the smug, ignorant modern artist. And while her portrait will be edited throughout the novel, stopping like some anti-Vera Expo at every stall of her defamation, her initial appearance is damning enough:

Jack liked the look of her at once, this was clear, and for this reason: she dressed like a prostitute. She stood there at the podium, a loud, bosomy woman in a tight dress and pancake make-up, one hand cocked akimbo on her hip and the other flapping the air as she spoke to us with a kind of hoarse nervous bravado, and I remember thinking her opinionated and not very clean, nor entirely sober. Her hair was the color of coal, her lips were scarlet and she had lost a tooth, whose absence lent her a distinctly menacing aspect when she grinned. What was it she talked about? Much of it I have forgotten; but I know she told us how pointless it was to attend art school, which raised a cheer, and then she spoke about inspiration, and how travel, drink, the colour black, bodies of water − passion − these were the sorts of things that inspired her. 

It is of no small coincidence that I too have been inspired by precisely these "sorts of things," as they remain key components of any Romantic's toolkit − but I digress. The description goes on to quote Vera, who seems so opposite to the plain, emotionless Gin as can only happen in fiction, that "a real artist would sooner let her children starve than work at anything but her art." As Port Mungo arrives at an explanation of its title, a dingy Central American backwater that inspires Jack to form the single-student school of "tropicalism" or "malarial," we begin to understand the basic dichotomy: we all have creative desires, but for the vast majority of us these will be quenched in the production of smaller beings who will become the vessels of our hopes. For someone who thinks himself able to add to the pantheon of great art, however, children seem too common, too unruly, and too unpredictable to appeal to his one-tracked mind.   

Yet this is precisely what a "real artist" would never do. A "real artist" may and should shirk a mindless job, the material pleasures of expensive food and clothing and luxury items, and the conformist ideas that proclaim that life is to be lived for the sake of instant gratification. Why? Because real art predicates only two things: beauty and pity. And to us there is nothing more beautiful and vulnerable than a child, any child, but especially one that owes its existence to our own seed. A child is the greatest work of art we can produce, because man is superior to his doodles, his tracts, and his tunes, and herein lies the tragedy of all artists. They cannot better nature in its mountains and canyons, even if perhaps that was never quite their ambition; yet a true artist gains his foothold when he realizes that a child's hair is more valuable than any book ever written, and the ripping squeal of a newborn baby more marvelous than any aria or sonnet. Such is, in essence, the main theme of Port Mungo, which has many dirty ideas and many dirty ways to imply those ideas without making them explicit. We get Vera's negligence of the couple's two daughters, Peg and Anna, both of whom will be separated from their parents, one for good and one across an ocean; Gerald, the eldest, most successful, and most genteel of the three Rathbone siblings, who steps in and makes a very important decision; Antonella, an Italian model for some of Jack's finer work; Johnny Hague, another white resident of the Mungo, Vera's sporadic lover, and, in a strange way, Jack's alter ego; and Eduardo, a sexually ambiguous and manipulative sculptor whose stealth somehow reminds us of our narrator. The action moves from England to New York and the Port with the retrospective sweep of a long-stifled confession. The only question will be the crime, and about that we are obliged to keep comfortably mum.    

McGrath's style is spiteful, gloomy, and fantastically crisp; it also harbors an insatiable curiosity for the reasons of the human soul, which are infinite. He lingers on the dark psychology that is never insinuated, however hard he may try, in Banville's mannerist fables, and such attention to our ticking impulses makes some of the revolting subject matter that inhabits his dark halls all the more amazing to visualize. I shall never forgive McGrath for a short story (also featuring the name Mungo) he once wrote about a priest in a style so magnificent that the abomination of its contents would convince even the staunchest non-believer of its infernal origins. But we can overlook the monotony of Port Mungo's alleged plot − rarely has such a beautiful shawl been wound about such bony shoulders − and revel in the polish and texture of this wretched little realm. I suppose it is amusing that the names Gin and Jack echo the alcoholism rampant throughout the novel, and that Vera is supposed to furnish the savage truth, the comeuppance. In this last respect, as opposed to many other facets of her chosen exile, she does not fail. In vino veritas, indeed.