Monday, November 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Voices from the Dead (on Harry Mulisch's Siegfried)


With the death on Saturday of the great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, I thought it would be appropriate to repost an essay I wrote on his novel, Siegfried, which I reviewed when the English language edition appeared in 2003.


Voices from the Dead
by Douglas Messerli

Harry Mulisch Siegfried (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2001)
Harry Mulisch Siegfried, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (New York: Viking, 2003)

For more than a third of Harry Mulisch’s 2001 fiction Siegfried the reader is immersed in the terrifying confessions of an elderly Austrian couple. The narrator of most of this fiction, Rudolf Herter—a world-renowned Dutch novelist—has been invited to Vienna to lecture and read from his work. During a radio interview granted the day before the lecture, Herter is sidetracked in his discussions to consider the issue of fiction as representation as opposed to historical representation, which, in turn, leads him to the conclusion that perhaps the only way to get at the nature of a hateful figure such as Hitler is to “capture” him in fiction.

Over the next several hours and day he becomes almost obsessed with the idea of attempting to understand Hitler, not through a “political, historical, economic, psychological, theological, occult representation,” but by exploring the inexplicable beginning with a “highly fantastic but not impossible fact and mov[ing] from mental reality into social reality,” “not from the bottom up but from the top down.”

After his lecture-reading, an unpresuming Austrian couple who have heard the interview introduces themselves, expressing their desire to tell him a secret about Hitler never before revealed. He agrees to meet them the next day at an old-people’s home in the Vienna suburbs where they live. Over the next eight chapters, the Falks, swearing Herter to secrecy for the remainder of their lives, slowly confess to their involvement in a horrendous Nazi atrocity that perhaps more clearly reveals Hitler than any other incident. Through a series of political accidents and coincidences, the Falks have found themselves working as personal attendants for Hitler and Eva Braun at the renowned Berghof fortress. The Falks gradually describe events surrounding the notorious couple, culminating in their revelation that when Eva becomes pregnant with Hitler’s son, the Falks are asked to adopt and care for him as if he was their own.

Through a series of carefully timed travels and preplanned scenarios, Hitler’s son, Siegfried, is born and given over to the Falks. Although Eva continues to be near and watches over the child’s upbringing, the Falks become Siggi’s parents, allowing them, accordingly, greater access to knowledge of some of the terrible secrets of Hitler’s household, information with which any fiction writer seeking to write on the subject could not but be utterly fascinated.

As German cities are increasingly destroyed, however, and Hitler and his officers progress further and further in their mad plots to destroy all Jews, a horrible command is relayed from Hitler through Bormann that Falk must kill Siggi, the boy he now perceives almost as his own son. With no choice other than death to him and his wife and possibly their families as well—deaths which, moreover, would not alter the inevitable murder of the boy—Falk shoots Siegfried at the Berghof rifle range, framing it as an accident.

The events described by the Falks drive Herter later that afternoon into a kind of intellectual madness as he attempts to comprehend Hitler—within the context the philosophies and life events of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner—as an Antichrist of “nothingness.” Like many believers in conspiracy theories, Herter makes improbable links between ideas and events such Nietzsche’s warnings about such an “Antichrist” in his writings (“One may deliver the young criminal to me; I shall not hesitate to destroy him…”) and the philosopher’s subsequent madness at the very moment of Hitler’s birth; connects Wagner’s hatred of Jews with the “Final Solution”; and links Hitler’s birthplace “Braunau” with the color of Nazi “brownshirts,” the Munich headquarters, the “Brown House,” and everything else of that color: “Brown did not occur in the spectrum; it was a shit color that was created when you smeared all the colors of the spectrum together on a palette—and that thought reminded him of something that explained everything seamlessly. In Dr. Wille’s clinic, the duty doctor noted of Nietzsche in the month of Hitler’s birth, “Often smears feces.—Wraps feces in paper; and places them in drawer.—Once rubs feces on leg like ointment.—Eats feces.”

Herter’s younger companion, unable to comprehend the ravings that have overtaken her lover, insists that he rest before their airplane ride home.

So far in this fiction readers have perhaps willingly followed along with a story that the narrator-author—seemingly inseparable from Mulisch himself—has predicted: a fiction revealing “highly fantastic but not impossible fact and mov[ing] from mental reality into social reality.” The shift to the more wildly conjectured “coincidences” of historical and philosophical facts, however, radically alters the direction of Mulisch’s fiction. Even if one were to accept the Falks’ shocking revelations as “fictional fact,” it is more difficult to respond to the tenuously posited linkings and associations of the narrator’s mind. In a sense, the reader has the feeling that not only, perhaps, has the character become somewhat mentally unhinged, but—since it is difficult to separate him from the author—the author has also begun to lose control of his narrative, spewing out somewhat irrational ideas that have long been held within. Given the normal precision of Mulisch’s writing, one reads Herter’s disjunctive associations with some sense of embarrassment. What are we to make of these rambling connections of fiction and fact?

Even though he recognizes that the author’s subject is one that can only illicit irrational reactions—as the author suggests, Hitler is after all a singular figure of evil, unlike even Nero or other such destructive beings—the next section of this short fiction propels the reader into stranger terrain. Purporting to be a previously unknown diary of Eva Braun—destroyed in the raging fire that killed her and new groom, Hitler—these fragments relay the stories behind the reasons why Hitler murdered his only son and why he married Eva on the eve of their deaths. Eva’s writings indicate that Himmler (or perhaps another disaffected Nazi henchman) had created a dossier on Eva and her family that (falsely) indicated that she was one-eighth Jewish.

Hitler had no choice, he claims, but to destroy the child so that he could never come to power. Eva, attempting to understand how being even one-eighth Jewish could have had any effect on his being, Hitler—like all insane believers throughout history who argue for a racial-purity—argues, as if from rational logic:

“An eighth!” he shouted contemptuously. “An eighth!
Birdbrain! Why don’t you read a book occasionally in-
stead of just fashion magazines? Then you would know that
every generation throws up a full Jew according to Mendel’s
principles.”

Hitler marries Eva primarily to placate her, to compensate, so to speak, for her loss.
Strangely, this impossible narrative told from the viewpoint of a woman who loved this monster even after he destroyed her own flesh and blood, makes Hitler all the more human, portrays him as a monstrous bigot, perhaps, but still as a man who, believing in principles, is betrayed by the faith he has put in those he has gathered near him. In a sense, Eva’s fictional diary disputes the metaphysical posturing of Herter’s recent diatribe.

As if Mulisch had not yet created enough dilemmas for the now somewhat confused reader—a reader who has begun to wonder, perhaps, from where the voices of this fiction emanate—the author tells us in the last scene that Herter’s companion Maria returns to the room to find him dead. The only remnant of any stories with which the reader has been presented—other than his somewhat mad conversations with Maria—is a strange cry Herter’s tape recorder has captured: “…he…he…he is here...,” similar to an outcry that Julia Falk has heard from Hitler during a nightmare.

Accordingly, we have to wonder who has spoken the words of this book: the narrator who has been told the Falks’s story, promising to keep it secret, is now dead; Eva Braun’s diary—even if it had truly existed—supposedly was destroyed with her death. Granted, Siegfried, the book I hold in my hands, is a fiction, nonetheless the voices the author has portrayed as relating the substance of this work are by fiction’s end all dead. One has the strange feeling that the highly fantastic recounting one has just experienced has been wiped away in the process of its telling. And we are left, like Herter, with a terrifying vacuum, a story told by the dead.

In part, I suppose, it depends upon how the reader interprets Herter’s cry in the dark; who is the he which so terrifies him in his sleep: Hitler? Satan himself? The angel of death? Perhaps the author comes to wipe away the fiction he has just told in order that “something” or “someone” will not be created out of the “nothingness” that destroyed so many millions of human beings?

Throughout the fiction, Maria and others warn Herter/Mulisch that in attempting to “net” Hitler he may also humanize him and even allow him to be conceived as a sort of anti-hero. Doubting the sanity of our now dead narrator, and left with no one to confirm or deny what we have just overheard (actually “over-read”), Hitler remains a cipher, a true zero. And we have no choice but to rub our eyes as if in completing this tale we have just awakened from a deep sleep.

Los Angeles, July 10, 2003

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Responsible Parties (on Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach)


Responsible Parties
by Douglas Messerli

Eliseo Alberto Caracol Beach, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (New York: Knopf, 2000)

At the heart of Eliseo Alberto’s terrifying and mesmerizing novel, Caracol Beach, first published in English in 2000, is a mad ex-soldier, Alberto Beto Milanés, a man of Cuban descent who fought in Ibondá de Akú, Angola in a Cuban detachment, of which he was the only survivor. Plagued by horrifying memories of his fellow soldiers and a seemingly real, if invisible, Bengal tiger, Beto Milanés, who has tried and failed at suicide, is determined to find others to help him die.

By coincidence a group of students just graduated from the nearby Emerson Institute, have traveled to the nearby wealthy spit of land named Caracol Beach in Florida to celebrate at the home of their fellow classmate, Martin Lowell, who has invited his friends to the house without his parent’s knowledge. Martin, the best student at the Institute, has just discovered his love for a young girl, Laura Fontanet, of Cuban heritage. She is also the girlfriend of the school athlete, Tom Chávez, and a rivalry between the two boys lies at the heart of their concerted effort to save her life when she is later threatened by the ex-soldier.

In short, the series of events which ends so sadly with the deaths of both boys (deaths foretold and reported throughout even the earliest chapters of this fiction) seems terribly random. Had they only not run of beer and wine, had they only not happened to visit the liquor store at the same moment that Beto Milanés was prowling the neighborhood, had they simply refused to go along with the mad man’s horrible demands, had the local Sherriff, Sam Ramos, been in his office instead of a new deputy, Wellington Perales, when the calls concerning the boys’ activities first came through….if only.... At first this tale seems so utterly meaningless, a series of random encounters which end in a tragedy and painful memories that later lead others to self-destruction as well. But it is at precisely this point that novelist Alberto, the son of the great Cuban poet Diego Alberto, makes it clear that his fiction is not a thinly-veiled retelling of real events, that it is not even a truly realist fiction.

Caracol Beach, in fact, had its roots in Gabriel García Marquez’s script-writing course at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba in 1989. As the assistant for that course, Alberto shared stories with the students, one of which, a tale in which young Puerto Ricans were pursued for an entire night by an unknown assailant, clearly became the embryonic center of this novel. In the class, various students suggested wild alternatives for the attending plot, including suggestions for the inclusion of an Armenian, a drug addict, a Bengal tiger, and other elements, many of which found their way into Alberto’s work of 1998.

And parallel to its development, one might argue, Caracol Beach is not at all a story of random acts, but like the collaborative process which helped bring it to life, is ultimately a story of tightly interlinked events, of human actions and failures that are so interwoven that, at the close of this story, one sees the young boys’ deaths as strangely fated.

The mad ex-soldier, first of all, is not just a misfit who has found his way to the Beach salvage yard where he lives. Ramos, a former soldier himself, was the man who watched over the recovery of Beto Milanés, and developed such a close relationship with the unfortunate young man, that when it came time to part ways, the survivor felt betrayed. It is not entirely accidental, accordingly, that when Ramon retires from the army and comes to work at the Caracol Beach Police Department, that the young soldier has moved nearby. Perhaps if Ramos, instead of ignoring the suicidal soldier had befriended him again, Beto Milanés’ killing may have been prevented.

But Ramon, himself, has problems. The night of these events he is not only busy training a clearly inept new deputy, the son of another army buddy, but is plagued by the behavior of his own son, Nelson (who uses the name Mandy), a transvestite who he has not seen for weeks, and who, as a judo and black-belt expert has not only just beaten his own lover, Tigran Androsian, but attacked a man who attempts to make advances toward him at the local bowling alley and bar. It is this series of events, along with the nuisance call by the town busybody, Mrs. Dickinson, that takes Ramos away from his desk during the crucial hours during which the young boys are forced by the soldier to destroy an automobile, kill a dog, and attack a prostitute, Gigi Col, a friend of Mandy’s and Tigran (it is notable that the mad soldier’s son was also a prostitute). And it is Ramos’ decision to visit his estranged son that puts the young deputy in charge of the attack upon two boys who enter the junkyard to save their beloved Laura.

Laura, who is at the center of the boys’ world at the moment of these events, is, herself, a kind of lost soul, having witnessed as a child the wasting away of her Cuban-born mother, a woman she imagined watching over her when she was young, and who, herself, loved to visit Caracol Beach. As she enters the area to attend the party, she conjures up the mother, pounding at the car window to tell her not to go to the Martin home.

The wealth of Martin’s parents, moreover, draws these young people to his home, and the parent’s evident permissiveness, expressed in a telephone conversation never received by Martin, suggests that, despite Martin’s own previous sense of responsibility, they might have attended more to his whereabouts that night.

The school gym teacher, Agnes MacLarty, invited to the party at Caracol Beach, and who had had a sexual relationship with her student Tom, might have been able to protect her charges from their destinies; but that night she had a date with a charming poet and scholar (he has written a thesis on the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas), Theo Uzcanga, whom she later marries.
In short, as the lover of astronomy, Alberto Beto Milanés, might have said, the events of that night of June 20, 1994, were “in the stars.”

As the author himself makes clear, particularly in the passage where Martin and Tom enter the junkyard, fighting each other for a few moments in a combat that encompasses their desires to save Laura, to retreat, and to turn to one another in love:

When Martin turned and began his retreat, Tom suddenly tackled him and
they both rolled down the slope of wrecked metal in the auto salvage yard.
They fought hard and senselessly and with love. How can that terrible moment
be described if neither of them lived to tell about it?


With that remarkable questioning of his own narrative techniques, Alberto retreats from his seemingly objective narration (something he does numerous times throughout the book) to question not only his authorial motives, but the meaning of it all.

Would it be better to use this page to reflect on the indecency of wars,
which do not end when the politicians sign their peace treaties but live
on in the survivors, the victims of an arduous campaign that still goes
on inside each one of them, between their guts and their hearts?
…But does that make sense? What good would it do? Tom and Martin
won’t read this book: if the document exists, this fiction about facts, it
is because they could not rely on the shield of letters, sentences, para-
graphs, parapets of words. The only way to change destiny would be to
lie, and not even a lie would save men: death, too, is a tyrant.

Alberto here defends fiction as an act of imagination rather than a telling of historical or political truth, which he recognizes would have to be a kind of lie. Life does not represent, after all, an orderly pattern of experience, but is a “totality of coincidences. And accidents” that includes everyone. It is only through the imagination, through a recreation of reality, that forgiveness and redemption can be found.

This is, at last, a novel of just such redemption. Mandy and her lover return to their relationship, with Ramos’ blessing. Agnes MacLarty, at book’s end, is pregnant with her second child. Laura, after a period of psychological recovery, is studying psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. When one of Tom and Martin’s young friends is caught up in depression and joins a religious sect, the Children of Heaven, which brings him to the edge of suicide, Ramos, Uzcanga, officer Wellington Perales, Laura’s father, and the headmaster of the Emerson Institute secretly travel to Utah, attacking the “monastery” and rescuing the boy.

Out of these seemingly meaningless deaths grows the awareness within the community of Caracol Beach that everyone is in some way responsible and that they need to admit their failures, forgiving one another and themselves. Perhaps more than any novel since Heimito von Doderer's Everyman a Murderer, Alberto's Caracoal Beach recognizes that we are all, in small way, "responsible parties." By novel’s end, fortunately, “clemency” is finally realized—if only as crossword puzzle word—and mercy is awarded for those who have survived.

Los Angeles, August 2, 2000

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Miguel Delibes | "Azarias" from The Holy Innocents

Miguel Delibes
"Azarias" from The Holy Innocents
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Deveny


Azarias's attitude bothered his sister Regula, and she scolded him, and then he returned to Jara, to the master, who was bothered by Azarias's attitude because she hoped that the kids would become educated, something that her brother thought was an error, since,
then they won't be good for anything,

he pontificated with his misty and slightly nasal tone of voice,

and on the other hand, in Jara, where the master was, no one worried if one or another knew how to read or write, or if they were learned or unlearned, or if Azarias roamed about from one place to another, with his patched corduroy pants down to the back of the knees, his fly without any buttons, murmuring and with bare feet, and even if suddenly he went over to his sisters and the master asked for him and they answered,

he went over to his sister's, master,

the master, so strong, didn't get upset, maybe he imperceptibly raised a shoulder, the left one, but he didn't inquire any more, nor did he comment on the news; when he returned, just as he was,

Azarias is back now, master,

and the master forced a half smile and that was that, since the only thing that exasperated the master was that Azarias affirmed that he was one year older than the master, since in reality, Azarias was already a boy when the master was born, but Azarias didn't remember that, and if on occasion he affirmed that he was one year older than the master it was because Dacio, the pigherd, told him so one New Year's Eve when he was going around a little tipsy, and it stuck in Azarias's head, and as often as they would ask him,

how old are you, Azarias?

he would respond,

exactly one year older than the master,

but it wasn't out of malice, nor out of a pleasure for lying, but rather out of pure childishness, since it wasn't right that the master complain about that and call him a rascal , and it wasn't fair either, since Azarias, in exchange for wandering around the ranch all God's day, murmuring and sort of chewing nothing, looking intently at his fingernails on his right hand, he would shine the master's car with a yellow cloth and he would unscrew the valve stem caps on the cars of the master's friends so that the master would never be lacking the day that things started to go poorly and things got scarce, and as if that were not enough, Azarias took care of the dogs, the pointer and the setter, and the three foxhounds, and if, in the wee hours of the night, the shepherd's mastiff began to howl in the middle of the oak grove, and the ranch dogs made a racket, he, Azarias, would calm them down with good words, he would pet them insistently between their eyes until they calmed down and would sleep, and with the first light, he would go out onto the patio, and stretching himself, he would open the gate and would let the turkeys loose in the oak grove, in back of the hedges, protected by the metal fence, and then he would clean the chicken dung from the coops, and when he finished, water the geraniums and the willow tree, and tidy up the owl's pen and caress him between his ears, and as night began to fall, everyone knew, Azarias, sitting on the three-legged stool near the fire in the desolate entrance way plucked the feathers from partridges or woodcocks or turtledoves, or pin-tailed sand grouses retrieved by the master during the day, and frequently, if there were an abundant number of birds, he would reserve one for the goshawk, so that the owl, each time that he saw him appear, would envelope him in his yellow round gaze, and would chatter with his beak, as if he were aroused, all out of spontaneous affection, and he would hiss like a cat at everyone else, including the master, and he would bear his claws, whereas he distinguished him, since rarely a night would go by that he didn't treat him, when lacking a more exquisite morsel, with a magpie or a buzzard or a half dozen sparrows that were trapped with a birdlime on the pond where the carp were, or who knows what, but in any case, Azarias called him the Grand Duke, everytime that he got close to him making his voice velvety smooth,

pretty goshawk, pretty goshawk,

and he scratched him between the eyes, and he smiled at him with his toothless gums, and in case he tied him so that the master or the mistress or the friends of the master or the friends of the mistress could entertain themselves, shooting at eagles or rooks through the embrasure, hidden in the hunting blind, Azarias rolled a piece of red flannel on his right foot so that the chain would not do him any harm, and as long as the master or the mistress or the friends of the master or the friends of the mistress stayed inside the hunting blind, he waited, squatting in the bushes, underneath the roof of the lookout tower, watching after him, shaking like a green stem, and even though he was a like hard of hearing, he heard the dry bangs of the detonations, and he shook and closed his eyes at each one, and when he opened them again, he looked toward the owl, and when he saw him unharmed, sitting straight and defiant, making himself like a shield, over the stone, he was proud of him, and moved, he said to himself,

pretty goshawk,

and he felt a vehement desire to scratch him between the ears and, as soon as the master or the mistress or the friends of the master or the friends of the mistress became tired of killing buzzards and rooks and came out of the hunting blind stretching themselves and restoring the feeling in their limbs as if they had abandoned a mine shaft, he would approach the Great Duke, moving his jaw up and down, as if he chewed something, and the owl, then, overflowed with satisfaction, fluffed himself up like a peacock and Azarias smiled at him,

you didn't act cowardly, goshawk,

he said to him,

and he scratched him between the eyes to reward him, and later, he picked up the downed eagles from the ground, one after another, he hung them on the hanger, he carefully unchained the owl, he put him into the large cage with wooden bars, he threw it over his shoulder, and ever so softly he took off toward the ranch house without waiting for the master or the mistress or the friends of the master or the friends of the mistress who walked slowly, wearily down the path behind him, chatting about their things and laughing without rhyme ot reason, and as soom as he arrived at the house, Azarias hung the hanger from the thick beam in the entrance way, and as soon as it became dark, he squatted down on the pebbles of the patio, and in the white light of the moon, he plucked a buzzard and took it to the window of the pen and,

ooooh,

he said,

making his voice solemn, searching for the darkest tone, and in a minute, the owl raised itself up to the grating without making a noise, in a paused a smooth fluttering, like cotton, and said in turn,

ooooh,

like an echo of the ooooh of Azarias, an echo from beyond the grave, and right away, grabbed the buzzard with his enormous claws and devoured it silently in the blink of an eye and Azarias

watched him eat with a slobbering smile, and he muttered,

pretty goshawk, pretty goshawk,

and as soon as the Great Duke had concluded his feast, Azarias walked over to the shed, where the friends of the master or the friends of the mistress parked their cars, and patiently, he would unscrew the valve stem caps with clumsy movements of his fingers, and when he finished, he put them together with the others that he kept in the shoe box, in the stable, and he sat on the ground and began to count them,

one, two, three, four, five

and when he got to eleven, he invariably said,

forty-three, forty-four, forty-five . . .,

and then he went out to the corral, already in the dark, and in the corner, he urinated on his hands so they wouldn't crack, and he fanned the air for awhile so that they would air out, and he did the same thing day after day, month after month, year after year, all his life, but in spite of this methodic routine, some mornings, Azarias would wake up limp and almost fiberless, as if during the night, someone had taken out his skeleton, and those days, he would clean out the chicken coops, nor would he give the dogs their food, nor would he clean out under the owl's pen, but rather he would go out into the countryside and would lie down under the cover of the pigsties, and if by chance the sun shone too hot, in the shade of arbutus, when Dacio asked him,
what's the matter with you, Azrias?,

he,

I'm feeling lazy, you see,

and in that way, he would spend free time, and if the master ran into him and asked him,

what's the matter, man of God?

Azarias the same answer,

I'm feeling lazy, I'm telling you, master, without changing expression stretched out on the spurge flax, motionless, folded over himself, his thighs in his gut, his elbows on his chest, chewing some saliva or softly murmuring, like a pup keen on suckling, staring at the greenish-blue line of the mountains outlined against the sky, and the round huts of the shepherds and the Deer Range (where Portugal was on the other side) and the rocky ground covered with boulders like giant turtles, and the noisy and extended flight of the cranes on the way back from the marsh and the merino sheep marauding with their offspring, and if by chance Damaso , the Shepherd, passed by, and said to him,

Something the matter, Azarias?,

he,

I'm feeling lazy, you see,

and in that way time passed until a sudden pressure occurred unexpectedly and he had a bowel movement at the edge of the arbutus or in the dark crack of some rocky ground, and as he relieved himself, his energy slowly came back to him, and once recovered, his first reaction was to go over to the owl and say to him sweetly through the grating,

pretty goshawk,

and the owl kept fluffing himself up and chattering with his curved beak, until Azarias would
reward him with a baby eagle or a plucked magpie, and while he devoured it, Azarias, in order to gain time, would go over to the stable, sit on the ground and begin to count the valve stem caps in the box,

one, two, three, four, five . . .

unitl he got eleven, and then he said,

forty-three, forty-four, forty-five,

and when he finished, he covered the box with its top, and stayed a long time observing the short fingernails on his right hand, moving his jaw up and down and mumbling unintelligible words, and suddenly, he decided,

I'm going over to my sister's

and on the porch, he came face to face with the master, lazily resting in the easy chair, half-asleep,

I'm going over to my sister's, master,

and the master imperceptibly raised his left shoulder, and

go with God, Azarias,

and he went off to the other ranch, to his sister's, and she, Regula, as soon as she opened the gate for him,

what brings you here, if I might ask?

and Azarias,

how are the kids?

and she,

oh, they're in school, where do you want them to be?

and he, Azarias, stuck out the thick, pink tip of his tongue, and withdrew it, savoured it a while
and said at last,

that's too bad for you, because later they be good for anything

and Regula,

oh, and did I ask your opinion?

but as soon as the sun had set, Azarias became drowsy watching coals, chewing nothing, and after a while, he raised his head and suddenly said,

tomorrow I'm going back to master's

and before daybreak, as soon as an orange line came up on the firmament delineating the outline of the sierra, Azurias had already hit the trail, and four hours later, sweaty and hungry, as soon as he heard Lupe open the great bolt on the gate, he already began,

pretty goshawk, pretty goshawk,

again and again without stopping, and not even a good morning to Lup, the Pigherd, and maybe the master was still in bed, resting, but as soon as he appeared at noon in the hall, Lupe gave him the news,

Azarias came in early this morning, master,

and the master squinted his sleepy eyes,

alright,

he said,

and he raised his left shoulder, as if resigned, or surprised, although Azarias could already be heard sweeping the coops or washing out the pen of the Great Duke and dragging the bucket through the gravel-covered patio, and in that way, the weeks went by until one fine day, at the beginning of spring, Azarias was transformed, a slow, ineffable smile came to his lips, and when the sun set, instead of counting the valve stem caps, he grabbed the owl and went out with him to the oak grove, and the enormous bird, motionless, perched on his forearm, looked over th surroundings, and as soon as it got dark, took off with a bland and silent flight and returned after a short time with a rat in its claws or a finch and right there, next to Azarias, devoured his prey, while he scratched between his ears and listened to the howling of the sierra, the gruff and sad bark of the she-fox in heat or the bellow of the deer in the Santa Angela Reserve, also coupling, and from time to time he said to him,

the she-fox wants it bad, goshawk, do you hear?

and the owl focused his round yellow pupils that glowed in the dark, slowly straightened his ears, and went back to eating and, not any more, but once upon a time you could also hear the mournful howl of the wolves in the Spanish broom on the spring nights but ever since the electric company men arrived and installed the electric line poles up and down the hillside, you couldn't hear them anymore, and in their place you could hear the tawny owl shriek every once in a while, and the Great Duke, in those cases, raised up his enormous head and pricked up his ears and Azarias would silently laugh, without making a sound, only with his gums, and he mumbled with a faint voice,

are you a coward, goshawk? tomorrow I'm going out to run the tawny owl,

and no sooner said than done, the next day, at dusk, he went out alone in the sierra, opening a path among the rockrose in bloom and the box-leafed broom, because the tawny owl held the strange fascination of the abyss over Azarias, a type of attraction enervated by panic, so that when he stopped in the middle of the bramblewood, he clearly heard the hard beats of his heart, and then he waited for a while to catch his breath and calm his spirit, and after a while he cried out,

hey, hey,

until, suddenly, twenty meters away, from a corpulent oak tree, the desired and hair-raising
howl reached him ,

buhu, buhu!

and when he heard it, Azarias lost his notion of time, the consciousness of himself, and began to run, crazed, grunting like a boar, trampling down the Spanish broom, scratching his face with the lowest branches of the arbutus trees and the cork trees, and behind him, implacable, jumping blandly from tree to tree, the tawny owl, howling and roaring with laughter, and every time he laughed, Azarias's pupils dilated and his skin stood on end, and he remembered the goshawk in the stable, and he went even faster and the tawny owl at his back howled and laughed again, and Azarias ran and ran, tripped, fell, and got up without ever looking back, and when he arrived, breathless, at the pasture, Lupe, the Pigherd, crossed herself,

where are you coming from, tell me?

and Azarias tenuously smiled, like a little boy caught doing something wrong,

from running the tawny owl, you see,

he said,

and she commented,

Jesus, what games! You've made your face look like Christ's,

but he ws alreafy going about in the stable, stopping the flow of the blood from the scratches with the cleaning rag, calmly, listening to the painful beats of his heart, his mouth half-open, smiling at the emptiness, drooling, and after a while, calmer now, he went up to the goshawk's pen, squatting, without making a sound, a suddenly he peeked into the window and said,
ooooh!

and the owl fluttered up to the window sill and he looked at his eyes, tilting his head, and then, Azarias told him very proudly,

I was running the tawny owl,

and the animal pricked up his ears and made a rattling sound with his beak, as if he celebrated it, and he,

I gave him a good run,

and he quietly began to laugh under his breath, hissing feeling protected by the hedges of the ranch , and so it was one time after another, one spring after another, until one night, at the end of May, he came up to the heavy bars of the pen and said like always,

ooooh!

but the Grand Duke didn't respond to his call, so Azarias was surprised and he did it again,

ooooh!

but the Grand Duke didn't respond to his call, and Azarias,

ooooh!,

stubborn, for the third time, but inside the pen, not a sound, so Azarias pushed open the door, grabbed the lamp, and found the sad owl in a corner, and when he showed him the plucked magpie, the owl didn't move a muscle, and then Azarias left the magpie on the ground and he sat beside him, and he delicately took him by the wings, and he closely held him to the warmth of his body, insistently scratching him between the eyes and tenderly saying to him,
pretty goshawk,

but the bird didn't react to the habitual stimulae, so Azarias deposited him on the straw, went outside and asked for the master,

the goshawk is sick, master, he's got a fever,

he informed him,

and the master,

what can we do, Azarias! he's old by now, you'll have to look for a new chick,

and Azarias disconsolate,

but it's the goshawk, master,

and the master, with sleepy eyes,

and tell, what difference is one bird from another?

and Azarias, imploring,

does the master give permission to fetch the Wizard from Almendral?

and the master indolently raised his left shoulder,

the Sage? you're getting expensive, Azarias, if we have to call the wizard for a bird, where is it all going to end?

and after his reproach, a laugh, like the tawny owl, that gave Azarias goose bumps,

master, don't laugh like that, I beg you for the love of God,

and the master,

can't I even laugh in my own house?

and another laugh, like the tawny owl, each one louder, and the mistress. Lupe, Dacio, the Pigherd, Damaso, and the shepherd's boys came out at his laughs, and in the entrance way they all laughed together, like tawny owls, and Lupe,

that rascal isn't crying for that stinking bird,

and Azarias,

the goshawk has a fever and the master doesn't give me permission to fetch the Wizard from Almendral,

and then another laugh, and another until finally, Azarias, disconcerted, began to run, left the patio and urinated on his hands, and later, entered the stable, sat down on the ground and began to count the valve stem caps out loud trying to calm himself,

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, forty-three, forty-four, forty-five,
until he felt more relaxed, he got a bag for a pillow and took a nap, and as soon as God woke up, he quietly went up to the grating of the pen, and said,

ooooh!

but nobody responded, and then Azarias pushed open the gate and saw the owl in the corner where he had left him last night, but fallen and rigid, and Azarias went over to him with sort steps, picked him up by the tip of a wing, opened his jacket, closed it over the bird, and said with a broken voice,

pretty goshawk,

but the Grand Duke didn't open his eyes, nor clatter with his beak, or anything, so that Azarias crossed the patio, went over to the gate, slipped open the blot, and with its squeaking, Lupe─Dacio's wife─came out,

what's gotten into your head now, Azarias?

and Azarias,

I'm going over to my sister's

and without more ado, he left, and at a rapid trot, without feeling the gravel, nor the thorns on the soles of his feet, he crossed the oak grove, the growth of Spanish broom, and the stream bed, sweetly clutching the cadaver of the bird against his chest, and as soon as Regula set her eyes on him,

back again?

and Azarias,

what about the kids?

and she,

they're in school,

and Azarias,

isn't there anybody at home?

and she,

oh, the Little Girl is,

and at that moment Regula noticed the lump that Azarias protected against his chest, opened the ends of his jacket, and the cadaver of the big ugly bird fell on the red floor tiles, and she, Regula, shouted hysterically,

you'd be getting that carrion out of this house, do you hear me?

she said,

and Azarias, submissively picked up the bird and left it outside, on the stone bench, came back inside the house, and went out again with the Little Girl, cradling her in his right arm, and the Little Girl turned her lost eyes without focusing on anything, and he, Azarias, picked up the goshawk by his foot, and an adze with his left hand, and Regula,

where are you going with those things?

and Azarias,

to dig a grave, I'm telling you,

and on the way, the Little Girl emitted one of those interminable and sorrowful bellows that would freeze anyone's blood but Azarias didn't change his expression, and he reached the foot of the hill, deposited the creature in a cool spot among the rockrose, took off his jacket and in the blink of an eye, he dug a deep hole at the base of a cork tree, deposited the bird in it, and immediately filled up the hole, pushing the dirt with the adze, and he remained watching the tomb, his feet barefoot, his mended pants at the back of the knees, his mouth half-open, and after a while, his pupils turned toward the Little Girl, whose head hung to one side, as if it were disarticulated, and her diffused eyes crossed and looked at the emptiness without focusing on anything, and Azarias squatted down, picked her up in his arms, sat on the edge of the slope, next to the fresh dirt, held her tightly to him, and mumbled,

pretty goshawk,

and began to insistently scratch her hair on the back of her neck with the index finger of his right hand, while the Little Girl, indifferent, let him do it.

____
Copyright ©by Miguel Delibes. English language copyright ©2010 by Thomas Deveny

The great Spanish novelist, Miguel Delibes, died in March of this year, 2010.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Cartoon in a Mirror (on Willem Elsscot's Will-o'-the-Wisp)



Willem Elsschot Will-o’-the-Wisp in Three Novels, translated from the Dutch by A Brotherton (Leyden, Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff/ London: Heinemann / New York: London House & Maxwell, 1965)

The Flemish writer Willem Elsschot’s last fiction, Het Dwaalicht (translated into English as Will-o’-the-Wisp) is perhaps his best, if shortest, work. The story is so simple that it feels a bit more like a cartoon image than a narrative “plot.” Three “blackies,” as a grocery-store owner characterizes the three major characters, suddenly appear at her door, and when the customer—Elsschot’s Chaplinesque hero, Laarmans, who appears in several of his fictions—exits the store, they approach him for help with directions, thrusting what becomes an almost sacred piece of cardboard into his hand. The card contains the name Maria Van Dam and an address, Kloosterstraat 15.

To elude further relations with the strangers, Laarmans attempts to quickly give them simple directions. But he finds it difficult in English, the only language he and the leader of the three, whom he as secretly named Ali Khan, share. Instead of going left or right, one street snakes into twists and turns, and he attempts to describe the route, accordingly, in grand gestures that only draws a crowd to the small gathering. A local tough attempts to lead them off to a local sailor’s brothel, but after Laarmans explains where the boy plans to take them, the visitors, sailors from the ship Delhi Castle, insist they want only to see Maria Van Dam, and head off vaguely along the path that Laarmans has provided.

Laarmans moves off to head home to his wife and family (we later discover that he has six children), but while waiting for his tram encounters them once again; and this time he becomes determined to help them find the right address. Thus begins a voyage as surreal and comically meaningless as any tale by Beckett.

It is apparent from the outset that they will never find the beautiful young woman who the three men met that very morning when she visited their ship to mend bags. So taken are the three by this beauty that they award her almost everything they have, a scarf, a pot of ginger, and six packs of cigarettes. She, in turn, reciprocates with her name and address scrawled on the piece of cardboard they carry. But the search, spurred on by the slightly selfish and secretly bigoted kindnesses of Elsschot’s Flemish fool, is everything, for the journey tells us much more about these four men than any possible resolution.

Despite the constant paternalism of Laarmans and his inner feelings that the "Indians" can comprehend little that his culture puts before them, it is the Flemish “leader,” if you can call him that, who is utterly confused, so desperate in his own married and bourgeois life that he imagines even this tawdry encounter between three men and one woman to be an exciting adventure. It is he, not the three “foreigners” who imagines that the young girl might be underage, fourteen or even younger. Ali and his friends are quite shocked; no, the woman they seek is in her 20s. Laarmans justifies his imaginative slip as part and parcel to his general disdain of his own country’s values and religion. He is the kind of small-minded burgher who refuses to see himself as a sexual prude. But the men who follow him are, we later discover, as moral as they can be. They, so they later tell him, are not from India, but from Afghanistan, loyal Muslims who are totally immersed in their religion and cultural values, and who later chastise Laarmans for his drinking.

Yet, their very appearance in this world of blondes leads them into danger. The first address they visit sells bird cages, empty cages that lock away not only animals, but, symbolically, the sons and daughters of the Flemish merchants. Laarmans and his Afghani charges cannot help but wonder whether the old woman at the counter and her young brute of a son are hiding Maria in a back room.

The second of their visitations leads directly to the police station, a notorious place of lock-up obviously dangerous to these strangers, aware of the racial restrictions of the culture; they will not even enter. Laarmans takes over, prying information from the fat officer at the front desk. But even though they wait outside this gigantic cage, Ali is captured and brought inside to be charged for a nonexistent crime. Without Laarmans' identification of his friend, he would surely have been incarcerated.

Their final destination is also a kind of prison warren, a dilapidated hotel used partially, it is apparent, as a brothel. Here both customers and clients are locked away in tawdry little rooms where the bartender-owner warns that some of its registered denizens have been dead for years.

Through this strange night voyage, the three Afghani men behave with the greatest of grace and honor, while the Flemish citizen, even the obsequious Laarmans, dismiss, doubt, and threaten the holy trio on their search for their own Mary. These three strangely wise men do finally find, in the wretched hotel, their mother and child, but when they attempt to award her the flowers they have purchased for Maria, she merely snarls.

As they return to their ship, the exhausted Laarmans heads home, suddenly realizing the brutal irony that the object of their search likely was, after all, to be found in the brothel where the butcher’s boy originally had intended to take them. Their dream, this likeable fool now comprehends, is far superior to the utter and endlessly boring ties that bind him. The cartoon image with which the book seem began has been mirrored back unto the society which created it.

Antwerp, June 2, 2010


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Douglas Messerli | The Scream (on Hugo Claus' Wonder)


Hugo Claus


James Ensor, Intrigue

Douglas Messerli
The Scream

Hugo Claus De Verwondering (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1962), translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim as Wonder (Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, 2009)

Late in 2009 Archipelago publisher Jill Schoolman sent me a copy of their translation Hugo Claus' important fiction, Wonder. It wasn't until March of 2010 that I could get a chance to begin reading it, and I finished it only in early April.

Like the other fictions and poems by Claus (who died in 2008) Wonder is an extraordinarily powerful and original work. With its numerous shifts in time and tense—often within the space of few paragraphs—and in its uses of dialect and an internal, almost privatized language, Wonder, as I confessed to my friend, Michael Heim, the translator of the book, must have been nearly impossible to translate. "Claus writes brilliantly," he observed, "and he writes like no other writer." I might have even gone further and declared Claus' writing as somewhat eccentric, in the positive sense of that word.

Indeed, even the story of this wondrous work is purposely as strange as story can get. A middle-aged school-teacher, bored with the bourgeois proprieties of his job and the mediocrity of his peers and superiors, is slowly moving toward a mental shutdown. Despite a life of subservience to all and impeccable obedience, he has sex with one of his underage students and soon after carefully arranges to marry her. But the young girl, predictably, is frustrated with her life with the confused pedant, and soon after leaves him.

On the day in which the fiction begins the teacher, Victor-Denijs de Rijckel is asked by the principal to introduce him that evening at a lecture he is giving on "the function of classical music in our society" to the Association for Flemish Culture Friends of Music. Unpredictably, de Rijckel misses this event, instead wandering, somewhat drunkenly, into the midst of the hundreds of revelers come to town for the annual costumed White Rabbit Ball. There he passively watches and speaks to a beautiful woman who ends the evening walking into the ocean along the beach, doing a kind of dance in the moonlit waves.

Claus' fiction moves suddenly into a future time, where de Rijckel is evidently locked away in a house where he is recovering from the mental breakdown by, in part, keeping a daily journal. But we quickly discover the facts behind this breakdown as Claus, almost like a magician drawing a rabbit out of a hat, introduces the teacher to a young male student who has evidently witnessed de Rijckel's behavior at the ball, and tells the teacher that he knows where the mysterious woman of the night before lives. Before the reader can even assimilate this strange encounter, the two are off by train to a small village, where the young woman, Alesandra Harmedam, lives in a castle.

Neither teacher nor his unusually clever guide know what they intend to do if they can reencounter the woman. And as they take stock of the situation, it appears that the castle, backed by a series of strange sculptures, is highly fortified; they escape their foray with their lives, retreating to a nearby inn, where the teacher pretends he is the boy's uncle.

On the second day, they take a more conventional approach and are greeted as if they were expected, even toured about the place. Soon we realize that the castle is preparing for a significant gathering of supporters of an obscure Flanders wartime figure, Crabbe, who, siding with the Nazi's, fought a kind individual war based on nationalist beliefs. De Rijckel and the boy are thought to be a doctor and his son from the Netherlands come for the event, and, accordingly, Alesandra readily entertains them. Yet suspicions are clearly aroused by some of de Rijckel's comments, and a former aide to Crabbe, Sprange, who lives at the castle, looms as a fearful skeptic.

The local villagers who visit of the bar at the inn each evening are suddenly suspicious of the new guests, particularly since they are now associated with the Harmedams and Sprange; and when it is revealed by the hotelier that they are not father and son, but uncle and nephew, their suspicions turn prurient. The boy is forced to sleep in the hall.

Strangely de Rijckel's sexual instincts seem to have been right; Alesandra is attracted to him as the two clumsily engage in sex. But the teacher's instincts for self-survival diminish as he loses his glasses which blurs his vision. Intellectually, he dangerously toys with the now-gathered fanatics of Crabbe and his ideas. Before long they reveal that they know he is a pretender, threatening him with death. De Rijckel and the boy attempt escape, with the both the figures from the castle and the villagers, angry with him for other reasons, chasing the two down in a cornfield where they are hiding.

The house where he is now incarcerated is apparently where Sprange, after torturing him, has taken de Rijckel, who is so incapacitated by events that he even allows other inmates to piss upon him in the small derelict nook wherein he sleeps.

In many senses, Claus' story, in short, is so absurd, so illogical that the reader really does not have a sense of any one truth, much the way the Flanders locals had no coherent picture of the war. Villagers clearly lived out the war supporting any side that seemed momentarily about to win, sometimes even hiding Jews and others from the Nazis less out of principle than financial gain or plain stubbornness. And there is also in Claus' preposterous plot a great deal of humor, just as there is the dark and dangerous activities of Crabbe, who believed in principles so confused that is hard to understand whether he is a mad fanatic or a ridiculous hero.

Like Flanders during the war, de Rijckel ends this fiction so confused that even his escape from his confines is half-hearted, and he is returned to imprisonment, weakly imaging alternatives: "I was thinking of phoning the principal from the telephone both by the Hazegras Bridge as soon as I went out. I would have told him I was alive and hoped he had cancer or polio. And I might have gone to school afterwards as if nothing happened. Nothing. No boy."

That, so Claus suggests, is just the problem. There is no outrage in the society—for anything or anyone. There is no righteousness, no fury. Things simply happen, and even the strangest of events are unflappably assimilated.

We in our country of two hundred and ten airplanes and two
submarines, we work hard and have a good reputation abroad—ask
anyone—because we are flexible in our transactions and give our
all. On Saturdays we'll go for a spin in our big American cars
(ninety percent of which, my good man, are brought on credit) to
the coast, our coast. We study the rim of West Flanders that lies
on the sea. ...Circumstances, if we are to be believed, are in the
hands of others....


Yet this little man who has so willingly engaged the catastrophes that have befallen him, finally does act; ultimately he rises again to, if nothing else, explore his own imprisonment; and in the process and despite possible punishment, de Rijckel lets out a long righteous scream against the perverted Ensor-like landscape surrounding him:

A gray-haired mother sitting on a terrace opposite the esplanade said to her son, "Did you hear that, darling?" Her son, though fully grown, was wearing shorts. He was in a wheelchair, and saliva dripped from his lips onto his pink, hairy thighs. "No, no, no!" he said, swinging his heavy head. She carefully dabbed his lips.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2010

_________
Copyright ©2010 by Douglas Messerli.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jean Fremon | from The Botanical Garden


Jean Frémon
from The Botanical Garden
Translated by Brian Evenson

For a long time I believed that life was a continuous flux, the slow and perpetual transformation of one thing into another contiguous to it, insensibly, without progression, but without rupture either, like the Metamorphoses for Twenty-Three String Soloists by Richard Strauss that is playing at this moment on the radio, astonishing thread, knotting and unknotting the same theme, amplifying it, contorting it, reducing it to a tenuous netting, where it rediscovers all its strength and sets out again before dying in the deepest tones, I was wrong; or at least, I didn’t distinguish, then, the stages which are clearly visible to me now. There are thresholds, beginnings and endings, this is without doubt a very mediocre clarity but it’s my day’s harvest.

The beginning is that which in itself doesn’t necessarily replace something else, while after it there is another thing which very naturally is or occurs; the ending is, on the contrary, that which in itself, very naturally, necessarily or most of the time replaces something else, while afterward there is nothing else; the middle is that which in itself replaces something else and is followed by something else. The whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end.

And then there are intervals.

I have decided to keep a notebook to write down in it my statements, my measurements, my ulterior motives, my doubts, my memories, and my plans. History, geography and geometry, by which I mean past, present, future. The past is time compressed into categories, set onto index cards: history; the present is space, gestures in space, what is or isn’t approachable, what we embrace or do not embrace: geography; the future is the ineluctable unrolling of a curved function along predetermined parameters: geometry. That’s the tiny region I intend to crisscross like a surveyor dispatching his daily report to the Home Office. And I experience this proposal as a step and as a rupture. Rupture, the point of departure from which one is made to feel the need to tie up loose ends, to make the parts of one’s life that one would have been able to believe quite distinct until then, that one would have even been bent on not mixing coexist on the same rectangle of paper, in the same semantic secretion, look how suddenly, from the step backward that has been taken, certainties have been put in place, likes and dislikes take shape and one sees before one’s (at first a little surprised) eyes, one’s profession, one’s hobbies, one’s friendships, one’s memories, one’s loves, one’s opinions, organize themselves into a constellation whose coherence terrifies as much as reassures someone who never having managed to make up his mind to be only one nevertheless worries about being many.

A chaos, which it is up to us to segment in some way or another. The syndrome of the colonial jellyfish! It is composed of zoologically distinct individuals, each being able to reproduce itself by budding and to reconstitute a complete colony. Inside, the division of labor reigns: motors, steering polyps which insure through their flutterings the propulsion of the whole; hunters, they hurl in the direction of their prey filaments with paralyzing fluids; eaters, they swallow and digest on behalf of the others; producers, male and female, occupied solely with copulating. And yet the jellyfish acts, reacts, moves about as an indissociable whole, a body. We are hardly different, and depending on whether we lean toward atomic theory or seek out a globalizing view, we imagine unities of different size but all more or less artificial. Commodities for argument, no more and no less.

Dawkins goes as far as to say that a chicken is only the method used by an egg to make another egg. That the body is only a place where genes gather together for a moment, a pure temporary receptacle, a survival machine manipulated by genes and discarded once the genes divide themselves in two and have staunched the inextinguishable thirst they have for leaving doubles of themselves in the bodies of the next generation. That neither the species, nor the grouping, nor even the individual are the pertinent unities of selection, but only the gene, whose preservation and multiplication is the unique raison d’être of our existence. Of course, Dawkins is crazy, but no more or less so than all of us who whip bloody the first hobbyhorse that we manage to mount, and we periodically confront each other in conferences whose preceeings come add themselves to the piles already cluttering our libraries.

Rebuilding collapsed walls, clearing the surroundings, visiting cellars and attics, pruning certain trees so that they regain their vigor, you can tend to your life like an estate. Walking the main path, hands behind the back and head lowered, prey to intense thoughts. Devoting oneself to excavations, freeing by touch the shattered fragments of a buried mosaic, imagining the irremediably lost bits, reconstructing stories beginning from the rediscovered elements, advancing hypotheses to span the missing pieces. The desire to live, if only for several minutes a day, in that distance face to face with oneself, the variable distance which separates one event from another, loses itself in the intervals, a memory, a project, an established fact, an experience, the day’s weather, the visit of a friend, and to be able at some remove from it to think back on it, to play again a familiar air, to put one's steps in one's steps, to return home…

I liked the sort of chaos made from disorder and improvisation in which I lived. The idea of having several personalities on hand at once, truly many careers without a lot of connection to one another, somewhat attracted me, I saw it as a guarantee of tranquility, the assurance of being able at will to leave one part of yourself so as to take refuge in an other, the comforting feeling of never truly resembling your portrait. But to take a bit of distance, to look the past and the immediate present up and down, to recognize in this sludge of zooids with distinct functions the shifting contours of the jellyfish: why not, once past the age of fifty, treat oneself to this luxury.

When suddenly, in the angle of a gable, in the rising of a lane, is perceived—immersed, but not entirely, under the proliferation of modern structures—the form of the old village with, still implicitly perceptible, the layout of necessary paths, from pasture to trough, from hillock to spring, from mill to river; at a time when there is no longer fountain nor mill, when the hillock is caparisoned with concrete and tar, when the banks of the river have been parceled out in avenues or public gardens, what a miracle to again be able to catch hold of this residue of the soul which comes back to you like a whiff of time still quite closeby, back when they recorded in a large book bound in black linen, in a subtle cursive script full of the upstrokes that a quill allows: Tuesday the 5th, 100 sous for the fashioning of a pair of trousers.

That was what I had, fiercely, nostalgia for this morning: 100 sous for the fashioning of a pair of trousers.

An open window, a tree-lined path, a keyhole, a tunnel leading out into the middle of the woods, a promontory whose view is sought after, a bordering wall, these are what these notes will be by turns. “An additional obsession,” says Gertrude, “as if you didn’t have enough of them already, you now need your daily gargling in addition to all the rest. At heart, you believe in nothing that is or that happens, you have to write it down to give it retrospectively some sort of posthumous reality. Besides, you’re the one who’s posthumous, my friend, completely, out of step. If you were a boxer you would wait for the punches so as to be able to analyze their strength, their direction, their guard, preparing the unstoppable rejoinder which would always arrive too late.”

Strange weather, an intermittent ray of sunlight hits me in the face and disappears and then starts over again, like the floodlight an inquisitor would train on me, but, I yield, I welcome without displeasure its warmth and its successive withdrawals, like an alternately hot and cold shower which caresses and stings me all at once.

I love Gertrude. After having returned to my home in the role of busybody, criticizing this, lampooning that, she herself rather lost under the pretext of needing nothing and no-one, it very well could be that she claims today the role of orchestra conductor. Oh, certainly she hasn’t mastered all the instruments, but doesn’t she, from afar, impose her rhythm on the whole, arrange it, and end by giving it a sort of harmony?

The Garden’s large magnolia tree has put out its first flower of the year, it is still doggedly closed in on itself, its form conical and its color still green yellow, before a creamy white overcomes it, sums up its vigor, I believe I already discern from my window its quite subtle fragrance, but this is probably an anticipation.

For nearly ten years now I have occupied a converted apartment in the roof beams of the Museum, in the oldest building, which is now the paleontology wing, I have a view of the winter garden and the tropical greenhouses adjoining the college of botany, Buffon, Chevreul, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire dwelled there, a million stuffed mammals and birds, eight million dried plants pressed into herbariums including those of dear Jean-Jacques, my compatriot, 150 million pinned insects arranged by genus, families, species, all classified in Latin, I hold sway over the categories. The repository of the commensurable.

I left Geneva ten years ago.

Gertrude likes to assert publically that I am not Swiss, that this is a fabrication on my part, an affectation, a way of distinguishing myself, an excuse so as not to have to take sides. When my opinion is asked on such and such a thing, she interrupts me to say: “But he has no opinion, or if he has he won’t give it to you, don't you know, he’s neutral, he’s Swiss, he observes, he banks, he sits around getting fat….”

*

Old Sam watches over the zoo, he’s a laconic, surly fellow who devotes himself to sarcasm. Vegetarian, misanthrope, and anti-religious. He wears in all seasons a canvas hat with a turned-down brim.

With time, I have managed to soften him. It wasn’t easy. When I was appointed, it seemed that he had been there for all time, and he didn’t hesitate to treat me like an intruder. Now, I get a greeting out of him, some respect, and also measurements and observations which I immediately record. He hands them over stingily.

“And it’s for you, eh, not for the other cockatoo, that one, of the shitter-in-pants genus…” He is talking about Dawkins, he has never been able to stand him.

“And your Mr. Sosthène [it’s Soskine, he insists on referring to him like this], he’s been camping out at the reptile house for nearly a month. He’s waiting for the birth of the monitors with his movie crew. It’s Hollywood here, you can’t even push a broom through anymore. Me, I tell you that they won’t come. I know them, the monitors, they don't like to be disturbed." And he adds: “Ah, you wouldn’t have seen this in Mr. Steiner’s time.”

A stone in my garden? Steiner is my predecessor. A devotée of mineralogy and the oblique sciences. He debuted in the role of Saint-Just, as defender of usurped privileges and intellectual deceptions, only to finish as a sort of touchy prelate who fulminated through enigmatic papal bulls the ruins of the mental encyclopedia, of the house of knowledge that he had once carried in his head and which had collapsed.

“Mr. Gilles, that’s another matter. I have never seen his paintings but if they look like him, that’s good. Ah, he often comes to take photos. He doesn’t ask you anymore, he’s in the habit. His favorite is the orangutan. The other day, he put a leaf of lettuce on his head and looked at us proudly. We mutually contemplated ourselves for a long moment. Mr. Gilles said: ‘Don’t you think he looks like Rembrandt?’ Me, I didn’t think so, but it pleased me very much that he said that, like that, without laughing.”

“You should go with me to his next exhibition,” I say.

“No, sir. That sort of bird isn’t for me, it's enough to know that my orangutan looks like Rembrandt.”





I like taxonomy, it’s a humble science, I rank you in such and such a category because you have twenty-four vertebrae, in such and such another because you have six legs and because it cannot be, until proof of the contrary, that you have both six legs and twenty-four vertebrae. But the categories are open at each end, nothing ever prevents one from refining or generalizing at one’s pleasure. A small pleasure, well within reach, why deprive oneself of it?

According to Dante, every passage from the Bible has at least four meanings, the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Scotus Erigena, more consistent, says that the meanings of Scripture are as infinite as the colors of a peacock's tail.

Isn’t it the same for everything?
Reminiscences, echoes, disjunctions, summations, intervals, thresholds, equilibriums, projections, that’s how we see our life as soon as it stops being a great big nap.

There is always a box within the box.

Everything is only parts. And the old dream of a Unity that links them. To this point, we have ended up ceding. Those which were successively proposed to us decidedly weren’t a match for it. The whole being definitively incommensurable, truly inconceivable, all that remains for us is the perception and the patient measuring of the relations that the parts maintain between themselves.

Numbers are the middleman of this relation. This relation is a number.

Simon of Tournai, a Franciscan of whom it is said that after having presented a series of arguments in favor of the Holy Trinity he cried out while descending from the pulpit: “Jesus, how I have exalted thy law. And yet if out of spite I had wanted to overthrow it, I would have been able to cite arguments much more powerful still.”

A choice must be made. In the end, it little matters what.

“That’s what you don’t succeed in making up your mind about. You try to chase all the hares at the same time without being certain that some of them aren’t just potted rabbit,” Gertrude would say.

Beatings of the heart, meal times, alternation of waking and sleeping, regular swinging of arms and legs while walking, intimate chafings of love, recurrence of excretions, repetition of the same gestures at the same times, at every turn we divide the infinite into segments that are more or less identical and, because of this fact, reassuring; we use the very revolution of the planets to determine the sequences which regulate our social life.

I am driven to wonder if in art we aren’t first sensitive to a rhythm here, a ratio there. Golden mean, art of the fugue, rules of prosody, certain echoes and orders of greatness related to one another.

And Gilles Aillaud, portraying our orangutan as Rembrandt, no doubt doesn’t act otherwise.





Time, which distances us from beings or things that we love and which have disappeared, brings us near to them if it increases the love that we bear for them. It hems in a detail, sets off a trait, transposes a scene, lightens the whole of the insignificant, and it is as if feeling gathers strength from having to house itself only in spaces which are allowed to it.

But what can these scraps, improbable equivalences, have in common with life and death? No way to determine their colors. Fraud, mime, insecurity disguise them. All the same, that’s what remains for us; the present feeds on it.

*

Clémence. Her luminous face appears intermittently. Life ebbs from her slowly soon leaving only a fragile presence, a quivering of the lips, a minute movement of the fingers, still succeeding in maintaining, at the most elementary level, a connection with the family circle.

Beginning, middle and end. For want of having meaning, at least individual life should have a form which defines it. An entire life, with beginning, middle and end. Perhaps it is vaguely this way as long as a breath still quickens this strange entity. But death abolishes the unity. Ruptures without order, the return to chaos. Instead of reconstruction: legend, infidelity, the intangible, the without-proof, fiction.

Clémence left us. Karl gave notice of his arrival. That’s how it all began. Two lines which don’t cross. Distances are created, distances are annulled. A matter of trajectories and intervals. History, geography, geometry.

I didn’t dare to begin like that, I held back. Generalities, pleasantries, commonplaces. But it’s very much like that that it all started: Clémence, Karl.

*

Distance.

In gymnastics class, the first act of the teacher after having made the students get into rows of three or four was to regulate their positioning while procuring for them the space they would need to accomplish the actions that he was soon going to require of them. The command which controlled this preliminary exercise was: Take your distance.


I used to like, I always liked, as a child, receiving this command.
Moving further from one's neighbor by an arm held perpendicularly to the line of the body, as if each forced the other to respect a vital space calculated most exactly and with the means at hand: the length of an arm.

Distance. The ringing of the telephone interrupts the adagio of a quartet, at the sound of the suddenly slow-motion voice which answers it is understood that it’s a question of a death, one knows always exactly, before you are told, who it is a question of, one leave’s one’s seat, one approaches the window, one puts one’s forehead against the cold pane, the violin flares up, the air is purer, the sky bluer, the tops of the trees move.

Clémence.
An entire life. Of waiting.
Keeping busy. Keeping her hands busy, busy with everything.

A rather long life. Longer than average.
The feeling of having filled it.
With nothing, nothings, a lot of waiting,
furnished with diverse occupations.

talented at diversion

In this photograph, she is young, she wears her hair long, collected into a large braid, her head slants slightly toward her shoulder, in retreat, as if to apologize for posing, for being visible.

pulling back, but present
a talent for presence
as well as for pulling back

It may also be that the pulling back is what gives her presence its translucent quality. Even in a photograph it’s perceptible. Strange technological virtue, how the graininess of a print makes you suddenly palpate a sense of time, the presence of the past.

I turn around and turn over this dog-earred photograph, too small for one to really see whatever’s there. The individual is standing, in the garden path. I don’t recognize the hedges nor the beds. I guess the place more than identify it. She holds a basket in one hand and in the other a flap of her apron turned up onto her stomach, no doubt so as to carry a few apples. I recognize this gesture.

What isn’t there, her eyes, steel blue, rather small, without mischief. Will never be there, a life and nothing, suddenly past, faded, vanished.

her story without problems
pledged to oblivion
barely preceding the general oblivion

She had been put to work early. Already as a child, for many hours each morning before going to school, she had to help out at the store.

Later, during school vacations, their father bought for her and her sisters several sheep they had to watch over on the hillsides and which would be slaughtered come autumn.

A curtain of rain, the rather sad countryside through the window, the slow ticking of the clock. She sewed, she sewed.

An old habit dating perhaps from before the general implementation of electric lighting: she let the day ebb completely before turning on the lights while saying: “It is night.”

A secret treaty with time.
To know how not to interfere, the art of letting steep.

Between things and words, between phenomena and sentences, at the heart of one and the other, time in all its variance and nuance, the weft of things.

The smell of things, the trembling of the countryside, the stirring of a photograph, absence is what moves us. To give it form, to work the non-existent. Like those negative figures which appear in the interval between two forms, a vase or two symmetrically opposed profiles, you see alternatively the positive or the negative, no way to perceive them together. Also doesn't the space existing between each of them lay out the leaves of a tree better than a penciled outline?

*

Clémence and Karl. They will never meet. Will never have heard tell of one another. Will always be mutually ignorant of their each other's existence. And me, I owe everything to them, to one and to the other, and to Gertrude who always intervenes at the right moment. Strange combination of their influences. The definitive absence of one, the imminent return of the other, and these whiffs of childhood and of youth that they evoke in a well-ordered life.

I imagine I hear Gertrude: “You cultivate the past like a patch of greens. It’s a little bit your fix, or rather your cup of tea, it’s not dangerous and it isn’t noisy. Besides, I don’t doubt that it will be enjoyable. And strong emotions are hardly your style. All the same a little air is needed here, open the windows, good lord! And even if your papers fly away, gathering them on all fours will be wholesome exercise for you.”

The phrase subverts the thing.
What is right, the word, the memory
the raw, unformed thing
And what is right?


The unfiltered true, without armature
the animal

generalized oversight

the whole as it comes

yappings of a dog, the road white with fog


its lesson: no lessons


event: solution of continuity; inrush of the other into the unrolling of the identical, pebble in the pond of the tacit renewal of the same.


Drops of water on the cabbage leaf; each is unique and their dispersal is arbitrary.


Morning was her time.


Brief and sober notations, a bit borrowed and stiff, like the votive offerings that relatives leave on tombstones, porcelain book open and set up obliquely, bearer of one of those agreed upon phrases, “condolences” genus, and of an artificial rose with faded colors.


That story of hikers surprised by a storm, having taken shelter under a tree, and whom lightning killed.


Children, entering by the hall door, swiping in passing sugar from the cupboard and leaving by running out the garden door.


Small tableau: she was walking uphill in the lane holding the handle of a wicker basket in the bend of her folded arm.





He said: to tell stories is to ratify the social. To take part in its game. Since childhood we have been constituted by stories that we have to believe in, take part in, that we have to reproduce, mimic. A cunning joining of stories fabricates the temporality into which we are thrown and gives to the arbitrary or to sleight of hand the semblance of natural causes.

To shatter narration is to kick against this, he said.


Karl. I remember perfectly the first time that I saw him; it was only a little later that I actually made his acquaintance. It was at the start of the university semester, I had already been attending classes in theoretical physics for some weeks.


I had first lived in a hotel before finding a room for rent at no. 23 Spiegelgasse. That day, I had followed some student friends to Bräunerhof. The bourgeois wearing their Sunday best liked to stay on the terrace; we preferred the back room where the regulars came to play chess. That's where he kept himself, seated before a glass of absinthe, alone and silent in the middle of that juvenile excitement. His countenance severe, as if sculpted, his thin lips framed by two large creases. He seemed distracted, solitary in his thoughts. Two or three times however, I surprised in his gaze a gleam of complicity with one or the other of the young people of our group. On the way home, I accompanied one of them who was older than me and who had always lived in the capital, and I questioned him. Everyone there knew him, he had first been a brilliant professor, a fervent polemicist whose pages where commented upon in fashionable circles. He had published several noteworthy books, essays of a sort on contemporary mores that touched lightly upon all disciplines, from economy to biology, by way of psychoanalysis, which was then just being born.

Heir to a gigantic industrial consortium, he used his revenue to help poets and musicians. His renown had hardly passed beyond the city limits but, in the capital, he was practically an object of worship. All the intellectual elite crowded into his lectures where they hoped to learn which new book published abroad it was necessary to have read, what new theory of psychology or social science he was going to present, and if he was going to recommend it, multiplying as a result the number of its initiates, or disparage it and probably remove it from all attention in that city for a long time.

He specialized in public readings in which his own works and those of his friends of the time alternated. With a consummate art of staging, he ran through all the accepted ideas. His favorite target was journalists, guilty in his eyes of disfiguring the language and of lowering thought. He freely parodied so and so, indulging in his imitations with a jesting and an unequalled maliciousness. Still, hasty caricatures came more from his listeners than from himself; as all sects bewitched by the personality of a leader, they had a tendency to exaggerate each of his words, radicalize his reticences, inflate his enthusiasms. Also he frequently had to make clarifications so as to refute interpretations which overstepped his thought.

It is said that he squandered the better part of his fortune in a few years. His cousins, never having accepted his eccentricity, gradually separated him from all authority in management of family affairs. The family council soon consented to allocate him a small pension in exchange for a submissive signature.

Unexpectedly, he abandoned everything, resigned from the university and disappeared. Rumors prospered. One affirmed that he had had himself hired as a gardener in Lower Saxony, another that he was an orderly in a hospital in Hamburg.

After a few years, he reappeared, never having given the least explanation, taking up none of his old activities. He had abandoned the large family house on the edge of the river and lived in a little hotel in the center of town. He spent all his days in that café.

I returned several times, alone, in the early hours of the afternoon (the students came only in the evening); he was in the same seat and hardly made another gesture than a nod from time to time to the waiter who then refilled his drink.

I managed to obtain his books, which were out of print. I see again the look of the bookseller who found them for me. He didn’t say anything, but looked at me as if to say: “There’s one who's ripe for the picking.”

I got in the habit of going to the café and sitting down at a table close to his own. On several occasions, I saw him deep in conversation with young people. He spoke without looking at his interlocutor, as if for himself, as if he were speaking to himself or as if what he said must be true or its own justification, whoever his interlocutor was, that it was not at all a question of saying something to someone but of saying what had to be said, to everybody, to anybody. Of course this was only an illusion; in reality he didn’t fail to confirm periodically, by little sidelong glances, that he was being understood. It even happened that he prolonged a look more than was natural, as if to support what he had just said, and, in a certain way, to strike his interlocutor, seeming to say: “Ah, you have been able to make believe that I wasn’t speaking to you, that what I was saying didn’t concern you, but you see very well now that you won’t escape, that the ball is in your court and, like it or not, you will have to make the best of it.”

He didn't look like an artist and didn’t in any case look like the intellectuals that I was used to encountering. He spoke of literature, life and people with sarcasm and irony.

I was captivated and no longer thought about hiding it. I paid attention to his way of speaking more than to the words themselves. I watched him with such intensity that he noticed and threw me a quick glance, on the sly. Then he stood up. I did the same, held the door open for him and found myself beside him. We made our way toward the center of town, his stride at once gave the impression of power and of lightness. Behind his apparent rigidity hid a surprising physical suppleness. We still walked. Then, unexpectedly, he said to me, using the familiar: “What are you doing now? Are you going somewhere?” I answered: “No, I have all the time in the world.” So he asked me: “Do you want to come to my house?”

Those few words, their banality, are still in my ear. I hear their pitch, the particular timbre that the tones had, the movement of the lips pronouncing them, the way he turned his head sideways and looked elsewhere, slightly elsewhere, just over my shoulder, all the while suggesting that I accompany him.

First a shared silence, then a glance, an excuse, a word, before having exchanged three complete sentences we were already, in a sense, intimate. Intimate, as much as that man could be with anyone. He always managed to keep the conversation on the level of general ideas and to indicate clearly that all matters of a private nature would be set aside.

I was later told how he had broken definitively with a longstanding friend who had allowed himself a pleasantry about his private life, “Sir, please leave my table immediately” and since his friend, thinking it a game, did not and continued his gossiping, he went to sit at another table and never spoke another word to him.

__________

English language translation (c) 2010 by Brian Evenson


Jean Fremon, an important art dealer, is also the author of numerous works, kincluding La Vraie nature des ombres, Le Singe mendiant, L'Exibitionnisme et sa pudeur, and, translated into English on Green Integer, Island of the Dead. Green Integer will publish The Botanical Garden later this year.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Extinguishing the Fire (on Karl O.Knausgaard's A Time for Everything)



Susan Bee, Angels in Lamentation, 1981

Douglas Messerli
Extinguishing the Fire

Karl O. Knausgaard A Time for Everything, trans. from the Norwegian En Tid for Alt by James Anderson (Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2009)

One of the most interesting books of 2009 was Karl Knausgaard's A Time for Everything. Generally books with religious or spiritual themes do not particularly attract me. But this year I not only reread all the publications of Flannery O'Connor—works immersed in her deep Catholicism—but for four weeks buried myself in Knausgaard's profound retellings of Biblical stories from Abel and Cain, Noah and the Flood, Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Ezekiel, and other tales involving angels. I also reread these works in the Bible, rediscovering in the process how significantly this Norwegian author has expanded them, psychologizing his figures, and placing them into an anachronistic setting that would remind one of the novels of Knut Hamsun. Indeed, the Old Testament figures of Knausgaard's versions live a in world of fjords, wooden houses and barns, and changing seasons that resemble his native Norway.

For that reason, of course, most fundamentalists would abhor this religious fiction; in fact even some church liberals might describe the work as heresy. Yet Knausgaard's complex sentences draw one into to the Biblical stories in a way that helps one to make sense of the spiritual issues of each.

In this writer's retelling of the Cain and Abel story, for example, Abel is a talented and appealing figure, drawing everyone to him through his singing and storytelling and intense good looks. He is beloved by all, particularly by his Father. Cain is more stolid, less attractive, slow to speak; yet in many respects he is the more loving of the two as he carefully analyzes family relationships, painfully seeking a way to ingratiate himself with both his father and brother. Because he is so gifted, Abel is also often cruel, unable to contain his sometimes destructive curiosity. When a family shepherder is found dying of wounds inflicted by a bear, the brothers agree that they must kill him so that he no longer suffers. Yet Abel draws out the process in an attempt, so it appears, to explore the body parts; Cain is forced to step in, ending the boy's life quickly by thrusting a rock upon his head.

Later, Abel tries to reenter Eden in an attempt to find the Tree of Life, and is horribly burned by the Angels. In his deep love for his brother, Cain gently nurses him again to life, yet Abel, thought to be in a coma during his illness, later mocks Cain's gentle musings. Ultimately, Cain's murder of Abel seems almost inevitable, the only way, perhaps, to save Abel from his own self-destruction.

Similarly, the simple Bible story of Noah is focused less on Noah and his construction of the Arc than on the family he has left behind in the valley, fleshing out their daily activities, their loves, fears, and hates. The God who destroys them indeed is an angry and jealous God, and the dark black visage of Noah and his arc rises up in this telling as a kind of cruel and uncaring force, not unlike the all-white Moby Dick.

Threading these various tales together is Knausgaard's retelling of the story and writings of the Sixteenth century figure Antinous Bellori, who, after seeing two angels at the age of eleven, spent most of the rest of his life studying and contemplating the lives of the angels, collecting his findings in On the Nature of Angels.

His questions are profound. Why, for example, did God destroy the Earth? Yes mankind had been evil, but how had that evil changed so significantly that God was determined to begin the process over again, to destroy all but a single family? Why did the angels appear infrequently as messengers from God in the early part of the Bible, but appear more often to people in later ages until finally, with the Birth of Christ, they completely disappeared, only to return after Christ's death with increasing frequency, this time as small and bothersome baby-like beings, "tubby little infantile figures" who, as the composer Scarlatti reports, had to be rooted out of the house because of their robbery of food and dirty activities?

In an attempt to understand these radical changes, Knausgaard, with Bellori's help, explores the changing role of angels, from messengers to beings who sometimes behaved, in the case of the Lot story, more like men. Knausgaard through Bellori believes he can explain the cause of God's anger and his destruction of mankind through apocryphal writings in The Book of Enoch and The Book of the Apocalypse of Baruch which suggest that the angels had taken wives and partners in their mingling with human beings, producing the "giants in the earth," the Nephilim, described in the Bible. According to Enoch, beside their carnal lust, the angels had grown too close to man, sharing with human beings "knowledge about everything from medicine, mining, and weaponry to astronomy, astrology, and alchemy," knowledge that man, apparently, was never meant to have. It was not mankind that had changed, it was the relation of man and the sacred that doomed the human race.

The various changes of the angels themselves are explained by Bellori in a manner that is strangely similar to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. According to Bellori, Christ was not just a symbolic or temporary manifestation of God the Father, but was God himself, the spirit become a carnate being in order to save Man. His death, accordingly, was also the real death of God, and with God's death the angels had nowhere else to go. In order to survive among mankind they transformed themselves from the fiery, fearsome and horrific winged beings who Bellori witnessed as a child and who later may have killed him into more appealing looking figures, resembling human infants. With God's death in Christ, they were forced to extinguish their own inner fire. When that transformation also failed, so Knausgaard seems to suggest, they become, as legend has it, seagulls, the highly intelligent birds of the Lariade family who have small, finger-like appendages under their wings.

If all this text (452 pages before the "Coda") sounds a bit like heretical nonsense, one might recall that Bellori's writing was labeled as such. But Knausgaard's work is not so much a religious exegesis, but a fictional speculation in the guise of a religious exegesis, a form, I am certain, that will put off many readers. Some English critics (where this book bore the less lyrical title of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven) criticized the work for its extended arguments and overinflated sentences.

Yet any attentive reader can realize that Knausgaard is a superb stylist (as is the book's excellent translator, James Anderson), capable as he is also of a more pared-down narrative evident in his "Coda."

This last section "explains," or perhaps I should say "reveals" those significant changes in the relation of humans to the divine. In Henrik Vankell's isolated and gull-covered island, man is represented as a sinner who has no one to turn to, but is able only, as so much Scandinavian literature and film reiterates, to turn within. We are never told what terrible crimes Vankell (a character who appears in two other Knausgaard fictions) has committed or what awful act of self-destruction his father committed that helped mold Vankell's being. We only know that he has run from human company and finds his only solace in the silence of this barren but beautiful landscape.

On the day we follow him he does, primarily, what he does every day: walk various routes along the ocean according to set and ritualistic patterns, eat, fish (quite ineffectively), and watch the few islanders move about. But on this day, his mother calls having had bad dreams which she sees as tokens of something about to happen. A ship that inexplicably enters the harbor, terrifies Vankell. Yet there are no other signs that he might accomplish the horrifying self-immolation that by book's end he has achieved. Slowly, without explanation, he cuts himself down his chest and mutilates his arms and face, sitting in a hot tub of water, apparently awaiting death.

But then who could be telling this first-person story? Despite his self-punishment he has perhaps survived, a survival which may signify that despite this man's immense separation from his spirit, he has found a way of truly forgiving himself, perhaps in the telling of this spiritual story.

Los Angeles, December 6, 2009