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Pandemic Book Reviews 2

Sat, Oct 24, 2020

swimming book Hi everyone! I read some more books on an e-reader, and I enjoyed it! Now I am doing my best to write amateur words about them.

This time, we have three novels. A keyword that might apply to each of them, in different ways, would be haunted.

List of all book reviews

In Diamond Square

Rodoreda, Merce. In Diamond Square: A Virago Modern Classic. Translated by Peter Bush. Virago, 2013 [1962].

This novel, as with Private Life, also covers Barcelona and Spain’s transition period, from dictatorship to republic (and to war, the Spanish Civil War), but from the perspective of a working class woman who experiences nearly all of the misery this entails. It was published much later (1962) and told in an expressionist, stream of consciousness narrative style.

It opens with a scene from the summer festivals, that still take place in the neighborhood of Gràcia (at least this year, in symbolic and digital form):

[…] The platform where the musicians had struck up was surrounded by banks of asparagus fern that, bedecked with artificial flowers, served as a barrier. The musicians, in their shirtsleeves, were sweating. My mother died years ago and wasn’t there to give me advice, and my father had remarried. He found a second wife and I’d lost a mother who only lived to look after me. My father remarried and here I was, a young girl, alone in Diamond Square, waiting for them to start raffling coffeepots, with Julie shouting trying to make herself heard above the music, stop or you’ll get in a right state! and me gawping at the flower-bedecked light bulbs, the streamers glued down with water and flour and everybody enjoying themselves, and me all eyes, when a voice in my ear whispered, want to dance?

The protagonist, Natalia, is maddeningly passive, throughout most of the book. Through most of the book, her name is absent; she goes by someone’s pet name. Disasters approach from figuratively miles away and she can’t voice an objection or protest; these situations come to unhinge and undo her.

She also lives in a milieu of superstition, bad decisions, and everyday misery.

She told me about the really nasty things people crave: raisins, cherries, liver… The worst of all was sheep’s head. She had known a lady who’d craved sheep’s head. And, Mrs Enriqueta had spotted this craving later on the baby’s cheek, miniature shadows of the sheep’s eye and ear.

I slapped our kid a couple of times for no real reason and he cried, and Rita also started crying when she saw him crying, and that made a trio of weepers, because I burst into tears as well and the pigeons were cooing and when Joe arrived he found us all with tears streaming down our cheeks and he said that was the last straw.

The war comes and they are involved. During the war, there are episodes of class antagonism, from the family that employs Natalia as a cleaner:

But her son-in-law had been able to trick the blacksmith from Sants by telling him he was a clerk of the works on a big site and needed fifty or so grilles for a group of houses he was building and that this one would be a pilot.

We have discovered that your husband is one of these troublemakers and we prefer not to deal with such people, do you see? We listen to the crystal set every night and that’s what all you lot should do, then you’d realise you’re a load of idiots living in cloud cuckoo land. Rather than waving flags, you’d be better off getting bandages ready for the storm that’s going to hit you and break every arm and leg in your bodies.

[…] And he said I was a red and he said, don’t you see, a person like you can get us into trouble, we aren’t to blame in any way, and madam came to show me out and when we reached the fountain, she stopped and said he’d become a fascist, she meant her son-in-law, because he’d suffered agonies when they took him for that ride and he’d never got over it and it had made him bitter, and she said he tried the family’s patience too. I went into the street and helped her shut the door by pushing it to with my knee and she said the wood had warped again with the rain and that was why the door dragged.

One thing this book does well, it establishes recurring symbols, physical objects from events in the main character’s life. These are usually readily understood, but they impart a kind of long-term symbolic rhythm to the narrative.

Every single light was blue. It was like an enchanted, fairy-tale country. As soon as night fell everything was the colour blue. The street lamps, high and low, had been painted blue, house windows were blacked out, and when a chink of light showed, whistles started blowing. And when the bombers came from over the sea, my father died.

I didn’t understood what people meant when I heard them say, so-and-so is made of cork. As far as I was concerned, cork was for bottles. If I couldn’t get one back in a bottle, I’d pare it down with a knife as if I were sharpening a pencil. And the cork squeaked. And it wasn’t easy to pare down because it wasn’t hard or soft. And I finally realised what they meant when they said so-and-so is made of cork… because I was also made of cork. Not because I came out that way but because I’d had no choice. And with a heart of snow. I’d had to turn into someone made of cork simply to survive because if I’d continued to be flesh, the kind that hurts when pinched, rather than cork with a heart of snow, I’d never have made it across such a long, high, narrow bridge.

The first-floor garden had a single tree: a stunted peach. The peaches were no bigger than hazels when they fell to the ground.

And the fish breathing below churned up the waves and their fishy bad temper made the sea surge and foam.

Tragedy, survival, really interesting style. Would read again.

One thing I didn’t like about this translation: the main characters’ names are translated; e.g. Quimet is rendered as “Joe”.

Giovanni’s Room

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Dial Press, 1956.

This book is many things… a novel of Paris, an expat novel,

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.

a queer novel. As well, it might could be made into a good fillum.

The story is a tragedy told in medias res. David (the main character) is haunted by a Poesque spectre of this tragedy.

My interest was piqued about this, partly by seeing an interview segment with Baldwin. He puts forth that

(Slavoj Žižek is fond of discussing the kind of “determinate negation” that may be at work here.)

To that end, Baldwin’s characters theorize what deadens the capacity for love:

For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.

“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.” “I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”

“You play it safe long enough,” he said, in a different tone, “and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.”

“Somebody,” said Jacques, “your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest places!—for the lack of it.”

In the telling, there are some beautiful cinematic scenes:

We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men jostling each other on the wide sidewalk and aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other’s faces, must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon. And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright. I saw that I might be willing to give a great deal not to lose that power. And I felt myself flow toward him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up.

and a punchy quote before the end credits roll:

“[…] Americans should never come to Europe,” she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry, “it means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.”

Straightforward and revealing. Recommended.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Machado de Assis. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 2020 [1881].

This strange comic novel, narrating the wasted life of a man of privilege, is both funny and unsettling. Like Candide, it satirizes prevailing philosophies of its day, including Positivism, which would have an outsize impact in the Brazil of “Order and Progress”, and the Pessimism of the main character; as well as other hypocrisies of its time (mere years before the end of slavery in Brazil, 1888).

One of the overarching themes of the book is death. The novel framing device is that the deceased is writing his autobiography:

The reader may be taken aback by the frankness with which I expose and emphasize my own mediocrity; he should recall that frankness is the primary virtue of a late man.

But in death, what a difference! What an unburdening! What freedom! How we can shake off our cloaks, toss our spangles into the gutter, unbutton ourselves, unpaint ourselves, unadorn ourselves, confess plainly what we were and what we failed to be!

My good living sirs and madams, there is nothing so incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased.

Each season of life is an edition that corrects the last and that will be corrected in turn until the definitive edition, which the editor delivers to the worms, free of charge.

This might be liberating. If the dead have no reason to be coy, maybe we shouldn’t be either. If there is reason, maybe it is only our vanity:

The last man on earth, as he bids farewell to the cold, sapped sun, will have a watch in his pocket so as to know the exact hour of his death.

I do like epitaphs; they are, among civilized folk, an expression of that secret, pious egotism that induces man to wrench from death at least a scrap of the shade that has passed on.

The novel’s style, consisting of quite short chapters (quite a few of not even a full page) lends itself well to experimentation. One chapter describes a funeral with a bare ontology (these kinds of moves were pointed out in Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology):

Sobs, tears, the house in funeral array, black velvet over the entryways, a man who came to dress the corpse, another to measure for the coffin, the coffin, the catafalque, tall candles, invitations, the visitors who came in slowly, [etc…]

These, apparently items in a simple inventory, were notes that I had taken for a sad and banal chapter that I will not write.

One scene describes how violence passes from master to servant:

On the outside, the Valongo incident was dreadful; but only on the outside. As soon as I slid the knife of reasoning farther in, I found a marrow that was mischievous, refined, even profound. This was Prudêncio’s way of freeing himself from the blows he had received—by passing them on to another. I, as a child, had ridden on him, put a bit in his mouth, and thrashed him mercilessly as he groaned and suffered. Now that he was free, however, the master of his own arms and legs, able to work, rest, and sleep, unshackled from his former condition, now he had surpassed himself: he had bought a slave and was paying back, with steep interest, the sums he had received from me. See how clever the rascal was!

About the lives of drudgery fated for some:

One assumes that Dona Plácida did not yet speak when she was born, but if she could, she might have said to the authors of her days: ‘Here I am. Why have you called me?’ And the sacristan and the sacristine would naturally reply: ‘We called you to burn your fingers on pots and your eyes at sewing, to eat poorly or not at all, to plod up and down in endless drudgery, ailing and mending, only to ail and mend once again, now sorrowful, soon desperate, tomorrow resigned, but always with your hands at the pot and your eyes on your sewing, until you end your days in the gutter or in the hospital; this is why we called you, in a moment of good feeling.’

The spoof philosophy in this book, is called Humanitism. It is introduced by a character named Quincas Borba, who features also in another novel of Machado de Assis. A few quotes about Humanitism:

“Humanitas,” he said, “the principle of things, is nothing but man himself, divided across all other men. Humanitas has three stages: the static, preceding all creation; the expansive, the beginning of things; the dispersive, the appearance of man; and it will have yet another, the contractive, the absorption of man and things. Expansion, in beginning the universe, suggested to Humanitas the desire to enjoy it; hence the dispersion, which is nothing more than the personified multiplication of the original substance.”

Hence there is truly only one misfortune in life: never being born.

In this new church there are no facile adventures, nor pitfalls, nor sorrows, nor childish joys. Love, for example, is a priesthood; reproduction, a ritual. Since life is the greatest benefit the universe can bestow, and there is no beggar who does not prefer poverty to death (which is itself a delightful influx of Humanitas), it follows that the transmission of life, far from being an occasion for gallanting, is the supreme hour of a spiritual Mass.

Humanitism, celebrating life as it is, celebrates also the violence and misfortunes of life, those being merely growing pains of life, which will lead to betterment of life for humanity as a whole. A friend pointed out the parallel here with Fascist ideologies, which promote violence and war as a means of societal rejuvenation:

“Thus, for example, the hangman who executes a condemned man may arouse the vain lamentations of the poets; but concretely, this is Humanitas correcting in Humanitas an infraction of the law of Humanitas. I would say the same of an individual who disembowels another; this is a manifestation of the strength of Humanitas. Nothing stands in the way of his being disemboweled in turn (and there are examples of this). If you have understood well, then you will easily comprehend that envy is nothing but an admiration that struggles, and since struggle is the highest function of the human race, bellicose sentiments are those most suitable to its happiness. It follows then that envy is a virtue.”

Between the cheese and the coffee, Quincas Borba demonstrated to me that his system meant the destruction of pain. Pain, according to Humanitism, is an utter illusion. When a child is threatened with a stick, even before it is beaten, it closes its eyes and trembles; this predisposition is the foundation of an illusion, which is inherited and transmitted. Adopting the system is certainly not enough to do away with pain at once, but it is essential; the rest is the natural evolution of things. Once man is quite persuaded that he is Humanitas itself, he has only to turn his thoughts back to the original substance to ward off any painful sensation. The evolution is so profound, however, that it may easily take a few thousand years.

1st, because the substance of Humanitas holds the absolute power of creation, each individual ought to find it the greatest delight in the world to sacrifice himself to the principle from which he descends; and 2nd, because not even this would diminish the spiritual power of man over the earth, which was invented solely for his recreation, along with the stars, breezes, dates, and rhubarb. Pangloss, he told me as he closed the book, was not as foolish as Voltaire made him out to be.

By contrast, liberal democracy shouldn’t (hopefully) treat individuals as merely means to some end.

The philosopher also tries to console the main character regarding the pandemic (of that time):

Behold the excesses to which ignorance may lead; I was somewhat hurt by the blindness of the epidemic, which, in killing left and right, also carried off a young lady who was to be my wife; I could not understand the need for the epidemic, much less for that particular death. I believe that it struck me as even more absurd than all the rest. But Quincas Borba explained to me that epidemics were useful for the species, albeit disastrous for a certain number of individuals; he had me observe that, as horrendous as the spectacle was, there was a considerable advantage: the survival of the greatest number.

Hearing Humanitism’s defense of the more banal plagues of humanity, violence and want, brings to mind this ditty, which satirises a similar line of defense:

It’s alright ‘cause the historical pattern has shown
How the economical cycle tends to revolve
In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop
A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more […]

There’s only millions that lose their jobs and homes and sometimes accents
There’s only millions that die in their bloody wars, it’s alright

There were notably two new translations of Brás Cubas to be released in 2020. This one was fine. It preserves the original chapter formatting. It also has extensive footnotes, which I didn’t use; I haven’t gotten the knack of navigating small hyperlinks on my device.

Weird and recommended.