In Dubravka Ugrešić ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, she attributes the following quote to the Russian literary theorist and critic Victor Shklovsky: “I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations.”
Carlos Labbé is kind of a downer. Well, sort of. Maybe he’s just a realist.
Memory is to one what history is to another – an impossibility. – Chris Marker
Are we, in the West, overly consumed with creating validity through language? In other words, by naming something do we legitimize (or at least think we legitimize) something ie., eliminate the possibility of debate?
I’m overly obsessed with language and the question of how it affects the way our mind functions analytically, so I was intrigued by Perry Link’s recent New York Review of Books blog post pondering the possibility that Western languages’ preference for nouns in contrast to Eastern languages’ preference for verbs, might lead Westerners to think something exists simply because a noun (label) for it exists.
In Time’s Arrow Tod remembers the past but we, we encounter what it would be like to only remember the future.
It’s chilling to think about, the possibility of life moving in reverse. It’s an idea that is incomprehensible and yet somehow an idea we’ve been mulling over for our eternity, how many times have you heard someone assert something ended before it began?
But really, really think about it. What would it look like? Martin Amis has an idea. It looks like cab drivers paying passengers, bodies becoming stronger, hookers paying their clients, breakups beginning relationships, the knowledge of impending war or disaster, dirty dishes being set on a table, and doctors mutilating their patients.
Orlando, orlando, orlando. Could there be a more exhilirating account of the writer’s life?
From the opening line Woolf announces the freewheeling narrative style she intends to adopt in her whimsical, slightly off “biography” of the Elizabethan aristocrat Orlando (a stand-in for Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West) who is constrained by nothing: not time, or sex, or tradition, in a majestic critique of biography, fact, and societal “norms.”
Orlando (and Woolf’s subversive writing style, in all of its breaking of the fourth wall and sly jabs at the dominant male voices of the age) was a modernist before his time. A solitary wanderer, an amateur poet, royalty. A boy who despite his position, finds himself perpetually shifting between emotional extremes, riding high on life only to fall into the depths of despair. Why? Orlando is a writer. And embedded in a raucous adventure story masquerading as biography, we find Woolf is documenting nothing other than the life of a writer, long before we as a culture spent countless words analyzing said life. And who better to lay it out? Woolf knew it, in all of its self-doubt and contradiction, all too well.
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
Woolf (seemingly forever tongue-in-cheek) describes Orlando’s love of literature as a disease, an infection, which grows in solitude and leads to an even worse disease – writing. When Orlando catches it, he literally loses years.
Because of course, as only a writer can know, and as only a writer can dictate, life is not constrained by time.
“Life seemed to him of prodigious length. Yet even so, it went like a flash.”
Orlando is a fantasy novel. In a way. For Orlando is not tethered to time (or anything else for that matter): he falls asleep for days, wakes up in a new century, wakes up a woman. Because why not? “The extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation,” Woolf writes as a biographer’s aside. “The true length of a person’s life…is always a matter of dispute.” Does it not live on, on the page anyways, indefinitely?
Orlando wallows in the benefits of obscurity and despairs of discovering truth. Words come when she least expects them, when it would be “impossible” for them to appear, and fail him when he tries. She is entranced with the world and sick of it in equal measure. She is on a perpetual rollercoaster between the need for solitude and the desperate craving for companionship, romantic companionship particularly.
“I have sought happiness through many ages and not found it; fame and missed it; love and not known it; life — and behold, death is better. I have known many men and many women, none have I understood.”
As some know only too well, brilliance comes only when it is least expected. When Orlando becomes neither submissive to, nor combative of, life and her age, only then can she write. And she writes and writes and writes.
Of course Woolf also offers herself, in the guise of the biographer, as an exemplar of the writing life. “Thought and life are as the poles asunder,” her biographer declares. So when Orlando sits, there is nothing for the biographer to describe, “life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking.”
The great paradox of writing. Something others have written about far more beautifully than I: “One can never be alone enough to write” (Susan Sontag), the need for, and hatred of, solitude. The need to be of the world and at the same time to be apart from it.
“What is more humiliating than to see all this dumb show of emotion and excitement gone through before our eyes when we know that what causes it— thought and imagination—are of no importance whatsoever?” Woolf facetiously asks, poking a zillion holes in the historian and encyclopedist’s sorry attempts at documentation. It’s not facts that matter silly, she seems to be saying, thought and imagination are the only things that matter.
Orlando concludes abstractly, but before Orlando buries her manuscript near the oak tree which inspired her lifetime spent in search of truth, a life spent writing, she feels the insatiable desire to have her work read. And read it is, leaving Orlando with a giant weight lifted, a weight he/she has carried with her, as we all have, throughout the tortuous writing process.
By freeing Orlando of any and all constraints, and any and all absolutes, Woolf has provided her readers with the most gloriously liberating, entertaining, and enlightening account of the writer’s life anyone had seen up until that point (or, I would argue, will ever see again). Orlando is of course about much more than writing, but writing, for many of us, is life.
There’s a point, early on, in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland in which Jefferson pauses. “All readers are strangers,” she says. “Right now I’m overwhelmed by trying to calculate, imagine, what these readers might expect of me.”
In a lovely stylistic flourish, Jefferson actually spends much of her moving, memoiresque book pausing to address the reader directly, but you may be wondering, as I was, who exactly does Jefferson think that reader is?
Set up with a simple conceit, A Breath of Life portends to document a conversation between the “Author” and his creation, a woman, he has named Angela Pralini, stand-ins for, at the same time, a thinly veiled invocation of a god-creation relationship and, perhaps, Lispector’s dueling inner voices.
I would launch my Clarice Lispector tour with the least accessible entry into her already difficult oeuvre. A Breath of Life isn’t a typical Lispector novel (if there is such a thing), in fact, the book isn’t really by Lispector in the strict sense at all. Instead, left unfinished upon her death, the book was posthumously pieced together and published from fragments, by her friend and confidant Olga Borelli.
Knowing that, it’s nearly impossible to read the book without seeing Lispector’s illness and impending demise as the through-line; Lispector, growing increasingly sure her cancer would soon defeat her, pens her confessions, her sorrows; the last thoughts and ramblings she does, and, perhaps at the same time doesn’t, want to leave with the world.
it wasn’t until I discovered world literature that I have so voraciously read contemporary literature
So my blog posts have decreased as the stories I’ve been writing for Arts + Culture Texas have increased. I’ll try to fix that but life has been bonkers.
In lieu of any additional hours in the day, I thought I’d start cross-posting and/or expanding here on some pieces I’ve published recently in A+C.
So. Without further ado.
I’ve always been a voracious reader BUT it wasn’t until I discovered world literature (so in the last several years) that I have so voraciously read contemporary literature.
I use the word discovered rather carelessly. I obviously knew people were writing in other countries, and I’d obviously read some international work inadvertently. I say discovered more as in I intentionally began seeking out work from around the world in an effort to find contemporary writing with which I could engage.
It’s not a stretch, I don’t think, to put forward the idea that there is A LOT of contemporary American writing that is, for lack of a better word, shit. Of course, that being the case, it’s also probably pretty much a guarantee, that a lot of contemporary literature from the far reaches of the globe is also shit. But, and this is totally a guess and not based on reality whatsoever, the barrier to entry (aka that the work has to find a publisher, translator and a distributor to even have the possibility of being read by English-language audiences) is high enough to keep a lot of the shit out. Right?
There’s so little world literature in English and it’s occasionally so different, that it’s a welcome respite for life-long readers like myself who, inevitably I think, get tired of the same stories, the same styles. International writing is, at its best, capable of introducing western readers who are incessantly bombarded with an inordinate number of American books, to new writing styles, new characters, new conflicts.
It’s akin to my rather late in life discovery of an entirely new class of literature, the stuff we (I) didn’t read in high school; Borges, Sebald, Gaddis and so many others.
I had no idea for much of my life that people wrote like that. So experimental, superficially meaningless but formally, and linguistically, beautiful.
So, because I enjoy complication (apparently), and because a publisher who works exclusively in translation set up shop in Dallas last year, I discovered the wide world of translation studies and decided I’d at least take a cursory dive into the philosophical waters.
Nothing has really come of my brief intensive (apart from an intimate acquaintance with the writings of Nabokov and the more contemporary Tim Parks on the subject) other than some burgeoning opinions and a rather unfortunately reductive examination of translation’s importance at its most basic for Arts+Culture Texas. I hope to write in some greater detail about the philosophical implications of translation in the future; thinking more about things such as Martin Heidegger’s assertion that it is “the height of superficiality to suppose translation is even possible,” and whether or not a global literature community has had adverse effects on writers outside of the West who might seek global acceptance to the detriment of their writing; creating a superficial sense of exoticism or detaching from debates internal to their country as examples
Round-about way of saying, I’m reading a lot of critical translation studies and a LOT of work in translation and expect to hear more about both.
Here’s a link to my piece in A+C if you’re interested in reading more about Deep Vellum Publishing (the new spot in Dallas) and my incredibly inane commentary on the importance of translation.
More to come.
Who is magical realism written for anyways?
Who is magical realism written for anyways?
I started thinking about that after rereading some thoughts I had jotted down after reading Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude a while back.
Despite an early love affair with Salman Rushdie, and conflicting feelings about Marquez, I find myself the holder of a hearty skepticism of the genre after several additional entries in to the canon.
Magical realism is, in terms of genres, a supremely appropriate moniker, one that stands in stark contrast to the overly generic, or the overly specialized, it explains exactly what its readers should expect; fantasy elements overlaid on top of what could have been a more straightforward piece of historical fiction, which seems to me more or less what the term realism is, in this case, a stand-in for.
The choice, however, to include that shroud of magic, of course, is the sticking point and a source of debate for both the genre’s advocates and detractors.
It seems to me that magical realism’s authors attempt to do two things, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes not, depending on the author and the story, in their writing, and it is the innate incongruity of those two things that make magical realism, a genre whose authors seem, if not supremely conflicted themselves, at least guilty of instilling a sense of supreme ambiguity amongst their readers, leaving myself (and I’m certain others) to wonder who these authors are writing for.
First of all, magical realism’s authors attempt to mythologize their history, or culture through their storytelling; to essentially position, usually a non-Western world, in line with its Western religious, literary and/or cultural contemporaries. Much has been written specifically about Marquez’s use of, for example, overtly biblical imagery in his stories, take the four-year flood of Macondo as an illustration. This is the half of the genre’s style which seems to be directed towards an outside audience, which is, perhaps, why Marquez, Allende, et al., have received an unprecedented level of international acclaim. By infusing a story with supernatural elements and utilizing what have become almost globally shared symbols and tropes, authors can rescue an ill-used, or typically ignored people, culture or history, and exhibit it to the world screaming, in a sense, “hey, pay attention to us, we’re not so different you and I.”
It’s certainly effective, magical realism’s authors are some of the most read and most highly regarded authors who worked outside the western world, specifically South America, in the mid to late twentieth century and it does, speaking from experience, resonate with international audiences. It may be partly thanks to style, but it is a style which works in tandem with an incredibly colorful creativity (something regardless of how one feels about Marquez, cannot be contested), to make a people, or event seem important.
But an aura of importance overlaid on an event or history, with no underlying sense of why, doesn’t seem to me, to provide a people, or a reader, anything of long-lasting value. So the Nobel Prize grants Colombia and Marquez international approval, recognizes the country’s literature as “significant” and imparts to western readers everywhere a sense of validation and satisfaction; they’ve stepped outside of the first world and learned that, hey, people in Colombia aren’t all that different from me! But why is this necessary? And at what cost does it come?
Why does Latin American culture, or any, have to operate on the same plane as that of the rest of the world to be considered its equal? Why do we all have to have the same stories, the same ideas, the same feel-good sense of being the same, to recognize another country and/or it’s people as valuable? And how, as American readers, should we take that in? Doesn’t it, in a way, serve to present a face of desperation on the part of the author? That he/she feels there is no other way to communicate with a western audience but to position their own people and country in line with western mythologies? And what does that say about us, living in the western half of the “global village” in which we pride ourselves on being part of, if that really is the only way the rest of the world can get through to us?
I’ve been reading a fascinating volume of essays by author/novelist/critic Tom Parks recently on writing and what it means to be an author in the 21st century and in it he gives substantial space to globalization and its effects on literature. He mentions Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi, who vocally commented on magical realism’s deleterious effects by complaining that “by gaining the approval of powerful readerships abroad, magical realism was preventing South American writers from recounting the more prosaic truths about the continent.”
Parks goes on to relate, or at least ponder the consequences of a publishing world which values and therefore rewards writers writing for outside audiences, those readers outside of their own country/culture, and what that means for the talented writers writing in their own country, for their own country. First of all in the sense of how difficult it will be for those writers in the latter category to get published outside of their native tongue, their subject matter and style being too exotic for most readers to grasp and enjoy, and secondly in the sense of what we, as readers, begin to think we, most likely in error, know.
Do we really know Colombia because we’ve read Marquez? An author whose books are clearly about Colombia and its history, but seem to be intended for, or at least written with potent, unshakeable awareness of, those outside of it?
I mentioned there were two things magical realism’s proponents attempt to accomplish in their story, the first, as summarized above, being the creation of a national mythology, operating under the assumption, necessarily then, that it needs to be mythologized.
Secondly, its authors, at the same time, use fantastical elements and devices in their stories to illustrate a recent history which is, very often in South American and non-Western countries, a very difficult one, and one whose pain and suffering is still all too brutally recent.
It’s an effective and pragmatic approach to tackling a recent, agonizing history, allowing a group of people to begin the slow healing process after war or disaster by subverting actual reality beneath a shimmering haze of symbolism and absurdity. Life is absurd, Marquez seems to be screaming on every page. What more is there to say? It’s not denial or excuse-making, which all too often characterize a country’s reaction to suffering, but a recognition, an acceptance, and a potent gesture towards recovery.
But, while that idea can be conveyed in two sentences, Marquez takes a novel, an exhaustively detailed novel, full of dense symbolism and historical allusion, most of which will be completely lost on a non-Colombian reader.
As we, the international reading community, read novels like those of Marquez, what are we to make of the dense symbolism and historical allusion? And what do the vast majority of readers stand to gain by reading a symbolic reinterpretation of a country with whose history they are generally speaking, entirely unfamiliar? Is it acceptable to simply read for pleasure (should you be amongst those who find reading Marquez and company pleasurable)? Naturally I’m not arguing that reading isn’t in and of itself pleasurable, but is it fair to read purely for pleasure when a book, ostensibly, carries so much cultural and historical significance?
100 Years, with its plethora of characters who seem to refuse the notion that any explanation or verification of facts or existence are necessary, whether out of a desire to rightfully avoid additional trauma, or as a result of the passing of time and its effects on memory, makes sense for a Colombian audience, the history is of course already familiar, so there is no need to painfully reconstruct it factually. The story’s overarching aura of absurdity allows Marquez a conceit from which he can beautifully illustrate the futility of explanation; facts, and their recounting, in Marquez’s world, serve no good purpose for a country, in his case, following a brutal civil war.
But what about the rest of us? What do we lose, if our only knowledge of Colombia is Marquez?
So I’m back to the beginning. Who is the intended audience of magical realism?
If it is the outsider, the international reading community, then what does the story illustrate for its native readers? That their country’s leading voices (at least on the international stage) would seek to equate their own, unique history with that of everyone else? That that, indeed, might be necessary.
If it is for the “insider,” what do we, as the international reading community, stand to gain? What are we, without contextual knowledge, missing? And how much does it matter?