borges on illustration & henry james

BURGIN: I don’t know if I believe in pictures with a book. Do you?

BORGES: Henry James didn’t. Henry James didn’t because he said that pictures were taken in at a glance and so, of course, as the visual element is stronger, well, a picture makes an impact on you, that is, if you see, for example, a picture of a man, you see him all at once, while if you read an account of him or a description of him, then the description is successive. The illustration is entire, it is, in a certain sense, in eternity, or rather in the present. Then he said what was the use of his describing a person in forty or fifty lines when that description was blotted by the illustration. I think some editor or other proposed to Henry James an illustrated edition and first he wouldn’t accept the idea, and then he accepted it on condition that there would be no pictures of scenes, or of characters. For the pictures should be, let’s say, around the text, no?—they should never overlap the text. So he felt much the same way as you do, no?

BURGIN: Would you dislike an edition of your works with illustrations?

BORGES: No, I wouldn’t, because in my books I don’t think the visual element is very important. I would like it because I don’t think it would do the text any harm, and it might enrich the text. But perhaps Henry James had a definite idea of what his characters were like, though one doesn’t get that idea. When one reads his books, one doesn’t feel that he, that he could have known the people if he met them in the street. Perhaps I think of Henry James as being a finer storyteller than he was a novelist. I think his novels are very burdensome to read, no? Don’t you think so? I think Henry James was a great master of situations, in a sense, of his plot, but his characters hardly exist outside the story. I think of his characters as being unreal. I think that the characters are made – well, perhaps, in a detective story, for example, the characters are made for the plot, for the sake of the plot, and that all his long analysis is perhaps a kind of fake, or maybe he was deceiving himself.”

(Richard Burgin, Conservations with Jorge Luis Borges (1968), pp. 69–71.)

july 11–july 20

Books

  • Matthew Derby, The Snipe
  • Stan Mir, Test Patterns
  • Marguerite Young, Moderate Fable
  • Lisa Robertson, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip
  • John R. Stilgoe, Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English
  • Massimo Bontempelli, The Chess Set in the Mirror, trans. Estelle Gilson
  • Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood

Films

  • The Bank Dick, directed by Edward F. Cline

images

“ ‘And now,’ he continued, getting more heated, ‘it’s time you knew the facts. You should know that chess pieces are much, much older than people. Humans were created many centuries after chess pieces, and they are gross imitations of pawns and bishops, kings and queens. Even their horses are imitations of ours. Then they built towers to imitate what we had. After that, they did a lot of other things, but those are superfluous. And everything that occurs among human beings, especially the most important things, which one studies in history, are nothing more than confused imitations and a hodgepodge of variants of the great games of chess we have played. We are the exemplars and governors of humanity. Those things I told you before concerned the other images, and I feel sorry for them, but we are truly eternal. And we, effectively, are in charge of the world. We are the only ones who have a raison d’être and an ideal.’ ”

(Massimo Bontempelli, The Chess Set in the Mirror, trans. Estelle Gilson, pp. 49–50.)

july 1–july 10

Books

  • Robert Kelly, Under Words
  • Robert Kelly, A Transparent Tree: Fictions
  • Damon Krukowski, The Memory Theater Burned

Exhibits

  • “The Making of Americans,” James Gallery, CUNY

Films

  • My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor
  • A Flirt’s Mistake, dir. George Nichols
  • The Knockout, dir. Charles Avery
  • The Rounders, dir. Charles Chaplin
  • Leading Lizzie Astray, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Hot Saturday, dir. William A. Seiter
  • Torch Singer, dir. Alexander Hall & George Somnes
  • Saturday Night Fever, dir. John Badham
  • Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

mildred pierce

What happened was that as Mildred’s expanded, the food we were asked to eat was just too much, too fast. At first it was a pleasure; the fried chicken, in particular. We sat at checkered tablecloths and were careful not to spill the gravy or make crumbs – the set dressers were vigilant, and among the meanest people at the studio. The coffee was good, too, very hot, but we were not permitted to blow on it because this action distended our cheeks, and consequently many burned their mouths, without grimacing of course.

But the plot called for more Mildred’s, more chicken, more scalding coffee, and also those mile-high cream pies, the kind no one makes anymore, as if they were prohibited. Why not make a pie so tall it cannot fit anywhere but a Hollywood set? But even the pies began to wear on us. The variety helped – pumpkin, apple, and the myriad creams: pineapple, banana, lemon chiffon – however many of us began to fall ill. Those who fell sick nonetheless showed up for work, because work was not plentiful, and in addition to our wages we were eating well; but the eating was difficult enough without feeling sick.

Then we had to travel, to the Mildred’s at Laguna Beach, to the many Mildred’s in the booming Valley – often in one day, at one meal even. The script would call for chickens down south and pie back north. The choice assignment was Beverly Hills, but soon they stopped serving food there altogether and used it only for the office scenes. While Mildred was working in Beverly Hills, we were eating everywhere else, keeping the money flowing, the business booming. The plot necessities were clear, but none of us could see how it could last.

And it didn’t last. Not enough mouths, not enough chicken, not enough pie to pay for all the costs associated with the now ubiquitous Mildred’s. An entire population was eating, but it wasn’t enough. It would take the end of the war, returning soldiers, big new families, to eat all the food this plot required. Before that could happen they killed off the principals, closed the set, put us out of work. Then we missed the chicken and coffee. I remember arguments about which Mildred’s had been the best, which pie, which gravy with the fried chicken. These were long, impassioned bouts of nostalgia for a set the likes of which we would never see again, food we could only recall in black and white, that looked so good we could never be sure we had ever really tasted it.

(Damon Krukowski, from The Memory Theater Burned, 2004.)

anna maria ortese, “the iguana”

Anna Maria Ortese
The Iguana
(trans. Henry Martin)
(McPherson & Company, 1987; originally 1965)


When I was young, I had a great love of books that eschewed realism: the predictable science fiction in junior high, followed by Kafka, Vonnegut, Borges, and García Márquez in high school. The reasons behind this aren’t particularly hard to ferret out: when you’re growing up in an environment as dreadfully prosaic and generally deprived of stimuli as the rural Midwest was then, any offer of escape is tempting. It’s exciting when Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself turned into a beetle when you’ve woken up thousands of times and that never happens: the pull is that something different might be possible. Dalí’s soft watches, Redon’s floating heads, Magritte’s flaming tubas were attractive because they weren’t what you saw in the boring world. Baudelaire’s “Anywhere out of the World” might be a credo for this sort of thinking. This wasn’t, of course, the only reason that I found value in those writers or artists; but it was a not insignificant part. And in part this was a reactive impulse: narratives in which anything could happen were more entertaining than the Dickens or Hawthorne we were presented in class as examples of serious literature.

As time went on, I found myself less drawn to this sort of writing: re-reading Moby-Dick in college, I finally realized it wasn’t a book about hunting a whale; re-reading Ulysses, I finally understood that style could be as interesting that what you were taking about, no matter how boring it might appear. The world became interesting in its own right. And with this turn came the thinking that the fantastic was a little cheap, perhaps lazy: a crutch to be inserted when the regular story wasn’t interesting enough on its own. Inventiveness became less valuable than ability. There’s nothing to stop a writer who’s broken the bounds of the ordinary world from continuing to do so, deflating all tension. If you’ve decided that angels are going to float around your hospital, there’s not really anything to stop them from winding up your plot for you. Constraint of some sort is necessary. Kafka still works because the one moment of strangeness he inserts becomes the absent center of his story; The Metamorphosis isn’t about insects.

I don’t know that this is a general principle of my reading; but when there are more books to be read than I can feasibly read, it’s a useful principle for pruning. I don’t think there’s any sort of dichotomy between the realistic and the fantastic, and I’m not by any means attempting to mount a defense of realism, whatever that might be construed as. But all of this brings me to Anna Maria Ortese’s The Iguana, which has ignominiously sat on my shelves along with two volumes of short stories since I bought them from a McPherson booth at a book fair a few years ago. Henry Martin is a fantastic translator & the co-author, with Gianfranco Baruchello, of two of my favorite books, and McPherson’s taste is next to impeccable; I have, really, no excuse for taking so long to read this. Better late than never, I suppose.

From the beginning of this book, the reader is unsettled. The book is written in the style of a fairy tale; an immensely wealthy Count, sometimes Aleardo, sometimes Daddo, lives with his mother in Milan. Technology is absent; the date is difficult to pin down, though there’s criticism of the Milanese (too property-oriented, too in love with business) that comes from a recognizably southern Italian perspective. One assumes that because of the persistence of nobility, we are sometime before the creation of the Italian Republic in 1946, maybe the late nineteenth century; but one also remembers that Italian nobility does persist, though it’s no longer legally recognized. That we are in the present becomes apparent in a description of Daddo’s best friend:

[Daddo] had not yet married, and had no marital intentions, even in spite of the pressures of his mother the Countess, who had already paid visits to several prominent Swiss families. He felt marriage would have limited him, yet one couldn’t say how. He led the simplest life conceivably, the almost monotonous life of a monk. He spun out his days in the studio, drawing houses like a child, and his sole evening amusement was the company of Boro Adelchi, a young publisher of the nouvelle vague, extremely ambitious, but with still garbled finances. We’ll add, parenthetically, that Daddo was careful to keep mother in the dark about constantly backing his friend with notable amounts of cash. (p. 3)

Adelchi seems to be created in the mode of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, discoverer of Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard; The Iguana was published seven years before Feltrinelli wound up dead, but Adelchi’s desires to publish the new (which he hopes that Daddo can discover in his travels) are very much in his form:

Here we have to offer a few words about a strange confusion that dominated Lombard culture at the time, thereby setting the tone of publishing – a confusion concerning the character of oppression and consequent revolt. Perhaps attempting to polemicize against the menaces of Marxist ideology, the Milanese saw oppression and revolt as no more than a question of feelings and the right to express them, forgetting that not even feelings survive – neither feelings nor any desire to express them – when people have no money (given the world’s time-honored conventions), or where money can buy everything, or where penury cohabits with great ignorance. Briefly put, the Milanese were persuaded that some world of oppression had something to say, whereas the oppressed don’t even exist, or can’t, at least, have any awareness of being oppressed when their condition is authentic and a legacy from a distant past. The only thing left is the oppressor, who likewise has no knowledge of what he is, even while sometimes, out of habit, aping the stances and behavior that would legitimately befit his victim, if any such victim had escaped extinction. But these of course are sophistries that could never have assuaged the publishers’ hunger for things with which to whet the public’s languid appetite. Such arguments slow the rhythms of production. But to turn the issue upside down – an issue very fashionable at the time – and to see oppression in frankly traditional and therefore reassuring terms, gave a fool-proof guarantee of approval, excitement, good will, and finally sales, coming again full circle to much-loved money. (pp. 4–5)

This lengthy excerpt presages, in certain terms, what will happen in the book. Daddo sails from Genoa out of the Mediterranean, in hopes of finding islands to buy for his mother and narratives to buy for Adelchi to publish. Somewhere off the coast of Portugal he finds the unmapped island of Ocaña. (An otherwise useful online biography of Ortese – embarrassingly, the English Wikipedia lacks a page on her – explains that “Ocaña” is the name used by Stevenson in Treasure Island, which doesn’t seem to be the case: an Italian translation of that book used “l’Isola dello Scheletro,” a straightforward version of “Skeleton Island.” There’s an Ocaña in Colombia, and an Ocaña in the middle of Spain – site of the Battle of Ocaña in the peninsular war – but neither of those seem to have anything to do with Ortese’s narrative.) Ocaña is inhabited by impoverished Portuguese gentry; conveniently, Don Ilario has both poetry that might be published, and it seems possible that Daddo might be able to convince him to sell his island. Again to quote from the beginning of the book, Daddo suggests to Adelchi what he might want:

“What you need are the confessions of some madman, how about the story of a madman in love with an iguana?” came Daddo’s playful reply, and who knows how such a thing managed to enter his head? In fact he quickly turned silent and felt ashamed of himself for making fun of illness and the innocent lives of animals. Like so many Lombards, he felt enormous compassion for both, despite never having had anything to do with them. (pp. 3–4)

This is, of course, exactly what ends up happening in the book. Don Ilario and his half-brothers have as their servant an iguana named Estrellita, whom they pay with rocks as they maintain that she is not human. Daddo sees this injustice and wants to relieve it; he falls in love with the iguana, who remains in thrall to Don Ilario. Complications ensue; theology comes into play; a bunch of people arrive who shouldn’t be there, and it appears that machinations have been set in place for Don Ilario to regain his fortune by marrying an American, a scheme which the existence of the iguana will foil. This builds and builds to a feverish pitch; a few chapters before the end of the book we learn that Daddo, from whose perspective the book has been narrated, has gone mad and has been imagining an old peasant woman to be an iguana; he dies, his mother cleans everything up, and the narrative is brought to a close.

What is this book about then? It’s not about the etiology of madness; Daddo’s madness is his fundamental approach to the world, which is wrong and untenable. Daddo has tried to live justly; his view of the world as something that can be bought makes that impossible and causes him to break down. Ortese presents Daddo sympathetically, which is what makes this book so haunting; but it is always clear that her sympathies are elsewhere, in a harder-edged world.

june 16–june 30

Books

  • Marcel Allain, Juve in the Dock, trans. A. R. Allinson
  • Marcel Allain, Fantômas Captured, trans. A. R. Allinson
  • Marcel Allain, The Revenge of Fantômas, trans. Afred Allison
  • Mario Bellatin, Beauty Salon, trans. Kurt Hollander
  • Mario Bellatin, Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions, trans. Cooper Renner
  • Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change
  • Marcel Allain, The Yellow Document, or Fantômas of Berlin, trans. unknown
  • Anna Maria Ortese, The Iguana, trans. Henry Martin
  • Dino Buzzati, Larger Than Life, trans. Henry Reed
  • Carlo Levi, The Linden Trees, trans. Joseph M. Bernstein
  • Dino Buzzati, Restless Nights, trans. Lawrence Venuti