Reading Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This story takes the form of an article about one Pierre Menard, a novelist who sought to re-create Don Quixote word for word – not by merely copying the text, but by getting himself into such a state of mind as to write the Quixote exactly as Cervantes would have written it. Menard succeeded, and Borges’ anonymous narrator has great praise for his Quixote, in comparison to Cervantes’ original. In one of my favourite parts of ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator compares (identical) passages from the two Quixote texts, finding a depth and richness in Menard’s rendition absent from Cervantes’, thanks to the different contexts of their composition.

I found this story delightfully absurd, but it’s a particular pleasure to consider the multiple layers of authorship and interpretation within it: Cervantes, Menard, the narrator, then Borges (and then the reader, of course). For example, Menard may have his aspirations, but it’s the narrator who gives him legitimacy by judging Menard’s project successful. Yet, from the reader’s viewpoint (or mine, at least), there’s no difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’ so Menard comes across as somewhat of a Quixote figure himself, with delusions of grandeur. Or maybe it’s the narrator who is a Quixote figure for his opinion of Menard. Layers of interpretation…

Read my other posts on Borges’ stories.

Book details

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. James E. Irby (1962), in Labyrinths (1964 edn), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

The Sing of the Shore – Lucy Wood

Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.

Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.

In these stories, the place gets in everything:

There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.

This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.

‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.

There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.

Elsewhere

Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.

Read other reviews of The Sing of the Shore at Shiny New Books and Caught by the River.

Book details

The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 1

Robert Macfarlane is currently hosting a Twitter reading group on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I bought a copy last year and hadn’t yet read it, so this seemed an excellent opportunity. I thought I would collect my thoughts together on the blog as I go, to form a kind of reading diary.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it begins as an account of a walk from Lowestoft to Bungay, undertaken by Sebald in August 1992 – but it also includes digressions into memoir, history and science. I’ve added a little to my tweets here for clarification, but have not expanded on them. I have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions in italics. Finally, if you’re interested in following (or participating in) the Twitter discussion, search for hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn or #TRoS.

(Apologies for any strange formatting – I can’t seem to save the paragraphs correctly.)

***
This is my first time reading The Rings of Saturn (and Sebald in general). Opening impressions are how fluidly it moves from outdoors to claustrophobic interior, through literature, art and biology, all hanging together with the underlying theme of mortality.
And extraordinary images, such as the academic Janine Dakyns’ office full of paper:

The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Whenever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well.

(translation by Michael Hulse)

I found the opening quite disorienting: the sudden leaps from a coastal walk to immobility in hospital to compiling notes, each leap a year apart. I wasn’t expecting it to start that way.
The images are interesting… ostensibly illustrations, yet not. I mean, the first one in the book is of a blank hospital window! Even when they show, say, a street or coastal landscape mentioned in the text, the images feel somewhat disconnected.
Does “place” survive as stable category or surface here?
In what I’ve read so far, there tends to be a relative glimpse of Suffolk landscape, then Sebald will go into a more detailed scientific or historical anecdote. Makes memory/history seem more stable than landscape.
I love this description of the fishermen (on the beach a few miles south of Lowestoft) in chapter III: “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”
What other works does the book evoke for you?
I find myself thinking of Enrique Vila-Matas, and a book like Never Any End to Paris which confronts a real place with its counterpart in the imagination.

How does Sebald’s style cast its strange spell? How does it work (on you)?

A discursive, measured prose style that at times lulls me into assuming it’s documentary… then it will shift into something that goes beyond facts and imprints itself on the mind.

I’ve just read chapter IV, and that whole passage on naval battles and our inability to comprehend the suffering really struck me.

Where, in this book so drawn to human darkness, does guilt seem to reside?

So far as I’ve read, guilt seems to reside at all levels, depending on where Sebald’s focus lies at a given time. When he’s taking an overview, it’s often systems and ideologies who are guilty, but with individuals who knew what was happening.

Places might be guilty by association – the end of chapter IV could even be said to make outer space complicit in a human atrocity.

The “vanishing point” & “the view from above” are the two commonest perspectives in The Rings of Saturn. What are their implications for reader & narrator? How do we “see” in this book?

“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realise how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end…”

Generally, an ‘overview’ implies knowledge of a situation, but I think for Sebald it’s the opposite.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

I think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have a list of authors who I feel are almost Too Famous To Read, let alone Too Famous To Write About, for fear of having nothing original to think or say. I know this is absurd, because a) if I want to read a given book, there’s not much to stop me, and b) the point of writing this blog is to talk about my experience of reading books – something personal to me – not to pass an exam.

Anyway: I need to get over having this list of authors Too Famous To Read. Jorge Luis Borges was on it, but now I’ve borrowed a copy of his Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings from the library for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months. I’m going to blog some thoughts on what I read, and see how it goes.

In ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Dr Yu Tsun – a Chinese scholar of English and agent of the German Empire during the First World War – is pursued by a mercenary in the pay of England. Tsun travels to the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, the only person he knows who can help him get his secret message to the Chief. Albert and Tsun discuss Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, who constructed a model of the universe as a labyrinth of paths, each forking at a point of possibility, creating new paths and futures with each eventuality.

It feels a little odd to read this story now, as a long-time reader of science fiction and fantasy, and therefore used to the idea of parallel worlds and branching realities (I’m assuming, of course, that these ideas would have been reasonably new to Borges’ audience in 1941). Still, there is a strong sense of Yu’s being at the centre of a labyrinth of pasts and possible futures – for example, as a point where the paths of the past collapse into the present (Yu says that he thinks his Chief disdains the Chinese “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me”). But then there’s the ending, where all potential futures dissipate, and one reality was inevitable after all.

Book details

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Donald A. Yeats (1958), in Labyrinths (coll. 1964), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

The Iliac Crest – Cristina Rivera Garza

Today’s book is a short, strange and slipper novel from Mexico, only the second novel by Cristina Rivera Garza to appear in English. At the start, two women visit, and take up residence in, the unnamed narrator’s house. One claims to be the writer Amparo Dávila, and says she knows the narrator from when he was a tree. The second woman is an ex-lover of the narrator’s, referred to only as “the Betrayed”. The two women begin to speak to each other in a private language, and tell the narrator that they know he’s really a woman. Feeling threatened, the narrator decides to find out if his visitor really is Amparo Dávila – but this sets him on a course that will lead him to question what he thought he knew.

In her introduction, Rivera Garza refers to Amparo Dávila as a writer who has been marginalised in real life. In the novel, Amparo tells the narrator that she is writing about her disappearance – and disappearance is treated as a contagion. The narrator realises that he is part of a community of the disappeared:

And disappeared were our voices, our smells, our desires. We lived, if you will, in the in-between. Or rather, we lived with one foot in the grave and the other on terrain that held only a minute resemblance to life. Very few knew about us and even fewer worried about our fate.

(translation by Sarah Booker)

By treating social marginalisation as a communicable disease, Rivera Garza externalises it, in a way that enables her vividly to blur the boundary between marginalised and ‘mainstream’. Other boundaries are also challenged throughout the novel: boundaries of gender, for example, or the line between concrete reality and abstract conception. The experience of reading The Iliac Crest is fluid and disorienting.

Book details

The Iliac Crest (2002) by Cristina Rivera Garza, tr. Sarah Booker (2017), And Other Stories, 144 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Mama’s Boy – David Goudreault

This is the second Quebecer novel from Book*hug that I was offered for review by the translator, JC Sutcliffe (the first was François Blais’ Document 1). Mama’s Boy is David Goudreault’s first novel, and the first in a trilogy. It is framed as the testimony/confession of an unnamed man, who was separated from his mother as a child after she repeatedly tried to kill herself. He burned his way through foster families, thanks to his penchant for things like torturing animals and stealing. Now, as an adult, he believes he has tracked down his mother in another town. Faking his CV, he takes a job near her as an animal health technician, waiting for the right time to introduce himself.

I find that Mama’s Boy hinges very much on its narrative voice. As you’ll have gathered, Goudreault’s protagonist is not terribly sympathetic (to put it mildly), but there is a certain dark charisma to him that made me want to continue reading. For example:

Year in, year out, I continued my education collecting diagnoses and failures. I had so much experience repeating grades that I could have gone into teaching. French was okay, but I flunked all the other subjects without so much as lifting a finger. Even art. I made myself dope pipes out of clay, and I drew nothing but naked ladies. I was studying curves and perspective. Great geniuses are always misunderstood.

As time goes on, it’s not so much that the narrator becomes more likeable, but that there’s a greater sense of the tragedy underpinning his life, which further enriches the book. At the end of Mama’s Boy, I have no idea what will happen to its protagonist next – but I am keen to find out.

Since my review of Document 1, Book*hug have posted videos of readings from their Spring Launch. So, now you can watch JC Sutcliffe reading extracts from both Mama’s Boy and Document 1.

Book details

Mama’s Boy (2015)by David Goudreault, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Blind Spot – Javier Cercas (#SpanishPortugeseLitMonths)

July is when Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) have traditionally hosted Spanish Literature Month. I like to join in, because I’ve always found some excellent books that way. Well, now the event has expanded to cover Portuguese as well as Spanish lit, and it goes into August as well. So, welcome to Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months! I have quite a few books lined up for this season, starting today…

Whenever I find myself in a reading slump, the way out is often to try something that breaks the pattern of what I’d been reading previously. My way out of a recent reading slump was some non-fiction. The Blind Spot is an “essay on the novel” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas (whose The Impostor was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Cercas explores his approach to his own work, and identifies a tradition of novels with similar characteristics, before going on to consider issues such as the writer’s role in public life.

The novels that most interest Cercas have what he calls a “blind spot” at their centre: a point of ambiguity or contradiction which animates the whole work:

at the beginning of [novels with such a blind spot], or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novel consists of the search for an answer to this central question; when the search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is in the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.

(translation by Anne McLean)

Cercas’ key example of a “blind-spot novel” is Don Quixote which, he says, asks whether Quixote is mad, then demonstrates that he is both mad and sane – and, in Cercas’ view, Don Quixote ultimately shows all truth to be as ambiguous. Another example given by Cercas is Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is (irreconcilably) the embodiment of both good and evil.

I found this a fascinating idea to think about, and felt I could apply it to many of the novels that have stood out to me during the lifetime of this blog. For example, The Rehearsal asks unresolvable questions about what happened in a student-teacher scandal, and more widely about the nature of reality and performance. Human Acts asks whether and how the reality of an event such as the Gwangju Uprising can be processed. Nocilla Dream asks what kind of structure there can be in a de-centred, globalised world. In all three cases, the novel itself embodies an answer in the way that Cercas describes.

On the downside, I can’t help being disappointed that all of the novels discussed in The Blind Spot are by male writers, which feels like closing off whole realms of discussion. Still, as a book to think with, Cercas’ essay is nothing short of invigorating. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations that I (mentally) underlined:

The best literature is not what sounds literary, but what doesn’t sound like literature; that is: what sounds true. All genuine literature is anti-literature.

***

The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

You can read further reviews of The Blind Spot by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and James Doyle at Bookmunch.

Book details

The Blind Spot (2016) by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean (2018), MacLehose Press, 176 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

Missing – Alison Moore: a snapshot review

A new Alison Moore novel always promises to be splendidly unsettling, and Missing is no exception. Moore’s protagonist is Jessie Noon, a translator living in the Scottish Borders. Jessie’s job may be about finding the right words in order to make a connection between writer and reader, but her life is full of gaps and ambiguities. Her son walked out on her years ago, her second husband much more recently. Her cottage might be haunted, and a plot strand set in 1985 suggests that something tragic happened then between the teenage Jessie and her young niece.

Missing is full of everyday minutiae: supermarket shopping, train travel, a halting relationship between Jessie and a local outreach worker. But there’s a constant undercurrent of tension and uncertainty: you can never be quite sure how each individual element will resolve. As a result, reading Moore’s novel feels like being on a knife-edge.

Book details

Missing (2018) by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, 184 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Childless – Ignát Herrmann

Childless is another Very Short Classic, reissued alongside The Four Devils which I reviewed at the start of the month. Ignát Herrmann (1854-1935) was a Czech writer who, as far as I can tell, has had only a few works translated into English. I haven’t been able to track down the original publication year of Childless, but this translation (by Marie Busch and Otto Pick) dates from 1925.

We are introduced to Ivan Hron, who was disinherited by his father but then worked his way back up to become the general manager of a bank. For ten years, he has been married to Magdalena, the daughter of an businessman. Hron’s marriage proposal was initially refused by Magda’s father, but later accepted when her family fell on hard times.

Personal wealth, a successful career, a loving marriage… Hron would seem to have been very fortunate in life. However, he feels one lack deeply – the lack of children:

In spite of all the glamour of his brilliant, exciting life, Hron did not get rid of the old-fashioned feeling that life is perfect only when it is blessed with children. What point, what aim was there in his whole successful career? Why had he worked himself up to the highest position which was open to him, why did he save, to whom would he leave his fortune when, old and frail, he would end his days? What would rejoice his heart in old age?

One day, when Magda has gone away to visit her parents, Hron chances upon some of her personal correspondence – and what he reads there changes everything…

I’d really love to know how Childless was received in its time, because the way it turns out is… well, interesting in comparison the image I have of the period. Although Herrmann gives time to both Hron and Magda, we tend to see her through Hron’s perspective, and I find it hard not to wish to hear more from Magda in her own right (outside of her letters). Having said that, Childless is an affecting piece, and I’m really glad to have read it.

Book details

Childless by Ignát Hermann, tr. Marie Busch and Otto Pick (1925), Very Short Classics, 45 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

Childless is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

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