After reading Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, I knew that, sooner or later, I’d have to have more of Weinberger’s work under my belt. After biding my time, watching for an inexpensive used copy and to make up a minimum order that qualified for free shipping, I finally ordered and received this one. Good for me.
I’d read the GR description of 19 Ways, but somehow I’d decided it would be ‘about’ Wang Wei’s short poem in the same way that An Elemental Thing is about whatever-the-hell-it’s-about comprised of incredible writing on various topics presented in prose, sorta, and poetry, sorta. (I’d encourage any fans of writing to give AET a fair shot.)
But the fact is, the description of this one is exactly as it says—EW provides 19 translations and elaborates on their successes and failures, often with humor, always with insight. Versions by Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and Octavio Paz (the three most recognizable names to American readers) are among those considered; Snyder’s seems to fare the best.
Poetry is that which is worth translating.
So says the first line of this very brief and precise volume. Kind of a slap in the face for someone like myself whose impatience with poetry I’ve documented in other reviews. The statement is something I’d like to believe, but I have my experience to contend with. This book is a reminder that poetry must be interpreted (s-h-u-d-d-e-r) before it can be claimed as our own. In the Further Comments by Octavio Paz—at times a tribute to the translation of Cathay by Ezra Pound, at other times a description of his own (Paz’s) considerations while translating and retranslating the poem—is this aside on Pound’s translation: Nothing could be more remote from the prose chopped into short lines that today passes for free verse. I like that, even with the repeated kicks to the shins which Bolaño’s ghost delivers under my desk.
Most readers will likely prefer An Elemental Thing, and for good reason; most poets should read both.
Writing this review is gonna be a nightmare—with inserting all the diacritical marks into a Word doc., pasting, checking, doing it over… Reading it will, likely, be worse.
Now I ask you. Wait. Not quite now. First, I need to climb down under the desk, somewhere safe and protected.
NOW, I ask you: Who has not opened an Introduction to Literature or some other literature survey tome, of any stripe or region, knowing that it will deal predominately with one’s own interest, Literary Fiction, only to find nearly half of said introduction or survey taken up with something called Poetry? I mean really. Who would see something like that coming? Who knew?
Apparently, not I. Now for those of you who wouldn’t be surprised by said inclusion (I’m still under the desk, no need to throw anything) , MLAL takes on the scope of Latin American poetry with what would seem to be an authoritative and informed perspective and covers it nicely. Nicely, in this case meaning that Poetry doesn’t take three-quarters of this slim volume. All the familiars are there: Darío, Martí, Neruda, Borges, Paz, etc., plus plenty of less familiar names which should probably be better known. Fans of Wittgenstein’s Mistress who want to know more about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, see pages 20 and 78. And even non-poetry fans must want to read Nicanor Parra after saying the name aloud. Say it with me now: Nic-a-nor Parrrrrrrrrrrrra. And with a title like: Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great how could you go wrong?
So, now out-from-under the desk. When it comes to more familiar ground, Literary Fiction, my interest is pricked, so to speak. The chapter on 19th century Latin American prose, that which must be regarded as foundational, left me humbled; I don’t think I’d heard of any them—authors to be pursued include: José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (author of what some consider the first Latin American novel: The Itching Parrot), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, et al., a humbling chronicle of my ignorance. But with 20th century literature, the familiarity grows. The author provides brief biographies and synopses of works of Paz, Borges, Onetti, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, García Márquez (the usual suspects), as well as authors known to varying degrees: Puig, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante, Lezama, et al., authors who’ll keep me going well into the foreseeable future. It’s not until one arrives at contemporary Latin American fiction that one suspects this Very Short Introduction is something liberated from one of the author’s previous surveys/introductions. Among a very few contemporary authors, only two ring any bells: Roberto Bolaño and Fernando Vallejo (whom he calls “the best two contemporary novelists”) and mentions briefly The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile (Bolaño) and Our Lady of the Assassins (Vallejo) [both Bolaños got 5 stars from me, Vallejo got 4—can’t win ‘em all].
Conspicuous absentees: Adlofo Bioy Casares, César Aira, Macedonio Fernandez, Machado de Assis, and Pedro Lemebel. He does cite several women authors and seems to have made an effort at including every Latin American nation.
He also describes how Romanticism and Realism played out in Latin American writing, yielding to something called costumbrismo (a regional blend of Romanticism and Realism), modernismo vs. Modernism, Magical Realism and recent reaction to it—especially from Bolaño—the Boom, and newer movements: MacOndo and Crack.
All-in-all, a pretty good introduction for anyone interested.
Chapter 1: Landscape Memory—The Orchard Keeper: while commenting on an abundance of regional and historical facts, the author points to events in the novel which presuppose those conditions, places, and events; cites numerous oral histories (including one by Lemuel Ownby, a remarkable likeness of Arthur “Ather” Ownby), local histories, and other primary sources; discusses the devastating effects of railroad logging, the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park, and the TVA. Includes a discussion of the region’s increasing distrust of the Federal government, particularly with regard to the ‘blockaders’ and the excise tax on whiskey. Ecocriticism gives voice to the natural world of TOK and precedes a Marxist (although she says Marxian) consideration of the role of technology in the novel. Finally, three character studies of the ‘defenders of the orchard (Arthur Ownby, Marion Sylder, and John Wesley Rattner) complete the chapter. After reading this chapter, it’s incredible how all the pieces seem to fit—a mountain mosaic—so much packed into so few pages. She's especially good at unpacking the final scene in the graveyard.
Additional chapter keywords: antinomian, mentor, vengeance, Gnostic, ecocentric, repudiation [not sure if this is helpful, but, hey, there it is]
I started this book back in June before setting it aside, disappointed, and wondering: WTF is going on here? I found it confused and confusing. Did he think exile was real or didn’t he? (He does, or he doesn’t, depending on how he defines exile—writers, on the other hand, seem to be immune to exile as writers can write anywhere they happen to be.)
The speeches which begin this volume were frantic, taking off on tangents, leaving me to wonder what the attendees must have thought as he proceeded through them. The reviews which followed seemed equally frantic: this is the book, this is what I’ll speak to instead (like so many of us GR reviewers often do). I was reminded of Roberto Benigni when he won the Academy Award in 1998. video (Benigni) [image error] (Bolaño) Tell me those two aren’t related. Tell me.
In any case, I waited, restarted the collection and loved it. In addition to the speeches and reviews, there are numerous articles/essays—his thoughts on Melville and Twain, the two authors who tower over American fiction (all American fiction—for Bolaño American fiction is the fiction of the Americas, North, South, Latin, the whole shebang); what amounts to an annotated bibliography of Latin American authors (many of whom he knew); autobiographical information snatched piecemeal from the various volume entries; the Latin American authors who tower over the rest (or should).
Want to know what aspect of DFW Bolaño discussed with Rodrigo Fresán? his prolixity
Want to know what he thought of Chabon and Palahniuk? didn’t care for them
Want to know what he thought about Grombowicz? Aira? Neruda? Whitman? Marías? read the book.
Originally, I thought this volume would be of only archival interest; something for those who wanted to read absolutely everything Bolaño wrote. It’s more than that—it’s a celebration—presented in what I’ve come to consider Bolaño’s fevered, passionate, hectic, all too brief way. One for Bolaño’s fans and those who have an interest in Latin American literature. If I have a complaint, and I guess I do, is that the Preface makes it clear that the volume isn’t complete. My question remains: why the hell not? At least, it’s not something I can blame on the author.
Beware on this one! (Emphasis greatly exaggerated). Don’t believe the reviewers on this title—believe Baxter, the author. Many reviewers (and I suspec...moreBeware on this one! (Emphasis greatly exaggerated). Don’t believe the reviewers on this title—believe Baxter, the author. Many reviewers (and I suspect they are authors or aspiring authors) suggest that their interests in this title is what the title is about—consequently, you’ll see many reviewers describe Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction as a book for writers, on writing as a ‘craft’ (as if this book has how-to potential), or on the act of writing fiction. These reviewers aren’t lying to you or trying to deceive you in any way; none of them seem malicious or poorly informed. Instead, they see what Baxter’s collection offers them.
Other reviewers seem more inclined to believe Baxter’s explicit subtitle: Essays on Fiction. The essays have as much to offer readers as writers. Baxter clearly delights in reading and writing. In this he is rather like James Wood (a personal favorite) pointing to the well-placed word or phrase or sentence and shouting: Look at this! Isn’t this something? or Check this out!
For me, this is the best kind of criticism, a writer/reader/critic sharing what’s has caught his or her eyes in a particular work and describing how those elements work with enthusiasm and from an informed perspective.
I’d prefer to give this title four-and-a-half stars, not because it has faults or flaws, but because I wish there was more of it. (less)
Indispensable. While I usually refer to Harmon & Holman first (A Handbook to Literature), I come back to this volume for more depth. Collectively,...moreIndispensable. While I usually refer to Harmon & Holman first (A Handbook to Literature), I come back to this volume for more depth. Collectively, they make a great pair.(less)
One to be refered to over and over. It includes more entries than Abrams' A Glossary of Terms, but Abrams' book has longer, and in some ways better, c...moreOne to be refered to over and over. It includes more entries than Abrams' A Glossary of Terms, but Abrams' book has longer, and in some ways better, coverage of each entry. I usually go to this volume first, then follow up with Abrams when I want to know more. (less)