This one came recommended by Ol’ Soiled Slacks—a neighbor, of sorts, just a short drive from here, a pleasant afternoon’s…wait, no one voluntarily go
This one came recommended by Ol’ Soiled Slacks—a neighbor, of sorts, just a short drive from here, a pleasant afternoon’s…wait, no one voluntarily goes to Indiana, anywhere in Indiana. There are scads of Republicans there, fundamentalists aplenty, and a surprising number of nudist camps. The place is scary, and the contents of the water there is suspect at best. In any case.
So here I was, casually making my way through some pretty incredible Latin American authors, occasionally dipping into the waters of Spanish literature, meandering through Marías, applauding Alfau, laying in a variety of Vila-Matas. Doing my part. But, amazon started badgering me about this novel. OSS attested to its awesomeness. Even Harold Freakin’ Bloom included it in The Western Canon. The ever-conspiratorial Wikipedia implicated this one as foundational in the picaresque novel genre. Harmon & Holman’s A Handbook to Literature said: “It was not until the sixteenth century that this rogue literature [the picaresque novel] crystallized into a definite type. A novel called La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades, probably dating from 1554, was one of the most-read books of the century.” What? 1554? Who am I to argue with Bloom, Harmon & Holman, OSS, history? Okay, I bit. One used copy to go, please, and make it snappy!
Lazaro, the novel’s picaro, makes his way through childhood to adulthood serving one wretched master after another. He tells his story matter-of-factly, but with a sense of humor that neither detracts nor overwhelms. It’s The Painted Bird meets Will Rogers. What’s most remarkable about the novel is the contemporary feel given it, presumably, by W.S. Merwyn. Job well done. It reads like historical fiction rather than fiction with a history of almost 500 years. Given that, it’s down-right incredible. If Merwyn’s done a translation of Don Quixote, I want it and I want it NOW!
Four stars for the novel, a fifth for the translation. I’m not saying rush out and buy it. I will say, if you have a chance to get this one used, or from a library, especially in this translation, you could do much worse with your money and time.
At a minimum, readers intending to read Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co. would be well-advised not only to read (or reread) Bartleby, the Scrivener, but also the last story in this collection. It matters
Cavalry Soldier—A sergeant imagines his future as he advances with his squadron through skirmishes in the Italian countryside before encountering his doppelgänger and being confronted by his commanding officer for possession of a horse taken in battle. The indifference of war.
Dream Death—Prose poem.
Places with endless significance, quite unlike reality; districts I’ve never seen, but which I know are thus and such.
Dreams are always our own and true, if only in the time it takes to dream them.
Tale of the 672nd Night—A comfortable merchant’s son finds horror in trying to learn the nature of personal threats made against him and one of his servants. Peculiarly compelling.
The Golden Apple—A rug merchant makes his way to a city where he had been abused years earlier and where he’d acquired a scented, golden apple as a gift for his exotic bride; meanwhile, his seven-year-old daughter finds the apple in a chest and her curiousity leads her to trade it for a glimpse into the sealed well. All the weight and mystery of an ancient folktale—a tale from Scheherazade.
The Rose and the Desk—A nice little one-pager in which the created challenges The Real.
Tale of the Veiled Woman—As a young mother considers the fate of the child she’s carrying and waits for her husband to return from the mines, she watches a young miner walking in the distance; in the mine, her husband (Hyacinth—really, Really!) meets the same young miner who encourages him to think and act on what is to be. This is not your father’s fairy tale. Then again, who knows who lays claim to his/her dreams?
The Village in the Mountains—Look! Up in the sky! It’s a story. No, it’s a prose poem. Whatever it is, to describe is to demean it.
Reflection—Prose poem. Lovely. I want more; more, I tell you.
Twilight and Storm After Dark—A boy watches a live sparrow hawk which has been nailed to a barn door before lurking in the dark to see butcher’s daughter undressing and then following a rejected, pregnant woman and feeling in control of her pain.
An Incident in the Life of Marshall de Bassompierre—A night of passion in 1663 Paris (the Plague Years), goes unrepeated; as contemporary as a similar night in 1980s San Francisco. Haunting.
Military Story—Schwendar, one of the squadron’s dragoons, though haunted by two images of death from his youth, is able to find a contentedness among the squadron following a flash and another flash.
Tide Creature: Mussel Poem— Prose poem. A mollusk (?) briefly considers us (?). Nice.
Tale of Two Couples—A strangely structured story which begins then becomes something else as if a fragment, undeveloped, precedes the actual story of two couples—the narrator and his ‘boyish’ looking wife attend their friends, another couple, as the wife in the second couple concedes to a terrible death. The precarious presence of love.
A Letter [the actual title of the better known titular piece]—An eloquent letter from Phillip, Lord Chandos, to Francis Bacon in which he reveals that language has failed experience and he will no longer write (create). Is it a story? Is it a poem? Is it beautiful? Yes.
As luck would have it, language fails again—Project Gutenberg provides only German editions of Hofmannsthal’s writing. My German, unfortunately, is limited to the manipulation of a menu and finding a bathroom.