Thursday, January 31, 2013

Robert Walser / Berlin and the Artist

Berlin, 1920
Photo by Martin Muckacsi

Berlin and the Artist

by Robert Walser

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage. But there are yet other things as well.
Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding.
The excellent gentleman from the provinces, however, should by no means imagine that here in the city there are not lonelinesses as well. The metropolis contains lonelinesses of the most frightful sort, and anyone who wishes to sample this exquisite dish can eat his fill of it here. He can experience what it means to live in deserts and wastes. The metropolitan artist has no dearth of opportunities to see and speak to no one at all. All he has to do is make himself unpopular among certain arbiters of taste or else consistently fixate on failures, and in no time he’ll have sunk into the most splendid, most blossoming of abandonments.
The artist who is crowned with success lives in the metropolis as if in an enchanting Oriental dream. He hastens from one elegant household to the affluent next, sits down unhesitatingly at the opulently laden dining tables, and while chewing and slurping provides the entertainment. He passes his days in a virtual state of intoxication. And his talent? Does an artist such as this neglect his talent? What a question! As if one might cast off one’s gifts without so much as a by-your-leave. On the contrary. Talent unconsciously grows stronger when one throws oneself into life. You mustn’t be constantly tending and coddling it like a sickly something. It shrivels up when it’s too timidly cared for.
The artistic individual is nonetheless permitted to pace up and down, like a tiger, in his cave of artistic creation, mad with desire and worry over achieving some output of beauty. As no one sees this, there is no one to hold it against him. In company, he should be as breezy, affable, and charming as he can manage, neither too self-important nor too unimportant either. One thing he must never forget: he is all but required to pay court to beautiful, wealthy women at least a little.
After approximately five or six years have passed, the artist—even if he comes from peasant stock—will feel at home in the metropolis. His parents would appear to have lived and given birth to him here. He feels indebted, bound, and beholden to this strange rattling, clattering racket. All the scurrying and fluttering about now seem to him a sort of nebulous, beloved maternal figure. He no longer thinks of ever leaving again. Whether things go well with him or poorly, whether he comes down in the world or flourishes, no matter, it “has” him, he is forever under its spell, and it would be impossible for him to bid this magnificent restlessness adieu.

Robert Walser
Berlin Stories
Writer and translator Susan Bernofsky loves to blog about all things translation and the magical city of Berlin.

Biography of Susan Bernofsky

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Robert Walser / Lasting impressions

Lasting impressions
Robert Walser's The Tanners

portraits of Robert Walser included in W.G. Sebald's essay

Here’s what seized my attention right away. A young man enters a bookstore, asks to be introduced to the proprietor. Upon meeting the old man he begins a rambling, effusive overture detailing his profound desire to enter the world of bookselling. “My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love…” The proprietor agrees to hire the young man on the spot, giving him a week’s trial period. A week later, after having made a highly favorable impression, the young man approaches his employer and unexpectedly demands to be let go. “I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade in nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature…” His resignation speech is as deliciously excessive as his earlier declaration of vocational discovery. The sequence is hilarious, teetering on absurd, yet peppered with almost lyrical observations on the nature of work and youth and spiritual urges that resonate and will continue to resonate throughout this ambulatory, funny, hypnotic, strangely haunting work. It was the first novel from Swiss author Robert Walser, and the last to be translated into English—very beautifully, by Susan Bernofsky—more than a century after its 1906 publication.

Truthfully, it was the accolades alone that sold me on The Tanners(New Directions, $20). Walser was not widely read during his lifetime (1878-1956), but among his readers were Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse and Walter Benjamin. Those who have pledged their admiration for Walser in the decades after his death include Susan Sontag, J.M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald, who wrote the eloquent essay which functions as an introduction to The Tanners. “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether… he was only ever connected to the world in the most fleeting of ways.” Sebald’s evocation of Walser’s ghost-like movement through life, rarely settling anywhere, always walking, owning nothing, not even his own books, being institutionalized in a psychiatric facility in 1933, where he retired from writing, and finally dying of a heart attack on a snowy pathway, is captivating in its mystery, a mystery that extends into Walser’s work. The Tanners is titled after the siblings who inhabit its pages, but its central character, Simon Tanner, seems to have been conceived somewhat autobiographically. Only 20 at the novel’s start, he’s bright, seemingly full of promise, an orator of marvelous talents. “I don’t like to spend too long considering before I speak,” Simon says, yet he speaks always with wit and precision. He’s a hard-worker when employed. He moves from job to menial job, from apartment to spartan apartment, at times from sibling to sibling—his sister is an unmarried schoolteacher, his brothers include an academic and a landscape painter. Each worries over him fruitlessly. Toward the novel’s end Simon offers a typically loquacious confession to one of many strangers drawn to him. “I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in.”

The Tanners is both melancholy and relentlessly good-natured. Simon is both fascinated by and removed from the world around him. The book is constructed to an unusually large degree of letters and monologues—open the book at random, you’ll likely find someone writing or talking. Many of the speeches are Simon’s, though in Walser’s universe just about everyone is gifted with the ability to hold forth on whatever passing notion, and Simon’s wandering journey yields countless, arresting portraits of characters, even those glimpsed only briefly. Rosa, who weeps alone for an unrequited love; Klara, who falls wholly under the spell of each member of the Tanner clan she meets; a beguiling dancer; a young, married explorer, home from his travels, who likes to fire guns into the forest in the middle of the night; an old man with a dripping nose; a teacher suffering from domestic abuse; a gay nurse; a reformed pedophile. While never overwrought or imposed upon with psychological dissections, each character drifts vividly in and out of Walser’s vivid scenes, each one a depiction of urban or rural landscapes, a contrast that embodies the divided spirit of the protagonist. Sebald notes how so much of what occurs in Walser’s stories slip quickly and inexplicably out of memory, and I see what he means, Walser’s transitions can be so unassuming as to barely punctuate epiphanies, events, entrances and exits. Yet once you’ve read through The Tanners I think you’ll find that its faces and places and states of mind cascade through your memory. The order is lost, but the impressions remain.

The Tanners was my first experience with Walser’s work and I rushed directly from it to another Walser, Jakob von Gunten (NYRB Classics, $16.50), published in 1909, which I gather is his most famous novel, and which some of you may know as the source material to the 1995 Brothers Quay film Institute Benjamenta, which I haven’t seen. This shorter novel, translated by Christopher Middleton, written in the form of a diary, describes a deeply mysterious school for boys where very little is actually to be learned, so says the titular diarist, who at one point writes, “pupils are slaves, young leaves, torn from branches and trunks, given up to the merciless gale…” Yet Jakob seems to like this very much. He has come here, having ran from an oppressive father—in more ways than one does this novel seem to have had a major impact on Kafka—is eagerly striving to become “a zero” and aspires to a career in servitude. But there is also something very sinister about the Institute Benjamenta, which promises to be revealed to Jakob as he’s gradually embraced by its staff of two, made a favourite, and ushered into secret chambers where he at one point is instructed to “fondle” a “Wall of Worries.” The intrigue is only partly paid off, yet the finale is nonetheless satisfying.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Walser / The Tanners / Reviews

Fodtur. Robert Walser i sin elskede natur, hvor han vandrede lange ture i al slags vejr. Ofte med den noget yngre forfatterkollega Carl Seelig. - Foto: ullstein bild/Polfoto
Robert Walser
Review: The Tanners, Robert Walser
A Common Reader
I have had a very busy week and have been suffering mild literary withdrawal symptoms due to the demands of visitors preventing me from updating A Common Reader for the last few days, or even responding properly to those who have commented on my reviews – apologies to those.

However, I’ve managed to snatch some reading time and have enjoyed reading The Tanners by Robert Walser.   The only other book I’ve read by Walser is The Assitant, which I enjoyed greatly so I came to this newly published edition of The Tanners with a sense of anticipation.
Swiss writer Robert Walser wrote during the first part of the 20th century, and was a unique writer and as his Wikipedia entry says, “A characteristic of Walser’s texts is a playful serenity behind which hide existential fears. Today, Walser’s texts, completely re-edited since the 1970s, are regarded as among the most important writings of literary modernism”.  Walser led an outwardly limited life, never marrying and ending his years in an asylum.  He died while out for a long lonely walk in the snow
Robert Walser is an important writer for those with an interest in this period and in writers who followed in his wake such as W G Sebald.  Sebald in fact provides a critical biography of Walser in his 36 page introduction to this edition of The Tanners which is worth the purchase price in itself, beginning with the words,
The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. . . he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.
Walser wrote in minute pencil text, with letters barely 1mm high, and a facsimile of a couple of pages is provided in the introduction.  Apparently these pages had to be painstakingly deciphered before his works could be published.
The Tanners tells the story of three brothers and a sister,Simon, Kaspar, Klaus, and Hedwig who together comprise the Tanner family.  As the cover says, the story concerns “their wanderings, meetings, separations, quarrels, romances, employment and lack of employment over the course of a year or two”.  The story focuses on Simon, a strange young man, devoid of ambition who fails to see the need to make progress in the world and drifts from on temporary job to another, finding accommodation with a variety of women who he seems to charm into unconcern about prompt payment of rent.
He has no difficulty with landing himself on the charity of others but wraps around himself a cloak of philosophical musings which help him justify his dependency.  He soon loses interest in the clerical jobs he takes on and makes long-winded speeches to his employers explaining why they have disappointed him.
A long section of the book is taken up with his prolonged stay with his sister Hedwig, who is employed as a teacher in a remote village.  In this situation Simon comes into his own as a poetical son of the soil who charms his sister into providing for him while he muses on the fulfilment of living simply in rural surroundings.
When eventually Hedwig managed to free herself from her limpet-like brother, Simon returns to the city where he takes a position as a servant to a widow with an invalid son.  Simon, always seeing the positive in any situation takes to his new position with enthusiasm, adopting an almost masochistic delight in the restrictions of his new life:
How glad I am to be so hemmed in, so confined, so encloused.  Why should a person always be hankering for wide open spaces, and isn’t longing so restrictive a sentiment?  Here I am tightly squeezed in between four kitchen walls, but my heart is wide open and filled with the pleasure I take in my modest duty.
Simon’s masochism soon reaches its extreme when the lady of the house drops a beautiful piece of crockery and is so incensed that Simon has observed her act of clumsiness that she orders Simon to pick up the pieces and stands over him while he scrambles around on the floor, not knowing that Simon’s through-train is far from servile:
My cheeks are brushing against your dress. Every shard I gather up says to me, “You wretched creature”, and the hem of your dress says to me, “O happy one!”. I’m intentionally taking my time about gathering up the shards.  Does it now fill you with fresh rage to be forced to notice?  I’m finding is amusing to have been the miscreant. I like you when you’re angry with me.  Do you know why your anger so pleases me?  You’re only angry because I witnessed your clumsiness. You the grand lady in the presence of ignoble me.  Whit what enchanting rancour you  bade me gather up the shards.  And I’m not even hurrying as I do so:  for I wish you to become utterly furious and incensed over my taking so long. . .  Your silk dresss is beautiful when one considers that it contains a female body capable of trembling with excitement and weakness.  Your hands are beautiful hanging down towards me in all their length.  I hope you’ll box my ears with them some day.
By the end of the book, we realise that Simon is never going to amount to much in this world.  He drifts on to more rented rooms and more temporary jobs.  He meets people in inns, goes out for walks with whoever wants to accompany him and he lecture them at length about the joys of the simple, uncommitted life, despite its aimlessness and its deprivations.
Clearly there is much of Walser in this book, the sense of alienation from the concerns of others, and the existential anxieties that underlay the lifestyle of a drifter.  We somehow feel that anxiety on behalf of the people Simon encounters, for sooner or later they are going to be disappointed in him and find that his charm is thinly laid.
For myself I have been reminded of the importance of this writer and will now go on to read his other books in translation, of which there are now quite a few.

Robert Walser
In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work,The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:
You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.
And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:
No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.
Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.
He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Robert Walser / The Tanners / An Excerpt

Robert Walser

An Excerpt from 

Robert Walser's The Tanners

The Brooklyn Rail
Forthcoming from New Directions

It was snowing in the small village that morning. The children arriving at school had wet snowy shoes, trousers, skirts and heads and caps. They brought the scent of snow into the schoolroom with them, along with all sorts of debris from the muddy, sodden roads. Because of the snowfall, this horde of little ones was distracted, pleasurably agitated and not terribly inclined to attentiveness, which made the teacher a bit impatient. She was just about to start the religion lesson when she became aware of a dark, slender, mobile, ambulatory spot before the window, a spot that couldn’t have been made by any peasant, for it was too delicate and active. It went flying right past the row of windows, and all at once the children saw their teacher race from the room, the lesson forgotten. Hedwig now went out the door of the schoolhouse to throw herself into the arms of her brother, who was standing right before her. She wept and kissed Simon and led him into one of the two rooms she had at her disposal. “You come unannounced, but it’s good you’ve come,” she said, “take off your things and put them here. I have to go teach some more, but I’ll send the children home an hour early today. It won’t make any difference. They’re so completely inattentive today that I have ample cause to be annoyed and send them off earlier than usual.”—She arranged her hair, which had gotten rather out of joint during their impetuous greeting, said goodbye to her brother and went back to work.
Simon began to make himself at home in the country. His suitcases were delivered by mail, whereupon he unpacked all his things. He no longer had many possessions: a few old books he hadn’t wanted to sell or give away, linens, a black suit and a bundle of small items like twine, scraps of silk, neckties, shoelaces, candle stumps, buttons and bits of thread. The teacher at the next school over agreed to loan out an old iron bedframe and a straw mattress to go along with it: this was sufficient for sleeping in the country. The bedstead was transported from the neighboring village on a wide sled in the middle of the night. Hedwig and Simon sat down upon this strange vehicle; the son of the teacher who was Hedwig’s friend, a strapping lad who’d just finished his military service, guided the sled downhill into the hollow in which the schoolhouse was located. There was much laughter. The bed was set up in the second room and furnished with the necessary bedding and thus made ready for a sleeper who had no exaggerated demands to make of a bed, which of course Simon did not. At first Hedwig thought for a while: “Well, he’s coming to me now because he doesn’t have anywhere else to live in all the wide world. That’s what I’m good for. If he’d had somewhere else to sleep and eat, he wouldn’t have remembered his sister.” But she quickly dismissed this thought, which had arisen in a moment of defiant pride and had been pursued only because of the manner of its arrival, not because it was agreeable. Simon in his turn felt a little ashamed to be making claims on his sister’s kindness in such a way, but this feeling didn’t last long either; for habit soon swallowed it up, he quite simply grew used to all of this! He really didn’t have any money left, but right away, just a day or two after his arrival, he sent around a letter to all the notary publics in the region asking them to send him work, as he was a skilled copyist with a lovely hand. And why did one need money in the country! Not much was needed. Gradually all the fragile walls separating the two schoolhouse inhabitants fell away, and they lived as if they’d always lived together, joyfully sharing both deprivations and amusements.
It was early spring. Already you could leave windows standing open with less hesitation, and the stoves scarcely needed stoking. The children brought Hedwig entire bouquets of snowdrops, so that soon they were at a loss what to do with them all, as there weren’t enough small containers in the schoolroom. The air in the village was heady with the first fragrant hints of spring. People were already taking walks in the sunshine. Imperceptibly, as if in passing, Simon had become known among these simple folk, no one asked many questions about who he was, people said he was one of the teacher’s brothers, and this was enough here to gain him respect. He’d be staying a little while, as a visitor, they thought. Simon walked around looking fairly tattered, but with a certain offhand elegance that became him and attractively concealed the squalor of the fabrics he wore. His torn shoes didn’t attract much notice. Simon found it enchanting to walk about the countryside in faulty shoes; he felt this to be one of the greatest advantages of country living. If he were to get some money, he might begin to consider whether to have his footwear set to rights, but these would be only the faintest, most unhurried deliberations. Perhaps he’d hesitate for a fortnight first; for what is a fortnight in the country? Back in the city you always had to do everything right away, but here you had the lovely obligation to defer everything from one day to the next, indeed, things deferred themselves of their own accord; for the days arrived so softly, and before you could even think about it, it would be evening already, followed by a fervent night, a veritable slumber of a night, which was then quietly woken again by the day, woken gently and with tenderness. Simon also loved the more often than not muddy village roads, the narrow ones that led you over hillocks of debris, and the wide ones where you sank into the muck if you didn’t watch your step. But that was what he liked about it! Walking on these roads gave you the opportunity to watch your step, you could show off as a city slicker who was accustomed to picking his way with great attentiveness and a slightly trumped-up look of horror when presented with mud. The old farmwives could then think to themselves what a tidy, cautious young man he was, and the girls could laugh at the great leaps Simon executed to avoid the moats and puddles. The sky was frequently encircled with clouds, dark puffy fat clouds, and delightful storms were often blowing, agitating the forest and hurtling across the moss where people were at work cutting sod, their horses patiently standing by. Oftentimes too the sky would be smiling so that all who saw it were instantly compelled to smile as well. Hedwig’s face would take on a joyous expression, and the teacher who lived on the upper floor would poke his glasses inquisitively out the window, in his way enjoying the exquisite treat of this balmy sky. Simon had gone into a little shop to buy himself an inexpensive pipe and some tobacco. It appeared to him beautiful and fitting to smoke only pipes in the country, for a pipe could be filled, and filling the pipe was a gesture that accorded well with the open fields and the forest where he spent almost the entire livelong day. In the warm midday sun, he would lie in the pale yellow grass beneath the splendidly gentle sky, stretched out on the riverbank, and was not merely allowed to dream, he was compelled to. But he didn’t dream of faroff, distant, beauteous things but rather contented himself with contemplations and daydreams pertaining to his immediate surroundings; for he knew nothing more beautiful. Hedwig, the one closest to him, was the object of his dreams. He had forgotten the entire rest of the world, and the pipe tobacco he was smoking only served to bring him back to the village, the schoolhouse, Hedwig. Of her he imagined:
“She is sitting in a boat with a man who’s abducted her. The lake is no larger than a pond in a park. She keeps peering into the large black brooding eyes of the man sitting utterly motionless in the boat beside her and thinks: ‘How his eyes gaze into the water. At me he does not look. But the entire huge surface of the water is gazing at me with his eyes!’ The man has a shaggy beard of the sort robbers are in the habit of wearing. He can be gallant like none other. He is capable of taking gallantry to the point of losing his life without blinking an eyelash and most certainly without placing his hand on his heart to boast of his deeds. This man is no boaster. He has a warm, wonderfully masculine voice, but he never uses it to pay a compliment. Never does flattery of any sort cross his proud lips, and he ruins his voice intentionally to make it sound harsh and heartless. But the girl knows he has a boundlessly good heart: nonetheless she doesn’t dare appeal to his heart with a request. A string resounds across the water in long sound waves. Hedwig thinks she might die in this resounding air. The sky above the water looks exactly like this weightless, water-hued sky currently floating above me: a floating hovering lake high above me, that fits perfectly and the trees in the picture correspond to the region’s tall, swaying trees—there is something manorial, park-like about them. But in the picture everything is cramped and condensed, and now I am strolling through this scene once more, giving no more thought to its correlation with myself and this region: the man now seizes the oar and gives the boat a cavalier thrust. Hedwig senses he might be doing this to offset his own warmth and love—to him, feeling love and tenderness is an affront, and he punishes himself mercilessly for having allowed himself to harbor such affectionate sentiments in his breast. He’s so unnaturally proud; not a man at all, just a cross between a boy and a giant. It doesn’t hurt a man to find himself overwhelmed by sentiment, but it hurts a boy who wants to be more than a man with honest feelings, a boy who wants to be a giant, wants to be only strong and not at times also weak. A boy has chivalric virtues that a man whose thoughts are sensible and mature will always thrust aside, seeing them as superfluous in the festival of love. A boy is less cowardly than a man since he is less mature, for maturity can easily make one dastardly and selfish. You need only observe the hard, cruel lips of a boy: this outspoken defiance and the exemplified insistence on a promise he’s secretly given himself. A boy keeps his word, a man might find it more appropriate to break it. The boy finds beauty in the severity of this word-keeping (as in the Middle Ages) and the man finds beauty in replacing one promise he’s uttered with another, which he promises like a man to keep. He is the promiser, and the boy is the enforcer of the promised word. Curls dance about his youthful forehead, a defiance unto death upon his curved lips. Eyes like daggers. Hedwig trembles. The park’s trees are so soft, they are dissolving in the light blue air. There beneath the trees sits the man she despises. This man who sits beside her, loveless—him she must love, though he promises nothing. He hasn’t yet opened his mouth to make a promise, he’s had the gall to abduct her without, in compensation, whispering even a single sweet nothing in her ear. Whispering is the business of that other one; this man doesn’t know the first thing about it. Even if he did, he wouldn’t do so, or he’d do so on some occasion where others wouldn’t dream of uttering anything at all. But she is giving herself to him, without knowing why. She has nothing to gain from this, has nothing to hope for, as women are so fond of doing, she has only inconsiderate treatment in store for her, the violent moods a master freely inflicts upon his property. But she feels happy when he speaks to her in a curt, heedless voice, as though she were already his. And she is his, after all, and the man knows this. He pays no more heed to what is his already. Her hair has come undone, splendid hair that plunges down her narrow, red cheeks like liquid cloth. ‘Tie it back,’ he commands, and she struggles to obey. She is in raptures as she obeys, and of course he’d see this even with his eyes shut; for then he would hear a moan cross her lips such as only those who are happy can give voice to, those hastily performing a task that is perhaps burdensome to their hands but a joy to their hearts. They get out of the boat and go ashore. The earth is soft and gives way slightly beneath their steps, like a carpet, or like several carpets placed one atop the other. The grass is the sparse yellowed grass from the year before, just like the grass here where I am smoking my pipe. Then suddenly a girl appears on the scene, a quite small, pale, gloomy-eyed girl. She appears to be a princess; for her garments are magnificent and puff out at the sides in a heavy arc from which her breast protrudes like a small burgeoning bud. The garments are a deep red, the hue of dried-out blood. Her face has a transparent pallor, it’s the shade of a wintry evening sky in the mountains. ‘You know me!’ With these words she addresses herself to the dumbfounded man, who stands there paralyzed. ‘You still dare to look upon me? Go, kill yourself. I command you!’ This is how she speaks to him. The man looks as though he means to obey her. How does he look? Well, the way one looks when there is something irrevocable to be done. In such cases a grimace is customary. The face trembles, and one must bite and knead it into submission with the full force of one’s will. It wants to break apart. A piece of nose is about to fall off. At any rate, this is the sort of thing to expect on such occasions. But I don’t wish to go on sharing this madman’s intentions to kill myself; for this must be done with a long knife, and I believe I have only a tobacco pipe, not a knife. I was liking my dream at the beginning, but now I see it’s starting to degenerate, and this doesn’t suit Hedwig at all; for Hedwig is gentle, and when she suffers, she suffers in a more beautiful, silent way. She’d no doubt just laugh at my man there in his shaggy beard if he attempted such insolence. The landscape I sketched out was quite nice all the same, but only because it was mostly borrowed from the countryside that surrounds me. One should never lose the natural ground beneath one’s feet while dreaming, especially about people, for otherwise one soon arrives at the point of making one’s characters utter words like: ‘Go, kill yourself.’ And then one of them will have to wear a facial expression that is ridiculous and well- suited to spoil even the loveliest dream!—”

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Luisa Valenzuela by Linda Yablonsky

Luisa Valenzuela
BOMB 35/Spring 1991 cover

Luisa Valenzuela. Photo by Jerry Bauer© 1983.
Luisa Valenzuela is and always has been unafraid to be a woman who writes biting political satire that is also highly charged erotic literature, all this in her “phallocentric” country of Argentina. Nothing, however, has more value for Luisa Valenzuela than memory. Perhaps because the governments her country has survived so often try to rewrite its history, imposing a collective amnesia on the people.
The daughter of writer Luisa Mercedes Levinson, Luisa Valenzuela grew up under Peronism in the ‘50s within Buenos Aires’ most important literary circle, the world of Borges and Sábato, Bioy Casares, and local poets and publishers, who gave her the opportunity to have her first short story printed when she was eighteen.
To date, she has published five collections of stories, among them, Up Among the Eagles,Strange Things Happen Here, and The Heretics; and six novels: He Who SearchesClaraThe Lizard’s Tail and the upcoming Black Novel with Argentines have been translated into English. Just before Christmas, Ms. Valenzuela was visiting New York. In Buenos Aires at that time, there was a brief attempt at a military coup. Meanwhile, demonstrations continued against President Carlos Menem’s impending pardons to the generals who, during the Dirty War of the 1970s, were responsible for the tortured deaths of at least 9,000 people. Against this background, we began talking about her first short story, “City of the Unknown,” which opens with a girl’s discovery of a man who possesses “a voice that could raise the dead.”

Linda Yablonsky If you could raise the dead, who would you go after?
Luisa Valenzuela Cortázar and Borges. First Cortázar, because he had such an inventive mind. And perhaps many more, out of my heart…Cortázar had an eye for things you couldn’t see at first glance.
LY You were only 17 when you wrote “City of the Unknown,” and yet it has such a mature sexuality and a very developed imagination.
LV My imagination was very developed then. I don’t know about the maturity.
LY Was that story based on a particular longing, or incident?
LV What happens when you revive the dead? That was the question that triggered the whole story.
LY Terrifying idea, actually. You bring it up again in Up Among the Eagles.
LV That’s much later, Eagles was written ten years ago.
LY In that story, it’s not that the dead are being revived, but that they’re very present.
LV The dead are present in life, constantly.
LY You say that if we stopped writing, history would stop, time would stop. In Up Among the Eagles, there’s a lot of talk about controlling time, aging and not aging.
LV It’s a different concept of time—The Iroquois, and many other native American languages, don’t have tenses. There’s no notion of a past or future, verbs are always handled in the same tense.
LY Do you worry about aging?
LV Oh yes, as everybody else. And I get furious—except that the more you live, the more you realize it’s so much in your mind.
LY It’s so strange, the image you see in the mirror and your self-image being so totally different, and the older you get, the more distance there seems to be.
LV Except, sometimes, you catch yourself in the mirror being who you think you are. Is the mirror lying?
LY We’re running out of a lot of things, one of which is time, time keeps getting compressed. These two stories of yours were written years apart and yet they both share this sense of stopping time to keep things the same, creating history by recording events and people: the sense that without the record, there would be no history.
LV I’m very worried about memory, about the fact that you tend to repeat the past if you ignore it. And Argentina’s always trying to obliterate your memory, so there’s all this story of pardons and amnesties for the generals implicated in the tortures, as if one could make a clean slate of past horrors.
But I insist that you can’t simply obliterate memory. If you say nothing happened, you can’t move. This is something that has been in the back of my mind for ages, and it pops up in different stories. It finally has to do with reviving the dead—which is again, the other impossibility. You cannot kill the memory or revive the dead. You have to accept the time law as we know it.
LY In what direction do you think the Argentinean government is going, and what do people have to say about it?
LV The people have to say everything they can, if they can, because they are very hungry at this point.
LY Literally, hungry?
LV Literally hungry. But anything is better than another military coup, so nobody says too much for fear of getting the military back, which would be worse, decidedly. The economic problems, I don’t think, can be solved one way or the other, but at least there is liberty. It is a very strange government: playing the game of the populists—and having an extremely right-wing capitalistic policy. They are using a very obvious double standard and very obvious lies, so obvious that there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not that you can’t denounce anything, it’s that everything’s being denounced everyday, so everything has lost its value. Nothing happens.
LY What sort of people in Argentina become members of the military?
LV There is an odd historical situation here. It used to be the upper classes. The military of the last century were the cultured people, they went to important military academies, they knew languages, translated Dante—they were very intelligent. And little by little, they got more dogmatic. I suppose people who go into the military now—except for the poor, who have nothing else to do but join—are those who believe they are the owners of the truth and are ready to impose it by force. I once gave a talk at West Point, here.
LY Really? You didn’t!
LV I was talking in front of all these West Point cadets, and suddenly, out of my mouth, without thinking, I said, “I don’t understand what you are all doing here. If I were in Argentina, I would know that you all wanted to be President.” (laughter) Because they all want to take charge, it’s a question of power. That fascinates me. What is this madness called power?
Did you read the Desert of the Tartars by Dino Buzzati, the Italian writer? It takes place in a military post, a frontier bordering the so-called desert of the Tartars. And they are all the time waiting for the enemy to come, so there are strict military rules in this fort, because the enemy will come. Only the enemy hasn’t come for two centuries, and there is no enemy, there is only desert. But they can’t recognize that reality. One day, somebody goes out and when he comes back refuses to announce the codeword. He is shot and killed because they had to create something to justify their existence. All this has to do with the phallocracy.
LY Would you consider yourself any kind of feminist?
LV I’m a born feminist. I’m not a dogmatic feminist.
LY Have you personally been confronted with a lot of violence in Argentina?
LV No, not much nowadays. You see more in the streets of New York. Things in Buenos Aires seem calm. It’s very disturbing, because you know they’re not calm. It’s impossible for them to be calm. There was this military uprising the other day and people thumbed their noses at the fighting. The minute the rebellious military tries something they get horrible abuses from the public.
LY How can they?
LV They verbally insult them. It’s just fantastic. One time a bunch of dissident military tried to take over the city airport and the people who were going on their vacations pushed them out of the way. Life goes on and private citizens don’t allow this to stop them anymore. We are no longer afraid. We’ve seen too much during the dictatorship.
LY But are the citizens armed?
LV No, I hope not. Some are, unfortunately. But this is pure chutzpah.
LY So, you’ve picked up a little New Yorkese, I see.
LV Yes, I lived here for quite a while—eleven years.
LY Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you grew up?
LV It was a very literary house, and Borges and Sábato, Bioy Casares—mainly Borges, and all these big shots in Argentine literature—were there very often, and I thought it was very fascinating, but not for me. I wanted to be a mathematician, an artist or a painter—anything but literature. I had always wanted to be an explorer. You don’t know how much of an explorer a writer is when you’re young. Literature seemed so passive and ironically, they were practically all very apolitical. Ironically, because this was during Peronist times. So all of these writers were out of a job because they’d been censored and kicked out of work. My mother organized paid lectures and readings in our home so that these writers could earn a living. I didn’t think I was political at all, myself, but I thought there had to be some action in all this, and there was no action. So I went into journalism. In journalism, you move.
LY And what were your first forays into journalism?
LV Travel pieces.
LY The title of one of your novels is He Who Searches and there’s definitely a seeking in your writing.
LV There’s a seeking in my life, in general.
LY Are you religious at all?
LV No. Yes. Yes, but not of any religion. I believe in the sacred aspects of life and that level of thinking. I read a lot about religions. But I don’t believe in God.
LY I was just going to ask you.
LV But there is a sense of the sacred in the world, in nature. Westerners don’t know about dualities, simultaneity. This is a very Oriental concept, the sacred and the profane, you cannot separate one from the other, the sacred couldn’t exist without the profane.
LY All of your stories in Strange Things Happen Here start with some human intimacy that grows in the historical context, the canvas of events that surround it and give it another dimension. I noticed you don’t give names to a lot of people in your stories.
LV These stories were written very quickly, triggered either by something I was told or something I overheard. It’s a collective mind, in a sense. I wanted to make them archetypal…a name is a very heavy burden. Sometimes, I don’t want to put this burden on certain characters. Some don’t need a name.
LY “The Censors” really twisted me up inside, that obsession.
LV It was so self-defeating, such a male story in a sense. That book (Strange Things Happen Here) wasn’t censored because God knows. I think, censors don’t have a sense of humor.
LY I’m sure they don’t.
LV They were doing a video two months ago in Argentina, and they asked me to read any story. I started reading “The Best Shod” (in which the beggars of Argentina, helping themselves to the plethora of new shoes worn by the dead bodies lying around them, become the best-shod beggars in the world). And suddenly, I realized I couldn’t read that one. Not because it would be censored, but because it’s so painful. So much of it had really happened. Seen from a distance it’s a metaphor, but at the other end, it’s no longer a metaphor.
LY Your writing has a very strong interior voice, much stronger than whatever is on the narrative’s surface. It’s almost as if you’re whispering under your breath.
LV I’m glad it comes out in translation.
LY I feel when I’m reading your stories, that I’m hearing what really goes on in your mind, even when you’re talking about people outside yourself.
LV Because the narrative itself makes the good connections, the proper associations. The narrative per se knows more than what the writer knows or whatever has been told to you. Whatever has been told to you is full of holes and omissions and things that are hidden. A narrative line will make all these things pop out in the open. You will discover them while you’re writing. That’s what fascinates me about writing.
LY Do you spend most of your time writing?
LV I wish I did.
LY So what do you spend most of your time doing?
LV Daydreaming. Worrying. Feeling guilty for not writing… You have to go through that phase, now I’ve learned.
LY Do you ever use a tape recorder?
LV No, never. I can’t, because I need the physical act of writing. Now I’m using a computer at times, but it’s not the same. I write generally with a fountain pen.
LY Do you live on your writing?
LV No, I don’t. I do with my lectures, and other things.
LY What did you teach here?
LV Funny enough, I had a writers’ workshop in English.
LY Do you teach in Argentina also?
LV No, no. This is an American operation!
LY Have you ever thought about going into politics?
LV Oh no—oh no! The only thing I do with politics is denounce whatever’s going on at that horrible level. I think it’s the worst…I don’t believe in darkness, least of all in politics.
LY You’re very sharp with the political satire.
LV I know I’m sharp, but it’s scary because I sometimes become prophetic.
LY Do you find that life imitates art in this case?
LV No, I find that art puts two and two together—that’s all. And again, it obeys a narrative order. There always is a narrative.
LY To life.
LV To life, in general. And the narrative is then cut into pieces of time and place and convenience, whatever is hidden or forgotten or not said. And the narrative reconstruction builds this whole edifice again and there you have prophecy. You have everything, because that is a real narrative.
LY Are you saying you think things have definite beginnings and middles and ends, so to speak? Or is life continuous?
LV There is a continuum, and there are links to things. But nothing pops up out of the blue, in fact. Things are linked—there is a chain. And that chain can be seen in the narrative, because the narrative needs a chain. Otherwise, it’s sheer luck, serendipity. We don’t live in a plotless novel. The novel of our lives has a very rich plot! And the only thing a writer does is follow that plot as best she can.
LY What’s your home life like now? Are you living alone?
LV I’m living alone. I have a part-time dog, and I’m living in the middle of a park. I’m surrounded by wonderful, very nice old trees. People are around.
LY You never feel lonesome?
LV No, I like it.
LY You don’t miss the intimacy of a family?
LV My daughter’s around, friends are around all the time.
LY But not a man?
LV Oh, yeah, sometimes. But then it becomes…I don’t know. Things are as they are. I always quarreled with my men.
LY You did?
LV Yes, yes. I was often quite violent. You wouldn’t believe it.
LY Well, no—not sitting here. Although I can see your anger on the page.
LV Yes, I don’t like to be invaded. I feel invaded easily. I need my privacy more than anything else. And then I travel all the time.
LY What made you move back to Argentina?
LV New York was becoming too hectic. I was dreaming in English, I was thinking in English—I didn’t want that anymore. My novel, Black Novel with Argentines, took me five years and it was very hard to write. It takes place in New York. It is a very dark piece, a very gutter-like book, with very, very deep unconscious levels, really hard stuff. I thought that in a sense I was writing a farewell to New York.
LY Oh, I can’t wait to read it.
LV It’s very strong. And there is a crime, and again, it’s a search, not a search for criminals but a search for the more motive of the crime. And there are two Argentine writers, so it has to do with writing, it has to do with confusions, and it has to do with the S&M scene in New York—with all the boundaries you cross, in all senses. It was hard to write. I didn’t want to write it half the time, so then I write this other one (National Reality from the Bed) very quickly.
When I’m writing a novel there is a different state. It’s like being in a trance. So when you’re reading the novel, you’re inside this other situation. Life has another dimension. Everything that comes into your life has something to do with another. There’s this conflict, there is a voracity, there is vampirism when you’re in your novel.
LY Vampirism?
LV Yes, because when I write I become a vampire. I suck cold blood from anything for a novel.
LY How do you know when to end it?
LV Oh, it abandons you.
LY It abandons you? Oh!
LV That’s it. And you feel awful sometimes. A novel has to have a life of its own. This is when you know you are writing well.
LY Could you compare the attitude toward work between New York and Buenos Aires, say?
LV Oh, yes. This is one of the reasons I left. Because I started believing in workaholism, and everything was so desperate, and things had to be done perfectly all right, and I started believing this New York thing. I saw myself absolutely caught in this trap. And I ran away. I said: this is not true! I need to respond to the first principle of pataphysics, that says you never have to take serious things seriously. And here I was, taking things seriously. So I left. When I’m writing a novel there is a different state. It’s like being in a trance. So when you’re reading the novel, you’re inside this other situation. Life has another dimension.