Autobibliography: the New Baktun
As far as I can see through the fog, the Books of the Year in English were two translations: the delightful Leskov collection from Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Ottilie Mulzet’s chaperoning the safe arrival of Seiobo Down Below. Cheers for both! But we’re still untimely out here, so the best books I read in 2013 (apart from the Leskov) were Bandarshah by Tayeb Salih and Evelina by Fanny Burney.
Bandarshah is a little like Pedro Páramo in that it’s not like anything. A short, inconclusive book (it includes two of a projected five parts), it barely has time to jump between decades in sketching three generations who sometimes inhabit history and sometimes parables or dreams. The village and a few of the characters are shared with Season of Migration to the North, but without the sharp lens of that book’s anger, things tend to fall out of focus. The effect is mesmerizing.
Evelina is a master’s study of being trapped in a room full of other people and their unwanted attentions. If you’ve been in that room you know. The subtitle announces a young lady’s entrance into the world, but something must be wrong with the geometry because each step forward gives her less freedom to move. Anything other than the standard comic ending would have been unbearable; what a relief is genre. And how fresh she makes her stock characters. Some behave correctly and some less correctly, and some really, oh dear, quite uncorrectly; these last are her specialty, and it’s as funny as Sturges.
I never noted anything for 2012, a black pool of a year. What did I read? I fell into Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. There was a lot of good Iberia: Rodoreda (notably A Broken Mirror), and Queirós, The Maias.
I’m unhappy with all my guitar strings, so I go to a reclusive Berkeley luthier who’s rumored to make the best strings in the world. I find him sitting at a table in the back of his run-down Craftsman, surrounded by guitar parts. He listens to my complaint, nods and speaks in a wispy guru voice best transcribed with italics.
My strings cost sixty dollars each. That’s three hundred sixty a set.
It’s worth it, handing me a guitar. Play an open D.
I play. It sounds all right.
Now an open A.
I start to strum a chord and he pulls the guitar back.
That’s enough for now. Have you ever listened to… Radiohead?
They are touring in Afghanistan, and they sent me all their guitars to repair. A shake of the head. Those guitars were hopeless. I threw them all in the trash. Literally. I’m going to have to make them new guitars from scratch.
“Oh, really?” I commiserate, and glance around for the dumpster.
The life aquatic
“And this is a picture of an orca.”
“Orca. I saw a orca outside!”
“What was the orca doing?”
“Umm... hiding in the plants.”
Natsume Sōseki, Sanshiro
The costs of Meiji acculturation.
As he glanced in through the gate, Sanshiro said the word hydriotaphia to himself twice. Of all the foreign words he had learned thus far, hydriotaphia was one of the longest and one of the hardest. He still did not know what it meant. He was planning to ask Professor Hirota. Yojiro had guessed that it was something like de te fabula, but Sanshiro saw an enormous difference between the two. De te fabula was a phrase that called for dancing. Just to learn hydriotaphia was a time-consuming effort, and saying it twice caused one’s pace to slacken.
Sanshiro continued on home, also walking quickly. He went back to the library that evening to look up romantische Ironie. It was a term first used by the German philosopher Schlegel, he found, and apparently it was some kind of theory to the effect that a genius ought to spend the whole day hanging around, without purpose or effort. Relieved at last, Sanshiro returned to his room and went to sleep.
And on top of all that, there’s girl trouble!
Pathogen season! Do you remember the Monthy Python sketch about the British army in the Raj or wherever, where soldiers kept showing up in the infirmary tent with arms or legs missing, and the officers were worried about a virus until the doctor explained to them that no, a virus was too small to take off your leg, and this was likely to be something larger, like a tiger? Precisely that. Not precisely. I’m getting better and nothing bit me. The blood orange sorbet that we were saving for times of trial pleased the throat going down, but it also confused the shit out of my hypothalamus and caused me to shiver around J. for a half hour. This film, I thought, is not being correctly cranked.
Attitude v. Gratitude
Many will say this is the wrong time of year, but I can never hear the word “thanksgiving” without recalling some lines I heard many a time when young:
On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:
Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
That’s the Roman missal, collapsing the Last Supper from the three synoptic Gospels together with Paul in First Corinthians. All the sources agree that Jesus took up the bread and wine having given thanks (εὐχαριστήσας), whence our word “Eucharist.” But in the Bible that thanks is not explicitly directed anywhere. It’s only the missal, itself an address to God the Father, which inserts the “you,” and so takes the position that thanks can’t be given without a recipient.
It’s no mystery to whom the first Thanksgiving was addressed. But for us secularists, the answer is not so obvious. If we distrust homage for the same reason we distrust petitionary prayer, that it seems to evoke a feudal relationship, then any more nebulous expression of gratitude will look much like tribute sent to an empty castle.
Before εὐχάριστος meant “thankful,” it meant simply pleasant. In Herodotus, Solon tells Croesus that no man may be called fortunate till he die happily (τελευτήσῃ εὐχαρίστως τὸν βίον). And that makes sense, if we’re willing to extend gratitude without a recipient to something like the sentiment behind Wittgenstein’s last words, on hearing that his friends were coming: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
But we don’t utter deathbed words every day.
On the other hand, we do eat every day. Communal feasts have no metaphysical ladders to climb, since what we commemorate in sitting around a table is foremost, tautologically, our presence at the table. The Eucharist has to take place in public. St. Paul tasks us with reenacting the supper in order to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and that would be an unbearable duty were it not shared. So pass the bread and wine, brothers.
Sometimes, too, we have other things than death to proclaim. I’ll let Alex Chilton close out.
Pieter Wispelwey: J.S. Bach, Suites for cello Nos. 1-3, St. Mark’s Church, San Francisco, Nov. 3, 2013.
The venue was white and peaceful, a little unmysterious in the way of modern churches, with stained glass catching a blaze of unseasonal sun. The pews sat hundreds, half of us or more apparently some sort of cellist. Of the three suites he played, the only one I’ve slopped through is the first, and I was surprised by his Baroque take on it: light and fast, with the sixteenth-note runs attenuated to gestures of the wrist. I admired without being sure I was in love; but in the second suite he began to linger and emphasize, and come the minuets and gigue, he and we and the cello dropped into perfect free fall together.
We clapped our hearts out.
“Have you played that piece?” asked the older woman next to me.
“No, no! I’ve only been playing a year.”
“Oh, really? You were moving like perhaps you were used to playing it.”
We admired the performance back and forth, and she asked my teacher’s name. Hearing it, she nodded in approval.
“Good. She’s good.”
David Grossman, To the End of the Land
He’s very talented. But why so frustrating? After reading See Under: Love I thought the problem was a lack of discipline, an unwillingness to bend his flights of fancy toward a single direction; but this book, much more conventional in form, turns out to frustrate in much the same way. So it’s something else.
It might be that storytelling is made a theme too overtly, or in the wrong way. Grossman’s stories are told by precocious children or by adults made to act like precocious children, until they run smack into History, at which point the storytelling impulse gets displaced into something else, a dodge or salve. What grates is that it’s treated as salvation. It may be that there’s nothing else to do against the Holocaust or Israel’s lose-lose politics, but the narrative utopia floats above the surface of the world in the same displeasing way as Salman Rushdie’s magic tricks. The story wants to carry an active force and it can’t. No king nowadays has the patience for Scheherazade; kicked out of the castle, all she can do is keep talking to herself, because that’s all she was made for.
On the other hand, a very good book by Grossman is The Yellow Wind, and curiously, this isn’t the common case of a gifted nonfiction writer being frustrated by fiction. Amid interviews and reportage, the best chapter is a short fiction about an Israeli agent in the occupied territories who can’t share with anyone the new joy in his lifethe birth of his sonbecause it would contradict the lies he’s already told about himself. That seems right about storytelling. It’s like history or the weather; it happens to us more than we to it.
It’s time to divide my kingdom. Crows get the sky, jellyfish the sea, and the earth goes to an army of tiny tractors, instructed in a simple context-free grammar to squeeze droplets of oil from the grass.
For an inexpert rider on the bicycle of time, stability depends, counterintuitively, on speed. The continuous curve of the autumn road is the same as the curve ten years back, to a first approximation. They only come apart when you solve for the zeros. Why, already so tired on your bicycle, with night already falling, would you solve for the zeros?