Reversion = Fearless living?

And then along comes Mallarmé, the least innocent of all the great poets, who says that we must travel, we must set off traveling again. At this point, even the most naïve reader has to wonder: What’s got into Mallarmé? Why is he so enthusiastic? Is he trying to sell us a trip or sending us to our deaths with our hands and feet tied? Is this an elaborate joke or simply a pattern of sounds? It would be utterly absurd to suppose that Mallarmé had not read Baudelaire. So what is he trying to do? The answer, I think, is perfectly simple. Mallarmé wants to start all over again, even though he knows that the voyage and the voyagers are doomed. In other words, for the author of Igitur, the illness afflicts not only our actions, but also language itself. But while we are looking for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, that is, the new, which can only be found by plunging deep into the Unknown, we have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote can be found.

– Roberto Bolaño, “Literature + Illness = Illness”

Any time I re-read him, even if it is a passage I have just finished, uncannily, strikingly new phrases catch my eye. Where were they the first intent, deliberate (to avoid completely missing his associations) time around, the second, the third?

Also, the terrifying:

But writing and literature are worthless if they aren’t accompanied by something more imposing than mere survival.

Does he really believe that? Does anyone, who writes something worth reading?


Hello again

“Oedipus confronts obscurity and finds Oedipus.”

– Robert Cohen, Oedipus and the Absurd Life

Intrepid severity so winsome

Pushkin, as a close friend, was bold enough to tell Viazemsky in 1826: ‘Your verse is too clever. Poetry, God forgive me, has to be a bit stupid.’ To this criticism might be added Viazemsky’s refusal to make concessions to melodiousness: he is perhaps the only poet of the Golden Age whose texts no composer was able or willing to set to music.

– Donald Rayfield, “The Golden Age of Russian Poetry” in Routledge Companion to Russ Lit

Humor never translates

Translation (quick and dirty) of earlier post. Many thanks to original poster of the anecdote – I believe, here

The subject is a time when there were not yet Russian-speaking interviewers in Israeli military enlistment offices, but there were already Russian conscripts. Because, for the most part, they did not speak Hebrew, conscripts were often sent for examination to the so-called “officers of mental health” (by specialty – psychologists or social workers), so that the officers could check, just in case, whether everything was in order with the mute conscript. By the way, in Hebrew an officer of mental health – “ktsin briut nefesh” – is shortened to “kaban.” This does not, however, have a bearing on their level of professionalism. [In Russian, “Kaban” means “wild boar.”]

An officer of mental health at an enlistment office usually administers standard tests – “draw a person, draw a tree, draw a house.” These tests easily allow for investigation of the internal world of the future serviceman. The good thing about them is they’re universal and not dependent upon knowledge of the language. Anyone, after all, is capable of drawing a house. And so an officer was sent yet another Russian boy who spoke poor Hebrew. The officer of mental health greeted him, produced a sheet of paper and asked the boy to draw a tree.

The Russian boy was no good at drawing, but he was well read. He decided to compensate for his dearth of artistic abilities by the amount of detail. Therefore he depicted an oak, on that oak – a chain, and on that chain – a cat. Quite clear, no?

The officer of mental health moved the sheet of paper toward himself. On the paper he found a grub, not very adeptly hung on a branch. In lieu of a rope the grub employed a chain.

“What is it?” Gently asked the Kaban.

The Russian boy strained himself and started translating. Cat in Hebrew – “Khatul.” “Learned” – “Mad’an,” with a Russian accent – “Madan.” The boy didn’t know that in this case the word “learned” would sound odd – the cat is not an employee at the academy of sciences, he just knows a lot. That is, a different word is needed. But a different one didn’t turn out. The boy scratched the back of his head and answered the officer’s question:

“Khatul Madan.”

The officer was Israeli. Therefore the present combination of words meant for him something along the lines of “a cat, taking part in studious activity.” Khatul Madan. Why a grub, hanged on a tree, is engaged in studious activity, and what exactly comprised this studious activity, the officer could not comprehend.

“And what is he doing?” the officer asked, tensely. (The depiction of a suicide in the projective test was in fact a very bad sign).

Pleased at the chance to display intellect, the boy said: “Well that depends on when. See if he goes over here (adding an arrow to the right), then he sings songs. But if over here (an arrow to the left), then he tells tales.”

“To whom?” the Kaban asked tearfully. [прослезился – brilliant, beyond my capabilities]

After a bit of concentration the boy remembered:

“To himself.”

By the point of the hanged grub’s stories – the ones he tells to himself – the officer of mental health felt unwell. He scheduled another interview with the boy and sent him home. The picture with the oak was left on the table.

When the boy left, the Kaban called in his secretary – he wanted a fresh perspective on the situation. The secretary to the officer of mental health was a smart and competent young woman. But she had also recently arrived from Russia.

The boss showed her the drawing. The girl saw a depiction of a tree with carved leaves and an animal similar to a cat walking along a chain.

“What do you think it is?” asked the officer.

“Khatul Madan” the secretary replied.

Quickly showing the girl out and having a drink of cold water, the Kaban called the next floor, where his young colleague worked. He asked her to come down and consult with him on a difficult case.

“Here,” sighed the tired professional. “I have known you for a long time, you’re a normal person. Please explain to me what you see.”

The trouble was, the colleague was also Russian…

But here the Kaban decided to draw the line.

“Why?” quietly, but passionately, he asked his colleague. “WHY is this Khatul madan?”

“But it’s obvious!” The colleague stuck her finger into the drawing. “See these arrows? They mean that when the Khatul walks to the right, he sings, and when he walks to the left…”

I cannot say whether or not the army psychologist lost his mind or what diagnosis he gave the boy. But today almost all of the officers of mental health know: if the conscript draws oaks with animals on chains in the test, then he is from Russia. There, they say, everyone is learned. Even cats.


Confined esteem

Until half a century or so ago crowds applauded after every movement. And why shouldn’t the audience be able to unleash its bravos or reward a smoking instrumental solo in real time? In Bach’s day there was no such hushed reverence. The audience – maybe not in a church, but certainly in venues like Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, where he performed many of his works – drank, smoked, circulated, chatted, and occasionally groaned that Bach was going off on one of his convoluted fugal tangents again, or burst into applause over one of his finger-sprinting solos.

The only way to take classical music out of the museum is to stop playing it in a museum. The adventurous cellist Matt Haimovitz said as much recently, when he toured dive bars, pizza parlours, and roadhouse juke joints with the Cello Suites. ‘People were reacting to the music as it was going by,’ Haimovitz told CBC Radio, ‘and if they really enjoyed something or were impressed by something, they howled or whistled or sighed, and yet they were totally riveted to the music.’

– Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites

Small benefits

Wheedled uncopyedited advance reader of C from somewhat reluctant head buyer. Wanted to read it himself, but obliged to give over to the DBE. We shall see we shall see. (adswithoutproducts asks the necessary question:

“But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be.”

In last semester’s American Lit, a girl confessed her art teacher’s reaction to the girl’s summary dismissal of all guidelines for projects (she would turn in blank canvases, occasionally with large angry blobs thrown on): This is wonderful, but I’d like you to show me that you can do the assignment within the specified parameters first.))


Dezsö Kosztolányi’s Skylark, recently re-printed and -distributed in a matte-cover slim paperback edition by NYRB and translated by Richard Aczel, a novel containing such gems as:

The sun was still shining. They opened a window and a tepid current of air streamed through the house, leaving columns of golden dust in its wake. One of Veres’s ragged, grimy brats loafed around in the yard outside. He was gnawing at a slice of dry bread, down which the thick sunlight trickled like honey. The boy seemed to be catching the drips with his tongue. In the distance, the sound of a gypsy band.

costs $14.95. For the Dedicated Bookstore Employee, the price is slashed to $10.46, +tax, of course. The DBE willing to review the book in 60 words or less (impossible, tortuous) recieves a $10 gift card. A bargain!

There remains, however, William H. Gass’ Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation; Roger Hahn’s painstakingly-researched Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist, for some reason apparently only available in hardcover at the embarrassingly low price of $33.60. There remains Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers, something no self-respecting music-lover should be without; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, something I should apparently have read at least twice by now; Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace; Ilya Prigogine’s End of Certainty. Not to mention the necessity for a solid French dictionary in order to begin remedying the great embarrassment of having some command of French and three well-worn volumes of Proust on the shelf in English translation. And of course the Proust in French, then. And if that, then also Les Essais de Montaigne and Jacques Le Fataliste. There is Kотлован, there is белый. There is the fact that some sort of small book-light must be bought if I am to continue being able to see at all.

– Edit: I gave it up. First instance…I’d say… ever.