The Lime Twig – John Hawkes


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The Lime TwigNobody reads John Hawkes (1925-1998) anymore. I have never been clear on why that is, but if you want to get to know him (and why not? he’s very good) then The Lime Twig (1961) is possibly the best introduction you could get, featuring both his inimitable prose style and a suspenseful plot that, at first glance puzzling, is easy enough to follow once you adjust to his style of storytelling – much as the blurred cover does portray perfectly normal figures once your eye sorts it out. As an aside, a “lime-twig” is a snare to catch birds. Knowing this straight away helps to improve the title … somewhat.

Hawkes’ distinguishing trademark is a strong sense of place, creating bad dreams out of familiar, broadly evoked landscapes. Though he preached against traditional plot and character, his is not the no man’s land of crazy surrealism. Hawkes’ sense of place is archetypal, perhaps heavyhanded, but omnipresent and overpowering. The Lime Twig‘s setting is England after the war, bombed out and drudging along. English grime, soot and rain. English flats, stables and wharves. Every page of this slim novel exudes a damp, gray, miserable weariness that is highly exaggerated and strangely familiar – as familiar as that quaint and proper England of vicarages and village greens. This alluring, disordered dreamscape is the most memorable component of The Lime Twig, such that it stuck with me for three long years. Eventually I just had to revisit the book.

The story follows Michael and Margaret Banks, a drab couple who are dragged into the criminal underworld by Michael’s unwise decision to take part in a racehorse scam. He becomes the front for a pack of professional crooks, seduced into it by his own worst dream, and best … a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams… Margaret has no say in the matter and is simply taken along for the ride. Their ambiguous tenant Hencher – “My old girl died on these premises, Mr. Banks.” - provides the connection between the couple and the (many) gangsters: among them head honcho Larry; ex-corporal Sparrow with his rotten legs and frequent injections; Little Dora, who looks like a school teacher; Thick, armed with truncheon and ropes; and Dora’s sister Sybilline (to whom falls the task of “distracting” Michael).

Rounding out the dramatis personae are the horse Rock Castle, who has run beyond memory itself and is described in purely Gothic terms as a spectral bringer of death: …and he was staring down at all the barge carried in its hold: the black space, the echo of bilge and, without movement, snort or pawing of hoof, the single white marble shape of the horse, whose neck (from where he leaned over, trembling, on the quay) was the fluted and tapering neck of some serpent, while the head was an elongated white skull with nostrils, eye sockets, uplifted gracefully in the barge’s hold… And not forgetting Sidney Slyter, who leads off every chapter with excerpts from his racing column. He keeps tabs on what goes on and it’s from his inquiries that the more lucid (relatively speaking) details of the scam emerge. He’s the closest thing to a private investigator this crime story contains, and that’s not saying much.

The Lime Twig could be considered a genre exercise, but the plot is a thoroughly minor point. Hawkes is all about the writing. Crime fiction offered him delicious set-pieces – murder in a steam bath, smuggling on a fog-bound dock, intimidation in a public restroom, etc, etc. One feels he isn’t caught up in the drama but is simply enchanted by what his imagination has produced. There’s a subtle amiability in the author’s voice and that the end result remains so eerie and atmospheric is a credit to his writing ability: It is dark in Highland Green, dark in this public stable which lies so close to the tanks and towers of the gasworks that a man, if he wished, might call out to the old watchman there. Dark at 3 A.M. and quiet; no one tends the stables at night and only a few spiritless horses for hire are drowsing in a few of the endless stalls. Hardly used now, dead at night, with stray dogs and little starved birds making use of the stalls, and weeds choking the yard. Refuse fills the well, there is a dry petrol pump near a loft building intended for hay.

Hawkes’ style is hypnotic and oddly beautiful, even when describing filth, but it takes some getting used to. When violence breaks out he prefers to layer it in confusion. Clarity returns only as he describes the body left behind (His throat was womanly white and fiercely slit and the blood poured out. It was coming down over the collar bone, and above the wound the face was drained and slick with its covering of steam. One hand clutched the belly as if they had attacked him there and not in the neck at all.) – leaving the reader to wonder what the motivation was. That the plot doesn’t entirely hang together is hardly surprising but it doesn’t damage the narrative. It actually succeeds in making it more sinister, as the killers’ actions become more random, senseless and secretive.

The Lime Twig could be considered a prime example of style over substance, but who needs a moral and meaning attached to everything one reads? John Hawkes is one of the great discoveries waiting for the adventurous reader, with a Gothic imagination put to truly creative use. His alluring style is the main draw, but it also presents obstacles to overcome – this second read of mine revealed several mistakes I’d made about the storyline in the first go round, and even the New Directions cover copy struggles with the plot. You can untangle all the important bits if you want to take the time, or if not, you can simply choose to be swept along by the imagery, to conclude puzzled yet intoxicated. “What was that?”

John Hawkes

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 2, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus


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A rare image of Arrian.

Arrian is the true hero of this particular story. Without Arrian to preserve the teachings of Epictetus (as Plato did for Socrates), readers at large would have been deprived of the Stoic Bible and then perhaps Marcus Aurelius would have taken the spot. It is a well-known poetical aside that two of the greatest writers on Stoicism were a Roman emperor and a Greek slave but speaking for myself, there’s more resonance in the slave than the emperor. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were Stoicism for the privileged. Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 A.D.) was Stoicism for the common man. Arrian’s transcriptions are naturally direct and to the point in comparison with the more leisurely paced Meditations and of the two it is the one to get my unwavering recommendation.

The reader may question why he should read either and not content himself with the “Death of Socrates,” which towers over both in fame and drama. The casual reader needn’t pursue the matter but Socrates was practicing an extraordinary Stoicism in the face of imminent execution. Epictetus is far more applicable for anyone wishing to learn the philosophy. And, though Plato was Socrates’ student, he was not himself a Stoic – the idea had not been codified into a school yet – and as soon as he had finished immortalizing his teacher’s demise, he moved on to other things. Arrian’s recollections of Epictetus feel more earnest – broken down into sayings and fragments, likely taking fewer liberties than Plato was bound to have done through the form of long, unbroken and dramatically conclusive dialogues.


So why is he writing?

The lowdown: Epictetus was born a slave in Phrygia (a portion of Turkey). He was owned by Epaphroditos, one of Nero’s secretaries, who is said to have deliberately crippled the boy. Reports vary, and considering that Epictetus was allowed by the same man to study philosophy and get some education, it could be slander as well as truth. Epictetus was freed after Nero’s death and taught philosophy in Rome for roughly 25 years, until Emperor Domitian banished him and all others in the profession, upon which he settled in the city of Nicopolis in western Greece and founded a school. He wrote no books, whereupon Arrian entered the picture.

The Discourses were originally eight books. Four remain. Arrian also assembled the Enchiridion from Epictetus’ practical advice. How much of it is true to the man? We’ll never know. As for Epictetus personally, very little is known. He was fairly hermit-like. He wasn’t married but adopted a friend’s orphaned child in his old age and got a woman to help with that. After his death, his personal lamp sold for 3,000 drachmae to an admirer (it’s impossible to adjust that for inflation, sorry).

Being a household classic, Epictetus is easy to find in editions from Oxford, Penguin, Everyman, Loeb, and the like. I, however, am stuck with the outdated Harvard edition: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, drawn from Arrian’s Discourses and Enchiridion and translated by Hastings Crossley, M.A. Turn-of-the-Century Harvard clearly wished to inculcate piety in its students and Crossley’s selections focus on Epictetus’ relationship with [the] God[s] and how achieving Stoicism is tied up in that. At times it is very much William Penn.

However, Epictetus mostly comes across less as a man of God and more as a thoroughgoing independent – something Socrates was not, as a man always willing to “serve” the state (though his idea of service was a bit weird). Epictetus would not tolerate discontent with life. In a way, he best shows how to be Stoic by showing how King Philip II Banqueting with his Courtiers - Alonso Sanchez-Coelloabsurd anything else is in the face of an uncontrollable and capricious fate. XXXV: When we are invited to a banquet we take what is set before us; and were one to call upon his host to set fish upon the table or sweet things, he would be deemed absurd. Yet in a word, we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and that, although they have given us so many things! On occasion, his rejection of childish behaviour is given in quite humourous terms. When asked by an annoying student to explain the nature of good and evil, he plays dumb: “…of what? a horse, an ox?” Or LXV: When a youth was giving himself airs in the Theatre and saying, “I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men,” Epictetus replied, “I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!”

The material acquisitions, status symbols and class distinctions that humans place such value in are only those despicable laws of the dead to a true Stoic. It is not merely a philosophy of rejection and disparagement (though those come with the turf) – Stoicism places all value in the “soul,” identified as the longest-lasting of human features. Interestingly, the soul is treated as the seat of reason, so it is reason that is actually being revered. Reason and rationality separate us from the animals and raise us towards the Gods, so they said. Socrates claimed in going to his death to be following the will of Gods and Oracles, and that doing so was obeying perfect rationality. To modern thinking, this appears incomprehensible. Not to mention the tremendous moral pitfalls of rationality: So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do. (Ben Franklin).

However, Epictetus was clearly selected for the Harvard Classics because of reverencing the voice of Reason in the soul. A careful read of the first two volumes reveals they’ve been selected almost as a self-help manual for the pre-Carnegie era, all instructions taken from the writings of wise men. They mesh together remarkably well – after all, while Franklin may not have said (on controlling anger) if you succeed in passing thirty days, sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving, his program for improving was almost identical, based in the same cultivation of self-will.

Epictetus urged caution on those seeking improvement. To learn a little Stoicism is fine, but to claim on the heels of that to be a Stoic is delusional. If you have assumed a character beyond your strength, you have both played a poor figure in that, and neglected one that is within your powers. Or put less moderately: …why mock yourselves and delude others? why stalk about tricked out in other men’s attire, thieves and robbers that you are…

Ridicule and disparagement seem to have been part and parcel of this philosophy. The Golden Sayings is crammed with insult. He addressed this: A Philosopher’s school is a Surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For him it seemed absurd that a philosopher would apply for pupils. I apply to you to come and hear that you are in evil case; that what deserves your attention is the last thing to gain it; that you know not good from evil, and are in short, a hapless wretch; a fine way to apply! He believed philosophy should attract those who need to hear it, not sell itself to the idle curious (like me, through this book).

Among those to earn Epictetus’ disdain were readers. He stated that those who read “merely” for delight or a scrap of knowledge are poor, spiritless knaves. It was lucky for him that he never wrote, avoiding the deep ungrateful hypocrisy of all writers who insult readers. Arrian’s transcription in this case may spoil the effect. Or not.

The best thing about reading Epictetus is quoting him. Several good quotes must be withheld to keep this post at a manageable length. I will conclude with my favorite (IE, the one I happen to best agree with) on the subject of meeting people as opposed to merely seeing them:

Then you will say, “Yes, I met Epictetus!”

Ay, just as you might a statue or a monument. You saw me! and that is all. But a man who meets a man is one who learns the other’s mind, and lets him see his in turn. Learn my mind – show me yours; and then go and say that you met me. Let us try each other; if I have any wrong principle, rid me of it; if you have, out with it. That is what meeting a philosopher means.

Up next: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Budapest – Chico Buarque


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Budapest (Grove Press)Those of you following Three Percent’s enormously silly and rather uninformative (there’s a reason book reviews aren’t written like sports announcements) “World Cup of Literature” will have noticed the high praise this novel received in the opening match, where Brazil beat Cameroon 4-0 (it then lost the next round because it was facing South America’s literary titan Roberto Bolaño). Budapest had been on my radar ever since learning that Luisa Valenzuela’s ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ took its title from a Chico Buarque lyric (in Brazil the man is known primarily as a songwriter). Having won praise on so distinguished a site, I thought I’d better bump this novel up my reading list.

On the surface, Budapest is a small book about nothing, a fluid account of one man’s love affair with the Hungarian language. It was first published in 2003 and translated in 2004 by Alison Entrekin (who does a marvelous job making total immersion in José Costa’s head somewhat easy to digest). Costa is a ghostwriter who, on a whim, abandons his wife Vanda, their son and his job in Rio de Janeiro, taking off for Budapest to learn the only tongue in the world the devil respects. Soon upon arrival he hooks up with the aloof and disciplined Kriska, who volunteers to teach him the language.

Costa’s narrative glides along in chapters alternating Brazil with Budapest, playing parallels for all they are worth. At home he is employed and even has a certain invisible prestige. In Hungary he finds himself nobody, starting from scratch to recreate his late departed career. Kriska has a son the same age as his boy, offering a replacement family. However, it’s not the story of a conflict, a “troubled man caught between two worlds” and all that. Costa is a remarkably unreflective narrator, an individual so abominably self-centered it doesn’t even occur to him to moralize about his actions. The effect is almost comical. He swears up and down vouching for his purity as a ghostwriter while it becomes more and more obvious that he burns with vanity and when a book of his becomes a hit he transforms into a ludicrous peacock, strutting about with his autographed copy, watching people read it on the beach, standing in bookshops watching it fly off the shelves and thinking words of contempt, because if it weren’t for my book, that dump would already have closed down.

Just as often, paralleling only takes place in Costa’s imagination, as when he discovers his wife’s adultery during his absence and pictures her lover doing all the things he did in their first meeting, melding linguistic fetishism, erotic obsession and identity crisis in a curious mix. It would make no sense to wish him ill for having done what I would have done if I were him… Costa never considers his wife’s feelings or confronts his own hypocrisy in the matter – never, in fact, does Costa account for the feelings of Vanda or Kriska, only stopping to envision their erotic reaction to language (written or spoken and preferably his). The solipsism beggars belief. …she would forget the German, who would also forget her, as she had been forgetting her husband who was forgetting her in Budapest, and there you go. The only thing left to say to the German now would be: How are you?

Were Budapest of any length, I might have reservations about recommending it due to the difficulty many readers have with unsympathetic protagonists. But what is most odd about Buarque’s book is how it avoids being disagreeable. Buarque has a light touch and I feel that he invites laughter toward Costa (at least I hope that was the case). Combining that with the shortness of the book, Budapest never outlasts its welcome. I should think anyone who can tolerate streams-of-conciousness could get some enjoyment out of it.

The other praiseworthy element here is how in tone and style it looks meandering and self-indulgent but as you progress through the text it becomes more imaginative. There are doppelgängers in his office, an encounter involving Russian Roulette and a ghostwriters’ society full of intrigue and backbiting to liven things up. The ghostwriting drama heats up the narrative and becomes a highlight as the business relationships between employers, craftsmen and customers quickly become fraught: He went out late every night to buy the following day’s papers, which he scrutinised right there at the news-stand, scanning the cultural sections for an article of mine, a letter of mine in the readers’ section, a paid public notice claiming authorship of The Gynographer. On autograph nights, during radio interviews or television talk shows, even during an informal chat with Vanda on the evening news, he was tense, glanced from side to side, twisted around, imagined that I might burst in at any moment to unmask him.

The ending is also commendable, delicious irony being served up for a finish. You never do get a particular sense of Hungary or its people but that’s hardly surprising given who’s telling this story. I did have to backtrack on occasion to reclaim the thread of the plot, but as I adjusted to the style confusion cleared and it ceased to be necessary. It’s really a fun little read, quick and quirky and just a touch comedic. Recommended.

Chico Buarque gesticulating







And here is one of Buarque’s music performances:

Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins – Carlos Fuentes


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ConstanciaCarlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was one of the great mystical writers of the 20th Century, in that no matter how clearly he stated his theme or outlined his moral stance it is still well-nigh impossible to explain his vision. The intriguingly elaborate title Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins is a set of five novellas he had published in 1989. A translation by Thomas Christensen followed the year after and got little attention. Hardly surprising. These stories are confusing labyrinths, metaphysical mysteries for the soul and some are far more readable than others.

The novella form only adds to the level of difficulty. It is an ungainly object – padded at length compared to the short story but not long enough for the full involvement that a novel can offer. Most writers deal with these creations by either issuing one solo or by inserting it into a collection of shorter works, where it can act as a centerpiece. Putting five together, as Fuentes has done here, runs the risk of bogging the reader down. While Constancia would make a distinctive introduction for the novice, I believe it would be better approached by those already familiar with Fuentes and aware of his idiosyncrasies.

The stories are mysteries, more or less, borne of ghosts, parallels, surreal situations and secret tests of character. People are alive who should be dead, mannequins have souls, and each narrator is challenged by the most perplexing adversities (fear not, there is nothing Kafkaesque here; Fuentes was too original for that).

The lead-off story, ‘Constancia,’ is narrated by a lethargic and uncharismatic aging intellectual. The Russians make that exciting – Fuentes makes everything around it exciting. Consequently, the ramblings of Dr. Whitby Hull about his lusty but troubled marriage to a pious, uneducated Spanish woman and his ambivalent sense of white guilt as a white man in Savannah, Georgia is not terribly compelling. Luckily, this is only the entryway to a larger story as Fuentes weaves the deep voice of history’s pain into the narrative through the collective memory of refugees. Whitby’s privileged worries give over to the mysterious ailment of Constancia, setting him in pursuit of her past. The plot only becomes more dreamlike as the layers of history’s carnage unfold. It also includes one of the most genuinely redemptive conclusions for its main character that I have come across.

‘La Desdichada’ is considerably more fun. Two young men, aspiring writers in 1930s Mexico City, become captivated by a sad-eyed store mannequin and bring her into their apartment. Soon enough she creates a rift between them. It lacks the perverse horror required to rival Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Daisy Dolls’ but it’s not exactly Lars and the Real Girl either. It is, however, a great space for Fuentes to show off his skills as a decadent writer:

We took taxi after taxi, the four of us squeezed in together, breathing the intense perfume of those strange creatures. It was the last night of the city we had known. The ball at San Carlos, where they took us that night (the perfumed couple, Pierrot and Columbine) was the annual saturnalia of the university students, who cast aside the medieval prohibitions of the Royal, Holy University of Mexico amid the Neoclassicism of the eighteenth-century palace’s stone staircases and columns: disguises, drinks, abandon, the always threatening movement of the crowd carried away by the dance, the drunkenness, the sensuality on display, the lights like waves; who was going to dance with Ambar, who with Estrella: which was the man, which was the woman, what would our hands tell us when we danced first with Columbine, then with Pierrot?

It is a compelling story with a vibrant cast and a subtle, phantasmagoric ending. Of all the stories, it is perhaps the most ambiguous in its resolution – though it contains only a hint of surrealism, it is never made clear what exactly the doll La Desdichada was nor what she expected of the boys.

Story No. 3, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas,’ is the least stylistically demanding of the set. The narrator, a lawyer and general snake in the grass, makes a gregarious and straightforward storyteller. The action develops at a pleasant clip and concepts such as the value of information, the invisibility of servants and the seclusion (invisibility) of the elite are all wrapped up in a story of blackmail, murder and the mob. If you’re looking for an easy way into the book, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas’ is your best bet.

The snag comes with ‘Viva Mi Fama’ – one of the longest stories and the most surreal of the set. People who think surrealism works best in small doses (like me) will find this very distracting. The plot follows an actress, a bullfighter and Francisco Goya in a love triangle of sorts, culminating in the luckless reincarnation of the bullfighter attempting to retrieve his former glory. Ceaseless romanticizing and sexualizing of bullfighting ensues. Culture clash is expected when reading world literature, but like most decadent writers, Fuentes didn’t know when to quit and the story is pretty much the definition of overkill. Of course, if you’re a fan of the word-drunk decadence movement, you’ll probably enjoy the whole thing far more than me. It is a good example of Fuentes’ delight in language, even if it does veer into self-indulgent stylistics.

Though Goya appears as a character in ‘Viva Mi Fama’ he’s not used half as well there as he was in the beginning of ‘Constancia,’ when Whitby Hull wanted to tell his wife that it is reason that never sleeps which produces monsters. A telling inversion. “Reason” has absolutely no place in these tales, any more than it had a place in the dreamscape of Aura.

The final of the five Stories for Virgins is a return to form. There is a strong hallucinogenic element in ‘Reasonable People’ but it doesn’t overwhelm the central plot, which involves miracles, incest and some luminous architectural discussion. Like Victor Hugo, he attempts to capture the soul of a people and their history in the form and substance of their architecture, described in a rapturous and enthusiastic prose: The approach to the Lincoln had become an obstacle course, thanks to the never-ending construction on Revillagigedo, Luis Moya, Marroquí, and Artículo 123, the streets around it. The Federal Attorney’s Office, the site of the old Naval Ministry, several popular movie houses, and a real jungle of businesses, garages, hardware stores, and used-car lots made that part of the city look like a metallic mountain range: twisted, tortured, rough, rusty; several stages in the life of steel were exposed there, like the entrails of an iron-age animal – literal, emblematic – they were bursting out, exposing themselves and revealing their age, the age of the beast, the geology of the city.

‘Reasonable People’ is marred only by a bait and switch conclusion. There is some excellent imagery during the hallucinogenic portion, where one of the architects discovers a windowless house leftover from the old City. Mexican houses are all blind on the outside; the blank walls around their entrances tell us only that these houses look inward, to the patios, the gardens, the fountains, the porticoes that are their true face. There he encounters a group of mutilated nuns and a corrupted semblance of the Virgin and Child. It does feel a little padded, but is more interesting than not.

As should be apparent, the curious title of the collection is an emblem of its Catholic focus. The Virgin is mentioned and mused upon in every one of these novellas. Being knowledgeable in Catholicism would likely help a reader to appreciate the imagery, and doubtless much has escaped me. Constancia is a reading experience where the more knowledge you have, the better. This is challenging material for the brain, so you’d better be prepared for that. Don’t expect another Aura. This book is not half so accessible, though it has its own rewards – and I thoroughly recommend ‘La Desdichada.’

Carlos Fuentes

Three Brothers – Peter Ackroyd


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Three BrothersIn the fiction of Peter Ackroyd, London is always the main character. People are a formality; Albion is the glue that holds everything together. This tight focus and regular productivity could be optimistically thought of as the reason Ackroyd the novelist hasn’t been a forceful presence since the 80s. These days he’s best known for his non-fiction – Three Brothers is only a footnote next to this year’s Charlie Chaplin biography. All I can say is, it deserves it.

The story it tell centers on the Hanway brothers, struggling to rise in the world from their council house beginnings and permanently marked by their mysteriously vanished mother and weary failure of a father. Each boy’s character is clearly delineated, though they lack depth. Harry is ambitious, hardworking and cutthroat; Daniel is scholarly, snobbish and gay; and youngest brother Sam is a dreamy, unmotivated loner. Their only connection is their shared aloofness and that they were each born at the same hour of the same day exactly one year apart from each other.

That is only the first in a litany of coincidences that thread the narrative. Readers have complained about this aspect of Three Brothers but it’s right there in the opening paragraph, it’s the bread and butter of the novel, and if you can accept the first one there’s no reason not to accept the rest. Whether there’s any point in doing so is another matter. Paul Auster plays with chance and fate in a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-eyerolling way. Ackroyd, on the other hand, doesn’t engage with it. He expects you to believe in his fateful London, but if you think of London the same way you think of Paris, Chicago, Reykjavik or any other city, then you’ll probably need more than “Dickens did it first” as a reason to.

Ackroyd has an impeccable talent for painting the streets and society of 60s London but he shows very little ability at pacing. He turns out a near-constant stream of character sketches. Each one is snappily dealt with but at a certain point (rather early on, in fact) the hastily introduced cast start to swim. I got the feeling Three Brothers should be one of those fat Rohinton Mistry novels, but which had somehow been pared down to a smoothly readable but definitely rushed 244 pages. The characters are small, petty and easily dismissed, making it even harder to forge a connection before they exit stage left. Sam, who felt at ease in the company of tramps and wanderers is the only fully realised character on display, purely by dint of ambiguity (the gay thief Sparkler also has some promise). When asked if he’d seen his brothers, Sam answers:

“I don’t think so.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Sometimes I think I see their reflections. Sometimes I think I see them across the street. I see them in my dreams all the time.”

The text is a combination of vaguely satirical social realism with a visionary and mystical setting. But there is no emotional loading to the novel, so when the brothers get involved in the criminal underworld it is impossible to care and when the visions surface they lack intensity. It’s an uneasy mixture and is poorly resolved. Ackroyd’s London intrigues and puzzles at the start, but his characters are a drab and irritating sand in the ointment. It’s clear Ackroyd only needs them as props: …he had found in the work of the novelists a preoccupation with the image of London as a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole. A chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, and a misheard word bring unintended good fortune. An impromptu answer to a sudden question might bring death… And props they remain.

The book needed more work if it wanted to impress. It feels much too swift in execution, like the author had a great concept and hammered it out as fast as possible to meet a deadline. The giveaway is the ending. I can’t discuss it in detail but it is, quite frankly, bafflingly bad. Suffice to say, however self-absorbed Paul Auster can be, he does create a world (something Ackroyd sadly fails at). Coincidence drives it but Auster has the energy to make it seem purposeful. Ackroyd, in the end, handwaves his entire premise. Every intriguing idea brought up in the first hundred pages is ignored – nor does the lack of resolution feel purposeful. It feels muffed. And that makes the whole experience even more meager.

The Plato Papers, which I read a few months ago, was certainly slight but oddly (and very pleasantly) stimulating to the intellect. I was impressed by the amount of care that he’d put into it. Three Brothers feels like the polar opposite. It’s easy enough to read, I’ll give it that, and I did enjoy the first hundred pages, but it gave diminishing returns from there on. I’d say you should seek his earlier works if you want an Ackroyd novel and don’t bother with this one.

Peter Ackroyd at table

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel Garcia Marquez


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Strange PilgrimsWith the recent passing of Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) I decided it would be good to pay my respects by finally reading one of his books. Being in between story collections, Strange Pilgrims felt like the obvious choice and I knew it for such when García Márquez greeted me in the introduction by recounting a dream where he attended his own funeral: walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood. We all seemed happy to be together. And I more than anyone else, because of the wonderful opportunity that death afforded me to be with my friends from Latin America, my oldest and dearest friends, the ones I had not seen for so long. At the end of the service, when they began to disperse, I attempted to leave too, but one of them made me see with decisive finality that as far as I was concerned, the party was over. “You’re the only one who can’t go,” he said.

Strange Pilgrims is a themed set of stories that García Márquez published in 1992 but had been struggling with since the 70s, a mutable and often hopeless project he could never bring himself to abandon. Upon publication, it was swiftly and brilliantly translated by Edith Grossman (1993). My Penguin edition has a lovely wraparound cover by Cathleen Toelke, which was another factor in my choosing this book over any of his classic novels.

The stories are centered around Latin Americans in Europe – old and dying, young and struggling, all displaced in a landscape both surreal and devastating. The stories cover realism, magical realism and nightmare. There is in fact a strong element of the macabre at work here and almost all of them deal in some way with (often violent) death. Yet here is the truly astonishing thing: even with its themes and motifs so strongly on display, there is no repetition to be found. This is doubtless due to the long gestation period: Because I worked on all the stories at the same time and felt free to jump back and forth from one to another, I gained a panoramic view that … helped me track down careless redundancies and fatal contradictions.

There is a great deal of strength and weight to each of the tales. I had come across his stories in compilations before but they’d one and all left me cold. Not so with Strange Pilgrims. It takes nostalgia, menace, beauty, Europe’s antiquity and incompetence – often using an author stand-in who has seemingly “collected” the stories as journalism – and never failed to draw a reaction from me. The majority of the collection only lightly touches on magical realism. A dog is trained to weep over a grave, a woman makes a living selling her dreams, but García Márquez tackles the inexplicable in all forms. ‘The Ghosts of August’ is a straightforward ghost story (and perhaps the least affective of the set due to its brevity) while others lean toward Kafkaesque situations.

‘Light is Like Water’ and ‘The Saint’ are the most conventionally magical realist, design-wise. In the former, two boys demand a boat (much to the bemusement of their parents, since they’re living in a fifth-floor Madrid apartment), having made the whimsical but ultimately dangerous discovery that “light is like water … You turn the tap and out it comes.” And in ‘The Saint’ a man struggles for years to gain a reception from the Pope. His dead daughter’s body will not decay and he longs to see her canonized. Oddly enough, no one seems interested…

‘Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen’ revisits Rome, this time with a bereaved and pious widow on a pilgrimage to see the Pope while struggling to endure so crowded and venal a city. At that early hour her only fellow diners were the waiters and waitresses and a very poor priest eating bread and onions at a back table. When she went in she felt everyone’s eyes on her brown habit, but this did not affect her, for she knew that ridicule was part of her penance. The waitress, on the other hand, roused a spark of pity in her, because she was blonde and beautiful and spoke as if she were singing, and Señora Prudencia Linero thought that things must be very bad in Italy after the war if a girl like her had to wait on tables in a restaurant.

Death is never predictable in these stories. Señora Linero encounters it everywhere while the protagonist of ‘Maria dos Prazeres’ – a merciless old lady who at first glance seemed a madwoman escaped from the Americas – makes careful preparation for her own end, only to have it poignantly upset by the one thing she could never have foreseen. And ‘Bon Voyage, Mr. President’ features a placid and charming dictator, exiled and ailing in Geneva, expected to die any day. But he possesses the will to endure and the eloquence of an old master and he’s by no means as finished as he looks…

Tallied up, only one of the twelve breaks the pattern. ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ centers on an unbearably pretentious old man gazing in adoration at his airplane partner. Unluckily for him, the most beautiful woman he’s seen in his life takes sleeping pills the moment she boards and remains a mystery. He quotes sonnets and reflects on Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties while longing for her to wake – even welcoming turbulence, such is his vain desire. Kawabata’s concept apparently so fascinated García Márquez that he expanded on it with his final work, the novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004).

Everything works as a distinct entity. There’s no filler – every story is imaginative and unpredictable. However, my favorites are easily the most sinister. Along with Carlos Fuentes and Felisberto Hernández, García Márquez is further proof that Latin America contains a rich seam of horror fiction that for some reason is not often remarked upon. “I Only Came to Use the Phone” is simply one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. A woman’s car breaks down in the desert and she hitches a ride on a bus. But the bus’ destination is a women’s insane asylum where she’s mistaken for a patient. Asylum clichés are loaded on with a trowel but there is a terrifying plausibility as circumstances collude to keep her imprisoned.

A moray eel nailed to a door frame kicks off ‘Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness.’ Two young brothers are put under the care of an iron-fisted German governess, bringing an end to their paradisiacal Sicilian vacation and as her behaviour grows more and more appalling so does the resentment of the boys. We soon realized that Miss Forbes was not as strict with herself as she was with us, and this was the first chink in her authority…

‘Tramontana’ deals with a more inhuman menace, a harsh, tenacious land wind that carries in it the seeds of madness… Susceptibility increases with exposure so that the old pros have the most to fear. However, it is ‘The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow’ that best captures the pure disorientation of these pilgrims to the Old World. On their honeymoon in France, Billy Sánchez’s wife pricks her finger on a rose and begins, inexorably, to bleed to death. He rushes her to a Parisian hospital but then finds himself lost, unable to speak the language or regain admittance, doomed and isolated by bureaucracy and his own characters flaws.

Strange Pilgrims is a powerful concoction. Colourful imagery both enhances the terror and regret of displacement and conveys the beauty and mystery that lead a person to endure such homesickness. García Márquez appears not only to have been satisfied with Strange Pilgrims but to have made it the conclusion of his work with the form – in the twelve years to Memories of My Melancholy Whores he published journalism, a memoir and the novel Of Love and Other Demons but no more story collections, making this his crowning achievement in the field. It is exceptional. Simply put, it belongs in your Latin American literary collection. If you don’t have a copy, I demand that you get one.

Gabriel  Garcia Marquez

The Plato Papers – Peter Ackroyd


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The Plato PapersMy preferred method of bookbuying is the secondhand source. Everything is on shuffle and you’re left at the mercy of local bookbuyers. It has obvious problems, among them the chronic discovery of a major writer’s secondary works. I spring for those anyway because such an introduction can re-create authors in different guises. Dreamers introduced me to Knut Hamsun, The Moon is Down to Steinbeck. It can also damage them unfairly. Mark Twain is forever slapdash and annoying to me thanks to Pudd’nhead Wilson. It’s a gamble, but (especially with major writers who I’m bound to read more of anyway) it’s one I like to take.

So I found Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers, his mostly forgotten 1999 offering, in the basement of a Bemidji bookstore. Bought it, put it on a shelf for a couple of years, and having lately finished a re-read of some Plato, thought it a good time to polish this diminutive book off. Well, it’s actually 173 pages but that’s Nan A. Talese’s formatting trick. A small hardcover with giant margins and maximum use of white space at the start (and usually finish) of all 55 chapters. Naturally enough, much of the text is in dialogue. And what does it all have to do with Plato? Next to nothing, actually.

The Plato Papers uses the future as a conceit to talk about the past. In 2299 a collapsophe plunges London into a new sci-fi dark age but the city endures and by 3705 the orator Plato is entertaining crowds with his interpretations of “ancient texts.” When he’s not delivering orations, he’s conversing with his soul. When he’s not on the page, friends with improbable names are discussing him and his ideas.

That’s it. My hopes were not high, as it sounds like a glib work of postmodernism with no greater purpose than to showcase Ackroyd’s cleverness. Some of it does fall into that trap. The Plato Papers can be split roughly in half – while the second half delves into metaphysics, the first is all about the blithely overeducated joke as when Plato offers definitions of ancient idioms.

dead end: a place where corpses were taken … Those who chose to inhabit these areas apparently suffered from a ‘death wish.’
literature: a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to ‘litter’ or waste.

I mean, come on! These are glorified puns, funny literalisms it can’t have taken Ackroyd more than a second to compile. Occasionally, one hits the mark:

pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot. Used as a term of abuse, as in ‘this is a very pedestrian plot.’ It is possible, therefore, that in ancient days walking was considered to be an ignoble or unnatural activity; this would explain the endless varieties of transport used to convey people for very short distances.

This is amusing yet reflective. The conclusion is wrong but it feels plausible and the verdict is pleasantly illuminating. It’s also very lightly treated, which sums up my experience with the whole work. Some call it a satire, but it’s not mean enough by half. And as a novel of ideas, it puts all the right ingredients together…in the smallest possible amounts. Throughout, Ackroyd is making a point about the treatment of history, the interpretations we make about “the wrong ages” (essentially how we always feel about the past). Each new generation unaware that history has them in its gunsights as well.

Madrigal: … But why are the beliefs of our ancestors so ridiculous? I am sure that they were sincerely held.
Ornatus: No doubt.
Madrigal: Perhaps, in the future someone might laugh at – well – you and me.
Ornatus: There is nothing funny about us.
Madrigal: As far as we know.

Of course, The Plato Papers is too diffuse to really impress with its intellect. It flits from scene to scene and all the critical praise adorning the dust jacket can’t obscure the fact that this is foremost a light read. It wants to amuse. Plato’s orations are postmodern routines and they form the bulk of the text. Dickens and Darwin are confuted in the best sequence, offering The Origin of Species as a novel with an unreliable narrator at the helm. Freud (pronounced Fraud, ha ha) is assumed a comedian. Poe’s Tales and Histories is taken at face value as a factual account of the American people. Its inhabitants dwelled in very large and very old houses which, perhaps because of climactic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy. In many respects the architecture of these ancient mansions conformed to the same pattern; they contained libraries and galleries, chambers of antique painting and long corridors leading in serpentine fashion to great bolted doors. … they were a highly nervous people, who suffered from a morbid acuteness of their faculties. They experienced continually ‘a vague feeling of terror and despair’. They were prone to the most extreme sensations of wonder or hilarity and there seems to have been an unusual amount of lunacy among the young.

As Plato talks to his soul, the cheap jokes go by the wayside and Ackroyd gets down to business. History is bent and run through Plato’s Cave. Willful illusion, rather than simple ignorance, becomes a main tenet of human behaviour. The stubborn Ornatus says “Ignorance is better than doubt” and the citizens of London reject Plato’s new and more accurate findings on ancient ways because to countenance them would introduce uncertainty – and require humility. To class your ancestors as ignorant makes you enlightened; to call them barbarians is to make yourself civilized. Plato tests the limits of his world, not by journeying to another, but by admitting his own errors. This makes him a pariah and he is soon put on trial…

In a final prank, Ackroyd chose not to finish his fable with an ending everyone already knows. Perhaps he thought that would be predictable, or would clash with his established tone. Or perhaps he was making the point that, even while unconscious of the past, history does not always repeat and there is hope for the human race. Deeper meaning aside, Ackroyd’s finale is diffuse, anti-climactic and very appropriately the final word in the book is dream.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of artistry on display in The Plato Papers. However, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers with its combination of highly metaphorical sci-fi and postmodern jokery. Sure, it stimulates the intellect, but it bounces around too much to feel really substantial and based on this sample it makes sense that he’s more known for his non-fiction these days. I enjoyed it but I would never claim it qualifies as a necessary addition to the library of any non-Ackroyd fan. The characters are flat, the prose is average, the imagery does not dazzle…and yet the whole concoction is so odd I can’t help but like it. In its favour, it absolutely does have the ability to spark thought. It’s one of those cases where the reviews are a necessary addendum to the book. There’s an excellent essay on it at London Fictions that I direct you to as a case in point. Ackroyd’s erudite. In the end I’m glad I picked it up.

Peter Ackroyd

Karate Chop – Dorthe Nors


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Karate Chop (Graywolf Press)Fifteen stories in eighty-eight pages and it’s called Karate Chop? Pictures spring to mind of sharp-edged minimalism, the jolt of the unexpected. I had high hopes for this collection, the first English publication of Danish author Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken for Graywolf Press). It garnered widespread critical acclaim and I, expecting something quite unique, was unprepared for what I got: all too often rote slice-of-life stories.

I’ve never cared for slice-of-life, mainly because it’s so hard to do well. Especially in shortened form, it makes too often for quotidian extracts from life packed together without breathing room. A writer has to be either an excellent stylist (Mavis Gallant, Edna O’Brien) or supremely perceptive (Anton Chekhov, god of the life unlived) for it to work. Nors has these qualities but not in a reliable amount. What she excels at is atmosphere and her stories only pop when she allows slice-of-life to have a freak accident. In that way, she reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates, only with greater discipline (well, it’s hard to have less) and an air of mystery. Nors doesn’t believe in spelling things out for the audience. It’s unfortunate then, that so much left unsaid feels so ordinary.

The best stories in Karate Chop have a menacing and autumnal air of decay. With the exceptions of ‘The Buddhist’ and the title story, very little tends to happen. Nors prefers to suggest and when she uses that technique and goes beyond slice-of-life into a different type of gloom, the result is delicately unnerving, as in the conclusion of ‘Mutual Destruction':

A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something inside Morten that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what to say about it, other than that it smelled like offal, and that the smell was spreading.

This ominous trait is so good that reviewers tend to emphasise it, but in truth fewer than half of the stories hit that mark. The rest, though moody, do not carve out a distinct identity for themselves. It doesn’t help that, without the atmospheric displays, Nors’ writing is thoroughly nondescript. I particularly remembered the front door when I turned to go back inside. The light from the lamp shining on the wall cladding and door handle. That sort of thing. Apart from the Danish setting and stylistic brevity, there is very little here to differentiate Karate Chop‘s divorces and family traumas from the rest of the pack.

Because of the brevity, Nors has been compared to Lydia Davis, but to qualify she’d have to break her stories down even further. ‘Nat Newsom’ fills four pages, but the wham moment, when Nat allows himself to be conned by an especially inexpert hustler, requires only one to set up and execute. Several of the less interesting stories could have hit a nerve with this treatment. ‘Hair Salon’ splits its attention between an old lady in a laundromat and the dog she dopes up so she can keep it in her apartment. The old woman pretends a solidarity with the narrator to salve her own isolation in the modern world but the detail about the dog is a far more powerful way of transmitting that.

The strongest stories in Karate Chop actually fulfill the promise of its title. The twisted premise of ‘The Buddhist’ is treated with a sense of humour that in no way impinges on its horrifying punchline. ‘The Heron’ is narrated by a morose and death-haunted man, musing on the sickly herons and occasional dismembered bodies you can find in the park (it was featured in the New Yorker and fully deserved it). ‘Female Killers’ also features a morbid man at its center, obsessed with women who kill and the survival of the fittest. ‘Karate Chop’ succeeds with a familiar tale, as an abused woman questions her relationship choices with an especially opaque and subtly chilling conclusion. These and ‘Mutual Destruction’ show what she’s capable of. Memorable and finely tuned sketches of life on the regular side of macabre. And all her talent is given full rein in the final and best story, ‘The Wadden Sea’.

It is hard to convey the enchanting quality of ‘The Wadden Sea’. The story is simple and told through the eyes of a child. A mother suffering “fear of life” moves to Sønderho, using the Wadden Sea mudflats for “healing power.” It is a fully formed piece of work, conveying a family’s tension, the struggles of a depressed mind, the layers of a local community and an impeccable sense of place, all in six pages. There were many artists and musicians living in that little community. There were rich people too, though I didn’t know any of them, and then there were the locals and the town alcoholics. Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town were clusters of people with indistinct pronunciations and chinking shopping bags. Her tone is perfect for conveying the overcast stillness of the mudflats and my only reaction on finishing it was “damn, that was good.”

If only she could sustain such a voice… In spite of the disappointing nature of this collection, Karate Chop has some truly excellent stories that are well worth a read. I can’t recommend it overall unless you really enjoy slice-of-life. But I’m nevertheless anticipating the translations of some of her novels (she’s written five). Is she average with flashes of brilliance or is she in the process of cultivating a unique voice for herself? It could go either way but I await the answer with interest.

Dorthe Nors on the road

Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews: Second Anniversary



Today I celebrate two years of my blog’s existence. Big changes have come to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews since I began, most of them since the new year and the latest, tragically, just yesterday. In February I was hired to the website Media Snobs. burning paperThat line of work is no more. The site has been taken down by an outside force and everyone involved is now out of a job. The staff are showing great solidarity through this reviewer’s apocalypse and the possibility of a new site rising from the ashes is very real.

The five reviews I contributed are safe (I had backed them up on Wordpad previously) and last night I added their complete texts to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews, since they now have no other place to reside on the web.

Victorian MourningI am now at loose ends, as before, only somewhat sadder. However, even though I was only able to work there for a few short months, the experience has changed me deeply. For a moment I was able to call myself a professional and my writing was vetted by a talented and helpful editor. The work I did there has fired up all of my hitherto dormant ambitions.

I was previously content as a hobbyist, drifting through life and maybe reviewing a book every few weeks. I paid no attention to the literary world and would stumble upon new books by accident – usually by reading the blog of someone more in-the-know, like John Self over on Asylum. Now everything has changed. I’ve shed my apathy and am keeping up on the new and forthcoming. The bi-weekly posting that was required of me has done a lot to help me learn the rhythm of reviewing, how to pick up the pace, strategize and organize.

I don’t feel in a celebratory mood, frankly, but I have to be. My blog is still here and my stuff still has a home on the web. Compared to others, I’ve lost very little and have much to be grateful for. However, this is also one hell of a spur to BACK UP ALL MY REVIEWS in about five separate locations.

Gibson Girl does some writing

So, what does this really entail for me? The wind is thoroughly out of my sails but I can’t allow that to last. I must rally and continue to forge ahead toward an ideal upgrade in my blog’s content. The casual approach is to take each month as it comes, reviewing whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The professional approach is to step away from the month and focus on the quarter (right now is the middle of the spring quarter), planning for an ideal spread of reviews to appear over the course of that time.

The subtitle of this blog has always said “Essays and Reviews.” I’m going to step up to the plate and actually deliver the former, as well as the latter. One essay per quarter will allow me to get through my Harvard Project at a slightly faster pace and spur me on to the launch of some shorter projects that have long been on my radar.

My main focus at this time will mostly be to plan ahead and build up a backlog of reviews. With such a store, I would be able to stop worrying about a dearth of content and occasionally read long books again (right now, Ada deserves my complete attention and how will I ever read Ulysses or Mason & Dixon if I’m always stressing over my next review?). I’m only one person, of course, but I will do the best I can.

Other things you can expect:

I am now on GoodReads, though mostly to use its to-be-read feature. You can socialize with me if you want. I doubt I’ll post my reviews there, unless specially requested. On that note, I recently got my first ever request for a review, by a self-published translator of Russian poets. I am now brushing up on my Anna Akhmatova in preparation.

The majority of reviews here will always be of fiction but I enjoy reading poetry and will aim to review at least one volume of it in each quarterly period. I’d like to do the same with literary criticism. These things add a little diversity to my obsession with literature.

Upcoming reviews:
Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, a story collection that only occasionally impressed me.
The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd, which turns out to be rather better than I expected.
Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.
Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze. I hope to acquire and review the other three books in Dalkey Archive’s Georgian Literature Series as well, provided I can scrape the cash together.
The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. I read it just before starting this blog and remember being staggered. I would like to revisit it and put it on the site.
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes. The most popular post on Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews? Aura. One of my least favorite reviews, incidentally. I think its popularity has something to do with flummoxed students and reading assignments…
Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins by Carlos Fuentes.
The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun. One of the perils of secondhand bookshopping is getting introduced to great writers by their minor works. I already read the incredibly slight and cheerful (???) Dreamers and this is the only other Hamsun I have at hand…

Things are up in the air at this dour point in time. What the future brings I do not know. I will forge ahead to the extent possible and see where things go. It’s most important not to lose momentum. Thank you to all my readers on this second anniversary.

Love Sonnets and Elegies – Louise Labé


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NYRB Poets - Louise Labe

(Posted here in its entirety from the website I briefly worked for, now shut down)

Genre: Classics
Author: Louise Labé
Publisher: NYRB Poets
Type: Poetry
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 5 / 5 – Incredible

“Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me.” Nick Cave fans should know that one. It’s a line from the song ‘Green Eyes’ on The Boatman’s Call, extracted from one of Louise Labé’s sonnets and, for many people, probably the only place they’ve even heard of Louise Labé. Praise the man for having taste.

Louise Labé (c. 1520-1566) is one of the premier poets of the French Renaissance and one of the very few notable women poets France has produced. She was rumoured as both “La Belle Cordiere,” an educated courtesan, daughter of a ropemaker, and as “Capitaine Loys,” a teenage jouster and war re-enactor skilled in horsemanship. It could be legend or hyperbole or a form of slander, but the image of a courtesan crossdresser poet certainly captures the imagination.

There is now plentiful debate as to whether Louise Labé actually wrote the poems attributed to her. According to French academic Mireille Huchon, while Labé was living, the works attributed to her were written by a committee of contemporary male poets under the leadership of Maurice Scève. Scève was a known literary hoaxer who, in 1533, had claimed to discover the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura in Avignon as a stunt for French nationalism. He was also friends with Jean de Tournes, who brought out the first edition of the Works of Louise Labé in 1555.

Being in close proximity to such a man is the biggest red flag in the Labé case. However, many people still vouch for her existence and her importance, and so New York Review Books have ushered in a new bilingual edition of her poems, translated by Richard Sieburth. It’s a splendid volume, replete with footnotes, chronology, preface, her own dedicatory epistle and a very informative afterword. Sieburth had already translated some of Scève’s work and it is his opinion that the sonnets are Labé’s own best defense. He argues that committee writing could never show the consistency and the singularity of vision on display here and “as for Scève, his poetry was always in a class by itself–dense, hermetic, and radically silent in the manner of Mallarmé: the voice of Nobody, the voice of Language. This is definitely not the tongue of Labé.”

French was considered a vulgar tongue in that era; highbrows preferred Italian and neo-Latin. King Henri II’s decree that legal documents be written in the common French tongue was less than 20 years old at the time of Labé’s publication and her comfort with the vernacular was beyond any of her old-school contemporaries. Her vitality stems in part from that refreshing lack of elitism. Her sonnets are neither weighed down with dense classical allusion nor mannered to an extreme of irrelevance. They are expertly balanced. On the one hand, their subject is the decorous heartbreak brought on by an absent or indifferent lover, (pining, the number one theme of courtly poems). And yet her manner is never limp-wristed but instead is playful, suggestive and sexy. “I can’t bear living on my best behavior,” she writes.

Her voice is at once learned and ironic, combining feminine poise and grace with an emotive honesty and independence of will. In one sonnet she turns the tables on the popular praises of the day: “What good is it now, that you so perfectly/Once praised the golden tresses of my hair,” listing all the sentimental blandishments poets offer their muse only to abandon formalities and use the sestet to her own advantage:

Or was it all a cruel ruse on your part
To pretend to serve me, enslaving my heart?
Forgive me, Love, if I speak so free,

For I’m beside myself with rage & grief:
But I’d like to think, wherever you might be,
You’re every bit as miserable as me.

Sonnets are always split in half, an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. Labé knew how to accentuate the difference and make the most of the constraint. Love Sonnets & Elegies is also a boon to anyone planning to learn French. And as old as the poems are, the language has actually shifted from under them. Nick Cave’s quoted line, in French, reads “Baise m’encor, rebaise moy & baise:” Over the centuries this word has transformed from the Latin basium (a kiss) into something much more explicit (exemplified by Virginie Despentes’ novel Baise-Moi, translated as Rape Me). The sonnet is charged with sexuality and passion; reading it, one wonders at the word’s evolution. In Sieburth’s translation:

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.
And as kiss with kiss so happily mixes,
Let’s ease back into our shared joy again.

What’s interesting about Labé is how her suggestive tone manages to work within the romantic rather than the raunchy tradition, never playing it for low comedy or simple lust, (as was rather common). Yet her sonnets also hold an edge of cynicism which comes to fruition in her three elegies. Love is personified not as the expected Cupid or a capricious Venus but, as Sieburth says, as “a frightening god of war who defeats everybody on the field of battle…”

… I’ve subdued the gods
In Hell below, in the Seas & the Skies.
This is the same power I exercise
Over mortals. I force them to understand
There is nothing that can escape my hand.
The stronger they stand, the sooner I strike.

Thus does Love take his pleasure:
No two desires are of equal measure.
This man loves not, whom a Lady loves,
While that man loves, never to be loved:
Thus does Love extend his reign,
Holding out hopes he knows are vain.

As well as envisioning Love as a vengeful spirit, the elegies are perhaps all that gave rise to the alluring “Capitaine Loys” myth. “You should have seen me in the lists,/Jousting away, with my lance held high,/Dutifully unhorsing all who rode by,/Spurring on & wheeling my glorious steed.” Labé thus fits into a series of powerful, androgynous women from history and myth–from Sappho and Semiramis through Joan of Arc, even to Tilda Swinton’s Orlando.

It may never be confirmed whether Labé was the author of her works or not. If she was behind it, she was a genius. If her poems and image were the concoction of another, the same holds true. This is a classic case of Barthes’ death of the author. Who wrote it is less relevant than the clear craft and skill of the result. Your collection of French poetry is not complete without Love Sonnets & Elegies. Moreover she is wonderfully accessible and the non-scholar will find nothing intimidating here. This excellent edition is due out on April 8th.

Louise Labé


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