A Poem by Graves

On Portents

If strange things happen where she is,

So that men say graves open

And the dead walk, or that futurity

Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,

Such portents are not to be wondered at,

Being tourbillions in Time made

By the strong pulling of her bladed mind

Through that ever-reluctant element.

Robert Graves

The Woman In The Dunes—Kobo Abe

A man disappears. He takes off for the sea; the closer he gets, the stranger the landscape becomes. The road he is on continually rises; everything else does not. Houses just off the road are seventy feet below the road. He is given shelter for a night with a widow; in the morning the rope ladder is gone. He is trapped with the woman. The existence of the man and the woman boils down to one thing: shoveling sand away. Sand permeates everything: their house, their lungs, skin, eyes, the air; it is constant. Clearing it away just leaves room for more sand to come. The man and the woman enter into a most complex psychological, kinky, and erotic relationship. There is a happy(??) ending.

Kenzabur? ?e was one of Abe’s (1924-1993) friends. Oe said he thinks Abe’s novels are beyond his work and are as great as Kafka’s and Faulkner’s. Oe also said that Abe should’ve received the Nobel Prize in Literature that he himself had won, though the latter had been nominated many times. Critics likened his literary style to Alberto Moravia for its modernist influence.

It’s an odd book, very hard to classify, easy to admire, harder to love. It is not a difficult read, but as in Kafka, I wonder about the reliability of the third-person omniscient narrator. Kafka is the obvious comparison, as are Sartre’s No Exit, Beckett, Jack London, Dinesen, and Mishima. It is a nightmare piece, and it is very plot-driven. Yet there are asides throughout, ranging from entomology, Existentialism (the overriding theme here), different animals, a Neil Sedaka song. And always the sand, the sand which is a character in its own right. I grade it as an A-; The Woman In The Dunes is not for everyone.

The film adaptation of Woman in the Dunes won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the same year (losing out to Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow). In 1965 director Hiroshi Teshigahara was nominated for the Best Director Oscar.

dredged from the archives: Jan Potocki

It’s been awhile since i read The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I almost forgot the weird rush wondering what the hell that book was, wondering why i’d never heard of it before. and how it could be such a sprawling wreck of greatness.

Somehow the news, until i ran across it on Wikipedia:

Rosset and Triaire identified two versions of the novel: one unfinished, of 1804, published in 1805; and the full version of 1810, which appears to have been completely reconceived in comparison to the 1804 version. Whereas the first version has a lighter, more skeptical tone, the second one tends toward a darker, more religious mood. In view of the differences between the two versions, the 1804 and 1810 versions have been published as two separate books; paperback editions were issued in early 2008 by Flammarion.

I’ve forgotten which version Ian Maclean used, but i read someone on Amazon arguing that Elizabeth Abbot’s 1962 (?) English translation was better anyway. Tracking down more people championing Abbott’s translation is probably going to be a dead end.

Also, has anyone ever translated Potocki’s travel writings into English? It’s bad enough that i need to learn Spanish, and have been too lazy to follow through, but French is likely completely beyond me. My suspicions that these writings would be interesting too were confirmed when i stumbled across the blog Limited, Inc. in looking for new leads to pursue. He has several Jan Potocki posts, including Potocki corresponding with Joseph de Maistre and Potocki recording the traditions of the Kalmucks (in 1797!)

Jan Potocki…. a strange man who i understand even less the more that i read these fragments.

Lugones, Borges

I recently acquired Gilbert Alter-Gilbert’s translation of Leopoldo Lugones’ Strange Forces, the first two stories of which are extremely promising.  In the foreword, Alter-Gilbert relates that

Lugones regularly took practice in the fencing academy at the Military School in Buenos Aires.  A romantic, a gallant, and a devotee of the chivalric code, he once fought a duel with a colonel and challenged the young poet Jorge Luis Borges to another when he felt insulted by what he considered a slight in the newspapers; the contest wasn’t consummated on account of Borges’ blindness about which, when he learned of it, Lugones said, “In that case, please be so kind as to inform that lackey Borges that he would do well not to make unsubstantiated assertions in the newspapers which he is not prepared to defend with his person.”  The lackey Borges would later write an adulatory book about his challenger.

I wonder what book this is? Lugones was apparently one of the topics Borges discussed in this 1951 lectures at the University of Texas, and I gather that the book dated from the same decade.  Incidentally, there is no mention of any potential duel in Monegal’s biography of Borges, though it does mention that Borges penned or collaborated on multiple parodies of Lugones’ poetry in the 1920s; one of which involved transposing some letters in Lugones’ name, “produc[ing] a ridiculous variant, ‘Leogoldo Lupones,’ with the stress on ‘goldo’ (a childish pronunciation of gordo, fat) and ‘lupones’ (lupo, wolf).  Lugones was not fat or particularly wolfish.”   It also notes that, in an interview with Cesar Fernandez Moreno in 1967, Borges said of Lugones:

[He was] a solitary and dogmatic man, a man who did not open up easily… Conversation was difficult with him because he used to bring everything to a close with a phrase which was literally a period… Then you had to begin again, to find another subject… And that subject was also dissolved with a period…His kind of conversation was brilliant but tiresome […] we had a great respect for him.

Oxford has recently published more Lugones.  The Selected Writings includes some nonfiction and seems to have some of the same short stories as are in Alter-Gilbert’s volume.


Daniel Green has an interesting post up at The Reading Experience on her son David Rieff’s chronicle of a death unacknowledged.  Green highlights the potentially deleterious effects that succumbing to the “lure of the biographical” could have on future thinking about Sontag.  From his post:

The implicit damage that Swimming in a Sea of Death does to Susan Sontag’s legacy as writer and critic will be registered primarily by the degree to which its “revelations” about Sontag’s difficult death will come to dominate future discussions of her work. These revelations will be trotted out again and again as some sort of clue to “vision,” dominated by her fear of death and her own puzzling sense of immunity to it as that vision must surely have been. The image of Susan Sontag as, in Sven Birkerts’s words, “an isolated, deluded figure, terrified of death and filled more with regret than any satisfaction at her achievements” will linger. The biographical will triumph over the exegetic, as it always done in our gossip-obsessed excuse for a literary culture, and even though Sontag’s work, especially the criticism, is focused on the sheer pleasure of life as represented by our encounter with art, the terror of mortality rendered in David Reiff’s book will overshadow conintuing encounters with Sontag’s essays and books. How lamentable that this process will have been initiated by her own son.

I suppose it is worth noting that I agree with the general thrust of Green’s argument here.  Too true is his evaluation of our literary culture, a culture too often obsessed with frivolous details and cocktail chatter.  I’m less convinced that knowing of Sontag’s fundamental inability to face her mortality as recounted in Rieff’s book (if this is indeed accurate, see below) is the deal-breaker here.  May a lust for “the sheer pleasure of life as represented by our encounter with art” not coexist with a crippling fear of annihilation?  May not this very lust be the major cause of that fear?

I got the impression while reading Swimming in a Sea of Death that the book revelled in its depiction of that horror.  I feel something like guilt when I write this, but that revelling felt vaguely exploitative.  I don’t pretend to know David Rieff’s mind and I am not at all suggesting that his intention was to revel or to exploit.  I’m merely confessing a sense of unease that was there whether my reading was off or not.  To the extent that this feeling (and the subsequent thoughts it provoked) proves Green’s point, he does well to make it.  Not taking into account this aspect of her personality, however, leaves the portrait incomplete.

She herself did much to make her personality an issue.  She was a rockstar.  She carefully cultivated her role as Resident Enthusiast, as guide to and defender of serious art.  It is for this reason that I cannot drum up any anger over the publication of her Journals.  In his preface, David Rieff makes the valid point that if he didn’t do it, someone else would.  While I think that many of the reviews of the first volume were wrong-headed (the word “pretentious” cropped up a few times, as absurd and petty an attack on writings not meant for publication as I can imagine), I hope that the publication of the future volumes will find an audience (whether critical or popular) less under the sway of her still-fresh celebrity.

Too soon, then.  Timing is, I think, the major shortcoming of Philip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. The book is a somewhat informal collection of notes that is, first and foremost, a felt reflection on her writing.  Every one of her books gets at least a few lines, but the bulk of Lopate’s considerations are focused on the essays. He has much to say on her aphoristic style, her polemical “radicalism” in art in the sixties (and how this shifted over the years), her public persona, her insecurities, her intelligence, her arrogance. The book, as criticism, suffers from a certain lack of depth. Lopate quibbles with a line here and there, makes clear his opposition to some of her more hyperbolic statements, is quick to note that most of her fiction is mediocre if not outright “awful”, but doesn’t engage with any one text enough to give the reader something new to consider at length. This is perhaps an effect of both Sontag’s lingering ability to polarize opinion and the chosen form of the book itself. One feels that after some time has passed (and after all the Journals are published, fair or no), Sontag’s legacy (or lack of one) will be clarified.
Wait and see.

Why I Hate The New Yorker: A New Yorler-Styled Humor Piece

I’ve realized over the last few years that I don’t much like the New Yorker. What finally pushed me into putting pen to paper was my reading, last year, of Falconer/John Cheever, and my current reading of Revolutionary Road/Richard Yates. Cheever has always been held in high regard by the Pantheon, as Yates, until very recently, has been forgotten. Both authors mine the same vein of suburban anomie and loneliness; the picket fence on a lawn’s perimeter will likely demarcate a prison. Cheever was a much-published New Yorker author; Yates had one story published many years after his death. Well, Falconer sucked: writing that alternated between awkward and flat, an uninvolving plot; it seemed as if Cheever wanted to make you not read the book. I was embarrassed for the author. My reaction with Revolutionary Road is the polar opposite. I love it. Every sentence furthers the narrative flow, and these are beautiful, elegant sentences. Yates builds and layers his characters, situations, and themes; I can tell already that there will be a big emotional wallop ahead.

So. Reading Richard Yates led me to considering John Cheever, which leads to a hate piece about The New Yorker, which I cannot abide:

  • Because I (or you, or anyone) cannot read the blasted thing cover to cover. The New Yorker contains a whole lotta filler, and not a whole lotta filter.
  • The layout, the format of the mag, and that insufferable font. A typical New Yorker page will contain reams of text, with matchbook-cover-type ads on the side of the page. It’s enough to make your eyes bleed. Thankfully no one reads the New Yorker.
  • The covers. I lived in a dorm room decorated with New Yorker covers one semester; halfway through it had turned into an “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do” scenario. Art for middlebrows who know the difference between art and painting.
  • It is a middlebrow mag with a highbrow cachet. It is the home of affectation and pretension, where originality and esthetic pleasure go to die.
  • It’s really no better than Spin.

Cross-posted at Missing The Moon