Sunday, March 27, 2016

Journeying with Maqroll

The past week has seemed determined to demonstrate all the fickleness of Chicago spring weather: from a visually impressive but ultimately ineffective snowstorm Thursday night to bright sun and shirtsleeve weather this morning . . . which was overtaken midday by drizzly rains that, in a reverse of the cold rains of autumn, brought up from the pavements and easements not the smell of must and decay but of dirt in its richness. Chaucer was right:
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
I will be doing just that soon, heading off on an intercontinental voyage. And the combination of the unsettled weather and the impending trip sent me today to a book I'd long kept in reserve: the last novella by Alvaro Mutis relating the adventures of Maqroll the Gaviero. I've read 600 pages of stories about Maqroll, and I would gladly read 600, or even 6,000, more. Alas, all that is left unread is this final story, 100 pages of world-weary, fatalistic, foredoomed, yet beautiful, engaging, even magical travels. I've written about Maqroll before--if you've not read him, this post is probably the closest I've come to a good introduction. Here's how I put it on first reading Mutis's stories nearly eight years ago:
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down.
Tonight's story, Triptych on Sea and Land, begins promisingly, with the narrator running into a friend who has recently run into Maqroll (whom he knew of from the narrator's books):
With the first glass of rum the conversation began to flow between these two old veterans of life's adventures and narrow escapes, and the ancient craft of human tenderness.
Maqroll starts to talk of the cats of Istanbul (which, as any visitor to that city can tell you, are one of its most distinctive features):
"The cats of Istanbul," explained the Gaviero, "possess absolute wisdom. They exercise complete control over the life of the city, but they are so prudent and secretive that the inhabitants are still not aware of the fact."
Maqroll tells of two cats he sees every time he arrives in Istanbul, who answer to the names he has given them:
It would take too long to enumerate all the hidden corners these two friends have revealed to me, but each is intimately related to the history of Byzantium. I can tell you some of them: the place where Andronicus Commnenus was tortured, where the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, fell dead; the house in which Empress Zoe was possessed by a Saxon who had been ordered to put out her eyes; the site where the monks of the Holy Trinity defined the doctrine that cannot be named and cut out one another's tongues so the secret would never be revealed; where Constantine Copronymus spent a night of penance for having harbored impure desires for his mother's body; where German mercenaries took the secret vow that bound them to their gods; the mooring of the first Venetian trireme that brought the algid plagues. And I could list many other places that shelter the hidden soul of the city and were shown to me by my two feline companions.
That passage hints at one of the essential pleasures of the Maqroll stories: the Gaviero and his companions tell their stories in such a way as to suggest that for every story we hear, there are countless more still to be told. Everything and every person in Mutis's world is worn and hard-traveled; each of those miles would offer up a story if only we had time to listen to them all.

I was thinking along those lines after reading the passage above, so I was pleased to find an echo of it later when I flipped to Francisco Goldman's introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Mutis's tales, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Goldman writes:
All of Alvaro's friends know that he speaks of Maqroll the Gaviero as of a living person, whom he sometimes has news of, sometimes not. "He accompanies me," Mutis told me last year, "but we are no longer side by side, but face to face. So Maqroll doesn't surprise me too much, but he does torment me and keep me company. He is more and more himself, and less my creation, because of course, as I write novels, I load him up with experiences of actions and places which I don't know but which he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious."
What better companion could I have for the final days before a long journey?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Virginia Woolf takes criticism from E. M. Forster

I've read a lot of Virginia Woolf's letters and essays, but until this week I'd not spent any time with her diary. Now, having done so even to the smallest extent, I see that I'll have to make time to read through those many volumes eventually, too. Woolf is such an astute thinker and clear writer that almost any topic becomes interesting when it crosses her attention; merely flipping through what's available on Google Book Search (drawing on my typical keywords for that activity: lost, bookshelves, nonsense, drunk, hungover, party, forgotten) brought up a number of memorable passages.

The one I'll share today is from the end of October, 1919, right after the publication of her second novel, Night and Day. On October 30, she writes a bit about the response from friends and relatives:
If I could treat myself professionally as a subject for analysis I could make an interesting story of the past few days, of my vicissitudes about N. and D. After Clive’s letter came Nessa’s--unstinted praise; on top of that Lytton’s: enthusiastic praise; a grand triumph, a classic; and so on. Violet’s sentence of eulogy followed; and then, yesterday morning, this line from Morgan [Forster] “I like it less than The Voyage Out.” Though he spoke also of great admiration nand had read in haste and proposed re-reading, this rubbed out all the pleasure of the rest. Yes, but to continue. About 3 in the afternoon I felt happier and easier on account of his blame than on account of the others’ praise--as if one were in the human atmosphere again, after a blissful roll among elastic clouds and cushiony downs. Yet I suppose I value Morgan’s opinion as much as any.
I'm interested by her turn to a metaphor when she talks of taking Forster's criticism on board: it brought her down to earth, where we belong, but she won't pretend that being in the clouds hadn't been "blissful."

By the next day, she had already come to terms with it:
The doubt about Morgan and N. and D. Is removed; I understand why he likes it less than V.O.; and, in understanding, see that it is not a criticism to discourage. Perhaps intelligent criticism never is.
She goes on to lay out her understanding of his criticism: Night and Day is too formal for him, and "none of the characters . . . is lovable." Forster, she writes, "requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters." It's a need that a reader can sense animating Forster's own work--he generally seems to want us not just to care about, but to like his characters.

In coming to terms with his criticism, Woolf acknowledges both its validity and its fundamental inappropriateness: Forster had looked for a different book than what she'd written. But, a critic herself and an incredibly perceptive reader, Woolf refuses to let herself dismiss Forster wholly; you sense that this thought will stay lodged somewhere in her creative brain, the grain of sand that might later help form a pearl. She concludes the entry, not with condemnation, but with praise:
Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.
Few writers have ever read as well as Woolf; I wonder how many took criticism like as well as this?

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Let's wallow in the overripe and baroque for a bit, shall we?

At the library the other day in search of a volume of Aubrey Beardsley's letters, I stumbled across a book on Aubrey from 1928 by a friend and near-contemporary, Haldane McFall. The title page, below, will give you a sense of the lush production of this volume, redolent of an earlier, more bountiful age of publishing.

I'm sure I won't do anything more than dip into the book--for what genre holds up less well than instant biography? But I thought you might appreciate the breathless, dramatic tone of McFall's foreword nonetheless. Here's how he opens the book:
About the mid-July of 1894, a bust of Keats had been unveiled in Hampstead Church--the gift of the American admirers of the dead poet, who had been born to a livery-stable keeper at the Swan and Hoop on the Pavement at Finsbury a hundred years gone by--and there had foregathered within the church on the hill for the occasion the literary and artistic world of the 'nineties. As the congregation came pouring pitof the church doors, a slender, gaunt young man broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard, stumbled and lurched awkwardly over the green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God's acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed, lank figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands, his lean wrist showing naked beyond his cuffs, his pallid, cadaverous face grimly set on avoiding falling over the embarrassing mounds that tripped his feet. He took off his hat to some lady who called to him, showing his "tortoiseshell" coloured hair, smoothed down and plastered over his forehead in a "quiff" almost to his eyes--then he stumbled on again. He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken--he was fighting for breath. It was Aubrey Beardsley.
Not a bad way to begin a biography, no?

The decadent atmosphere of the '90s emerges more clearly in the prose of the end of the foreword:
We ought to realise that even as Beardsley, by light of his candles, wrought his art, the skeleton leered like an evil ghoul out of the shadows of his room. . . . Beardsley knew he was a doomed man even on the threshold of manhood; and he strove with feverish intensity to get a lifetime into each twelve-month. He knew that for him there would be few to-morrows--he knew that he had little to which to look forward, and had best live his life to-day. And he lived it like one possessed.

The letters, meanwhile, seem, on quick perusal, to be mostly depressing: Beardsley refers constantly to his coughs and hemorrhages, to the extent that you find yourself giving thanks for the tuberculosis vaccine. But once in a while there's a detail that calls the era to life, like this one, from a letter to Andre Raffalovich of March 18, 1897:
You have never told me, dear Andre, of the progress of your hand, and how long black silk bandages were necessary.
What was the injury? Did it heal? Who knows? But what better image of the darker, night-time life of the 1890s could we have than that of an injured hand bandaged not with cotton or wool, but with pure black silk?