msjohns615 2012 reads
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Hi everyone! My name is Matt, and I've decided to make the jump from 75 books group to Club Read this year...that group is so big, and since I've had some enjoyable conversations with some of the members of this group here and there on LT, this seems like a natural place to migrate to. My interests lie mainly in Spanish/Latin American literature. I don't have too many grand plans as far as books I'm hell-bent on reading this year, although I hope to read the following large books:
La regenta by Clarín
Señas de identidad by Juan Goytisolo
La ciudad y los perros by Mario Vargas Llosa
Besides those three big books, I'm planning on reading a bunch of colonial literature related to the Spanish conquest of the Americas (Bartolomé de las Casas, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, etc). My first read of 2012 was Alonso de Ercilla's La Araucana, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided it was time to get into colonial lit.
While most of the books I read will be in Spanish, I'll post the translated titles and also touchstone them. I've been surprised over the past few years I've been a member here at how many of the books I read have been translated. It's very rare that I read a book that's never made it to English...
I look forward to conversing about the literature I enjoy with the members of this group, and will try and contribute as best I can to the group's discussions!
1. La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla
This book is awesome! I'd been planning to read it for a long time and I was hoping that I would enjoy its depiction of the war between the Spanish colonial forces and the Mapuche indigenous people in southern Chile, but I did not expect nonstop action and intricate battle scenes. Maybe I expected both of those things, but I somehow expected other stuff too. I was blown away by the epic scope of this first half of La Araucana, a book that feels like the 16th century epic poem equivalent of a 20th century blockbuster action movie. It takes the style of the late medieval chivalric novels and epic poems (like Orlando Furioso, which is alluded to in the opening stanza) and applies them to the historic events of the Spanish conquest. Most of the action is so over-the-top that it's hard to believe that people used to read this book as the true historical record of the Araucanian war, but it's certainly got more truth to it than a lot of its epic poem kin. There aren't any dragons or mythical creatures, at least, although the Greco-Roman gods are often referenced and even invoked by the Mapuche forces as they prepare for battle.
Alonso de Ercilla was born in 1533 and died in 1594. He was born to a noble Basque family, and when his father died, his mother joined the Spanish court as a lady-in-waiting to the Infanta, with young Alonso becoming a page to the prince who would then become King Philip II. He accompanied the king in his European travels, but eventually got wind of the heroic exploits of the Spanish forces in the New World and decided to get in on the action. He was in Chile in 1557 and 1558 and participated in the battles of Lagunillas, Quiapo and Millarapue. His participation in the Arauco war will be documented in part II of La Araucana. In part I he's basically transcribing facts that he's learned from witnesses representing both sides of the action (apparently he spoke to both Spanish and Mapuche participants), and he cautions the reader at one point that the second hand information he's giving may not be as true as the stuff he witnessed firsthand. He claims to have written a lot of this poem in the heat of battle, even affirming that he often found himself distracted by the task of writing about the war and therefore forgot the sword that he clutched in his hand as he fought alongside his countrymen to defeat the valiant Mapuche forces. This seemed like a strange thing to admit to, but maybe he was just trying to appear as honest as possible. In any case, he published his epic poem in three volumes across nearly three decades, first in 1569, then in 1578 and 1589. The first volume was a bestseller that exceeded his expectations and made his reputation as an author. He parlayed his newfound literary fame into an advantageous engagement to a noblewoman, eventually marrying her and cementing his ascendance into the highest levels of Spanish wealth and prosperity (he'd always had the nobility covered, but he didn't have much in the way of money prior to his book and his marriage).
The writers of the introductory study of my Castalia edition affirm that the purpose of Ercilla was not to tell a story, but rather to sing of the heroic deeds of the Spanish soldiers and their opponents in the Arauco war, establishing the colonial conquests as a sort of epic era in Spanish history where men did great and unbelievable things. Admittedly this distinction had a much nicer ring to it in Spanish, where "sing" and "tell" are separated by a single letter (cantar/contar). In any case, I hope I haven't sounded upset that this book isn't historically accurate in its details. That stuff doesn't really matter, especially now that nobody's claiming its truthfulness...its "truthiness" is much better, anyway. The first part is nearly entirely made up of Mapuche victories over the Spanish forces. Their leaders, such as Lautaro (I believe Roberto Bolaño named his son after him), Caupolicán and the wise elder Colocolo (one of the biggest Chilean soccer teams is named Colo Colo, although I prefer la "U" de Chile) are depicted in all their heroic glory as they decimate the Spanish forces using astute military tactics and superhuman physical abilities. The Mapuches are elevated in this way because, in Ercilla's eyes, doing so only serves to further emphasize the glory of the Spaniards in their eventual victory over the indigenous people of Chile. I was surprised to see such a positive portrayal. The first volume of my two-volume set concludes with the tragic death of one of the Mapuche heroes, and also with the journey of Ercilla himself from Peru to Chile. I can't wait to read part II and find out what happens when the author arrives to the war. It'll be kind of like reading an Iliad written by one of the soldiers who participated in the Trojan War.
PARTS II AND III
Picking up where he left off in 1569, Alonso de Ercilla published continuations to his epic poem concerning the war between the Spanish colonial troops and the indigenous Mapuche forces in southern Chile in 1578 and 1589. These later versions weren't quite as focused as part I, and they were certainly no more historically accurate...that is, unless Ercilla really did visit wizards and saw the events that would take place in future Europe through some magical globes...nonetheless, they were still a pleasure to read. The author's presence in Chile during the events narrated in these volumes of his Araucana added to his storytelling possibilities, and he weaves a series of sub-stories--his personal encounters with noble Mapuche women mourning the deaths of their soldier husbands, a retelling of the story of Dido as the troops journey back to camp, and an awesome expedition into uncharted Patagonia territories--into the story of the final triumph of Spain over the indigenous warriors and their chief, Caupolicán. I got a little bored when he was describing the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, as it was "predicted" to him by the magician Fitón, in great detail, but only in comparison to some of the more compelling cantos. The high point for me was the final expedition, when the group of Spanish adventurers pushed into uncharted territory and tried to go farther south than any European had gone before. It was really quite thrilling, and the way that Ercilla contrasted their hunger, tiredness and fear that they might be pushing onward toward their own doom with their pride and conviction that they'd go down in history for their adventures was rather exhilarating. It's funny, throughout the book he's fairly prolific when it comes to naming people on both sides of the many battles he documents, but here he doesn't mention the names of the others who went along with him on this adventure. I think maybe he wanted to reserve that credit for himself.
La Araucana surprised me. He's even more favorable toward the indigenous forces than I expected. They're the true heroes of the story, and while I can't say that I remember a single Spanish name from the many who took part in the battles over the Chilean territories, there are quite a few indigenous names that stand out: Lautaro, Colocolo, Rengo, Tucapel, Glaura, Caupolicán, Galvarino...they're elevated to the level of the legendary heroes of the classical age. I'm reading a Wikipedia entry on this book, and it says that it wasn't an uncommon practice at the time to turn native people into Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians. It certainly did feel odd, having the Mapuche invoke Greco-Roman gods. In any case, I'm really happy to have learned the stories of the people whose names still appear in modern Chile, and I was happy that Ercilla painted them the way he did. A lot of times, he cried out at the injustice of the treatment they received in battle and in defeat. For example, Caupolicán is captured and given a less-than-honorable death. Ercilla affirms that if he weren't out on patrol at that time, he would never have allowed that to happen. I think maybe he inflates his powers of influence a bit, but still, his defense of the honor of the Spanish soldiers' indigenous opponents was compelling.
This is also the first epic poem I've read in octava real (in Italian it's ottava rima, I'm not sure how it is in English). I've never read such a long story with such a tight rhyme scheme (ABABABCC). It impresses me that he was able to write so many thousands of verses in this form, and I can totally imagine how each volume took him nearly a decade to write and publish. I'd really like to read Orlando furioso in order to experience this poetic form in one of its most famous iterations. I've kind of let my Italian studies fall by the wayside, so I might have to create and work through a few cycles of flashcards in order to understand the language, but I'd both enjoy that and find it beneficial to my understanding of Golden Age Spanish. Maybe this year I'll find time for it...
This was probably an atypical introduction to colonial/conquest literature. I've been thinking for a while about working through some of the more famous texts/chronicles associated with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. It's hard for me, a citizen of a rather completely "discovered" 21st century world, to imagine what it must have been like to explore unknown territories and go where no (European) man had gone before. While the elevation of the characters to a mythic, super-heroic stature may not make it the most reliable chronicle of the historical events that took place after Columbus' voyage across the Atlantic, it does capture the excitement of the experience, the idea the Ercilla surely must have believed in, that the Spanish adventurers who traveled across the ocean and warred with noble and formidable indigenous forces would go down in history as members of a heroic class whose exploits would be seen as comparable to those of the heroes of antiquity.
2. Respiración artificial (Artificial Respiration) by Ricardo Piglia
Emilio Renzi is a young writer whose first book is about an uncle with a tumultuous life, who left his wife for a cabaret dancer named Coca, maybe stole his wife's fortune, was imprisoned for the theft, got out and pretty much fell off the face of the map, but at the same time paid back the money he'd stolen. I like how Renzi describes his novel as "employing the tone of The Wild Palms; better: employing the tones that Faulkner acquires when translated by Borges, which resulted in a story that sounds like a more or less parodic version of Onetti." That's a pretty funny description of an imaginary Argentine book. He then receives a letter from the uncle in question, Marcelo Maggi, who's living up on the border between Argentina an Uruguay in Concordia, Entre Ríos. The uncle makes a few comments and rectifications regarding the fictional version of his story, as told by his nephew. Their epistolary relationship continues through the first part of the book, and Renzi learns of the importance of a trunk full of documents pertaining to a certain Enrique Ossorio, a bounty that had a lot to do with Maggi's marriage and subsequent abandonment of his wife. Ossorio was the secretary of Juan Manuel de Rosas, a traitor (or maybe a hero) who lived a long and complicated exile in the middle of the 19th century. He ended up on the East River, writing a utopic book that consists of letters received from a date far in the future (a date that corresponds with the Renzi/Maggi correspondence). The first hundred pages of the book are a mix of letters (not just betwen Renzi and Maggi), journal entries written by Ossorio, and the investigations of a man named Arocena who is trying to decipher a message embedded in code in some of the letters. Over the course of their correspondence, Renzi agrees to make a trek up to Concordia to see uncle Marcelo.
That visit takes place in the second part of the book, but instead of encountering Maggi in Concordia, Renzi makes the acquaintance of a Polish ex-student of Wittgenstein named Tardewski who now lives in Concordia and teaches private lessons in logic to high school students preparing to take a national entrance exam. Tardewski and Maggi are buddies who both frequent the same club. While they sit at the club, Tardewski and Renzi talk about a few of the more compelling members of Maggi's social circle. Their conversation often strays onto literary grounds, especially when they're joined briefly by a guy named Marconi whose ears perk up when he hears them talking about Borges. This was my favorite part of the book. Piglia puts some ingenious/hilarious comments on Argentine literature into the mouths of his characters. One affirms that "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" is actually a biting parody of the Frenchman Paul Groussac, who came to Argentina and became an influential member of intellectual circles in the later years of the 19th century. Another speaks of the involuntary humor of Leopoldo Lugones, suggesting that one might find a more refined comic talent in his La guerra gaucha than in the renowned jokes of Macedonio Fernández. At one point somebody suggests that the vein through which Argentine literature flowed was abruptly cut off by the death of Arlt in 1942. They then discuss Arlt's fiction, his style and his originality/genius, eventually bringing the conversation full circle by pointing out that one of Borges' stories can be read as a retelling/homage to El juguete rabioso. It's a fun 30-40 pages. I feel like the fictional setting, and the way that it's not Piglia speaking but rather the characters he's created, makes it possible for him to voice some really inspired readings of the Argentine canon. It's fiction and it's literary criticism, and the fact that it's the former makes it easier to make the extravagant declarations that make it so inspired as the latter. After they're done at the club, Renzi and Tardewski go back to the hotel where Maggi resides, and as they wait for him, Tardewski tells his life story. He's something of a mix between Wytold Gombrowicz and a character from an Onetti novel, and he once made a monumental discovery concerning a possible series of meetings between Hitler and Kafka, and the way that the two men mutually influenced each other. The excitement that the extended discourse on literature and the fundamental importance of Bob Arlt had inspired in me was somewhat cooled during this final section of the book, but I basically read the whole thing in one sitting and I think I was just fatigued. As I think about it, that story of Tardewski's was pretty extraordinary too, and it might have more universal appeal (considering that more people are familiar with Wittgenstein, Hitler and Kafka than are familiar with Arlt and Leopoldo Lugones).
There was one really odd thing about the form of this book. The conversations were often indirect, and sometimes doubly indirect, and you end up reading a lot of phrases like this one: "...the woman said, Marconi recounted, Tardewski tells me," or "Marcelo used to say, Renzi tells me." People retell things that other people told them, and the chain of communication is represented in its entirety. I can't think of many books that do this. It seems very convoluted and I'm pretty sure these are constructions that writers generally avoid because they're awkward. One book that does make extensive use of these sort of chains of communication is Don Quijote (Cide Hamete writes about what Don Quijote says and his words are translated into Spanish), but I can't really think of any others that go to such great lengths to document the degrees of indirectness of statements being made by different characters. This book by Piglia is about readers and writers, and I think that may have something to do with this formal oddity. Renzi is a writer who reads the story of Maggi's life and interprets it. Maggi is a historian who reads Ossorio's documents and interprets them. Tardewski is a philosopher who's accidentally given Mein Kampf when he goes to the library to pick up a book on the ancient philosopher Hippias. All the characters are interpreting things written by other people, and maybe that's why Piglia goes to such lengths to represent the ways that they interpret things other people have told them as they converse with each other.
All in all, this was a really fun book for me to read. I underlined sentences I found particularly interesting, because I think it's a book that begs to be deciphered, as Arocena tries to decipher the letters that come into his hands. I read it quickly, and I'm hoping that future readings unlock more secrets embedded in the text, the sort of text-within-the-text that Maggi looks for in the life of Ossorio, or that Arocena looks for in the letters.
Welcome Matt to club read. Fascinating reviews already. I am intrigued by La Araucana, which I will look out for in translation.
Wow. It's reviews like yours that give reviews like mine a bad name. ;) Excellent summations and your enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome to the Club'! (My first year as well, coming from 75 Books in 2010.)
Matt, it's so good to see you here! I'll enjoy following your Spanish/Latin reading this year, though, like Deskdude, I know that I will never be able to match your reviews!
Good to see you here, Matt! Great reviews, as always. Artificial Respiration is high on my wish list, so I'm glad to know that you enjoyed it.
@4: Thanks Bas! There's an English translation of La Araucana, but the lone reviewer on Amazon claims it to be "unreadable." He backs his statement up strongly with a rather convoluted stanza quoted from the translation.
@5, 6: Thanks for the warm welcome!
@7: Thanks! I've had the Piglia book waiting to be read for quite some time, and I found myself wondering why I put it off for so long. If you get ahold of a copy, I hope you enjoy it!
Matt--I hope you will join us, or at least occasionally comment, on our Reading Globally "Classics in Their Own Country" year-long read, especially on the Latin America thread here:
@9: Done! I'm a big fan of "Classics" and I'll try to keep adding ideas to your thread on Latin America in Reading Globally!
3. La verdad sospechosa (The Suspicious Truth) by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón
I read a handful of Siglo de Oro plays a few years ago and I remember really enjoying the language and the rhymed dialogue. I'm planning on returning to some of my favorites (La vida es sueño, El caballero de Olmedo), and also reading some new works that expand my horizons beyond Lope and Calderón. Juan Ruiz de Alarcón was a contemporary of theirs, and the brief biography that begins this edition painted the picture of a sort of underdog on the scene of early 17th century Spanish letters. His work as a dramatist was at least partially motivated by economic need and the desire to attain higher level administrative posts. He was involved in mean-spirited poetic back-and-forths with Quevedo and Lope, among others. He bounced back and forth from Europe to Mexico (where he was born), eventually settling into a mid-level job back in America. He's thought to have been a rather short and hunchbacked man. His name hasn't survived like those of some of his contemporaries. I finished the introduction and wanted his play to be a good one, because it seemed like he took a lot of disrespect from his more illustrious peers, and I've always thought that Quevedo kind of seemed like a bully.
The play begins with young Don García's arrival to Madrid from Salamanca, where he was completing his university studies. His father, Don Beltrán, asks his son's tutor to be truthful with him and tell him about any character defects his son might have picked up while in school. The tutor explains that Don García's character befits his noble lineage except for one thing: he's not always truthful. This concerns Don Beltrán, and he concludes that he'd better arrange a marriage for his son as quickly as possible before Don García starts roving around the court telling lies and earning a less-than-honorable reputation. We then meet the son, and as he enters into city life it becomes obvious he has absolutely no intention of changing his ways. He tells lies all day, everyday. He meets a beautiful woman and tells her he's the type of guy who went to Peru and made a fortune, and he says he's had his eye on her for a year. He tells his old buddy Don Juan about this awesome party he threw the night before and leaves him completely jealous and convinced that his would-be fiancé attended the party and might just marry Don García instead. He convinces his father that he's already gotten married back in Salamanca. He builds this giant system of lies in order to win the beautiful lady's hand in marriage. Her name is Jacinta, although she's also got a friend named Lucrecia and there's always a bit of confusion as to who's who...anyway, Don García is an excellent liar and although he starts to struggle to keep his many stories straight, he pushes forward with confidence that things will work out in the end.
I don't know a whole lot about the conventions of the Golden Age comedy. I know that Lope de Vega pretty much established the rules for the genre in Spain, and I plan on re-reading a few of his plays along with the introductory studies to the critical editions I'm so fond of in the hopes of coming to an understand of what exactly the genre rules are. I do seem to remember that the long speeches in his plays, and in Calderón's, were generally fairly serious and sometimes moralizing in their nature. That's not always the case here: Don García will get going on a lie and go on for fifty or a hundred lines. I tried imagining what it must have been like to see the play and watch him build these elaborate stories as the other characters are drawn into his descriptions. Alongside these lies about sumptuous dinner spreads at parties in the countryside and romantic intrigue in Salamanca, there are more traditional discussions of honor and whether nobility is conferred by one's birth or one's deeds. Essentially, Don Beltrán wants his son to see that he can ruin his high birth through his lies, while the son often argues that he should be judged not by his words but by his deeds...but that's not really going to happen if everybody knows your words tend to be false.
One final reason why I enjoyed this play: the footnotes are excellent. It's a Castalia edition done by a Spanish professor named José Montero Reguera. He traces the uses of a lot of the more difficult or confusing words, but he also explains the theatrical conventions of the time and the way that the action and the characters in this play relate to the Golden Age tradition. For example, he points out occasions where Don García's servant, Tristán, makes statements that belie his social standing and carries out roles that transcend the traditional part of the "criado" in Spanish theater. The footnotes, on top of an introduction that was brief, informative, and made me curious about this play, all contributed greatly to the reading experience.
Enjoyed your review of La Verdad Sospechosa Your enthusiasm for what you are reading is catching. From my recent reading of medieval literature there is much to enjoy when you can get to grips with the conventions.
13: I agree, and there's something very enjoyable about learning the conventions. Once you learn the rules of the medieval literary game, so to speak, it's all the more amazing when you see how they were slowly transcended over the course of centuries.
4. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
This year I'm trying to supplement my usual diet of Latin American/Spanish/Modern fiction with some theoretical texts that, I hope, will help me interact with the books I read in different ways. I'd like to be able to take more from my experiences as a reader, and I think an understanding of the way that social scientists and philosophers view the world and the written word will be of great help to me. I did not fully understand how popular this book by Benedict Anderson is: reviews on LT tend to emphasize its fundamental importance in the study of nationality over the past three decades, and one reviewer mentions that a professor told her that Imagined Communities is currently the most cited book in the social sciences. It was nice to read these things after I finished reading the book, which was intended in my case to complement a re-read of Sarmiento's Facundo. They confirmed the positive impression I had of his explanation of how nations are created/imagined.
I don't aspire to give a really solid synopsis of this book, so I think I'll just list some things I found particularly interesting and relevant to my own interest in Latin America.
a) Anderson defines the nation as an imagined community both limited and sovereign. Nations are imagined because their citizens don't all know each other. I don't know but a tiny fraction of my fellow United States citizens, but we share a nation. A nation is a limited community because, as the author puts it, "no nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind." A nation is sovereign due to the fact that, when nations were formed in the early part of the 19th century, the Enlightenment was undermining the traditional concept of the hierarchic dynastic realm (with nations replacing kingdoms) and it was possible for a the founders of a nation to proclaim it free under God. And it's a community because the members of the diverse nations of the world have felt such horizontal comradeship between each other that they're willing to fight and die for their nation.
b) The world used to be made up of religious communities. These religious communities shared sacred languages that were shared across different peoples with different everyday languages. Across Europe, people spoke their native language in their communities while the religious hierarchy did things in Latin; the same with the Muslim world and Arabic. These sacred languages were not thought of as arbitrary systems of signs; they were thought to be God's word. Then along came the printing press. The book became a commodity (as Anderson puts it, "in a rather special sense the book was the first modern-style mass-produced commodity). The need to reach linguistically-diverse reading publics in Europe that transcended the Latin-educated ecclesiastical minority gave rise to national languages. Over time, there came to be normalized written languages: a printed French or a printed English intelligible to all speakers of a given language. Books were written that were directed to the readers of that language, to be digested by the linguistically-unified audience. Then newspapers gained in prominence: now you not only have a unified audience reading a single text, but they're all reading it at the same time, and it's telling them news that is essentially local. They're a community of newspaper readers, and they feel connected with the people they don't know but who read the paper along with them each morning. This is the gist of how print capitalism created new groupings of readers and contributed to the formation of nation-states.
c) The nation-states of America were the pioneers with respect to the formation of nations as we see them these days. They weren't linguistically distinct communities because they shared a language with their colonial metropoles. Moreover, the different American viceroyalties spoke the same language, Spanish. Anderson looks at a couple of key factors that influenced the formation of nations like Argentina, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico. One is the secular pilgrimage of sorts that those who traveled across the Atlantic took part in. Many of these fellow-travelers were part of the administrative bureaucracy of the Spanish crown, and as such, their lives were a sort of progression up a ladder of posts in the system. There was no "home" to go back to because wherever they were represented the highest point in their ascension, and the people they met along the way, their coworkers and friends, became a part of this community of bureaucrats. Then, when Spaniards in the New World had children, their Creole descendants who formed part of a new colonial upper class community remained under the control of their Spanish rulers: the highest posts in the Spanish viceroyalties were nearly always occupied by men born in Spain. Eventually, the subordination of these Creole aristocracies by Spanish crown became intolerable and these men who shared a common fate and a common history of pilgrimage (and who had also begun reading the same newspaper each morning as the printing press became more common in America over the course of the 18th century) asserted their desire for freedom and sovereignty as nations of Americans in the wars of independence of the early 19th century.
These are just a few notes that I plan to keep in mind when I read Facundo. I'm interested to try and imagine the audience Sarmiento is speaking to and how his book functions as an exercise of nation-building (maybe it'd be better to say nation-refining or nation-correcting, I'm not sure). He originally published the book in serial form, so maybe there are connections to be made between the communities of newspaper readers that later joined together in national brotherhood, and the readers to whom Sarmiento directs his story of Facundo Quiroga and the recently-born Argentine nation.
Matt, Interesting thoughts on Imagined Communities, however when you mentioned that it was a "text book" or at least a highly recommended read for social scientists my eyes glazed over. I do find that such books spend an awful lot of time explaining stuff we already know.
Hi Matt. I have already seen your postings for a while, but did not have the time to read them carefully, up till now. I'm very glad you joined the board here, because your reading in Spanish is a most welcome supplement here. Besides, you have an excellent choice in your reading; as a matter of fact, I envy you, in that you are able to read there wonderful works of Spanish literature, of both Castilia and the Americas, with such ease.
I lived in Spain for a year, but when I went there, I thought I was going to a cultural backwater in Europe, and I wasn't really ready for the depth and scope of Spanish culture. That realization came with a delay, so that, after leaving Spain, I continued studying Spanish to master the language at a higher level. Since then, I have only read a few books in Spanish, which I enjoyed very much, each. However, as a rule, Spanish books are not available here in China. Only in 2006, after a book fair, a large hold of remainders was sold at rock bottom prices, so I bought nearly all of those books (about 300 vols.) (The same with French, in the same year, also about 400 vols.). That's why my New Year's resolution for this year is to read more Spanish and more French. Your highly stimulating thread on this forum will definitely remind me of that.
It's hard for me, a citizen of a rather completely "discovered" 21st century world, to imagine what it must have been like to explore unknown territories and go where no (European) man had gone before.
I think (young) people have a very strong thrive to go on "an adventure" like this. I surmise that that's why computer games are so popular. They contain all the same ingredients, conquest, mythical beasts, magic (weaponry), etc that are the stuff of great epic poetry, especially that of the middle ages. A few years ago, I wrote a chapter based on that idea for a text book, but the chief editor rejected the chapter, because they did not want to encourage computer games.
@16: I think "history book" or "theoretical treatise on the birth of nations" might be a better way of putting it. I liked it because it presented the possibility of looking at works of literature in a different way. When reading books from the 19th century (around the time that the nation-states of Latin America came into being), I'd like to look for ways that the authors direct their works to "national" audiences...in any case, I thought it did a good job of explaining history in a new and original way.
17, 18: Thanks! I look forward to hearing about the books you choose to read from those bounties of Spanish and French texts. Also, I like the idea of computer games replicating the experience of medieval readers as they read epic poems...giving people the chance to "live" adventures by way of a controller and a TV. Maybe it's not as intellectually fulfilling, but I do remember getting really into that Zelda game for N64, coming home from school every day to play it until I beat it...what struck me about La araucana was the way that fantasy mixed with history. In many ways it was like reading a Libro de caballería (full of fantastic events), but it was also rooted in the events of the Spanish conquest of Chile.
5. The Politics of Aesthetics by Jacques Rancière
Here's a book that I had a lot of trouble understanding. This may have been partly due to its form. The philosopher answers a series of questions that relate to the distribution of the sensible, that is, the way that society decides how to perceive things, or how to classify aesthetic/sensory experiences. It's not the kind of book where a thesis is presented then illustrated through examples that support the initial claim, and the author also affirms in his foreword that the arguments in this book are "inscribed in a long-term project that aims at re-establishing a debate's conditions of intelligibility." I was told that this is something of a constant in Rancière's work: his books don't necessarily answer questions so much as push a discourse forward and enter into dialogue with other conceptions of art and politics. I'm also a poor student of philosophy, and the classes I took as an undergraduate are so far in the past that the little I did read, I've almost entirely forgotten. In any case, I'd like to write down a few of the things that did impress me about this challenging book.
For Rancière, "aesthetics refers to a specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts: a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their corresponding forms of visibilty, and possible ways of thinking about their relationships." He furthermore asserts that "if the reader is fond of analogy, aesthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense--reexamined perhaps by Foucault--as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time."
So our sensory/aesthetic experiences are determined by a set of previously established conditions. But these conditions have changed over time: we don't have the same "a priori" conceptions of the world that we used to, and Rancière's book documents two important shifts (revolutions) in our aesthetic sensitivities by illustrating three aesthetic regimes that have held sway over the occidental world and its artistic output. The first one is an ethical/Platonic regime in which representative art is often looked at suspiciously due to the imitative quality of painted/poetic/dramatic images. This was the regime that I had the greatest difficulty in understanding. What is art in the Platonic community? Is there good art/bad art? The poets are supposed to be banished, right? Why, exactly? Because art is imitation and the simulacra created by artists is nothing more than a great number of falsities? I don't have a good answer to those questions (I read the Republic once, but many years ago), so I'll just go on to say that eventually a second, representative/Aristotelian regime was established. This is the regime that assigns specific forms to specific representations: comedy is the appropriate form for representing the lower strata of society; tragedy is the most noble of all forms and is appropriate for telling the "great" stories of kings and nobles. Finally, a third regime replaced this Aristotelian regime: an aesthetic/Democratic regime in which the Aristotelian hierarchy of representation, and the different "arts" by which different subjects can be represented are replaced by one overarching Art. The advent of this regime is best understood in the works of writers like Balzac, Flaubert and Hugo. They saw that the small stories can be as grand as the big stories, that the history of one common person can be as compelling as the History of a Great Hero. Art was freed of the Aristotelian division of art into arts.
Identifying the major shifts in the distribution of the sensible, the seismic shifts in the "a priori" conditions that humankind utilizes when perceiving the world around us, gives Rancière the opportunity to revisit some commonly-held views on subjects like modern art and the mechanical arts. I'd always thought of modern, anti-mimetic art to have been a 20th century phenomenon, but the author shows how the aesthetic revolution, whereby you no longer had to use a certain form to represent a certain social class or to tell a certain type of story, set the stage for the later ruptures that the different -isms of the early 20th century produced in mimetic art. He also shows how this aesthetic revolution in art paralleled the democratic revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. On the political side of things, our perception of the organization of society changed quite a lot too: people who were previously "invisible" to the political order came forth to demand rights that they had previously not possessed. Another section of the book discusses the role of the mechanical arts in the democratization of art. As I understand it, some have opined that photography and cinema expanded the realm of potential subjects that could be considered worthy of art. But if you incorporate these new forms into this history of aesthetics, they too can be seen as part of this larger revolution.
Very interesting review, Matt. I read a few books on aesthetics last year, but more specifically focused on literature, such as The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams. It had interesting things to say about the shift from pure mimetic representation to later forms of representation. Rancière's book sounds good, if a bit difficult.
Matt, you have done a great job in explaining a difficult book. There is nothing like writing down your thoughts on such a book to see for yourself what sort of understanding you have reached. I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I have to gear myself up to reading philosophy as I do have trouble with some of the concepts. It is usually very slow going.
21: Thanks! One thing I found intriguing about Rancière's perspective is that he considers literature and politics to be highly interconnected. The shift in aesthetics that you see in 19th century novelists like Flaubert and the early democratic revolutions are essentially two sides of the same coin. So while it's a philosophical text and a political text, it's also fundamentally a book of art/literary criticism.
22: Thanks, bas! There's definitely a strong "selfish" aspect of writing about books: I have a much better understanding of what I read once I try to organize my thoughts into some sort of (semi) coherent summary, and I think in the end I derive more satisfaction from the reading experience.
6. Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña by Lope de Vega
I've pulled my copies of Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo off the bookshelf and have them ready to go, but I began this brief cycle of Lope de Vega comedias with a play that's new to me, Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña. Lope really was amazing and entirely worthy of the "Monstruo de la naturaleza" nickname that Cervantes bestowed upon him. He wrote more than 400 comedies, made significant contributions to Siglo de Oro poetry and prose, and essentially wrote the rules for Spanish theater. One example of his lasting influence can be found in the official dictionary of the Spanish language, maintained by the Real Academia Española. If you look up "comedia," you'll find that one of the definitions is: "in classical Spanish theater, a dramatic piece whose essential traits were established by Lope de Vega." Wikipedia says that by the age of five he was reading Spanish and Latin, and by 10 he was translating Latin verse. That sort of precocity reminds me of Borges: as I recall, he was translating English texts well before he entered his teenage years. I'd like to say that both authors possessed a particular, incomprehensible genius, the type that allowed them to produce vast bodies of written work across multiple genres of great quality and enduring fame. I mean, to write more than 400 comedies of around 3,000 lines of rhymed verse each is insane, and while many of his contemporaries derided Lope for putting quantity over quality, they couldn't refute the fact that many of his plays were absolute masterpieces. They also couldn't deny that the people loved him, and that his plays sold. Lope was big on giving the people what they wanted, and as I understand it he used the fact that his plays continually drew crowds as a defense against his critics: if my plays are so mediocre, why do people always want to see them, and why am I so damn successful?
This play was written somewhere between 1604 and 1614, but the action is set in the beginning of the fifteenth century, during the reign of Enrique III. It begins with the wedding of Peribáñez (Pedro Ibáñez), a wealthy and virtuous townsperson (not of noble birth, but of pure Christian blood), and Casilda, the most beautiful girl in town. In the midst of the wedding, a bull that´s being brought to town for the festivities gets loose and manages to knock the Comendador off his horse. His title refers to his place in the religious order of Santiago, and he's essentially the feudal lord of a swath of countryside that includes Ocaña. He's brought to the house of the newlyweds and when he regains consciousness, the first thing he sees is Casilda's beautiful face. He's instantly overcome with desire, and for the rest of the play he schemes to possess her. She recognizes the crazed lust in his words and in his eyes, and Peribáñez also realizes that his honor is in grave danger. After a series of attempts to woo Casilda, first using the smooth vocabulary of courtly love, then through an attempt to force entry into her bedroom when her husband's away, the Comendador finally settles on a scheme to separate husband from wife: he names Peribáñez captain of the local contingent of soldiers that's been summoned to Toledo by the King. However, he may have sown the seeds of his eventual downfall in the moments before the troops depart: Peribáñez approaches him and asks him to knight him. When the Comendador agrees, he's essentially elevated his adversary to a level in the medieval hierarchy that would allow Peribáñez to fight back. Before, as a "villano," he couldn't have laid a hand on his feudal lord. However, now that he's been made a "caballero," he's allowed to protect his honor.
I especially enjoyed this play's complex depiction of honor in medieval Spanish society. The Comendador honors Peribáñez by giving him a series of gifts and eventually naming him captain of the town's military regiment, but by doing so he is actually dishonoring him: he's using gifts and privilege as a means for pursuing an end that would leave Peribáñez completely disgraced. In his pursuit of Casilda, the Comendador sticks closely to the courtly love blueprint, comparing her radiance to that of the rising sun and so forth; on the other hand, he also tries to bust into her chamber and rape her. Both husband and wife are aware of what's happening and what the consequences will be if the Comendador gets his way, and much of the action and excitement of the play--and exciting it is, enough that I couldn't put it down and read it in a single sitting--derives from their attempts to maintain their honor without breaking society's rules. It's really quite hard to stand up to a horny nobleman who's after your wife if you're a peasant (albeit a wealthy, virtuous one) like Peribáñez.
So Lope tells a good story, and he fills it with all sorts of wordplay and ingenious rhetorical flourishes. One thing I especially liked was the way that Peribáñez, conscious of the implications of his rise in the social hierarchy, started talking differently once he'd been knighted. Right before he goes off with the troops, he returns home to say goodbye to Casilda. She's up on the balcony, and he begins a tortuous, courteous speech full of double meanings and complex wordplay. She responds that she cannot understand a word of what he's telling her, but since he's about to depart and possibly participate in a war, she'll go ahead and give him a token of her love, since that's probably what he's there for anyway. Fun stuff.
Fascinating stuff as usual matt. I see there are 135 works by Lope de Vega on LT. No shortage of reading material then.
7. Facundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Considering that it had been many years since Sarmiento last invoked the terrible shadow of Facundo for me, and also bearing in mind that my only reading of this eminently important 19th century Argentine text had been an incomplete one (for an undergraduate class wherein we were assigned just enough chapter to be able to discuss the major themes), I decided it was time to have a go at this book in its entireity. It seems like the kind of book that is read more out of a sense of obligation than for personal enjoyment. I confess it has sat on my bookshelf for many years, and I've never thought, "man, I bet I would really enjoy reading Facundo right now!" A friend saw that I was reading it, and said that she felt sorry for me and that I should skip lots of pages like she did when she read it. Nonetheless, I was able to read the whole thing, a few chapters at a time, and I'm glad I did.
The book attempts to illustrate the conditions that led to ascension of Juan Manuel de Rosas from estanciero to governor of Buenos Aires and later of the Argentine Confederation. It does so by telling the life story of Juan Facundo Quiroga, explaining that the barbarism of Quiroga prefigured the tyranny of Rosas. In the eyes of Sarmiento, Rosas used the barbarous caudillo as a model, systematizing his violent methods: the atrocities committed by Facundo were ones born of the unrestrained passions of a rural "gaucho malo," while those of Rosas were premeditated acts of political violence. Rosas' reign of terror was an application of Facundo's rural barbarism to the civilized realm of Buenos Aires, a barbarization of the metropolis. If I'm using the word barbarism a lot, it's because the "Civilización y Barbarie" theme is omnipresent in Facundo. Sarmiento affirms that this dualism defines and characterizes the nation of Argentina, and it was indeed the original title of the book.
Sarmiento doesn't just begin with Facundo's story; he asserts that it's necessary first to understand the geography of Argentina and the ways that the desolate, open pampas have molded the personalities of the people who inhabit them. He then defines a few different gaucho prototypes: the baqueano who can read the nuances of the rural terrain like a book, the rastreador who can track down any living creature, the gaucho malo who lives the life of a white-skinned savage, and the cantor who mixes his own exploits into his songs of gaucho life (Martín Fierro will fit this blueprint closely a few decades later in José Hernández's epic poem). Now that he's explained the land and a few of the stock characters who inhabit it, Sarmiento moves on to discuss the ways that gauchos associate amongst themselves, coming to the pulpería (saloon) to engage in competitions of manhood and horsemanship. To him, these forms of association, in contrast with the everyday solitude of the countryfolk who live miles apart, are barbaric and stand in contrast with the tighter-knit cities that sprinkle the Argentine plains, where civilization has forged a tenuous hold. Finally, he explains the revolution of 1810 and contrasts the early post-independence growth of provincial cities like la Rioja and San Luis with their current, barbarized state. He always has an eye to the present as he tells the past, so at the end of the first four chapters you've got a pretty good idea of how Argentines lived in the interior, how the country was organized, and how Rosas' tyranny had quashed any early civilizing impulses.
Then comes the violent, impulsive Facundo, who builds rural, cavalry-based armies by intimidating local populations into emptying their purses into his war coffers, and who at one point controls the backbone of Argentine provinces that lie along the Andes. After Facundo has lived and died, the book continues with a chapter explaining the present conditions in Argentina (circa 1845, when Facundo was first published in serial form in Chile), where Rosas has consolidated his power, created a cult to his personality, and eliminated all resistance through a reign of terror inspired by that of France a half century earlier. For Sarmiento, this terror differs from its French antecedent in one notable way: in France the terror was an excess, almost accidental, an overextension of revolutionary passion; in Rosas it is cold, calculated, and absolutely intentional. He brands all those who are not with him as enemies, "inmundos, salvajes unitarios," and proclaims that they must die. The citizens of Buenos Aires live in perpetual fear and the intelligentsia is either dead or in exile. Nonetheless, the book's final chapter takes the form of a highly optomistic series of predictions regarding Argentina's future: no matter what, Rosas will fall, a New Government will be formed, and a unified Argentina will rise up out of the ashes.
For me, the genius of this book lies in its organization. The progression from geography to typology to interpersonal association to revolutionary history was, I thought, the perfect way to frame the life of Facundo. I was also pleased with the use of the life story of Facundo to explain the ascension of Rosas, and consequently the ascension of barbarism to the very heart of civilized Argentina. The various parts of the book come together to form an expansive whole, a panoramic portrait of Argentina that encompasses its past and Sarmiento's present, crossing into a speculative future in the final chapter. It's an epic book, told by an inspired storyteller.
Is it sometimes dull? Yes, for most people it is dull (myself included, although my particular interest in Argentina and its literature certainly helped me as I progressed from beginning to end). Are you going to agree with Sarmiento 100% of the time? Certainly not: he's got strong opinions and you'll repeatedly want to explain to him that any reality is bound to be so much more complex than one dualism of civilization versus barbarism. I think I disliked him more after my first, partial read of this book. Reading the whole thing made me appreciate his particular genius for reading and interpreting the various parts of a country's citizenry and history, and I was willing to dismiss most of his flaws. I'm glad I read this book. I'm also glad that I can begin tracing the influence of Facundo on Argentine literature: for starters, a friend of mine told me that César Aira's Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero closely follows Sarmiento's description of the ideal American literature--for him, the only great American writer as of 1845 is James Fenimore Cooper--, and indeed sticks closely to the blueprint given by Sarmiento in Chapter 2 when he speaks of what sort of things an Argentine poet might write about as he looks out over the open countryside.
8. Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero (An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter) by César Aira
I owe my choice of this book to a friend of mine who mentioned that its story closely follows a blueprint for an acceptable Argentine poetry laid out by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Facundo. I don't think it's the type of thing most non-Argentine readers of Aira would notice, so I thought I'd leave a few quotes from Sarmiento's book here so that future readers can better understand this story in the context of the national literary tradition that inspired it. First, though, I wanted to mention that anybody who's about to read this book should do a Wikipedia search for "physiognomy", defined there as "the assessment of a person's character or personality from his outer appearance, especially the face." Ideas concerning the physiognomy of nature, the way that landscapes can be "read", play a large role in both Facundo and Un episodio. The first chapter of Sarmiento's book describes the geography of Argentina and explains how the land determined the habits and customs of its inhabitants. The traveling painter-protagonist of Aira's novella, Johan Moritz Rugendas, is a disciple of Alexander von Humboldt, who similarly sought to find deeper truths in the natural world.
And on to Sarmiento's poetics. I’m taking these from pages 78 and 79 of my Cátedra edition of Facundo. It’s near the beginning of Chapter 2. He says that "there exists an underlying poetry born of the natural characteristics of a country and of the exceptional customs that these characteristics engender.” He asks:
“What impression must be left on an inhabitant of the Republic of Argentina by the simple act of fixing his gaze on the horizon and seeing… not seeing a thing; because the more his eyes penetrate that uncertain, vaporous, undefined horizon, the more it distances itself from him, fascinates him, confuses him and fills him with contemplation and doubt. Where does it end, that world that he wishes in vain to penetrate? He doesn’t know! What lies beyond the horizon? Solitude, danger, the savage, death! And herein exists poetry: the man who passes through these scenes feels himself assaulted by fears and fantastic uncertainties, preoccupied by waking dreams.”
Rugendas, who has spent his life painting the lush flora and fauna of Brazil, yearns to look out over this sort of landscape. Argentina represents the negative of the overstuffed natural world of the tropics, a land defined by the absence of everything he’s made a career painting.
After explaining the sublime power of the open plain, Sarmiento talks a lot about lightning. He opines that the Argentine can’t help but feel poetry running through his veins when he sees dark clouds quickly fill the sky, “and suddenly the booming sound of thunder announces the storm that stops the traveler cold, holding his breath for fear of attracting a bolt of lightning out of the two thousand that are falling around him.” He suggests: “ask the gaucho about the type of person who tends to be killed by lightning and he will introduce you into a world of moral and religious idealizations mixed with poorly interpreted natural events, a world of superstitious and vulgar traditions. He will continue, affirming that the electric current is a part of human existence, that it is the same as that which we call nervous fluid…” Finally, Sarmiento asks: “how can the person who presides over these awe-inspiring scenes not be a poet?”
The sublime, terrible power of the lightning storm in the midst of the solitude of the open pampa: the power and the sublimity of this scene is what should be represented by the Argentine poet.
Aira’s novella has these things. Rugendas and his German sidekick Krause cross the Andes and begin making their way from Mendoza in a straight line across the plains of central Argentina, toward Buenos Aires. The pampa is deserted, unnaturally so. And there is a lightning storm.
Brilliant intertextual analysis. I was also reminded that the dictator Rosas appeared in Aira's The Hare. And that also featured a lightning storm.
@29: Thanks! Yeah, I read that book a while ago and remember that it took place at a similar time. I wonder if it's inspired by any Argentine classics?
9. Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega
Fuenteovejuna is an excellent complement to Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña due to the fact that they share a common conflict: an unjust Comendador who abuses his power over his vassals. This Comendador, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, is much worse than Casilda and Peribáñez's enemy. He abducts and rapes women, demeaning the men who try and stand up to him by ordering them to be beaten or threatening to have them killed. The townspeople beg him to be honorable and to stop abusing his power, but the Comendador is totally, completely out of control and will not change his ways. There's romance here too, between Frondoso and Laurencia, but their courtship and marriage is subordinated and incorporated into the main plot, wherein the townspeople slowly get fed up and decide they can't take the Comendador's abuses anymore. The suspense lies not only in whether they'll be able to topple the tyrant, but also in whether King Fernando (who with Isabela would later send Columbus on his fateful voyage) will tolerate the commission of a just crime that violates the rigid social hierarchy of fifteenth century Spain. Even if the vassals assassinate the lord, will they be allowed to get away with it?
As I read Peribáñez, I started wondering about the audiences who viewed these plays by Lope. I read an article about the theater scene in Madrid in Lope's time and learned that these plays were written to be performed in Madrid's two Corrales de comedia, one of which was on the Calle de la Cruz and the other on the Calle del Príncipe. In some ways, they were similar to the Globe theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed (except that Lope wasn't part-owner of the theater and only got paid for the scripts, which in part explains his constant creation of new works over the course of his life). The audience represented a cross-section of society, with the lower class men occupying the floor (the "Mosquetero"), the women in their own special section (the "Cazuela"), the nobles in box seats, and special seating for the clergy and the King if he chose to attend. The thing that stood out to me the most was the general rowdiness attributed to the crowd: they were ready to hate a play and let their opinion known with catcalls and projectiles. Thus Lope's insistence on constant action: a bored crowd is an adverse crowd. In the context of this play, though, I wondered about the opposite phenomenon: what happens when the crowd gets too enthusiastic? The action in this play rises and rises and rises, with the town's men and women meeting separately to debate what they're going to do about this evil Comendador. Then the crime is committed, and eventually two of the townspeople are listening to their friends and neighbors being tortured as the authorities are trying to get to the bottom of what happened in Fuenteovejuna. I imagine the crowd to be wholly invested in the action at this point of the play, and I imagine the theater owners and employees to be very nervous. At a certain point an out of control crowd becomes destructive, whether it's a happy crowd or an angry one.
Maybe that's why Lope brings the King at the end of so many of his plays: to bring order not only to the story, but also to the audience. After action-packed plays where characters' honor is upheld in violent and often somewhat subversive ways, the crowd probably needed some cool-down time. I imagine that the sight of the King onstage reminded them of their place in the social hierarchy, and that even though they'd just watched normal people like themselves take out their pent-up aggression on their unjust ruler, they were still subjects of the King of Spain and it was time for them to settle down and exit the theater in an orderly fashion.
Enjoyed your thoughts on the theatre going public of late 16th century Spain.
@32: thanks! I noticed you're reading the Canzoniere, which is another book I've wanted to read for a while. I hope you're enjoying it! I notice references to Petrarch all the time in footnotes to these old Spanish plays, especially when the characters start speaking in sonnet.
10. El caballero de Olmedo (The Knight of Olmedo) by Lope de Vega
After reading a pair of plays in which rural vassals topple their unjust feudal lords, I finished a short cycle of some of the most famous and noteworthy Lope de Vega comedias with El caballero de Olmedo, a play that does not end as happily as the others I read. Here don Alonso, caballero par excellence, rolls into Medina and falls in love with Inés. For one reason or another (and critics have a wide range of opinions on this), he decides that he needs some help in winning her love (he doesn't: she's just as smitten with him) and sends his squire Tello to go call on the procuress Fabia. She's more than glad to lend a hand, and Inés responds to Alonso's love sonnet with a message of her own, requesting that he swing by her family's property to pick up a ribbon she's going to leave tied to the railing of the fence that surrounds the garden. Unfortunately, the ribbon is intercepted by don Rodrigo and don Fernando, who are pursuing Inés and her sister and consider it to be a signal of at least one of the ladies' favor. Alonso confronts the two men and scares them off, and Rodrigo sheds his cloak in the process (Tello picks it up: what servant is going to pass on a fine, nobleman's garment?). This first confrontation between the two men who are pursuing Inés, Alonso and Rodrigo, sets the stage for later interactions in which the initial pattern repeats itself: Alonso is just better than Rodrigo, and Rodrigo's not happy about it. Rodrigo has, however, obtained a promise of future marriage from Inés' father, which forces the lady and her preferred suitor to form a plot in which she will abandon Medina and get herself to a monastery, where she'll be able to assert her own will and undo the promise her father has made. They need the help of Fabia and Tello, and as they're scheming and deceiving, and as Alonso's proving his superiority over Rodrigo time and again, doubts start to seep into his mind about whether things will end happily.
The play is constructed around two intertexts. The first are the coplas that give title to the play, that relate the story of the original caballero de Olmedo, Juan de Vivero, who was killed unjustly on the road from Medina to Olmedo by a man named Miguel Ruiz in 1520. The death of Vivero inspired multiple popular retellings, and by naming his play after the victim of a historical tragedy, Lope signals the eventual fate of his hero from the beginning. The other prominent intertext is Fernando de Rojas' La Celestina. There are numerous parallels between the two plays, with Fabia often being depicted and alluded to in a manner that clearly relates her to Rojas' procuress Celestina. The clear allusions to the tragecomedy of Calixto and Melibea (the ill-fated lovers of La Celestina) also invite comparisons between Alfonso and his tragic literary antecedent. While reading the play you have to ask yourself constantly, is it fair to compare him to Calixto? At one point the connection is made entirely explicit, when Tello asks a servant at Inés' house if Melibea is home, since Calixto's here to see her. The servant asks him to wait a minute, but she calls him Sempronio (one of Calixto's squires in Rojas' play). Through the incorporation of coplas concerning the unjust death of a man whose fame lived on in the popular tradition and constant allusions to the tragic story of a less-than-exemplary lover, the play presents an interesting question: why exactly does Alonso die?
Alonso's death has traditionally been interpreted in two very different ways. Maybe he's a model gentleman, a perfect caballero whose death represents the fulfillment of a tragic destiny. Or maybe he's not so perfect after all: he called on the procuress, he doesn't listen to the warnings of Tello, and his indirect pursuit of Inés is rather silly when all he really needed to do was knock on the front door and do things the right and honorable way. If this is the case, his death is a punishment for his sins. I don't like either of these choices. He makes mistakes, but to me they're not presented as crimes punishable by a justified death. I agree with the destiny angle to a greater extent, but I don't find Alonso's death to be particularly heroic, and his tragic death doesn't seem like an appropriate fulfillment of a hero's destiny. I'd like to look at it a different way. I think what makes the final scenes of Alonso's life so powerful is that they represent a human being proceeding toward a very human death. He's on the road at night, alone, and he starts to get scared. People are warning him left and right about the possibility that he's proceeding toward his death, and he starts to believe them. He wonders whether he should have listened to Fabia's warnings, he wonders whether he's misinterpreted a series of signs that have been presented to him from above (or below), and he wonders whether he's made the right choices. After living with such confidence, his final moments are filled with fear and doubt. His death is pathetic, coming at the hands of an enemy whose powers are far beneath his own. I'd like to see his death as more of a tragic misfortune, the culmination of a series of minor mishaps and slight missteps that turned out as badly as possible. I think that's why it's so powerful: the play uses the death of a good (if not perfect) human being to show how one's fortunes can shift so suddenly and completely.
11. Fausto by Estanislao del Campo
Since this is the second time I've read this book since joining LT, I have but a few notes to add to my initial review:
1) Josefina Ludmer, in her awesome, awesome book El género gauchesco--which I'm reading right now and which brought me back to Fausto--mentions the connection between Estanislao del Campo and another of the most prominent authors of the genre, Hilario Ascasubi. Ascasubi wrote books in the gaucho genre like Santos Vega o los mellizos de la flor and Paulino Lucero, and he also wrote a poem entitled "La refalosa", wherein a gaucho mazorquero (a member of Rosas' violent political apparatus) describes with sick pleasure the methods of torture he's about to employ on a member of the Unitario opposition. This violent poem has endured in the Argentine tradition, and its environment of tyrannic political violence has inspired stories like Borges and Bioy Casares' "La fiesta del monstruo" and Osvaldo Lamborghini's El fiord. In any case, what Ludmer mentions is that Hilario Ascasubi was a major financial contributor to the construction of the Teatro Colón, and that a journalist affirmed upon its opening that its ornate architectural crowning merited the title of "the Crest of Aniceto el Gallo" (which was the name of an Ascasubi character and something of a pseudonym for the author himself). Del Campo, then, not only plays homage to his predecessor by naming his gaucho Anastasio el Pollo (which alludes to Aniceto el Gallo), but also through his situation of Anastasio's story in the (opera) house that Ascasubi helped build.
2) There's a rather less positive way to look at the premise for this story. Estanislao del Campo was not a gaucho: he was born in the city, he was an educated man, and he was the son of a military hero who accompanied General Lavalle's corpse to its final resting place in Potosí. I think it's fair to say that del Campo knew a lot of gauchos and fought alongside gauchos in his military career, but it's also fair to say that there were some fundamental differences between himself and his gaucho compatriots in terms of their upbringing and education. By writing a story about a gaucho who is unable to differentiate between reality and representation (he thinks the devil he sees on stage is real), del Campo is painting a rather un-politically correct picture of the gauchos. "They're so stupid they can't even tell what's real and what's not." I think about if a really rich person wrote about a bunch of poor people who were unable to exercise a fundamental aspect of human reason. Or if a white person wrote about black people in this fashion. Some people would probably be really offended, and I can't say I'd disagree with them. Telling the difference between reality and fiction, and being able to recognize art for art, is a rather essential quality of human beings. I think if you look at it this way, you could say that del Campo is "dehumanizing" the gauchos. One reason I've enjoyed reading this book by Ludmer is that it illustrates how a bunch of non-gauchos created a written representation of the gaucho by appropriating his voice and using it in narrative poetry, and also how that written usage of the gauchos related back to their actual usage by the Argentine military and by the estancieros who needed workers. If you think about how del Campo uses the gaucho, bestowing him with an extreme form of ignorance, it's easy to take issue with this book. You can see it as a rather blatant example of the marginalization of the gaucho and a clear step on the road toward his disappearance from the Argentine landscape.
However, if you do so you'll be taking a fun, happy, lighthearted story very seriously, and you'll be projecting your own conceptions of political correctness and right and wrong onto a story written a long time ago. If I take offense with the portrayal of others by authors across history, whether those others be women, indigenous people, or people of different races and religions, I'll end up purging my bookshelves of a lot of books. I think it's important to balance the positives with the negatives, and in this case, I think my experience with Fausto remains an altogether positive one. Despite his inability to recognize the fictionality of Faust, Anastasio is also painted as a quite intelligent guy who sees through the bullshit of the cityfolk, knows how to employ his storytelling powers to earn the gin and tobacco of his buddy (he also gets a paid meal at the end of the story), and weaves some rather deep commentaries on human existence into his recollection of the time he saw the devil down at the Teatro Colón.
12. Valor, agravio y mujer by Ana Caro
This play was recently "discovered" by North American academia and has since been studied and incorporated into the general "canon" of Spanish language literature. This is significant because the canon, and especially the early modern portion of the canon, is mostly comprised of works written by men (and the occasional remarkable woman, like Sor Juana or Teresa de Ávila). Some have thought that this is because, by and large, women didn't write much literature (plays, novels, poems) back in those days; others have thought that it's simply that their works weren't widely distributed, or that they were obscured by a male-dominated literary world. Whichever the case, here's a play that was written by a woman sometime around 1630 or 1640, a work that was forgotten for centuries and that only recently has been recuperated, republished, and made available to those with special interest in Spanish Golden Age literature. It's not known whether this play was ever actually performed, but there are some historical documents that show that Ana Caro was a well-known dramatist whose works were held in high esteem and who had a great deal of success in literary concourses, often taking first prize. This is considered her most significant work.
It begins with two damsels in distress: Estela and Lisarda are out in the woods on a hunting trip, and they're overtaken by a pair of bandits who want to abduct them and have their way with them. Luckily, Don Juan is passing through the area and he's able to save them. Shortly after, the nobleman Don Fernando shows up and thanks Don Juan for his heroism. They chat for a while about this and that, and they hit it off to the point where Don Juan feels comfortable confiding in Don Fernando. He explains that he's something of a player, and that he's arrived to Flanders (which was a Spanish colony at the time) leaving a trail of wronged women behind him. There was one woman in particular, a very beautiful and virtuous one, to whom he gave his promise of marriage in Seville before running away without saying goodbye. Although the dating of this play is somewhat imprecise, it seems clear that it was written after El burlador de Sevilla, and this Don Juan can be thought of as a representation of a trickster that was already well-known by Spanish audiences.
Then the scene shifts and we meet Leonor, who's dressed as a man who will be named Leonardo and who's discussing her plans with her servant, Ribete. Actually, she explicitly states that he's accompanying her not as her servant but as her friend, which is rather interesting for a play written back when social classes mixed about like oil and water. She's come to Flanders to avenge an injustice done to her by a certain Don Juan, and the best way for her to do that is to find him and carry out an elaborate scheme whereby she can convince him to make good on his word of marriage without her honor being affected in any way. This involves incorporating her friends and relatives (such as Fernando and the two ladies who were nearly abducted in the beginning of the play) into a plan that requires different people to play different roles at different times. She's the one who's calling the shots, moving the others around like pieces on a chess board (or like actors on a stage). There are, of course, side romances between the other characters: Don Juan has fallen for Estela, for instance, but Estela has her heart set on this dashing newcomer named Leonardo...It's pretty complicated, and the outcome remains entirely uncertain right up until the very end (which is pretty much how all comedias go, in my experience).
It was a fun play. One thing I found especially notable was the large number of intertextual and meta-theatrical references. Not only is the play built around a character from another play (Don Juan), but everyone is playing roles in Leonor's play, and she herself has put on a costume that alters her person in a fundamental way. The difference between person and character is mentioned by her and also by Ribete, who wonders whether he'll be constrained by the typical servant archetype: can he be other than cowardly and the butt of all jokes? Ribete is also interesting because he is aware of the form the characters are speaking in: at one point he commends another character on a particularly difficult assonant rhyme achieved in a long romance, and he also mentions other rhetorical devices such as hyperbole and prosopopeia. I really get a kick out of these kinds of things, and the theater-within-theater aspects of this play were very satisfying. On that note, I'm going to move on to Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño and El gran teatro del mundo, two other plays that investigate the differences between the world and the stage (as well as those between life and dream, or fiction and reality). I also recall that La vida es sueño begins with Rosaura appearing on a Hippogriff (it's really just a horse), dressed as a man and out to avenge her own grievance. I don't think it's possible to know which came first, Ana Caro's play or Calderón's, but I will enjoy looking for similarities between the two women seeking to restore their honor.
Enjoying your educative reviews of Spanish language literature Matt. I appreciate the point you made so well in your review of Fausto. When reading works from way back in the 17th century we must be very aware to not let our more civilized 21st century views intrude too much.
Thank you for the fascinating reviews, Matt. You are introducing me to a whole new area of literature, although I am limited to only what I can find in translation. I am curious whether you have read or come across anything by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester? He taught at the State University at Albany (NY) from 1966-1972. But I have been disappointed to find that strangely, the University library does not have any of his works in translation.
@37: Thanks for the feedback, and yes, it's always a challenge not to project too much of our contemporary worldview onto older texts...as I'm sure you, as a lover of medieval literature, are well aware. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to be two people when I read, myself and myself if I'd lived centuries ago when the book was published.
@38: Thanks! I'm not familiar with him, but I haven't read much 20th century Spanish literature in general. I looked him up on Wikipedia and he seems quite famous; he even won the Cervantes Prize. Perhaps he was just writing at the wrong time, at the height of the Latin American "Boom" when everybody wanted to publish Latin American translations. Maybe a prominent and much-loved peninsular author like him wasn't "sexy" enough to merit translation in the 70s. That's strange, though, that the university he worked at doesn't have any translations of his work. My university library here in Indiana doesn't either...
13. El género gauchesco (The Gaucho Genre) by Josefina Ludmer
This study of the poetry of the 19th century gaucho genre analyzes the implications of the appropriation of the gaucho voice by non-gaucho poets in Argentina. The genre opens with early texts by Bartolomé Hidalogo and other lettered men in the early 19th century, and closes with the second part of Martín Fierro (commonly referred to as La vuelta, with the first part known as La ida) in 1879. In between, the gaucho is used in poetry by these educated writers, he's used in the military and in the countryside by those who have authority and need bodies to fight or do work, and he's incorporated into the newly-born Argentine legal and political state. The use of the voice of the gaucho in literature affects his physical usage, and vice versa: the texts of the genre function as part of various "civilizing" projects, and the failures of different aspects of the civilizing projects affect the representation of the gaucho in poetry. When Martín Fierro has shared his wisdom and affirmed that hard work and honest living are the way to go, and he and his sons part ways and change their names at the end of La vuelta, it represents the closing of the first cycle of the gaucho genre. There will be, of course, future gaucho literature, and Ludmer repeatedly links her analysis of works from within the genre to future Argentine literature inspired by the initial gaucho cycle.
Her book is no easy, straightforward read. While I sometimes felt completely lost as she provided different chains of usage of the gaucho voice and defined the limits and margins of the genre, I was extremely impressed by her original reading of different texts from both inside and outside the genre, and as I'm re-reading Martín Fierro I feel like I'm able to see it through her eyes and understand it in ways that I would not have before. From her initial breakdown of the uses of the gaucho voice and her concurrent delimitation of the spaces inside and outside of the genre (Sarmiento's Facundo, for example, is outside the genre and is its negative: the voice is Sarmiento's, and he describes the gaucho who remains silent), she moves to some close textual analysis. She looks at a poem by Hidalgo where two gauchos converse, showing how the voices excluded from their conversation correspond with the characters given voice in Martín Fierro. She shows how Ascasubi's gory poem "La refalosa," where a member of Rosas' paramilitary forces describes his preferred methods of torture with perverse pleasure, serves as an inspiration for later texts that depict twisted celebrations of violence, such as Borges and Bioy Cásares' "La fiesta del monstruo" and Lamborghini's El fiord (which is the sickest book I have ever read). It was around this point that i was absolutely hooked. I started to follow her alternation between lamentations and defiant challenges, two of the main common grounds of the genre, and she started throwing in more and more connections to texts I know and loved. She closes the second part of her book with an explanation of how Borges, in his first major work of literary criticism, Evaristo Carriego, identifies the two main tendencies in Carriego's poetry that Ludmer herself has found in the genre (the lamentation and the challenge), isolating the one he values the most: the challenge and the oral transmission on a neighborhood level of the violent events that shock life out of its patterns of normalcy. He then fuses these moments of whispered retelling of duels and knife fights with inspiration from the other half of his literary world, the Brownings and the Robert Lewis Stevensons of his family's English library.
I suppose that this is more of a special interest sort of book, best for those who are really into Argentina and its literature. I don't know that the intricate scaffolding that Ludmer builds around the genre would be very appealing to people who weren't familiar with some of the core texts of the genre (especially Martín Fierro). For me, though, it was great: it tied together a bunch of books I love, it associated them with gaucho poems that helped explain their place in Argentine literature, and it showed how the gaucho was given voice and then silenced in texts running through about the middle half of the 19th century. I plan to keep this book handy so that when I re-read Borges and come across stories inspired by the gaucho genre, I can refer back to her documentation of the genre and incorporate her theoretical viewpoint into what I'm reading.
14. La vida es sueño (Life is a dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
This is an absolutely amazing play. The term "Spanish Hamlet" is often thrown around when discussing this work, and I think fans of Shakespeare would enjoy reading it and comparing the two characters. I do not feel qualified to do so, since the last time I read Hamlet was in high school under rather brutal circumstances, with a student teacher who had not won my class' respect. I can, however, talk about how awesome this play is. There are two parallel stories. First you meet Rosaura, who has been dishonored by a man named Astolfo over in Russia and who has traveled to Poland to gain revenge, dressed as a man and carrying a sword that a certain Polish nobleman is supposed to recognize. Once he recognizes the sword, she'll get the help she needs. Anyway, she falls off her Hippogriff (horse) and curses her bad fortune, with her sidekick Clarïn providing comic relief as he reminds her that he's in this mess with her. Night is falling and they stumble upon a fortified tower in the midst of the wilderness. Its inhabitant is a savage human dressed in animal pelts named Segismundo, who laments his captive fate in comparison with the freedom enjoyed by all the rest of God's creatures. He has spent his entire life sealed away from the world in this tower, and his only companion is his tutor Clotaldo. He was isolated from the civilized world by his father, King Basilio of Poland, who read some seriously bad signs in the stars when his son was born and decided that banishing his flesh and blood to a lifelong imprisonment was better than the prophesy he's read in the sky, which culminates with son violently overthrowing father. However, now he's had a change of heart and wants to see what happens if he gives Segismundo a magic potion and transports him to the throne, allowing him to rule as king while Clotaldo whispers in his ear that it all might be a dream. If his son behaves like the savage beast he's prophesied to be, then he can just give him the potion again and take him back to the prison, and when Segismundo wakes up it'll be hard to think that it was anything but a dream.
It's all very messed up, and Rosaura immediately recognizes that her sorrows pale in comparison to Segismundo's. She's got secret connections to Clotaldo, and as it turns out Astolfo is set to inherit the throne if Segismundo fails. As the imprisioned prince is inserted into the palace and struggles mightily to come to terms with his sudden change of fate, she also manages to work her way into the palace, signing on as a servant to Estrella, half-sister and future wife of Astolfo. Things get pretty crazy with Segismundo on the throne, and eventually they've got to send him back from whence he came. That's certainly not the end, though, as his experiences in the outside world have taught him a lot about life and what it means to do good in the world. Rosaura has also been working hard to get her way, reminding Clotaldo that he's promised to help her and asking would-be-king Segismundo for his aid as well. He's more or less smitten with her, and his ability to resist the carnal temptations he feels when she's around are also put to the test.
I think if you read one Golden Age play, this should probably be it. Calderón is a master of the form. This play is thought of as an example of the Spanish Baroque, with tons of intricate wordplay and formal tricks that give added weight to the meaning of the characters' words. It's also a very philosophical text, and as Segismundo wrestles with the implications of his struggle to determine what is life and what is a dream, he's got some rather fascinating monologues (the most famous one falling at the end of Act 2). One interesting thing I read about this book concerns the difference between life and dream: we set these two terms up to be polar opposites, but maybe that's not the right way to look at them when reading a play written in the first half of the seventeenth century. Christopher Soufas is the name of the guy who wrote the article I read, and he opines that the way that humankind ordered knowledge back then was fundamentally different from the way we do now. Where we look for differences between things, people used to look for similarities. I think Foucault wrote about this in his archaeology of knowledge. Anyway, the point is that we tend to consider the idea of doing good in dreams to be rather ridiculous: how can you do good or bad in a dream? But back then it might have been more natural for Segismundo to ponder the consequences of his acts, regardless of whether he was awake or not when he committed them.
OK Matt I am convinced I shall read Life is A Dream next year when I plan to read Shakespeare's collected works.
I have recently read The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which is set in Peru in 1714. One of the central characters: Camila - the Perichole is famous in Lima for her performances in plays by Calderon. Another connection.
42: Cool! It's interesting that, as I understand it, Shakespeare's influence did not reach Golden Age Spain. I think a lot of these plays would be fascinating in the way they parallel Shakespeare, and also diverge markedly from English theater conventions.
15. La ciudad letrada (The Lettered City) by Ángel Rama
Ángel Rama’s posthumously published La ciudad letrada, first printed in 1984, aims to transcend local narratives of the history and literature of Latin America by providing a global consideration of the history of cities and intellectuals throughout the region, from the Spanish conquest to the 20th century. At the book’s core is the changing relationship between the lettered individuals that give the book its title and the ever-changing power structures American cities. Its historical study of the production and dissemination of meaning in urban spaces, focusing on the class of individuals whose ability to read and write placed them at the center of these processes, places it in the larger academic tradition of cultural studies. In this case, the written word is the medium essential to the survival of the lettered class, and the author shows how its control of written discourse influenced the development of Latin American nations and their urban centers.
Beginning with a description of American cities as reasoned applications of early modern European ideas concerning urban planning and the ordered distribution of space, Rama discusses the rise of a lettered bureaucracy (the lettered city that gives the book its title) essential to the maintenance of an empire half a world away from its European center. He then traces this group’s development in relation to the real city. The lettered city, an absolute necessity in the administration of colonial empires centered half a world away from their European centers, was compelled to join forces with the creole elites of the newly independent nations of Latin America. It was no longer a sort of secular priesthood charged with transmitting the Word of the distant State, and its members were forced to adapt and integrate themselves into the process of creating national identities and creating civic consciousness through education and cultural output. Later, as cities modernized and power was consolidated in the hands of political parties, the lettered class continued to evolve and maintain its influence by using writing as a way to continually represent the city, incorporating marginalized and popular forms into works that show urban life as a conjunction of a nostalgic past and a rapidly changing present. As its professional role shifted from bureaucratic to journalistic posts, this lettered elite also produced works that recorded nationalist and regional discourses on progress and education and provided written foundations for the political power structure of the real city.
To this reader, the book’s strength lies in its wide scope. Rama’s history of readers and writers inscribes their literary and professional production in the greater history of the region and its cities. As he tells the story of the possessors of the written word, Rama charts the changing role of writing in society, telling the history of the social class that held the power of the pen. I believe this type of big, broad, compelling narrative would appeal to all those interested in Latin America and its political, social and literary history.
Matt - I've just caught up with your thread, after scanning through it a few days. I'm a bit in awe of this entire library of literature that I have never encountered before, and all so well presented - La Araucana, the Piglia, all these plays from what I would normally consider Shakespeare's era, the works on something like urban cultural psychology, that difficult Rancière work, "the appropriation of the gaucho voice by non-gaucho poets"...Great stuff here. Not sure I'll be able to keep up with your reviews, but will try.
@45: Thanks! Your choices in reading seem quite interesting too, especially your project to read the Bible...that's something I would like to do someday (I tried it once but lost interest)...like you, I'd be doing that from a literary point of view, not a religious one.
16. Lazarillo de Tormes
Having read enough Golden Age plays for now (although there's a few more by Calderón I'm in the process of obtaining), I decided to jump genres and read a couple of the classic picaresque novels. First up is Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in 1554. Its innovations are a bit harder to fully comprehend nearly half a millennium after it was written, but when you start to think about the book in terms of Spain's earlier literary output, it's strikingly (shockingly) revolutionary. For instance, Wikipedia says it's the first Spanish novel in which a person changes and grows, transcending the fixed, archetypal nature of medieval characters. This sounds like it couldn't possibly be true, but then I started to think about it: El Cid remains the same heroic, patient guy throughout his poem, Calixto and Melibea's flaws are pretty much constant throughout La Celestina, and a lot of other books were written in genres that didn't really allow for character development. Maybe people grow in Juan Ruiz's Libro de buen amor? As I recall, he learns some lessons about procuring ladies in that book, and it also seems to be the book most closely related to Lazarillo in terms of its pseudo-autobiographic nature and its use of ambiguity in the communication of moral (or not so moral) messages. Or maybe it's true, maybe this is the first character in Spain who really changes from a book's beginning to its end.
Another thing that doesn't stand out in the 21st century is the use of the first person in a novel. But at the time, a little ruffian writing his own rags-to-(relative)-riches story was quite original. The author justifies this surprising act of autobiography by framing Lázaro's life story around a conspicuous situation: after a rough adolescence, the narrator has ascended to the lofty post of town crier in Toledo. He's fallen under the protection of a certain Archpriest, who's also supplied him with a wife. The problem is, the wife is always going over to the Archpriest's home to do chores and stuff, and people are whispering that she does more than chores on her visits. Lázaro has effectively forbade his friends from mentioning the situation, content to maintain a hear-no-evil stance on the whole thing. However, a nobleman who knows both Lázaro and the Archpriest, and is referred to as "Vuestra Merced" (Your Grace), has written him and asked Lázaro to tell his story in as much detail as is necessary. This is why we get to read the life and times of Lázaro (although we never do find out how and when he learned how to read and write).
After being born to a miller (who was arrested for stealing grain and later sent to die in battle) and a washerwoman (who later found work in an inn and also turned tricks down at the stable to make ends meet), Lazarillo is set out on his own when he's old enough to fend for himself. He becomes a blind man's servant, and is the victim of a number of mean-spirited tricks. For instance, the blind man tells him to put his ear up to a statue of a bull, then smacks his head forcibly into the statue. After that initial blow, Lazarillo is awakened to the fact that he's on his own and realizes that he's got to defend himself. He starts returning the favor, guiding the blind man through the most difficult paths and stealing wine from his jug with a long straw. They also once share a bunch of grapes: the blind man tells Lazarillo to eat them one by one, but then he starts eating them two by two, so Lazarillo starts going three by three. When they're done, the blind man says he knew what was going on the whole time because he'd been eating two at a time and Lazarillo never said a word. Eventually, though, their relationship is strained by one too many tricks and Lazarillo is asked to find a new master. He moves on to a clergyman who turns out to be a serious miser, and then to a squire who's not as wealthy as he seems. His time with the squire, during which master and servant share in hunger and abject poverty, is one of the most famous and enduring parts of the book. Lazarillo comes to see the lengths that people go to in order to keep up their appearances and not let everyone else know about their struggles, and he comes to admire the squire even though he's an absolutely terrible boss. There's one strikingly short episode in which Lazarillo takes up with another man of the church. It's not more than half a page, and he closes with a statement about how he left that man's service due to some other little things he's not going to mention. Some have seen his silence to represent abuse, or sexual transgressions on the part of his master. Others have affirmed that this isn't necessarily so. Any such conclusion is more speculation than anything, but to me it seems like a reasonable explanation for his extreme reticence to go into detail about that portion of his life. The relatively negative portrayal of the church is a constant throughout, and this book was banned for heresy during the Spanish Inquisition.
Eventually young Lazarillo finds some steadier employment and grows up to be Lázaro, the crier with the wife who may or may not be doing things with the Archpriest. He believes that he's successfully improved his lot in life and risen in social standing, and it's hard to argue with him: he's no longer hungry and he's got a great more stability in his life than he did before. However, he's still living a less-than-honorable existence with his wife running back and forth between their home and the neighbor's house, and it's hard to say how readers back in the 16th century would have interpreted his life story. Maybe they would have been harder on him, since he spent his life playing tricks on his masters and now he's content to ignore a situation that dishonors him.
It's fun and short, full of slapstick action. It's the type of book you can easily read in a single sitting, and it's also well worth reading due to its fame as the founding work of the picaresque genre. There are a handful of famous picaresque works from early modern Spain (Quevedo's El buscón and Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache being two of the most notable), and they play on a lot of the events and conventions established in this book. The picaresque genre also plays a significant role in Don Quixote, where the criminal Ginés de Pasamonte claims to be writing his own life story. From the Renaissance onward, it's a genre that's had a great deal of success throughout the western world. I know Lazarillo was widely translated, and I wonder how much it influenced other renowned picaresque works I am not familiar with. Dickens, for example: how much of Lazarillo's influence can be found in his books? I also learned something new as I was reading and kept finding references in the footnotes to a book called The Golden Ass. Apparently the only surviving Latin novel is also an example of the picaresque. It was translated by Machiavelli in 1517, and its use of the first person, as well as its episodic story of a young man with many masters, are repeated in Lazarillo. It seems that people have always enjoyed reading about little tricksters striving to get ahead in life.
#47 Matt, interesting thoughts on the lack of character development in late medieval writing. Something I had not really thought about.
I'm suddenly learning at lot about Roman Empire era literature in LT (see steven03tx's thread). Also, fascinating stuff about Lazarillo de Tormes, which I had never heard of before.
@48: Me neither! I've been thinking about it, and it seems that a lot of exempla are built around moral anecdotes that cause the characters to learn a lesson; however, they don't continue on in life when the anecdote ends. A lot of the events in Lazarillo are kind of like those medieval short stories, but the lessons add up and result in changes in Lazarillo's person.
@49: It's funny, because there are some Spanish books from that era that were extremely popular throughout all of Europe, like Cárcel de amor, La Celestina and Lazarillo de Tormes (not to mention Don Quijote). They were translated shortly after their publication, and reached a great number of readers across the continent.
17. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry
Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction inspired me to seek out other similar books. What I really wanted was a book that would take me up to the 2000 decade. Peter Barry's introduction to theory appealed to me because it was designed for undergraduates. I figure that's about the level I'm at when it comes to the art (science? Pseudo-science?) of interpreting texts. I hoped for clear, straightforward explanations of the different movements that make up modern literary theory, and I was not disappointed. A few examples:
"It is difficult to boil structuralism down to a single 'bottom line' proposition, but if forced to do so I would say that its essence is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation--they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of (hence the term 'structuralism')."
"A simple definition of the new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period. That is to say, new historicism refuses (at least ostensibly) to 'privilege' the literary text: instead of a literary 'foreground' and a historical 'background' it envisages and practices a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other."
Now granted, the book is full of brief definitions that simplify things as much as possible. The chapter that discusses postmodernism begins with a brief summary of critical views of modernism as an artistic movement. I feel more familiar with theoretical conceptions of modernism than I do about many of the other schools of literary theory discussed here, and as I read that chapter I ended up thinking that Barry's definition didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue. Modernism could be seen as he defines it, but it can be seen in a lot of other ways too. It's best to take his definitions with a grain of salt, but the same could be said for any definition of any broad concept or school of thought. How do you boil it down to a single sentence, paragraph, or chapter of a book? You're not reading this book to completely understand every school of literary/cultural theory it breaches; you're reading it to broadly understand them all in a chronological context, and also to gain a general understanding of what the theories are, and how they're practiced. He does a great job of showing how theory is practiced too: each chapter shows how these different methods of reading texts are applied to specific poems, short stories and novels. For example, he analyzes a Poe story, "The Oval Portrait," in multiple chapters, which helps to see how the same text can be interpreted in different ways depending on which critical lens you hold up to it.
One of the things I like the most about this book is its structure. It gives you the history you expect, beginning with the creation of English departments in British universities and the early pioneers of the formal analysis of literary texts, and concluding with a chapter on Ecocriticism that was actually more interesting than I expected. Then, though, it presents a history of theory in ten events, ten moments that stand out when looking back from the present. And yes, the first even takes place right here in Bloomington, Indiana. Another is the publication of Eagleton's introduction to literary theory. I thought this part of the book was a fantastic complement to the history given in the first part of the book. It gives you a chance to experience some of the moments of major controversy and disagreement that led to seismic shifts in the practice of literary criticism; the explosions that led to the changes that are documented in the history. The book then closes with a chapter about the current state of the field. Barry gives three branches of study that have risen in the past decade: a Presentism school of reading that contrasts with New Historicism by reading the literary text in parallel with a contemporary text so as to find connections between the world of the text and the world we live in; a New Aestheticism that seeks to remedy the cold, absolutist nature of close readings performed by previous generations of theorists; and a Cognitive Poetics school that seeks to apply theories from the field of cognitive science to the study of texts.
I've found it satisfying to read books about literary theory. I think that sometimes it's easy to have negative feelings about some of the specific schools of theory: why would I want to deconstruct a text? Why should I even think about all these issues, like the effects of colonial structures and class-based economic relations, things that the author probably wasn't even conscious of as he or she wrote the book? The strength of Barry's book (and Eagleton's too) is that they illustrate the strengths and the weaknesses of each method. As one trend follows another, you begin to see all the different ways that you can choose to read a book, and understand why each particular way gained so many impassioned followers. At this point I feel sufficiently introduced to the overall panorama of 20th century reading techniques. Now I plan to move on to more specific books. On the one hand, I'd like to read a few books that summarize the thinking of influential figures like Michel Foucault and Jacques Dérrida. I tried reading a book by Foucault (The Order of Things) over Christmas, and while I thought it was awesome, I was a bit overwhelmed and wanted to have a better understanding of his greater project. I figure that when I understand how that book fits into his life's work, I'll be able to make more sense of it. On the other hand, I'd also like to read some theoretical texts that hold special appeal to me. To begin I've got Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. The structuralist project is pretty remarkable and I'd like to see how a genre I enjoy can be viewed from that perspective.
Excellent review of Beginning Theory matt. I like a bit of chronology in my reading of a subject like this, because when the various theories are put together back to back as it were you can more easily see where they sprung from or where they sprung against. Sounds like a book to get hold of if you need a refresher course. I will keep it in mind.
I agree with Barry: excellent review. I did critical theory and poetics as a honours course, and will candidly admit to disliking much of modern criticism. But I still enjoy knowing about the different critical approaches.
Your review makes me think i need this book. Added to the wishlist.
#50 - that is the first I've heard of those first two...lCárcel de amor and La Celestina
@54: La Celestina is an incredible book, certainly one of the most famous and influential books ever written in Spanish. Penguin Classics has an English translation that is well-received on Amazon. It is often considered the bridge between Medieval and Renaissance Spanish literature and its characters have become more or less archetypical in the world of Spanish letters (Celestina the procuress, Calixto and Melibea the tragic lovers). I can't recommend it enough!
18. El buscón (The Swindler) by Francisco de Quevedo
This is another re-read, so I just added these comments to my initial review:
I didn't touch upon Quevedo's dirty mind. A lot of what happens, especially in the first part of the book when Pablos is initiated into the rough life of the pícaro, is exceedingly disgusting. I'm talking showing up for his first day of university classes and being suddenly surrounded. Then a young man with a head cold steps up and says: "this I do" and hocks a loogie in his face. Then the rest of them open fire and soon Pablos is drenched in saliva. Finally, one student steps up and says "Enough! You'll kill the poor guy." Pablos thinks he's been saved and opens his eyes, only to have them filled with another massive loogie. But that's nothing compared to when, in another hazing episode, his roommates disturb his slumber and act like thieves have broken in. Pablos hides under the bed in fear, and while he's under there, somebody defecates in his bed. When he gets back in bed, he realizes that he's rolling around in human feces and also realizes that he's at the same time innocent and guilted: who will believe him if he tries to explain that no, he didn't soil himself out of fear? And really, even that's not as bad as when his uncle writes him a letter explaining how his father has been hanged (by the same uncle, who's the town executioneer), his body discarded by the side of the road (not being worthy of a proper burial). The uncle then comments that his father's body will either be eaten by the crows or scooped up by the town bakery and turned into some meat pies. Then, when Pablos visits the uncle later in the book, they're eating some meat pies and his uncle jokingly reminds him of what he told him about his father's fate...Pablos chooses to just eat the crust. Quevedo is not afraid of putting his great figurative powers to work in the depiction of some truly foul stuff.
I also don't think I conveyed the extent of his racism. Assuming that Pablos is something of a mouthpiece for his own views on Jews and Muslims, he makes his hatred for them entirely clear. Near the end of the book he comments that he'd rather marry a poor woman of clean blood than a distinguished Jew. At one time his landlord is a Moor, and when he mentions that man's thieving ways, he says that he'd never met a man who was both a dog and a cat at the same time (cat was slang for thief, and being a Moor made him quite simply a dog). It's tough to take. I know it was a different time. When reading books from back then, it's always reassuring to find examples of prominent figures going against the prejudices of the day, like when Cervantes tells the story of Ricote in the second part of Don Quijote, depicting the injustice of the expulsion of the Conversos (descendents of Moors who had converted to Christianity) from Spain. Here, though, it's the opposite. Even at a time when there were a lot of prejudices, I get the feeling Quevedo was particularly hateful. A friend of mine also reminded me that, in his longstanding rivalry with the poet Luis de Góngora, Quevedo often accused the poet of being of impure blood. He once wrote in a sonnet that he ought to rub his poetry in bacon so that Góngora wouldn't dare bite into it (figuratively speaking).
So he's a controversial figure who stretches the limits of decency, and his beliefs are difficult to stomach here in the 21st century. However, his book is also one of the most remarkable examples of the Spanish baroque. I came back to this book because Quevedo does incredible things with the written word. He takes the vocabulary of card games, the hierarchical relationship between clothing and social class, and the language of those who live on the margins of society, and weaves together a story that is meant to challenge and amuse the discerning reader.
19. Jacques Rancière: An Introduction by Joseph J. Tanke
My experience with The Politics of Aesthetics left me feeling that I needed some help in better understanding Jacques Rancière. I simply don't have the tools (or maybe the patience) to read a philosophical text and feel satisfied with my ability to make good sense of it. I thought it would be nice to have a book-teacher to help me organize the glimmers of interest I felt while reading The Politics of Aesthetics, and I therefore checked this book out from the library. It did the trick. Joseph Tanke did a wonderful job of introducing me to his overarching project, helping me understand his vocabulary, and convincing me that Jacques Rancière is a really cool guy,
He studied under the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in Paris during the late 60s, and his initial cycle of works react to the Althusserian conception of the philosopher's place in the social movements of the time. Do the people need to be led? Does social revolution need to be theorized and explained to its members? In response to these questions, Rancière affirms the fundamental inequalities at the core of the practices of philosophers from the Greeks onward. Back in the day, Plato distributed roles in in his city and blessed the philosophers with abilities that did not extend to its other members. They ruled, they pursued the truth, they distributed the roles in the city, and they guaranteed that the different orders of the hierarchy remained pure. In the meantime, workers worked, soldiers warred, and the ability to philosophize was not extended to these groups of people. For Rancière, this Platonic arrangement has remained more or less in place up to the present, so when Althusser proposes that the proletariat needs philosophers such as himself to explain and theorize the protests and strikes that are taking place on the streets, he's perpetuating the fundamental inequality established in the Republic. Rancière suggests that the workers who are striking and the protesters on the streets don't need the philosopher to explain everything, that they understand just as well as anyone the injustices they're protesting against and the way of the unjust world they're seeking to change. He suggests a reimagining of the world beginning from equality. Let's say everyone is equal, not just worthy of equal treatment, but truly equal, and see what conclusions we can draw from that position.
His early works seek to document the inherent conditions of inequality that are ingrained in philosophy (the topic of discussion in The Philosopher and his Poor), then show how assumed differences in the sensible capacities of different classes of people are arbitrary and do not correspond to these class's lived experiences. He does this, for example, by examining the artistic practices of working class individuals in the 19th century. Contrary to the oft-held Marxist beliefs that the proletariat takes pride in putting in a hard day's work and resting at night, he shows how many working-class individuals saw manual work as torture and spent their nights not resting but exercising their creative faculties, producing works of imagination that were printed in the working class publications that were the object of his study in The Nights of Labor. In another book (The Ignorant Schoolmaster), he examines the intriguing propositions on education made by Joseph Jacotot. He proposed that teachers shouldn't teach, but rather work from a position of ignorance in order to activate their students' desire to learn. His experience in the classroom led him to radically propose that all humans are blessed with equal mental capacities, with differences in educational success resulting from an unequal development of the will.
After mapping out conditions of inequality and identifying moments when they are transcended, Rancière has gone on to write extensively about politics and aesthetics, focusing on the way that political subjects and artists change the distribution of the sensible. In his terminology, the sensible refers to the set of things that can be experienced, sort of like Kant's a priori knowledge with the added caveat that this set of knowledge is not static. It changes as the world changes, so what we take for granted in a modern, democratic world is far different than what people used to take for granted 500 years ago. What Rancière studies are the events that change our a priori sensibilities. In political terms, this occurs when previously "invisible" parts of society gain entrance in the political realm. Equal freedom for all members of society is assumed as the foundation for modern democracies, but the official democratic world is also full of unrecognized sub-divisions whose members don't experience this freedom. When they are able to make their voice heard and assume a new name (and place) in society, Rancière considers it an act of politics. He labels this confrontation of the established framework of perception in public society dissensus. I think the Occupy movement is a good example. The part that has no part of the society divided along 21st century capitalist lines constitutes itself around a new, catchy term that makes its members and their unequal status visible.
In his work in the field of aesthetic theory, Rancière bases his writings on the idea artistic regimes, sets of conditions that dictate what is possible within artistic processes of doing and making. The past two centuries fall under the Aesthetic regime, characterized by the effacement of the Aristotelian divisions of genre (tragedy for high subjects, comedy for low, etc.) and the resulting necessity of determining relationship between subject matter and mode of representation on a case-by-case basis. This major shift in artistic norms went hand-in-hand with the emancipation of the political subject that resulted from the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century, leading to new considerations of the role of art in human life. When Rancière studies Schiller's consideration of the viewing experience and its ramifications in the creation of a new human subject (as proposed in Letters on the Aesthetic Emancipation of Mankind), he sees a combination of forces at play. On one hand, art can be seen as autonomous and standing apart from life. With the fall of the Aristotelian representative divisions, the connection between life and its representation is freer than ever. On the other hand, art also interacts with and affects life, carrying the potential for contributing to individual and communal feelings of emancipation. For Rancière, this combination of autonomy and heteronomy, of a paradoxical separation-yet-union of art and life, provides a much better paradigm for interpreting the artistic innovations of the past two centuries than the problematic terms of Modernity and Postmodernity.
Then comes a chapter on Rancière's film criticism which I rapidly skimmed through and cannot do justice here, and a concluding chapter in which Tanke offers his two cents. He posits that thinkers following in Rancière's vein would be well served to consider the role of imagination in the human experience. Rancière looks at things in terms of equality and inequality, with certain political and artistic events causing shifts in the distribution of what is doable and thinkable. However, his work doesn't investigate the causes of these events, the sparks that lead to dissensus or to works of art that redistribute the sensible. Tanke proposes that an in-depth study of the individual and collective powers of the human imagination could help us better understand why these revolutionary things happen from time to time.
Tanke writes clearly and reading his book was probably much easier than reading my review. It all made so much sense as I read it, which is exactly what I was hoping for. It's an interesting type of book. You might call it a "Thought Biography," or something like that. It's a history of Jacques Rancière's work. I'm encouraged by the fact that, when I went back and re-read some pages of The Politics of Aesthetics, they made much more sense to me. I may try some similar works on other notoriously difficult-to-understand thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I figure I need teachers to help me understand these folks, and since I found such a good one in Joseph Tanke, I might as well try repeating the process.
I'm enjoying your excellent reviews, Matt. The next time I am at the University library, I am going to look for the books you mention on literary theory, as I have never formally studied this and would like to have more of a background understanding.
Matt I am not going to look for teaching book aids next time I don't understand a philosophy book; I am just going to pray that you have read it and reviewed it on LT. You have an ability to write clearly on some difficult subjects. Excellent stuff on Jacques Ranciere: An Introduction
Agree with the above - your review is interesting throughout and clear*. Enjoyed read it.
...well, clear to a point - I'm still working out the aesthetic theory paragraph...
Rancière suggests that the workers who are striking and the protesters on the streets don't need the philosopher to explain everything, that they understand just as well as anyone the injustices they're protesting against and the way of the unjust world they're seeking to change.
I have to disagree with Rancière. It is my opinion that no one really understands the nature of the injustices, not even the leaders and scholars.
@58: Thanks! I really enjoyed reading those two introductions to literary theory (Eagleton and Barry). They opened my eyes to the possibilities that can be discovered in all the books we read, and they did a great job of demystifying the discipline of literary theory.
@59: Thanks, I'm flattered! Glad you're enjoying the reviews.
@60: That's maybe not too different from Rancière's point of view. I think he was arguing that the theorists trying to explain what was going on in the streets weren't any better equipped to understand things than the people who participated in the protests and strikes. By positioning themselves at the vanguard of social movements and arguing that the protesters needed leaders to explain what they were doing and what they should do in the future, they were perpetuating an inequality that has existed since the Greeks.
A good point, but I wonder where that leaves the protesters. Perhaps I should read Rancière.
ETA some coherent sense to my wording...
Just popping by to say that I enjoy reading your thread. Having studied Spanish and Latin American literature at Cambridge in the early '90s, I've read many (but by no means all) of the books you talk about here (and other titles are familiar as ones I should have read but somehow...didn't). Your thoughtful reviews are making me think how much I'd like to re-read some of these books - but there's so much else to be read that I'm afraid it's not very likely. I'll just have to continue to do it vicariously via your thread! Thanks.
@63: Thanks! I'd be very interested to hear which books you remember most fondly from your studies in the 90s. I notice you have a long list of Polish literature on your profile page. Are you familiar with Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke? I think that's the only book by a Polish author I've read. I think it's a pretty remarkable book!
20. Yo el supremo (I, the Supreme) by Augusto Roa Bastos
I had endeavored to re-read Yo el supremo, thinking that my initial reading last year was barely enough to scratch the surface. I got about half way through this time and am going to put it down for a while. It is a remarkable book and I don't think I had realized the implications of the intertextuality most obviously present in the footnotes and citations of historical texts written about the Francia regime. Other texts are present in this text to the point that I asked myself two questions: to what extend is Doctor Francia, the subject and often narrator of this book, composed of all the books he has read? And, to what extent is this book composed of all the texts that Augusto Roa Bastos has read? These two questions lead to a third one: to what extent could this book be seen as one giant web of intertextuality? Is there anything here that is not found somewhere else, in some other book?
Starting with Doctor Francia and his readings, he often directly alludes to classical texts and the major (French) thinkers of the Enlightenment. He mentions Don Quixote on more than one occasion, and he's also a reader of Shakespeare. At one point, he's discussing his relationship with a human skull that he found as a child and which has become a favorite object for his philosophical ramblings. What's surprising, though, is that his conversation with the skull doesn't just allude to Hamlet; it transposes a large chunk of Hamlet directly into the Supreme's discourse. You pretty much have to examine Shakespeare's play side-by-side with Roa Bastos's book in order to fully undestand how the Francia's cherished skull has briefly become the skull of Yorick and his words have briefly become those of Hamlet. The Supreme's scribe later comments that he was caught up in his boss's words, which he recognized from a long-ago English lesson taught by one of the Robinson brothers. He knows the words are from somewhere else. Anyway, this brief appearance of Hamlet in Yo el supremo was one of the more obvious examples of intertextuality employed by Doctor Francia, but he's constantly incorporating elements of books he's read into his running commentary on the meaning of life at the top of Paraguay. I wonder how much of what he says reflects what he's read.
Then there's another sort of intertextuality. Intertexts that Francia couldn't possibly have read constantly peek through. I noticed a stretch of text that nearly replicated some lines from a poem by Federico García Lorca, and another that did the same with a César Vallejo poem. In the case of the possible García Lorca intertext ("Grito hacia Roma" from Poeta en Nueva York), a series of images of increasing intensity culminates in the phrase "caerán sobre mí" (will fall upon me). In García Lorca's poem, a similar series of images culminates in "caerán sobre ti" (will fall upon you). That poem is directed toward the Pope in Rome, who has just signed an agreement with Mussolini. The Pope is another "Supreme," and I found a great deal of affinity between the meaning of Francia's words and that of Lorca's poem. The poem is spoken toward a Supreme and culminates in the lyric subject's self-incorporation into the masses encouraged to ascend the Chrysler Building and scream toward Rome in a collective act of resistance against a corrupt sovereign. Here it's incorporated into the sovereign's speech, perhaps subtly signaling his awareness his position against the people he rules. What I'm trying to say is that there's a strong reason for incorporating those lines of poetry in this book. The same goes for the constant incorporation of discourses from the field of literary theory into the Supreme's ponderings of his control (or lack thereof) over the written word. When the Supreme reflects on writing and words' meanings, he thinks many things that were only thought-in-writing in the 20th century. He couldn't have read about this stuff, but Roa Bastos could have (and probably did). And then you could certainly see the author as the Supreme of his text, just as Francia is the Supreme of Paraguay. These two levels of intertextuality, one possible (the incorporation of texts that Francia could have read and been influenced by) and the other impossible (the incorporation of texts he couldn't possibly have read), fascinate me.
The problem with this book is its immensity. Every page presents its own set of challenges, its own meanings to unravel. Whatever you understand will only represent a small portion of what's there. Half was enough for now. The 300 pages I fought through gave me plenty of food for thought. For those interested in reading this book, I highly, highly recommend the Wikipedia page for it: I, the Supreme. On it I found the following quote from the British critic Bernard Levin, who, upon reading the English translation, affirmed that "he had read the book with an exhilaration similar to 'climbing Everest twice in one weekend.'" That sounds about right to me.
>65 What an intriguing and excellent review of Yo, el supremo, Matt. You certainly don't cut yourself any slack with the books that you select to read! I am in awe.
@66: Thanks! I had to chill out a little bit after the Roa Bastos book, though. Sometimes it's nice to read a book that doesn't ask so much of you...
21. The Technical Imagination (La imaginación técnica) by Beatriz Sarlo
I checked this book out from the library because I was re-reading Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos and wanted another perspective on 1920s Buenos Aires. I thought I'd read the first three chapters, which focus on the literary implications of early 20th century technological advancements. I plowed on through the final three chapters, where the focus shifts from literature to history. I'm certainly glad I did. At first I didn't understand where Sarlo was going and how the book was going to fit together as a whole. I'm glad, though, that I trusted her and stuck with it: I was rewarded with an ending that tied everything together and left me satisfied.
Inspired by the works of Arlt, she started pondering a "poor people's knowledge," a blend of scientific and pseudo-scientific discourses that stood opposed to the Buenos Aires intellectual establishment. While the upper crust of the scientific community was trying its best to keep up with Europe and North America, tinkerers and technology enthusiasts were cobbling together radios in their garages, or inventing stuff in the hopes of one day striking it big. These folks had little formal education, but were inspired by the stories of those who found the proverbial needles in the haystack that led to wealth and acceptance in the international scientific community. They were encouraged in their endeavors by a wide variety of serial publications. Sarlo focuses on two of the biggest tabloid/newspapers (they seem to fall somewhere between the two, perhaps more toward the tabloid side) of 1920s Buenos Aires, Crítica and El Mundo. These publications reached a large community of readers (tens of thousands of people) and sought to take advantage of growing interest in technology through articles that both explained modern scientific advances, and also provided practical advice to inventors and home scientists who lacked traditional academic backgrounds but who were in the garage tinkering away. Her description of the how-to and question-and-answer segments of these papers made me think of "Car Talk," which my dad used to listen to when I was a kid. Earnest, straightforward discussions aimed at helping people achieve their hobby goals. Sarlo mostly sticks to these two serials in her analysis, but she also studies other, more specialized publications like Ciencia Popular, which focused exclusively on science in modern Argentine life.
The book is divided into two parts, "Letters" and "Histories." In the first, Sarlo examines the role of technology and the dreams it inspired on the work of two prominent authors: Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt. Both men were avid inventors and technology enthusiasts. Quiroga was into bicycling in his youth, back when it was just catching on as an exciting new mode of transportation, and in his later adult years he moved up to the remote backcountry of Misiones where he drove his wife crazy (she eventually took her life) and tried his hand at cultivating various crops. His stories (which are excellent) often feature like-minded individuals. Sarlo discusses how inventors in his stories and in real life often found their hopes dashed by a complete lack of quality materials. It would seem that it's easier to build stuff when you can just go to the hardware store or Lowes or whatever other 21st century do-it-yourselfer mecca. After explaining the failures of Quiroga's characters and the thousands of other Argentines who built stuff in their free time, Sarlo moves on to discuss the role of technology in Roberto Arlt's imagined Buenos Aires, as well as the connection between his own passion for inventing (he once patented socks reinforced with rubber in the heel and toe) and his fictions. While it's not uncommon to compare Arlt to Borges in a yin-and-yang sort of way (what Borges is, Arlt is not, and vice versa), she does a good job of explaining how Borges' nostalgic look at Buenos Aires (I believe the phrase "rosy-colored" is used, although the book was due back before I could finish this review) differs from Arlt's vision of a city that was becoming. When I set Sarlo's book down and compared what I was reading in Los siete locos to the words Borges wrote that same year about his childhood Palermo in Evaristo Carriego, I certainly noticed the clear divergence of the two authors' perspectives. True, much of her discussion of Arlt's vision of the urban space relates to another of his books (El amor brujo), but the chapter was fun to read in tandem with Arlt's novel, and really keyed me in on the way he depicts the city.
Moving forward, I felt a bit lost for a few chapters as the big serial publications were discussed, then the story shifted to other histories of technology its impact on Argentine citizens. The last two chapters, though, pulled me back in. First she documents the effects of the radio, cinema and television on the popular imagination. The radio was amazing not just because people's voices could be transmitted wirelessly; it was also easy to build, and created a whole subculture of individuals who felt connected to this new technology not only as listeners but as constructors of radios. I can only imagine what it would be like to suddenly be able to build a device that would let you talk to people hundreds of miles away. Cinema, on the other hand, was not accessible in that way. It took deep pockets to be able to participate actively in moviemaking in the way that ham radio enthusiasts built their apparatuses and projected their voices into the air. The movies required the passive participation of the spectator--as radio eventually did with the rapidly growing listening public--, but in this case there was no possibility for any sort of active participation unless you had boatloads of money. Finally, television was the future, but it wasn't nearly as close as many thought it would be. It remained in the realm of the not-yet-possible throughout the 1920s, positioned as a reminder that there were still technological dreams yet to be fulfilled and perpetuating the imaginative hopes and desires of the people who had enthusiastically welcomed radio and film.
In the final chapter, Sarlo discusses an interesting ramification of these innovations: if all this was possible, why couldn't anything and everything be possible? Communication with the dead? Miracle cures? Keeping severed dog heads alive by continuing to circulate blood through them? These were the sorts of doors that the technological miracles of the early 20th century kept open. In Argentina, plenty of attention was paid to exciting new developments in all areas of scientific possibility, with practitioners of now-denounced healing techniques alternately thought of as crazy or visionary, depending on their ability to sheath their practices in sufficiently scientific babble or not. The serial publications loved devoting space to these things, denouncing frauds, applauding apparent successes, and giving readers step-by-step instructions on how to learn hypnotism and conquer their own bodies into good health. I love reading about the crazy stuff people used to pass off as science (or that people optimistically thought was science), and this chapter reminded me of how much I enjoy reading about the successes and failures of science. Moreover, the name Roberto Arlt kept popping back up. Apparently in at least one case he was rather convinced by one of these quacks. His reappearance at the end of the book reminds you how life and literature were intertwined, and they fed off each other at an exciting moment in history.
22. Don Catrín de la Fachenda by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi
José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's El Periquillo Sarniento is widely considered to be the first Latin American novel. Unwilling to commit to its 900+ pages (although intrigued by its picaresque subject matter) I decided to read the much shorter life and times of don Catrín. A brief explanation of the title might be helpful: the dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy gives "well dressed, dandified" as the definition for catrín, and "pride, vanity, or a person who possesses these attributes" for fachenda. The title character's name doubles as a description of his person. This is also true for secondary characters in this book like Modesto and Tremendo. The book revolves around don Catrín's steadfast refusal to disavow his illustrious lineage (he's of the Catrín nobility and expects to be treated as a noble), and he lives and dies behaving as he is called.
It's a fun little book. He reminds me a bit of Candide in his steadfast optimism in the face of repeated hardships. He's mistreated, he's imprisoned, he's constantly broke and often defamed, but he goes on thinking that the catrín is the best of all possible men. He's constantly pawning and re-buying the many articles of clothing required by his social class, and he mostly just hangs out at cafes hoping somebody will buy him a free meal. If he's not there, he's down at the gaming parlor, hoping to turn the pittance he's walked in with into some larger sum that will allow him to spend freely for a day or two. Sometimes people sermonize him and tell him he should change his ways, but he pays them no heed. As he grows older, things get tougher, and he's eventually shipped to Cuba for two years of jail time and forced labor (the only two years he's worked in his life, and two too many in his opinion!). Eventually things get really rough, as he loses a leg at the hands of a jealous husband who finds him in consort with his wife, and his health declines due to his constant consumption of alcohol. Being a catrín was no easy task, I suppose.
Everything seemed very strange as I read this book. I realized how difficult it was for me to picture life in early 19th century Mexico, and I started to think about how much of my knowledge of places and time periods is constructed by the books I read. I mean, a poor man patching together an outfit that will allow him to show his face on the street makes sense to me in the context of Golden Age Spain, because it's a commonplace of the picaresque. This is a different world, though, and as he's maneuvering through Mexico City, it just doesn't feel right. I'm planning to read some more colonial literature this year, and maybe once I understand the way life was in the colonies I'll be better equipped to understand Lizardi's satire. All in all, though, it was a fun, quick read and I was amused by this first person account of the life of a creole dandy.
@70: Thanks, really glad you're enjoying them! I'm actually trying to catch up on my reviews myself...
23. Los siete locos (The Seven Madmen) by Roberto Arlt
What we have here is one of the most revolutionary books in South American literary history. It has been read and commented on by many of the region’s most famous authors: Borges, Cortázar, Onetti, Bolaño, Piglia, and many others. Its influence far outstrips its fame and its availability in translation. In fact, the second part of this story, Los lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers would be the presumed English title) has never been published in English. It’s possible to purchase a copy of The Seven Madmen online, but it doesn’t look like it’s currently in print.
I was suggested this book by a fellow foreign student while studying in Buenos Aires. It was cool because a lot of the streets mentioned in the book were rather close to the San Telmo neighborhood where I rented an apartment for a while. How neat, to be able to retrace a character’s footsteps in a foreign land. I enjoyed bouncing back and forth between Arlt and Borges during my time in Buenos Aires, because they gave two distinct versions of their home city: Borges’ view of Buenos Aires is more nostalgic, whereas Arlt’s is on the modern/dystopian/apocapolyptic side. I now find that it’s quite common to compare these two authors. I’ve seen this done recently in Beatriz Sarlo’s The Technical Imagination, where she affirms that:
“What Arlt saw in Buenos Aires was almost exactly what Borges failed to see. Against the pastel pinks of early Borges he set a pure, expressionist, contrastive coloration of whites; against a pleasant landscape (the Borgesian locus amoenus of sidewalks and residential districts), an iconography of open trenches and aggresive construction, trimmed out, as in Berni, with an industrial collage of sheet-metal scraps and bits of cable. Where other writers, his contemporaries, saw a city in the process of disappearing, he saw a city under construction. For Arlt, Buenos Aires was yet to be…”
Ricardo Piglia also includes a commentary on Arlt and Borges in Respiración artificial:
“All of which is nothing more than a way of saying, says Renzi, that Borges should be read, if one wishes to understand his work, from the interior of the system of 19th century Argentine literature, whose fundamental lines, with their conflicts, dillemas, and contradictions, he comes to close, to finish. Thus Borges is anachronic, he brings things to their end, he looks toward the 19th century. The one who opens, who inaugurates, is Roberto Arlt. Arlt begins anew: he is the only truly modern writer produced by Argentine literature in the 20th century.”
My idea is to persuade you that this is a book worth reading by dropping some prominent names (Borges above all) that can help put Roberto Arlt into a context the foreign reader can appreciate. I think once you have the book and start to read it, its value will become apparent. This is a very enjoyable book (if you enjoy dark and depressing things) and it’s surprisingly modern. It feels like it could have been written in 1970, or 2000, rather than 1929.
The book is divided into three long chapters that are further split into subtitled sections. In them Remo Erdosain enters into contact with a variety of characters. He also spends a lot of time by himself, daydreaming about millionaire women who will comprehend his suffering and save him, or imagining scenarios whereby he will invent machines and dangerous gases capable of bringing the city to its knees. Starting from an initial scene where the management of the company he works for explains to him that he’s been caught in a long-running swindle that has netted him $600.07, he moves from one humiliation to the next: he asks a crazy Bible-thumper/gambler named Ergueta for some money and is embarrased in public, he shows up at home just as his wife is leaving him to go live with the captain, and then his wife’s cousin Barsut comes over and knocks him to the ground with a mighty slap to the face. He revels in this suffering and imagines the extremes it might reach. He thinks about his crime (skimming money from the company he works for) and how committing theft didn’t result in any life-changing shift in his person. He thinks about how he could come to be through a greater crime (murder) that would make him exist in the eyes of the others who surround him.
Erdosain’s self-reflection alternates with encounters with the book’s other characters. He repeatedly travels to the verdant suburb of Témperley to vist the Astrologer, whose secret society inspired by the KKK holds meetings at his estate and discusses plans to generate money through the operation of brothels that will in turn be invested in the expansion of said society. They’ll form colonies where future members will attend sessions in preparation for the coming revolution that will propel them to the pinnacle of power. One of the peripheral members of the society, the Melancholy Pimp, maintains three women and once tried to kill himself with a gunshot wound to the chest (hence the nickname). He’s bored and explains to Erdosain how he came to be a pimp, and why he’s decided to disinterestedly participate in the society. Barsut is a lot like Erdosain, and eventually he’s put to use by the society due to an inheritance he received a few years back. His presence at the Astrologer’s estate will bring Erdosain closer to that great crime that will cause him to exist. Hipólita (the Cripple), Ergueta’s wife, eventually enters into contact with Erdosain and tells him about how she spent her adolescence working as a servant until she decided to dedicate herself to “the life” (prostitution) so as to take control of her destiny and make money. They’re all crazy (some more decidedly so), as the title might lead you to believe, and they use and manipulate each other in order to forward their respective master plans.
It’s not a well-ordered book, it jumps around haphazardly, and things don’t all resolve themselves at the end. The narrator is a person in whom Erdosain has confided, but we never find out who he is and what circumstances have lead Erdosain to spill the beans. There are occasional footnotes that mention the upcoming sequel and make a few observations as to the reasons behind different characters’ actions. What it lacks in order, though, it makes up for in its powerful portrayal of some messed-up people living really weird lives. There’s one scene where Erdosain visits a family he’s been trying to help. They’re poor and hungry, and they’ve been helping him with his inventions (he’s an inventor). The current project is the copper-plated rose, and when he visits them they’re so, so very excited to see him and show him their latest success. As he leaves, one of the women from the family follows him and starts trying to tell him her love to him. She wants to prove how much she’s learned about science and how devoted she is to his projects, and tries to explain all the stuff she’s been studying to help him. She keeps going on and on, mentioning complex chemical reactions she’s learned for his sake. After a while, he curtly replies: “You don’t interest me” and walks away. It’s really brutal.
Anyway, there’s a lot to be said about this book and a lot of different people have already said a lot about it. I definitely recommend it. Re-reading it reminded me of what a remarkable novel it is.
24. El informe de Brodie (Brodie's Report) by Jorge Luis Borges
As I'd just re-read Los siete locos and pondered a few comparisons between the literatures of Roberto Arlt and Jorge Luis Borges, why not read this book I bought the other day, published when Borges was 71? I'd not read it before, and I find the later Borges, the Borges that lives on in the world alongside the published works of the earlier Borges, to be an intriguing author. Surprisingly enough, none other than Bob Arlt himself is mentioned in the prologue as JLB has a go at those language purists who have a problem with his choice of words: "Along these lines, I remember that they used to shove Roberto Arlt's lack of knowledge of Lunfardo in his face and that he replied: 'I grew up in Villa Luro, amongst poor folks and hoodlums, and in truth I haven't had the time to study those things.'" By the way, I've always found Borges to be an excellent self-prologist. This one got me especially pumped for these stories with comments like these:
"I've renounced the surprises of a baroque style; also those which an unforeseen ending hopes to provide. I've preferred, in short, the development of feelings of expectation or those of amazement. For many years I believed that I would one day write a good page by way of variations and innovations; now, having celebrated my seventieth year, I believe I have found my voice."
Or this one:
"Who, in 1970, remembers with precision what the communities of Palermo or Lomas were like in the final years of the past century?"
That second comment caused in me the feelings of expectation mentioned in the first comment because Borges was already asking in 1929 (in Evaristo Carriego) what Palermo was like (or what it might conceivably and poetically have been like) at the turn of the century. As I started moving through these stories and saw how many of them were about gauchos, knife fights, card games and childhood encounters with legendary tough guys, I saw how this book was something of a second go-round at the representation of a past that was already tinged with nostalgia the first time he visited these Argentine themes. Many of the stories are framed in a way that emphasizes the effects of time on memory: the narrator might explain how he was told the story by a certain person in a certain situation, and cautions that their perspective may not accurately reflect the truth of the matter; or he might recount a fading memory with "the inevitable variations brought by time and good or bad literature." The differences between the way things happened and the way they're remembered/interpreted stand prominent throughout the book. In the final story that gives the book its title, the missionary Brodie relates his experience with a strange indigenous tribe in the Amazon. Their beliefs are as odd as one might possibly imagine (they blind and dismember their king and send him to live in a cave, smearing him with dung), yet the outsider concludes that, as shocking as his report might seem, we must consider that in many ways this tribe is no different than us: their language is not entirely unlike ours, they compose poetry, and they believe that the soul outlives the body, to cite a few examples. Truth is in the eyes of the beholder, or, in many of these stories, the rememberer. I think it's also fair to say that it's in the eyes of the reader, who in many cases (such as my own) is even further displaced from the author's world and must conform his or her own perspective to the words on the page. Old man Borges seems so very aware of the complexities of even the most straightforward statements, and here he tells simple stories that are not really that simple.
A few that I especially enjoyed: "Guayquil," where two academics meet to discuss which one of them will travel to Colombia to transcribe a long lost document written by Simón Bolívar containing details of his meeting with general San Martín in 1822. After that meeting, I believe, San Martín retired to his rural estate and Bolívar continued his fight for American independence. What I assume the two professors are really doing is unknowingly reenacting the events of that meeting. In another, the young Borges meets an old grammar school acquaintance shortly after the publication of Evaristo Carriego and is told the unlikely story of the knife of the notorious Palermo hoodlum Juan Muraña. Years after his death, the knife is used to commit a crime and the perpetrator, his lady, affirms that Juan lives on through his knife and helped her use it in order to protect her from being evicted. That story begins with an evocation of certain statements made in Borges' prologue to his 1929 book, which confirmed my assumption that I'd find in this book nostalgic looks back in time raised to the second degree. In another story, "Historia de Rosendo Juárez," the narrator listens to a man in a bar tell the story of a longtime political lackey/strongman who's famed to never back down but one day finally does.
There's one other story that is definitely worth discussing: "El indigno," which is mentioned by Ricardo Piglia's character Renzi in Respiración artificial as Borges' possible homage to Roberto Arlt. Once I finished reading it I was pretty sure that it had to be the story mentioned by Renzi, because it really is quite similar to the final episode of Arlt's first novel, El juguete rabioso (translated to English as Mad Toy). I'd always thought of the two authors as polar opposites and representatives of opposite ends of the Argentine literary world. I believed that people compared Arlt to Borges because they were so different, and I remember reading somewhere that when the two met, they didn't hit it off at all and were more or less unable to communicate with each other (I think the anecdote concerning their meeting is in Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Juan Carlos Onetti, Viaje a la ficción). It's neat to see that Borges, entering his seventh decade, may have felt a greater connection to Arlt and his work than I might have expected. I'm glad I thought to read this book after an Arlt novel.
Wonderful reviews and comparison of Arlt and Borges, Matt. I recently bought a book of Borges' poetry, but have not come across his short fiction yet. I love that he felt he had just found his voice at age 70.
Great stuff Matt. The comments by Beatriz Sarlo and Ricardo Piglia, combined with your own knowledge of these authors and their milieu create a fascinating perspective on these authors. You persuasion is successful.
@74: Thanks! I'm mildly familiar with Borges' poetry and have enjoyed what I've read. His first book of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires, is excellent. He wrote it shortly after returning from Europe (at around 21 years old), and his poetic representation of a city at once native and foreign to him is helpful in enjoying his future work. Maybe those poems are in the book you have?
@75: Thanks! It's unfortunate Arlt's novel isn't more widely available. It's oddly prophetic in its depiction of cities/societies that have in some ways come to be.
25. El gesticulador (The Impostor) by Rodolfo Usigli
Rodolfo Usigli is described on Wikipedia as "the playwright of the Mexican Revolution" (the English article), and "the father of modern Mexican theater" (the Spanish article). In this his most famous play, university professor César Rubio moves his family from Mexico City to his hometown in the north. Tensions are high because it's hot, they're tired from traveling, his grown children are upset at being uprooted, and César himself feels like a failure. His daughter Julia thinks she's ugly and doubts she'll find anyone in the pueblo to replace a suitor she had back in the city; his son Marcos is upset at leaving the university. César is able to placate everyone, convincing them that he'll use his connections to obtain an administrative position after the upcoming elections. He's a historian of the Mexican Revolution, and he knows a lot about the former soldiers who have become politicians. He could potentially threaten them with blackmail in order to get ahead. Marcos makes him promise not to resort to dishonest methods.
Since this play is famous for being about the Revolution, I was surprised to find that the main character was a down-on-his-luck history professor and not a military man. I'd imagined the main character to be a general-turned-caudillo, or a disillusioned former revolutionary. The image I had in my mind was probably a mix of Pedro Páramo, Demetrio Macías (from Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo), and General Fernando Rojas (from Elena Garro's Los recuerdos del porvenir). I have a debate with myself whenever I read a work of fiction about the Mexican Revolution: should I find a good history of the Revolution, so that I can understand how the characters in these books relate to the historical figures who participated in the events of those years? Or should I go on allowing that place and time to exist in my mind only through fiction? I usually opt for the latter, so here I am once again, reading about César Rubio and his family, thinking about a revolution I hardly know.
After César Rubio and his family make amends and start to unpack (César complains that there's no place to put all his books), a Harvard professor named Oliver Bolton shows up at their front door. His car broke down on the road through town and he's hoping for a place to stay the night. César gets him to open up about the specific nature of his work in Mexico (without mentioning that he too is a professor), and soon Bolton is talking passionately about this great military leader named César Rubio who inspired his troops to greatness then disappeared without explanation, presumably betrayed by one of his aides. César Rubio (same name, but it's clear from the get-go that he's NOT the legendary César Rubio) sees an opportunity to put his intimate knowledge of the Revolution to use, and he eventually convinces Bolton that he has in his possession documents that will help clarify the fate of César Rubio. He presumably came across these items in his academic work. As he's haggling about the terms of his sale of these documents to the deep-pocketed Harvard man, Bolton begins to suspect, then believe, that he's sitting at the table with THE César Rubio. César lets him believe this without ever confirming it, making a series of cryptic comments about how history is but a dream, and how the great, forgotten military man might possibly have decided to teach history, the true history of the Revolution...
Four weeks later, a group of men show up at César's house to discuss his potential candidacy for the upcoming gubernatorial election. They'd like him to run against a corrupt former general. Bolton's article was published in The New York Times, and word has slowly spread that the real César Rubio lives. The entire conversation between César and those who would like him to rise to local political glory plays out in similar terms to his previous conversation with Bolton: he's not lying, but he's certainly letting people deceive themselves into thinking something that's not true. He philosophizes about how truth is always stranger than fiction, which is true because the fiction the men are believing (César Rubio's return) is nowhere near as strange as the truth of the ex-history professor pretending to be the César Rubio he is not. César also interacts with his family a lot during this second act, trying to justify his actions and calm their growing concern with his appropriation of the other's identity.
The third act takes place on election day. It is assumed that César will win in a landslide, as over the course of the past month he has convinced people that César Rubio is the best of all candidates and a truly inspiring figure capable of transcending the corruption endemic to Mexican post-revolutionary politics. He's visited by his opponent, former general Navarro, who made a brief appearance in the second act as a stranger looking for César. The general knows the truth behind the César Rubio matter and is prepared to bring it to light. Going into the conversation, though, he underestimates how much the César Rubio who's a history professor and an expert on the Mexican Revolution knows about him. They have an interesting standoff regarding whose truth will be told and how, and also regarding whether both men will live to see the next day.
It's funny, while reading this play a week ago I was rather nonplussed, but as I revisit it to write this my opinion has improved dramatically. I'd been reading a bunch of Golden Age comedias by Lope de Vega, and since they're so action-packed, Usigli's play came off as a bit slow, dense and generally boring. However, the conversations are truly fascinating. Which is more true, the historical facts, the academic's interpretation of those facts, or the truth of those who ended up in power? What happens when these different truths come face to face, with the participants understanding what's happening to greater and lesser extents? As César puts it:
"...history is nothing more than a dream. Those who made it dreamt of things that didn't come to pass; those who study it dream of the past; those who teach it (with a smile) dream that they possess the truth and are capable of transferring it."
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.