Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissmo

This labyrinthine novella scared me. I wasn't really sure I wanted to read it. After reading Luis Fernando Verissmo's superb The Club of Angels, I wanted more. But this? Such a strange title. And what's with the Fernando Botero cover? I started reading it anyway.

And then I put it aside for over a year. It was just too strange, wasn't it? It sat on my shelf and I'd catch a glimpse of it and think ... shouldn't I finish it? It sat a while longer till the Novella Challenge gave me no excuse not to read it. What wonders I had avoided. A Borges fanboy, Vogelstein, tells the story about a murder at an Edgar Allen Poe academic conference in Buenos Aires to Jorge Luis Borges, who attends the conference and eventually makes a special contribution to this novella.

Vogelstein tells us, or rather, he tells Borges, "A conference on Edgar Allen Poe interrupted by a murder committed in a locked room, it was like a story by Poe himself!" Almost the entire novella is narrated to Borges. This locked room murder mystery also interweaves Borgian elements of arcane erudition and supernatural connections that any fan of Poe, Borges and even Lovecraft will revel in.

Locked room mysteries are troublesome. Usually the narrator can not be trusted. Something is always hinted at or barely glimpsed or quickly mentioned that holds the key to the locked room. If written properly, that something will be difficult to discern among the amazing array of facts and evidence. Red herrings and gold bugs and theories will crowd around us and prevent us from getting a good look at the room. Potential suspects will appear, but eventually dismissed. We shout eureka at the moment we think we've found the murderer only to suddenly realize that there is no way the Japanese professor could have gotten out of the locked room.

And so we read on until one of the characters clues us in and deciphers the mystery. In Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, the narrator abandons that role and hands the cipher to another character thereby plunging us deeper into the labyrinth. It took me over a year to sit down and finally read this novella; it will take much more than another year to get over this marvelous novella. I can't wait to read it again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Lila Says by Chimo

Explicitly graphic and exquisitely gorgeous, Lila Says is part Catcher in the Rye, part Lolita, and part je ne sais quoi. Ostensibly written by Chimo, a writer-in-the-raw nineteen year old Arab boy living in the Parisian projects, Lila Says follows the relationship he has with Lila, a sixteen year old Roman Catholic girl. The novella is supposedly straight out of the notebooks sent in by Chimo, and some controversy ensued about the identity of the author.

Lila and Chimo's relationship begins with an act of heavy petting on a moving bicycle, which is as odd as would be expected. Though no other intimacies happen between them, Lila treats Chimo as a confidante and tells him her darkest and wildest sexual fantasies. She may have the face of an angel, but she has "all those words popping out of her mouth like snakes." Chimo is mute during most of Lila's serpentine monologues. It's plain that Chimo is a virgin, or at least very inexperienced, but he wants to know more -- yet he worries that he'll lose her if he does more. It's a complicated situation, for Lila offers every kind of devious delicacy that any modern nineteen year old would have problems passing by. She details buffets of debauchery, and Chimo can't wait to get home to record in his notebooks.

There is no spoiler in saying that this tragedy doesn't end well. But it is worth noting that the ending of the novella differs from the film adaptation with the beguiling Vahina Giaconte as Lila. I first came across the film and was so captivated by it that afterwards I ordered the DVD and tracked down a copy of the novella. The film and the novella differ in other ways: the film offers more background on Chimo and gets a bit deeper into his relationship with his ghetto friends; and, of course, the endings are significantly different, both tragically -- but one more so than the other.

Due to the very graphic language of this novella, it could easily be viewed as erotica and often leaps into pornographic lasciviousness. Erotica has literary pretensions; porn only wants to titillate. Some of the scenes that Lila describes are Penthouse-letter hardcore, yet they are juxtaposed with Chimo's perplexed innocence. The writing is at times fine and fresh, though other times it drags and is a bit dry.

And so there is a bit of moral quandary, is this filth or is this fine art? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Perhaps it exists in that gray world of filthy fine art. The book flap situates Lila Says between Marguerite Duras' The Lover and Pauline Reage's Story of O. In certain hands, these books would be banned and burned; in other hands, they would be regaled and recommended.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell

When traveling somewhere, it always feels good knowing that you know someone at your destination who knows the lay of the land. You can put away the guide books and just enjoy the sights. I felt like a traveler when I first opened Old Herbaceous. Subtitled "A Novel of the Garden," and set in England at the dusk of the Victorian era, I entered another world, one that has a trusted guide in Reginal Arkell. And having no clue about gardens, I had been introduced to a different country and culture than my suburbanite one.

Old Herbaceous is one of those novellas that hardly feels short, though it doesn't read long. The story is rich and covers the eight decades of Herbert Pinnegar's life, passing through youth, two wars and eventually old age. We read about his triumphs and struggles and learn volumes about him in just twenty chapters and one hundred fifty pages. Though some novellas revel in experimentation, Old Herbaceous tells a story. Nothing fancy, no tricks, no smoke and mirrors.

In the middle of Old Herbaceous lies the heart of the Pinnegar. About early strawberries and blue morning glories and touched with the dew of insight and respectful love, Chapter Ten is where we fall for him. We see into his true nature and know what kind of character we are dealing with. Although in general he can be crotchety, his heart is as well-kept and as beautiful as his garden.

One aspect I particularly enjoy about good novellas is that, like poetry, they can make apothegmatic observations. Here is one such garden gnome, "If you peel the years from a man's life, as you would the leaves from a globe artichoke, you would find him having his happiest time between the ages of fifty and sixty-five." This notion is exanded upon in a well-wrought passage, but I'll leave you with the pleasure of finding out how -- and there are more tidbits on gardening and human nature sprinkled throughout the novella.

I am an outsider when it comes to being outside. Part it has to do with living in a hostile and hot and humid climate, one that attracts virus-ridden mosquitoes, and part of it has to do with allergies and rashes. I like the idea of being outside, but being outside is always a bad idea. Mind that I have been in gardens, but I haven't a clue as to what the various names of the flowers and whatnot are. I can identify a rose and a dandelion and maybe an orchid, but I haven't a clue about morning glories or annuals or any Latinate flower. Colorblind, though not morbidly so, most of the intricate and delicate colors of the garden are lost on me.

One can only imagine what Herbert Pinnegar, the seasoned and wise gardener protagonist, would have thought of someone like me. Not much, I'm sure. But I will tell you what I think: I'm rather fond of him. It's difficult not to admire someone who finds his vocation early in life, excels at it throughout life, and is still passionate about it at the end of life -- even if that someone is only a fictional character. The greatest fictional characters are ones who we know do not exist in fact, though we feel that they nonetheless exist. Like Huck Finn or Jeeves, Pinnegar recalls those characters we've met and heard about in stories and also in life. We know that a character like Pinnegar is but a fictional creation, yet we feel that he is also just down the street tending his garden.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Cuttlefish by Maryline Desbiolles

When is a novella a novella? Arguments shuffle around definitions based on word count, page length, narrative content, time elapsed within the story. What appears to be a novella could be something else. Glancing at its spine, Maryline Desbiolle's The Cuttlefish appears to be a novella, but the book cover clearly states that it is "A Novel."

Although the book's title indicates that it may be about cuttlefish, it is actually about a recipe for cuttlefish, but cuttlefish only in name for the opening sentence declares, "The recipe began with a mistake." The mistake? The original recipe for stuffed cuttlefish, copied down by the narrator, did not use cuttlefish, but calamari. Even when she goes to the fishmonger to buy cuttlefish, she buys the only thing available, calamari. Yet, mysteriously, the calamari is referred to as cuttlefish throughout the entire book. When you read cuttlefish, read calamari.

So what? Cuttlefish or calamari? One word or the other, they are close enough, right? Most likely they are just a few genes apart. It matters for it lets us know whether or not we can trust the narrator when she later says, "I follow the recipe word for word and don't allow myself the slightest deviation." But she does. She deviates. If a cuttlefish is actually a calamari and a novella is actually a novel, can we be sure of anything when reading this book? If words don't mean something, they can mean anything; and if they can mean anything, they can mean nothing.

Divided into twelve chapters each with each chapter's title being a step in the recipe, The Cuttlefish is an improvisational meditation on food preparation. The dish is being prepared for a dinner party, and the dinner party theme surfaces sporadically throughout the book. The recipe steps described at the beginning of each chapter usually have little to no bearing on the chapter's content. There are riffs on the dinner party, personal life history, aspects of preparing the food. Were this book a work of jazz it would be free jazz, a jumble of sounds loosely related and collected under one title. Moments of disjointed brilliance erupt only to be quickly subsumed by a cacophony of competing ideas. Chapter 7, "In a saucepan, sauté 2 chopped onions in 2 tablespoons of oil," is perhaps the best of the book, but by time the seventh chapter has been reached, who cares? The only reason to read is to indulge the author, an author acting like a spoiled child who cannot be corrected without a resulting tantrum.

Experimentation is an exciting aspect of the novella. New techniques and theories can be tested without testing the reader's patience for too long. But when the reader's patience is tested, the experiment fails.

Desbiolles' Cuttlefish experiment attempts to unlock the world of memories and associations that are inextricably linked with the sense-world of food. In a certain sense, she succeeds in capturing the capricious mind as it discursively meanders while engaged in the mundane aspects of food preparation. Whether or not she succeeds for twelve chapters and 113 pages is a test that the reader must embark upon and decide.

My decision is simple: read the chapters in any order you wish, read the whole thing or just a chapter or just paragraph, read experimentally. If cuttlefish can be calamari, and novellas can be novels, reading can be not reading.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Emily L. by Marguerite Duras

What a wonderfully opaque and inebriated novella! An alcoholic French couple summers in a French port town and observes another alcoholic British couple, the Captain and his wife. The French couple essentially eavesdrops on the Brits, but since they can't hear everything they make up a history for the Brits, a history that is besotted with poetry and passion and drink.

This novella, filled with shifting perspectives, has postmodernist leanings. Even as we start to think we know who Emily L. is, we eventually doubt it. Surely, it wasn't that Emily, was it? But the line from "A certain slant of light" shows up and an unmistakable description of it is limned. Yet the Brits are from Newport, not Amherst. And they are Brits, not Americans. This can't be that Emily, can it?

Since the novella's main character narrates from inside a resort hotel bar, should we assume that the tale is one exaggerated and distorted by drink? I believe the tale is an excuse to delve into the themes of love and truth and especially writing. Writing is often a favorite topic of postmodernist authors, though I would hesitate to call Duras postmodern though she has written a pomo novella in Emily L. Though written during the postmodern era, Duras could be more accurately described as following the earlier theories of nouveau roman, which included author Alain Robbe-Grillet as its main author and theorist.

Emily L. abounds in savory nuggets for writers ...

  • "The only real poem is inevitably the one that's lost."
  • "When you die, the story will become legendary, flagrant."
  • "She said if [the poems] made him suffer it probably meant that he'd begun to understand them."
These are the kinds of lines that fill the Moleskine of any creative writing MFA holder.

The last page of the novella reads likes a manifesto for writing and, though it loses some of its power and eloquence quoted out of context, the final words of its last, sprawling sentence are an apt summation: "... just leave everything as it is when it appears." A bit of the first draft, best draft? Et tu, Marguerite?

One of the things I really enjoy about Duras' style (and this may be a refection of her being involved with the nouveau roman as mentioned above) is her ability to paint a scene or describe an emotion without the use of verbs, or at least use as few as possible. A classic example of describing an interior state comes out of her masterful novella, The Lover. After the girl's first sexual experience Duras writes, "The sea, formless, simply beyond compare." Something about not using a verb, and in the context of that transformative act, creates an eternal moment, suspended and cut off from the past and future, hanging in the forever present much like in the moment of intense sexual release.

In Emily L., she lessens the importance of the verb in all but one sentence to paint an especially vivid scene in the middle of the book: "Dusk. The light of dusk everywhere. The streets, the ships in the harbor. A gold, a pink and gold light that's reflected back from the bright surfaces of the tanker port on the other side of the river." One instance of verb usage, this passage is full of descriptive nouns all connected to "reflected."

And this is Duras' charm, her style. Though story is important in a novella, the form does allow for experimentation and for deep excursions into style. Story is part of why we read novellas, but there is also the need for understanding the inner lives of the characters in the story or even how the surrounding milieu can be considered psychologically and not as just merely props for the scene. And things in our own world take on a certain importance to our own lives, especially when we drink and fantasize and gossip and eavesdrop on our fellow drunks. This can be heightened on vacation -- when everything has a special glow and hidden meaning.

The novella opens with a simple declarative sentence, "It began with the fear." That fear is everything, anything ... love and loss of love, commitment and infidelity, life and death. And all are considered throughout Emily L. What would a writerly novella be without some consideration of death? What better vacationing barfly understanding of death than what comes from the Captain, "Drink will blur things when the time comes. Drink and dementia."

Not a first choice novella within Duras' work -- that distinction must go to The Lover -- but Emily L. shows a writer comfortable with her voice and especially gifted with experimenting within the novella form.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Actual by Saul Bellow

I have a general, rather nasty rule about novels by post-Nobel Prize winning authors: Avoid. I'm sure that there are exceptions out there, but none that I can think of off the top of my head. The same thing applies to poets winning major awards, or that kiss-of-death post of poet laureate. Official posts and poets generally don't work too well. The same could be said for novelists winning famous prizes or getting jobs as creative writing instructors or professors -- jobs that involve teaching writers how to write washes out the writing for authors.

The Actual
offers interesting insights into Sigmund Adletsky, Amy Wustrin and the main character, Harry Trellman, but the plot gets blurred in what reads more like a character study than a novel. Harry Trellin has a life-long obsession with Amy and never gets too far in declaring his love for her; Adeltsky helps them reunite. The last scene of the book is compelling and odd. Some interesting insights into upper crust Jewish society, but in general this novella reads long for its one hundred and four pages. There were times while reading this that I wasn't exactly sure how a particular scene related to the whole.

Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift, his eighth novel. His first, Dangling Man, was written almost thirty years prior to it. Bellow was a just over sixty when graced with the Nobel. Isn't this a common practice of the Nobel committee to award the prize when the author has grayed a bit? They probably didn't anticipate him living another four decades. The Nobel Prize in Literature must be the most highly celebrated pink slip in history. It's the gold watch and pension, but in an age beyond gold watches and pensions I'm not sure if it means anything anymore.

I've heard that Bellow returned to the novella as he aged. If this is true, then this late turn may be similar to Tolstoy (never won the Nobel, by the way). Not sure why Bellow has turned to the novella, and I haven't read the one that is considered his best, Seize the Day ... so anything I say about Bellow is based soley upon The Actual. And I confess to my uncharitable and one-dimensional view on an author who probably deserves my greater attention. Unfortunately, my initial exposure to The Actual hasn't left the greatest of first impressions and I will be reluctant to return to him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

μεγά βιβλίον μεγά κακόν

Mega biblion, mega kakon.

Big book, big evil.

This blog's title comes from the Greek poet Callimachus, who rallied against the old, long-winded poetry and advocated a terser verse. Though novellas are not poetry, they do run short. I've been a fan of the novella for a while, but I haven't really read many recently.

Earlier this weekend, I ran across The Novella Challenge and thought I'd join in reading the six novellas -- even though I'm a late entry! It ends Sept 30, so I've got to buckle down and get reading.

Just read Saul Bellow's The Actual (1997) over the weekend. The remaining five will be, in no particular order ...
  • Lila Says (1996) Chimo
  • Emily L. (1987) Marguerite Dumas
  • Old Herbaceous (1950) Reginald Arkell
  • The Cuttlefish (1998) Maryline Desbiolles
  • Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2000) Luis Fernando Verissimo
This list is subject to change. I may try to post reviews or just blog something about these novellas as I go, but my main goal will be to read.