In Memoriam: Nadine Gordimer — who subversively wrote as well as she could

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Nadine Gordimer 1923 – 2014

In repressive regimes everywhere – whether in what was the Soviet block, Latin America, Africa, China – most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.

- from the Nobel Lecture: “Writing and Being”

In an autobiographical essay published in the New Yorker in 1954, Nadine Gordimer described a hill rising from the veld on the outskirts of her home town near Johannesburg, barren save for patches of sparse grass through which showed a blackness “even a little blueness, the way black hair shines”. The hill was a coal dump, so old as to be covered by a layer of blown earth. “Diabolical”, she called it, “forsaken”, and – her best word – “inert”, for at some point, no one knew when, this remnant of a long abandoned coal mine had caught fire, and the slow, low burning had continued, hidden beneath its top layers, day and night, for many years. She recalled the surrounding earth feeling warm beneath her feet. She remembered seeing the glow at dusk in the bald patches where grass would not grow. She knew a girl who had been horribly disfigured from burns sustained while playing on the hill. Her mother remembered a boy who had been buried in a landslide and not even his bones had been found. On one side of the coal dump was the outer edge of town, the “location”, where the blacks lived. Further from the dump, in the direction of the town center, were the neighborhoods of what she described as “our sedate little colonial tribe, with its ritual tea parties and tennis parties.” On the other side was the local nursing home which served also as a hospital and clinic, where her mother spent many long days.

It’s a striking image, this smoldering hill, though susceptible to portentousness. Even a very good writer of lesser gifts might have worried it toward the gothic. Gordimer doesn’t interfere with it, pretending there is nothing deliberate about it’s inclusion in her narrative, calling it no more than a memory, one among many which occurred to her in the course of writing. Attuned, as she writes in her Nobel lecture, “to the state of being manifest in life around her”, she knows this Hades-like image is organic to her theme and will pay its own way. The title of the essay is “A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape”. A reader with even cursory awareness knows full well what that mountain of hidden burning alludes to —in South Africa.

When she wrote this, the great novels, The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, A Sport of Nature, were still to come.

imageWhile the tributes which have flooded the internet and news publications in the past two weeks all get around to acknowledging what a towering writer she was, it was her activism that tends to make the headlines and to frame whatever else is said of her. The value claimed for her novels and stories, as good as they are, is largely extra-literary. She is routinely revered as a kind of warrior writer who courageously laid bare the viciousness of apartheid. Arguably the highest compliment she was ever paid came from the South African government, years before the Nobel, when it banned three of her books. It is put forth as as a testament to her greatness that she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see upon release from prison. “But she was a writer first,” the articles protest, then back up what should be self-evident with examples of her post-apartheid subject matter and her vigorous contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. With intentions to the contrary, her life often comes off sounding like a kind of bourgeois parable illustrating that one can still find fulfillment in life’s third act, even after everything has changed. Imagine Samuel Beckett requiring such a defense.

imageSusan Sontag issued a corrective to this view of her in 2004 in the inaugural Nadine Gordimer Lecture, the last speech she ever gave: “But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) In the end — that is to say, from the point of view of literature — Nadine Gordimer is not representative of anybody or anything but herself. That, and the noble cause of literature. Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.” In a kind of relay race among literary insiders, Sontag took her declaration that a writer’s primary task is to write well from Gordimer’s Nobel lecture in which she, in turn attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez the belief that “The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.” (His actual words, spoken to a journalist friend, were “In reality the duty of a writer — the revolutionary duty, if you like — is that of writing well.” The implication of each is slightly different, but holds to the idea that writing is a moral act.)

A great writer is like a thief, stealing from the treasury of the world’s wordless and recondite state of being more meaning for her words than is their legal due. Among living writers, Alice Munro is one of the most light-fingered, stashing more significance into the hidden pockets of her pokerfaced sentences than most writers acquire by honest means in the space of a paragraph. Gordimer was like this. She was more cerebral by half than Munro. She was more at home with artifice – Toni Morrison is a closer relative in this regard – taking occasional well-judged flights from realism. For example, Munro would never write a story in the form of an answer to Franz Kafka’s famous “Letter to His Father” from the father himself, one deceased to another. Nor would she gather Susan Sontag, Edward Said, and Anthony Sampson, all of them dead, for colloquy at a Chinese restaurant. But like Munro she could smuggle a mother lode of emotional impact and intellectual weight right under her readers’ noses and deposit her hoard on the page. Listen to how she packs away a startling wealth into this unassuming description of a two-room township house in her story “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living”:

The front door of the house itself opens into a room that has been subdivided by greenish brocade curtains whose colour had faded and embossed pattern worn off before they were discarded in another kind of house.

First off, a subdivided room was, by definition, once whole. That someone decided on this make-do solution makes the brocade curtains a comedown even before we learn they are faded and worn. They’re not green, mind you, but “greenish”. Of course they are second hand, who would do this with something nice? But it’s that ending, “discarded in another kind of house”, that makes you realize what she’s pulled on you after its far too late to man your defenses. What kind of house? The least that can be said is that it was one in which brocade curtains could be discarded. Like the smoldering coal dump haunting the edges of her childhood, the almost off-handed pitting of a township house with its second-hand dividing curtains against “another kind of house”, without ever mentioning the dynamics between blacks and whites in a society hideously deformed by apartheid, lends an emotional impact anything more explicit would subvert. In the span of a phrase, it becomes that kind of story.

A sentence like this functions as a hologram, not only of the story itself, but, of the mind of it’s writer. Gordimer thought more, and more complexly, about the world she observed than most of us could ever hope to. But, as can happen with genius, the complexity of her mind occasionally ran away with her capacity to make it’s products syntactically approachable. In this passage from her meditation on the craft of writing, “The Dwelling Place of Words” (2001), we hear her thoughts chasing each other into a logjam of a sentence:

And in the increasing interconsciousness, the realization that what happens somewhere in the world is just one manifestation of what is happening subliminally or going to happen in one way or another, affect in one way or another, everywhere – the epic of emigration, immigration, the world-wandering of new refugees and exiles, political and economic, for example – is a fatal linkage, not ‘fatal’ in the deathly sense, but in that of inescapable awareness in the writer.

It all makes perfect sense on about the third pass. All clauses are resolved, all modifiers firmly attached, indeed all the requirements of an English sentence are fulfilled, but the reader has nonetheless endured a moment of terror, sure he’s made a fatal turn in the labyrinth and will not escape. But what the reader gets, even on a first pass, is a kind of urgency, an imperative  that he be given a full account of what is important. We hear the shameful secrets of the times, the pressures and distortions of society weighing on her moral sensibility, and there is so much to say about it. If she could stack the words on top of each other she would.

imageIn 2006 a biography came out which purported to tell the truth about Nadine Gordimer. It was a biography she had authorized. And then rescinded, going so far as to block its US release. The hypocrisy of a white liberal woman, her unconscious racism, an affair – these were some of its haul, confiscated, supposedly, from the iconic status of its subject. Among the biographer’s claims was that certain elements of the essay “A South African Childhood” had been fabricated. And so a seed of doubt is planted: is the subterranean smolder of the coal dump in a land on the edge of igniting factual, or a storyteller’s invention? And, more at issue, is this important? It seems to me that serious readers, by this late date, are grown up enough to know better than to troll autobiography for facts. What kind of reader would turn to, say, Garcia Marquez, for a balanced reckoning? This does not evade the question. Only, how one feels about the answer, disillusioned, vindicated, or more or less unaffected, will depend on what one is reading for, news about the horse from the horse’s mouth, or a brilliant and complex woman’s passionate engagement with her subject and it’s telling.

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On Why I Haven’t Posted Anything for Two Months

Most important in all of life to honor what we’re drawn to. To honor the being drawn. Food, books, sex, a hermit’s life, whatever it might be, we can measure the shriveling of our spirits against the scope of our self-denials. And so, because I’ve never been able to stop picking at the plate of Christianity served to me at birth, even as my taste for belief has waned, I went on pilgrimage.

I spent the last two weeks of May in the UK, stalking Christianity from the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides to the tidal island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria, then turning south to Jarrow, and finally arriving at Durham. St. Columba, St. Aiden, St. Hild, St. Wilfred and St. Cuthbert had all been unknown to me before. Now these shadowy figures, who lived roughly between the years 521 and 687, have staked a claim to my imagination – territory I’m happy to cede.

Nave of Durham Cathedral But it was a place rather than a person which drew me first and undid me at last. Above a bend in the river Wear rises Durham Cathedral. Several years ago, for reasons now lost to me, I became fascinated by the great English cathedrals, and Durham in particular. The images I saw of it’s immense nave flanked by massive Norman piers gouged with chevrons, spirals and diamonds, its twin west towers, more fortress-like than holy, and more believably hewn from the promontory above the river than built on it, compelled a love wanting consummation. Now, having consummated, I can say, without fear of overstatement, that it is the most extraordinary building I have ever set foot in.

imageBecause reading is my way, I spent the month and a half before leaving and the month since my return immersed in the literature of this time and place. I read several extended essays about Durham Cathedral, including an extraordinary one from 1887 by Mariana Griswold (Mrs. Schuyler) Van Rensselaer, America’s first female architecture critic. I read a history of Holy Island (as Lindisfarne is sometimes called) and a gorgeous and scholarly book on the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated Gospel book from the early 700′s, second in renown only to the the Book of Kells. I read Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, which, scintillating title aside, reads like a sequence of fairy tales. I read a collection called The Age of Bede, which features the Lives of St. Cuthbert and St. Wilfred, and the fanciful “Voyage of St. Brendan”. I read John Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God, which contrasts the Christianity of the Celts with the competing, and ultimately dominating, Roman version. I read two novels by the great Fredrick Buechner, Godric, and Brendan, about two relatively obscure saints whose lives nonetheless encapsulate the earthiness and earnestness which seemed to characterize the religious fervor of that time and place. I’m currently reading Adomnán of Iona’s Life of  St. Columba. Perhaps this will sate me. At least for now.

imageIf calling the come-to-Jesus moment I had with my own bookshelves around the time I began preparations for traveling to the UK a “parallel pilgrimage” is rather too precious, it nonetheless came from a similar place: the need for a shift in perspective. In my February post, “On the Meaning of Books” (http://thestockholmshelf.com/2014/02/on-the-meaning-of-books/) I wrote that each of the thousand plus books in my collection carries “a condensation of emotion” unrelated to its specific content. I also wrote that a large portion of these books belonged to my partner Sam who passed away a year ago in May, and that holding on to them was, in the land of magical thinking, a way of holding on to him. “There are books in the house I will never read,” I wrote, “a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.” Conversely, sometimes honoring what one is drawn to entails the release of excess. Having too much of anything inevitably becomes about the having, obscuring the beauty of the thing itself, the thing which draws. I said I had over a thousand books. In retrospect, it was more in the neighborhood of three thousand. Somewhere between a third and a half of them had to go.

Many books turned out to be obvious deportees. How we managed to accumulate no less than seven books on English usage, eight French textbooks, four copies of Invisible Man and two complete copies of Remembrance of Things Past in the Moncrieff translation I’ll never know. I didn’t need both the collected and selected poems of Auden. And really, will my life ever be long enough to read Sacajawea, no matter how good a read people say it is?

Others required harder choices. Which of the ten anthologies of American poetry should I keep? How many Chinese cookbooks does one need, or which of the eight Julia Childs? Hard indeed was the choice to let go of Jane Smiley’s early novel The Greenlanders. It was one of the first gifts I gave to Sam and I had written an inscription to him on the fly leaf. I knew that I would likely never read this probably very good book. But what would it mean to send it on? After much going back and forth about it, I realized that there was nothing that it could be a record of that hadn’t already left more indelible traces in my heart than I could ever count.

imageMy friend Nathan came over several times during this process to nominate some titles for the used book store where he works, but my collection was so idiosyncratic that this amounted to a relatively small portion. So I threw a book give-away party. I invited friends who I knew were readers, prepared a feast, then told them they couldn’t eat until they had each claimed a healthy stack. Whatever was left would be donated. Bittersweet at first, but ultimately a joy to see my friend Richard carry away Sam’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (my French will never be up for that) and my old Maud translation of War and Peace.

In the early monastic life of the British Isles there was a tradition of sacrifice known as the peregrinatio, or “Pilgrims of Christ”. It was one of the holiest callings a monk could receive, requiring that he give away his few belongings and set off from the monastery which had nurtured and sustained him, leaving his kin and his country, often never to return, and go only where Christ led him. Adomnán, I read, believed this was St. Columba’s purpose in sailing from Ireland to found the monastic community on Iona which was to have untold influence on the religious life of Britain for centuries to come. Without subtracting from the weight of this great call as received by certain remarkable people, it is, in some obvious ways, the most ordinary of all callings, heard by each of us at the dawn of consciousness. From the moment we are able to make the choice to extend ourselves toward what draws us or pull back in fear, or prudence, we are learning how to respond. Our past, our security, country and kin, it all gets left one way or another, whether grasped after or risen from, and the best way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans. And perhaps the call is less difficult than we fear. I’m not sad I gave those books away.

Here ends my explanation as to why I haven’t posted anything for the past two months. I expect that in July things will settle down a bit and I’ll get back on track. Look for a review of Claude Simon’s luminous The Trolley.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez: In Memoriam

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez, March 6 1927 – April 17, 2014

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

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The Solitude of Octavio Paz: Centenary of a Mexican Giant

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I.

A house, a garden,
are not places:
they spin, they come and go.
Their apparitions open
another space
in space,
another time in time.

( from “A Tale of Two Gardens”)

An early indication of Octavio Paz’s affinity for surrealism came when, as a boy, he saw a painting depicting vines winding through the walls of a house, and took it for realism. He would have seen nothing out of the ordinary in such an image. Gardens, he knew, grew junglelike, and walls collapse; he was used to the strangeness of sunlight streaming through collapsed roofs into rooms only recently occupied. Such was part of the regular progression of days living in his grandfather’s house. The old world was passing, taking the house with it.

Such passings had happened before in Mixoac; the village, on the outskirts of Mexico City, had a small Aztec pyramid, a reminder of what was lost when Quetzalcoatl took on the form of Hernán Cortés and returned to Tenochtitlan. The parish church dated from the sixteenth century, a visible reminder of Mexico’s three-centuries as a Spanish colony. Many houses in Mixoac had been standing long before the French invaded, mid-nineteenth century, and set their Austrian rag doll, Maximilian, on the stage-set throne of the Second Mexican Empire. The Paz house, with its crumbling rooms and library of more than six thousand volumes, had been a summer residence purchased by Grandfather Ireneo, trophy of his success as a novelist and journalist loyal to Porfirio Diaz. Diaz, three decades a dictator, progressive to the idea of Mexico, oppressive to Mexicans, his time too had passed. Only late in life, and very late in Diaz’s reign, did Ireneo renounce him for the democratic, but weak, Francisco Madero. By the time Octavio was born, it was Pancho Villa’s time, and Emiliano Zapata’s, the radical revolutionaries.

As one after another of the abandoned rooms turned to rubble, presenting the puzzle of an ever shifting perimeter, he learned what changes, what remains. The arguments, for example, remained. It was The Revolution. Grandfather Ireneo, would go round and round with his son, Octavio Paz Solorzano, who in 1914, the year of his only son’s birth, had become a Zapatista. Battles over the fate of the country, echoing across the Valley of Mexico and beyond, echoed, too, through the ever diminishing rooms of that house in Mixoac. The boy – what could he do then with the dialectic of reform and revolution, of history and myth? – witnessed all in silence. There was, in any case, that library.

II.

there’s nothing in front of me, only a moment
salvaged from a dream tonight of coupled
images dreamed, a moment chiseled
from the dream, torn from the nothing
of this night, lifted by hand, letter
by letter, while time, outside, gallops
away, and pounding at the doors of my soul
is the world with its blood thirsty schedules,

(from “Sunstone”)

imagePaz’s career-long study of the Mexican character included regular digressions on the character of the United States. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, his masterpiece, he writes, “North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions.” On one level, he is addressing the perennial question of the Latin American intellectual, the problem of the necessarily fraught relationship with the United States. But Paz is a supreme virtuoso of levels, and on another, deeper one, he is talking about two radically different approaches to time: historical time verses mythic time. Chronological verses cyclical, or – a favorite spacial metaphor of his – time as a spiral. It’s a preoccupation so deep with him that, whatever else he may be writing about, he’s probably writing about this. In Labyrinth, he returns frequently to the fiesta as the emblematic cultural gesture of the Mexican people, in which “time is transformed to a mythical past or a total present.” This concept of time is associated with societies of the past, and so called “traditional” societies. It is also associated with childhood. He is often at pains to counter the hegemony of cultures which privilege historical time, with its concomitant notion of “progress”, over mythic time, as in a passage quoted (but unfortunately un-cited) by Nadine Gordimer in her wonderful meditation, “Octavio Paz: Poet-Archer”:

Every time the Europeans and their North American descendants have encountered other cultures and civilizations, they have called them backward. This is not the first time a race or a civilization has imposed its forms on others, but it is certainly the first time one has set up as a universal ideal, not a changeless principle, but change itself. The Muslim or Christian based the alien’s inferiority on a difference of faith: for the Greeks or Toltecs, he was inferior because he was a barbarian, a Chichemecan. Since the eighteenth century, Africans or Asiatics have been inferior because they were not modern. The Western world has identified itself with change and time, and there is no modernity other than that of the West…the new Heathen Dogs can be counted in the millions…they are called ‘underdeveloped peoples’.

imageThis ambiguous notion of modernity needled him early on. As a young man he was determined to become a “modern” poet. But no sooner was the thought formed than the questions arose. What, exactly, is modernity? “There are as many types of modernity as there are societies,” he writes in his Nobel Lecture. “Each society has its own. The word’s meaning is as uncertain and arbitrary as the period that precedes it, the Middle Ages. If we are modern when compared to medieval times, are we perhaps the Middle Ages of a future modernity? Is a name that changes with time a real name?” Modernity was, for him, inextricably tied to the present. But, as awareness of the wider world grew in him – of great events in Europe, of the progress of the United States – he began to feel that Mexico had been separated from the present, that “the present” was “the time lived by others, the English, the French, the Germans. It was the time of New York, Paris, London.” It was to this feeling of expulsion from the present that he attributed his drive to write poetry, for poetry is in love with the instant, dislodges it from sequential time, and fixes it in an eternal present. Poetry lives in mythic time.

III.

The vegetation of disaster
ripens beneath the ground
They are burning
millions of bank notes
in the Bank of Mexico
On corners and in plazas
on the wide pedestals of the public squares
the Fathers of the Civic Church
a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
neither eagles nor jaguars
* * *
We are surrounded
I have gone back to where I began
Did I win or lose?
(
You ask
what laws rule “success” and “failure”?
The songs of the fishermen float up
from the unmoving riverbank
                                                     Wang Wei to the Prefect Chang
from his cabin on the lake
                                               But I don’t want
an intellectual hermitage
in San Angel or Coyoacán)
                                                 All is gain
if all is lost

(from “Return”)

From his position as Mexico’s foremost intellectual, Octavio Paz appraised the hobbled post-Revolution Mexican intelligentsia. The government, eager to legitimize itself, in the eyes of the world and, most especially, its own, enlisted the nation’s poets, novelists, sociologists and philosophers to be aides and advisors to the generals and political bosses. They were assigned to fortify the diplomatic service and the various facets of public administration. Their roll was not, as in Europe or the United States, to discuss public affairs from outside the halls of power where their greatest strength was their critical freedom, but to fulfill their civic duty. In The Labyrinth of Solitude he enumerates the difficulties of their situation:

Many aspects of their work have been admirable, but they have lost their independence and their criticism has become excessively diluted, out of prudence or Machiavellism. The Mexican intelligentsia as a whole has not been able to use the weapons of the intellectual – criticism, examination, judgement – or has not learned how to wield them effectively. As a result, the spirit of accommodation – a natural product, it would appear, of all revolutions that turn into governments – has invaded almost every area of public activity.

This passage (indeed the whole book) is a remarkable achievement. Ilan Stavans has pointed out that he was able to fashion in this book a highly elusive voice, at once an insider’s voice and an outsider’s. He was, himself, enlisted into diplomatic service, first in France, then India, thereby numbering among the very intelligentsia he criticized. Paz, it seems, understood that writing as an outsider made possible the critical distance, but that the discernment this allows has value only in as much as one uses it to scrutinize oneself as an insider. Eighteen years after The Labyrinth of Solitude was published, Tlateloco gave him a chance to embody this voice and give Mexico a new kind of intellectual.

image1968 was to be the year of the Mexico City Olympic Games. Around the world, it was also the year of student protests. Prague, Berkeley, Paris. Then, in July, because of a vicious police action against a student disturbance which, until that moment, hadn’t even been political, Mexico City. A protest against the police action was put down by an even more virulent action ordered by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. At the end of July, a small group of leftists met to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Díaz Ordaz ordered them similarly suppressed. His fear was that such groups were poisoning the minds of the students, threatening the peace which must reign for the Olympic Games that Fall. The situation escalated. Soon all the schools went on strike. The government responded by sending the army to attack them. The problem Díaz Ordaz had, himself, created rocked the nation. On October 2nd over ten thousand college and high school students gathered in Tlateloco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas to peacefully protest the PRI government’s actions. The army arrived and fired on the crowd, initiating a massacre which continued into the night. The next day, Octavio Paz resigned his post as ambassador to India, a measure of dissent unheard of for a Mexican intellectual. His resignation was applauded worldwide.

IV.

Enormous desert and secret fountain
scale of silence and tree of screams
body that unfolds like a sail
body that enfolds like an ember
heart I tear out from the night
scorpion fixed to my chest
seal of blood on my years as a man

(from “Sway”)

imageMy friend Nathan, who translates Spanish literature, texted me recently as part of an ongoing exchange we’ve been having about Paz: “I watched a television debate between Paz and Vargas Llosa the other night,” he wrote. “I don’t know that I’d like to be friends with either. Vargas Llosa seems like that popular kid at school whose overbite is even perfect. They both seemed used to being taken very, very seriously. Or, to put it another way: Paz looked unused to being disagreed with, and Vargas Llosa looked like he’d never agreed with anyone in his life.”

It is well known that later in his life, Paz engaged in quarrels with other writers, especially those ranking alongside him in stature, Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, and the poet José Emilio Pacheco, and, most famously, Carlos Fuentes. Nathan’s observation is astute; in spite of his strongly democratic ideals, his ultimately dictatorial constitution did not easily suffer dissent. Any writer wishing to be published in his highly influential literary magazine, Vuelta, had to, as they say, shine his shoes. Since the 1960s he had been a ruling member of what novelist José Agustín called the Mexican “literary mafia”, and as the years went by the shadow he cast continued to grow. Between 1977 and 1990 he cleaned up on the literary prize circuit, winning the Jerusalem Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Neustadt Prize, and the Nobel Prize, along with a host of others. He was, incontestably, a national treasure. For this very reason, many felt he had lost touch with the vibrant new antiestablishment artistic trends and saw him as a friend of the status quo. There were even rumors that the Nobel had been a gift from President Salinas, leader of the very PRI party he had condemned with such bitter eloquence after Tlateloco. Ilan Stavans, in his short, brilliant book, Octavio Paz: A Meditation, writes,

Paz’s standing as Mexico’s foremost intellectual was in jeopardy: he was a poet manqué, no longer a valiant Ulysses. For doesn’t the intellectual need autonomy to function? In 1984, on his seventieth birthday, Televisa devoted a series of programs to his work. From that moment on his face appeared regularly on state and private television, and diplomats and academics sought his advice and favor. His home was a required stop for overseas celebrities visiting the country. Yet, in becoming the government’s favorite denizen, he also, in the eyes of many, lost his freedom.

Then, without excusing Paz, Stavans writes, with a levelness and wisdom worthy of Paz at his best, “But aren’t we all blinded by the urgencies of the day? Isn’t the road he followed, from rebellion to consent, a road much traveled?” Gardens grow junglelike, walls collapse. Paz was an indisputable giant. He was also a man.

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Octavio Paz, 1914 – 1998

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On the Meaning of Books

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A Facebook friend recently posted a picture contrasting a formidably stocked bookshelf with a Kindle. The caption read “This (meaning the books) will always be more impressive to own than this (the Kindle)”. My reptilian brain threw off a little biochemical spark and before I could be even a pretender to consciousness I’d tapped the screen of my iPad to produce that laziest of communications, the Facebook “like”. Not so different, really, from one of Skinner’s pigeons pecking at a bell. My reward, instead of birdseed, was a highly ephemeral self-congratulatory glow. I could imagine myself, for a few seconds now forever lost to me, as having put in my oar on the right side of a minor cultural debate. But, like most such shallow gratifications – depressing, really, in the ease of obtaining – this one appealed to a baser need than I pretended. This piece of Pinterest candy had tapped my endless, often unconscious pursuit of personal impressiveness. In this case, impressiveness of the most illusory kind –arrived at by owning stuff. Books, qua books, had been stripped of meaning.

imageThis is always so. I own over a thousand books. Every one of them means something to me quite beyond itself as a book. The Illiad, The Interpretation of Dreams, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fear of Flying each carry a condensation of emotion which has little to do with the battles, the theories, the fabulist flights or crashed societal boundaries contained between it’s covers. Each attends a memory – of how and when it arrived in the collection, where it was purchased, who gave it to me – which in turn presides over a small court of other memories. In the case of most of my books – the ones I’ve read – I remember where I was when I read them, the state, the city, where the airplane was heading, the hotel room. The Agony and the Ecstasy was my reading material to and imagefrom Florida back in 1995. Between alligators in the Everglades and Hemingway’s three-toed cats in Key West, I was in thrall to Michelangelo’s weathering of hurricane Medici-Savanarola-Pope Julius II to produce his supreme art. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus will always recall to me the improbable little used book shop in Door County, Wisconsin, where I was traveling with Sam, my soon-to-be partner, during Fall break of my Junior year of college. He was wooing me at the time, and the book, with its austere black cover and faded gold lettering on the spine, was a token. André Gide’s The Counterfeiters I will always associate with the little park a block from our house where, over twenty years ago, I sat in dappled shade at the one splintery wooden picnic table, turning its subversive pages, marveling at young Bernard, on the lam from his bourgeois parents, in bed with Olivier and naked save for his short day-shirt.

imageThe most valuable memories my books hold, if also the most elusive, are of the person I was when I first read them. Who I hoped to be, who I feared I was, my loves, joys, angers, sexual fantasies, knowledge of people and the world, my spiritual life, all have shifted over time, and my books are like markers – bookmarks – indicating passages of my unwritten life. A couple of years ago I reread Wedding Song, by Naguib Mahfouz, and found it to be a very slight book. But with the merest mental effort I’m back sitting on the bed at a Super 8 in Sioux City, having just survived my Sophomore year at college, finishing that novel for the first time. My grandparents, who had come to fetch me home, had the foresight to reserve separate rooms, so I had space to feel my youthfully ardent sense of loss in private. As they slept on the other side of the wall, oblivious to the rapidly morphing creature they remembered as their grandson, I turned the last page and burst into the most spontaneous tears I can remember having shed. More than having read that book, I felt the book had read me. I don’t expect to ever read it again. Neither will I ever be parted from it.

The vast majority of my collection I still must clear my throat before calling mine. They are the books that came with Sam. Not a dowry precisely, more like a sprawling, cantankerous, and rather brilliant family. When I first knew him, his copies of the complete works of Sigmund Freud were already laced with yellow highlights, underlines and marginalia. His intellect was a yawning chasm into which fell books on psychoanalysis and metaphysical remedies, R. D. Laing tumbling in with books on flower essences and chakra healing. He swallowed, Python-like, biographies of Stravinsky, Haydn, Freud, the memoirs of Liv Ullman and Elias Cannetti, and huge swaths of twentieth century French literature, not only Sartre, Camus and Proust, but Jean Genet, Jean Anouilh, Colette and Alain Fournier. I remember well several of his reading projects –all of Virginia Woolf, for example, and all of Nabokov. He never got around to all of the great Russian novels, only the dozen or so largest. He read War and Peace while traveling one summer, keeping a mason jar of vodka near by, believing, whimsically, that one should have vodka at hand when reading Tolstoy. His mind floated effortlessly between Shakespeare plays and the poetic little books on relationships by Merle Shain. From Courage, My Love, to Love’s Labors Lost. He nurtured a layman’s passion for neuroscience, acquiring dozens of books on the human brain, many of them graduate textbooks. A few he read cover to cover, but a preponderance were valued as symbols, a kind of externalization of his enthusiasm. All this is to say nothing of his rather obsessive collection of cookbooks.

Since Sam’s death in May of 2013, I’ve tried, in fits and starts, to bring some order to this profligate and proliferated family and it’s occasionally warring factions. The steady accrual of books over so many years, first double-shelved, then stacked, then piled, turned our personal library into the bibliographic equivalent of Rio’s favela. My hope is that someday it can resemble, say, Zurich. But this requires pruning. And pruning is difficult when each book carries a surfeit of meaning. In this case, owning overflowing shelves of books represents, not personal impressiveness, but a person, held against hope of holding, himself once overflowing. There are books in the house I will never read, a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.

A month or so after Sam died, my friend Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works and which has, itself, a bit of the favela look. “We just got in a children’s book by Mauriac. Are you interested?” The question was rhetorical. François Mauriac was among the first novelists Sam introduced me to, and he has remained one of my great favorites. Until Nathan’s text, I hadn’t been aware that he’d written children’s books. One would not have guessed; in one high-strung, melancholy novel after another spiritually shattered men and women turn from a deeply Catholic idea of grace, opting instead to claw or crawl their way through their terminal sentences in a Bordeaux suffocating under sour grapes. Hardly suggestive of a creative temperament edifying to delicate young minds. I wondered at first if Nathan was being cute; he might as easily have texted “we’ve got this book here on cake decorating by Idi Amin. Interested?”

imageThe book turned out to be a strange little jewel called The Holy Terror, about a spoiled little boy who meets his match in a canny governess. P. L. Travers and Christianna Brand traversed similar ground more whimsically in Mary Poppins and Nurse Matilda (Nanny McPhee in the film adaptation), but this one bears Mauriac’s singular spiritual stamp. In all the best books of this ilk the reader quickly deduces that the child’s wretched behavior is symptomatic rather than essential and that the devil is really in the variously failed representatives of adulthood. No different here. Earnest, the eponymous “Terror”, is a dreary little bully with a whole town wrapped around his finger. He elicits sympathy rather than abhorrence because the grown-ups in his life are really children themselves, victims of the small-mindedness endemic to the provincial wealthy. His father and maternal grandmother, for example, have not spoken to each other for over two years except through the intermediary of the old nurse, all because the grandmother once refused to heed the father’s order to cease chattering in deference to his pleasure in eating a meal of ortolans. The nurse’s childishness is that she thinks nothing of this. Earnest’s mother died when he was born, and one can speculate that this blinkered and blithering little group never regained their bearings. So, when Madamoiselle Thibaud arrives, the eighteenth governess in three years, she conspires to free herself of the children she can do nothing about and focus her energy on the one she can.

imageThis is where Mauriac’s particular genius starts turning. The townspeople wonder how this young woman could so quickly convince Earnest’s caretakers to go on holiday and leave the boy in her clutches. Her apparent lack of a past indicates to them that she clearly has one, and her eventual success in helping Earnest reform only serves to confirm them in their prejudices. The situation devolves, as it so often does, to a matter of economics. The town butcher reflects, “It does me no good to have the Chevalier house shut up and the Terror starved, when he used to eat enough meat for four because he can’t stand vegetables. There aren’t very many houses in Millasse where they eat meat twice a day. Yes, the more I think about it…. I hadn’t reckoned on being out of pocket. So if she thinks we’ll stand by and make a martyr out of the Terror…. After all, we’re all very fond of him at heart. He’s one of the curiosities of Millasse!”

One could wish for a bit more fantasy in Mauriac’s morality tale, not necessarily of the magic parasol variety, but playfulness of some kind. Still, he manages to transcend the genre by demonstrating, not just the virtue of personal efficacy, not just adult culpability, but how a society comes to depend on its own malaise.

As I read, I found myself identifying with Madam Thibaud, the outsider coming into town, bewildered by the absurdity of those who would be her betters, but whose native self-possession kicks in, enabling her to see what is needed and to act, even through her own self-doubts. The petty crabbiness of the gossips only increases her aura of compassion and rectitude. Her bookshelves, you could be sure, would resemble Zurich. I have been just like her, I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me remember when. Which leads me to the conclusion that, once again, my hunger for personal impressiveness, aka vanity, dictated my response.

imageHow much more like Earnest, the “Terror”, I felt, at loose ends as to how to behave in a world bereft of Sam, where no one knew how to adequately respond to my needs, because my needs had grown chaotic and contradictory. Like Earnest, I felt out of control, without boundaries, and bullying, certainly to my own psyche. God forbid I would be so to others, who only knew how to do their best for me in the face of my loss, and, in many cases, their own. I was grieving, as it seems clear now that Earnest was. His name itself is a repudiation of the saving irony that so often gets us through our tough stretches, the irony which I longed for but could not find in the loss of Sam, whole and entire.

One afternoon I took my book to a coffee house. Café Max is a place I go occasionally, but only occasionally, in part because it’s not convenient to where I mostly pursue my life, and partly because Max likes to talk. Max and his partner Yuki have created a space which reaches for Euro-Asian chic. Furniture, not notably uncomfortable, from the various eras of modernism post 1950’s is arranged in clean lines and tasteful groups. Low black bookshelves and end tables are neatly appointed with books and magazines on art and fashion. Coffee is served in simple glass mugs on small lacquered trays complete with miniature cream pitchers and lumps of sugar. His gently over-priced menu includes items featuring arugula, fig preserves and chèvre, and he gets his excellent pastries from a respected local purveyor. Black and white Nouvelle Vague experiments, like Last Year at Marienbad, are occasionally projected silently high on one of the white walls which would likely discolor in protest should typical coffeehouse art be hung. In fact, Max bitterly resents his store being called a coffeehouse. “We’re a café,” he whines, “not a coffeehouse. If you want a coffeehouse, go to Starbucks.”

imageMax is a fiery little extrovert of Puerto Rican decent. Less delicate than worrisomely thin, his dress – expensive casual – belies his fashion designer past. He has taken a liking to me, and during slow stretches will pull up a chair and start talking, mostly about his shop, the often benighted customers, the importance of having eye-candy behind the counter, and the apparently unrelated difficulty in finding baristas who will work as he wants. He has grand visions for Café Max. “I want it to be a nationally known destination for people in search of higher vibrations. Intellectuals. Artists.” He’s asked me to refer a harpist who might come and play on Thursday evenings, and whether I would serve as a Charlie Rose-style interviewer for a series on people doing interesting things in the community, to be held in the café’s basement space. “Interesting, Max. Why not?”

When he saw The Holy Terror on my table, he was overcome with excitement. “This is a very special book!” As he flipped through the pages, cooing over the ink drawings illustrating several of the books moments, I asked him, unbelieving, if he had read it. “Oh, I don’t have to. I can just see this is a very special book. You don’t see this kind of thing. I’ve got to get one for here!” I told him I thought he’d have a hard time finding a copy. “I’ll find one,” he assured me. “Its perfect for Café Max.”

Who was I to contradict? Books, qua books after all –no such thing.

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