Friday, 31 August 2012

Philip Roth: Exit Ghost

There always comes a time when we realize that that writer whom we thought was the greatest that ever lived, isn’t actually. We readers have all experienced those short-lived deifications of our favourite writers. I used to think Dostoevsky was the greatest writer in history, until I read beyond Crime and Punishment. Gabriel García Márquez was the greatest writer ever too, for the duration of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then I read something else by him. The more I read of Borges’ short-stories the more it became clear the divine ecstasy I felt during Fictions was never going to repeat itself. And contrary to what I’d like to believe, not every José Saramago novel is as brilliant as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Perfection? Perhaps only Juan Rulfo can boast of such attribute: there’s no flaw to find in Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain. That is the glory of having written only two books in his lifetime. With Philip Roth I’m approaching that moment, after having read nineteen of his books, when I feel his best work is behind me already and only the leftovers remain for me to read. It’s disheartening, this moment of awareness.

Exit Ghost (2007), Philip Roth’s final instalment of the nine-part saga of Nathan Zuckerman, the irreverent writer who debuted in The Ghost Writer (1979), obviously disappoints every time it evokes the many better novels that precede it, but as a elegiac compendium of the saga’s man themes and anxieties, it’s a fitting end to Zuckerman’s literary career, which began, decades ago, with him masturbating in the studio of his role model, the writer E.I. Lonoff.

Nathan Zuckerman can’t masturbate anymore, he can’t even have sex. Impotent and incontinent, the septuagenarian novelist has been living in the woods, isolated from the world, for eleven years now, ever since he started receiving anonymous death threats (echoes of the extortionist from Zuckerman Unbound?). On a chance return to New York to try a new cure for his incontinence, the diaper-wearing, Zuckerman meets a ghost from his past – Amy Bellette, the young student he fleetingly saw, decades before, at the house of E.I. Lonoff. In the first Zuckerman novel, he imagined a fictional past for Amy that turned her into Anne Frank, survivor of the Holocaust and secretly living in American under a false alias. And Nathan of course wanted to have sex with her. Writing a hallucinatory fable about a young, aspiring Jewish writer fantasising about bedding Anne Frank, it’s no wonder Roth has been accused of being a self-loathing Jew and his writing anti-Semitic. Exit Ghost, however, is the Zuckerman novel least aware of its Jewishness, not counting the America trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain), where, truth be said, Zuckerman was the narrator of other people’s lives, and not the chronicler of his own seedy, chaotic, unglamorous existence. He had been missed.

After living like a hermit “with no sense of loss,” the feeling of ‘drought within’ him long since gone, and living outside not just ‘the great world but the present moment,” Zuckerman’s meeting with Amy encourages him to try to return to the world for one final attempt “at being suddenly like everybody else.” Through an ad offering to swap a New York apartment for a place in the woods, he meets Billy and Jamie Logan, a married couple of writers, who want to live in a quiet place in order to write and be safe from post-9/11 paranoia, Al-Qaeda and George W. Bush’s administration. But no sooner does Zuckerman meet Jamie than he starts imagining erotic scenarios where they flirt, and he even writes a play within the novel, using his usual strategy of converting reality into fiction in order to better control it, a method he had already used in The Counterlife to deal with the death of his brother, although this time, with his memory slowly eroding, not even words are enough to give a sense of stability to the writer who turned his life into art.

That Zuckerman is on diapers the reader already knew from the America trilogy. His dementia is a new development and pervades the novel. “Nothing is certain any longer that except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book. Because permanent groping is what it is now, a groping that goes well beyond the anxious for fluency that writing to begin with,” he laments, incapable of remembering words he jotted down only hours before. Zuckerman’s saga continues to be a process of brutal honesty about his frailty, both moral, mental and physical. Besides the powerlessness to control his own bladder, Zuckerman now wrestles with memory loss and with an upstart ruthless writer, Richard Kliman, who wants to make a name for himself by writing a scandalous biography of Lonoff, in which he reveals an incestuous affair he had with his older half-sister.

Exit Ghost is not Zuckerman’s final salvo. It’s a novel about growing old, about dying. It’s about Zuckerman’s failure to find meaning in the world, of seeing it being overrun by scum like Kliman, and retreating, after losing his mind and sexual vigour, into the books of his youth for a final ride with them. In particular he re-read and discusses at length Joseph Conrad’s “The Shadow-Line.” It’s a moving, depressing novel, full of melancholy, whose high point is when a writer with dementia talks with a woman dying from brain cancer. As such, the tone is elegiac and melancholy, closer to the sobriety of the America trilogy than the ribald absurdities of The Anatomy Lesson, with a Nathan on painkillers pretending to be a pornographer just to piss off a female taxi driver.

But this is also what I find most captivating about the novel, the way it’s a paler, weaker condensation of its predecessors’ themes, treating them with the diminished strength that matches Zuckerman’s own decline. Jamie, for instance, is an echo of Amy, but the fantasy he imagines for her has none of the forbidden daringness he created for Amy.
Zuckerman’s return to a New York he doesn’t feel at home in is a far cry from the cocky Zuckerman walking around it after achieving fame in Zuckerman Unbound. The memory loss that doesn’t let him work is not unlike the back pain he experiences in The Anatomy Lesson. And his ruminations about the Bush/Kerry presidential race, and putting it in its wider historical context, immediately reminds the reader of Zuckerman’s previous journeys through the big themes of American history – the civil rights movement, Vietnam, McCarthyism – that inform the America trilogy. Even his chase for half of a novel that Lonoff never completed is very similar to his earlier trip to Czechoslovakia to retrieve the manuscript of a dead Jewish writer, in The Prague Orgy. This is all to say that the reader benefits most from this novel if he has read the saga in its proper order.

Exit Ghost is also a novel about a paranoid and divided America. Watching Kerry’s defeat with Bill and Jamie allows Zuckerman, who’s given up voting, to reflect about history. Ironically he also acts as the memory of America, seeing the similarities between this event and others in the past, and being hardly affected by it because he’s been knocked around by history too much to have any illusions left. Billy and Jamie, instead, see the now as the defining moment of their lives, without consideration for how it articulates itself with what came before, literally seeing Bush’s victory as the end of history. Zuckerman is more worried about the age of the agélastes (1) that is descending upon him; not of Bush and his cronies but of humourless people like Jamie who lack irony, “who didn’t ever know how to say anything unseriously,” whose response to “the great world was ever anything but painfully intense.” Zuckerman, the great satirist, sees the world becoming devoid of irony. The world died before Zuckerman unlearned to live in it. It’s significant that in the play within the novel Zuckerman makes Jamie laugh a lot. “I laugh because I find things funny,” her alter ego says, transformed by the author through fiction, an example of the power of creative imagination.

This process of the creative imagination is another theme explored in the novel. Like all the other Zuckerman books, especially The Counterlife, this one is an ars poetica of Roth’s fiction. Roth, after all, is usually accused of writing himself into his novels and many see Zuckerman as his alter ego (2), although few appreciate how he uses this figure to meditate on the craft of the novelist. Improving and changing life, and not copying it, is what Zuckerman does, plainly stated since the day he imagined an unassuming student he had never seen before was Anne Frank. This ability to reshape life has never been understood, least of all by his family. His father and brother died hating him for allegedly using their lives as material for his novels. But as Zuckerman muses in The Counterlife, to expect his family to give him everything he needs to write a novel is like “expecting the woman next, whom you suspect of cheating on her husband, to reveal herself to you as Emma Bovary, and, what’s more, in Flaubert’s French.”

People don’t turn themselves over to writers as full-blown literary characters – generally they give you very little to go on and, after the impact of the initial impression, are barely any help at all. Most people (beginning with the novelist – himself, his family, just about everyone he knows) are absolutely unoriginal, and his job is to make them appear otherwise. It’s not easy.

So when Richard Kliman decides to write Lonoff’s biography which reveals his incestuous affair, Zuckerman flips. Although Kliman argues he wants to help rehabilitate the forgotten Lonoff, Zuckerman sneers at his good intentions. “Rehabilitation by disgrace” Nathan calls it, aware that he just wants a scandal to boost his own career. Even worse, Kliman’s only evidence that the incest happened comes from the unfinished novel. This strikes a chord with Zuckerman because he too has often been accused of things being true just because they’re in his novels. On a higher level, this is what many think of Roth’s novels, mere romans à clef in which Zuckerman plays him.

Like Lonoff who will be remembered as the author who transferred his incestuous affair with his half-sister into fiction, Roth also runs the risk of being remembered as the author who wrote sexual fantasies about his mother in Portnoy’s Complaint. This novel was a turning point in his career, not least because it was his first major success, but also because the stupidity of people who insisted in seeing Roth’s life in it made him start blurring the line between life and fiction, banking on the gullibility of readers and critics who saw the novel as thinly-disguised autobiography. When Kliman calls Lonoff’s novel “a tormented confession disguised as a novel,” Zuckerman replies, “Unless it’s a novel disguised as a tormented confession,” a perfect description of Portnoy’s Complaint, a long rambling confession made by a Jewish man to his psychiatrist. Zuckerman is sensitive to ‘biographical reductivism,’ as Amy calls it at one point, and instead defends the merits of the creative power of imagination, although one can also read it as an act of self-defence.

But I wonder if his defence of imagination doesn’t hinge also on his lament for the death of irony. For an un-ironical world is a world incapable of seeing things through fable, metaphor, capable only of seeing things literally, unable to appreciate humour and artifice, a world where non-fiction sells more than fiction, as it currently does, as if people have a deficit of reality in their lives and no longer have use for fantasy. Exit Ghost is not just Nathan Zuckerman’s elegy to Nathan Zuckerman, it’s also a warning about the future of the novel. Perhaps this is also the reason why I see so many references to classical American literature in it – his cabin in the woods, evoking Walden; returning to New York feeling like Rip Van Winkle after waking up from his twenty-year-old sleep. It’s a novel of nostalgia if the references didn’t direct one to death, age, seclusion, alienation. As far Roth’s novels go, this may be the most desperate one.

Fully aware of how weak this novel is compared to Roth’s previous efforts, it is however much recommended, with the caveat that reading the worthwhile saga of Zuckerman in order first will greatly improve it and make many of the themes here more poignant and clearer.

1 Rabelais, if Milan Kundera is to be believed (and he always should be! He wasn’t a police informant, honest! If he says he wasn’t, I believe him, and everything else is just mean-spirited lies.), invented the word agélaste, meaning people who don’t know how to laugh.

2 This argument always ignores novels like When She was Good, Our Gang, The Great American Novel, Letting Go, Sabbath’s Theater…

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A Wislawa Szymborska Poemarium

The word doesn’t exist, I know, but it really should. Poemarium, I mean. Such a beautiful and useful word, similar to the Portuguese poemário, a collection of poems. (1) The most useful words are never available in a language. Maybe that’s what a language is, all the wrong words people need in their lives. But I digress.

Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet, passed away last February. Writing about poetry is difficult, which is why I avoid it so much. Szymborska’s also a poet writing in Polish and being read by a Portuguese reader in English, in Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baránczak’s translations, which makes it impossible for me to truly appreciate her poetic language. Although I can’t judge the translations against the original Polish, they have given me a lot of pleasure, moved me, and made me think, which is what I only ask from literature.

I had the good fortune of discovering her poetry some time before her death. I can’t explain why, but for me there’s always a different, more intimate, relationship between reader and author when we still read them in life, a feeling, egocentric perhaps, that we are closer, sharing the same time. I first read her poems when, after living on a diet of novels for years, I felt an inexplicable urge to read poetry; it was the time when I first read Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Carlos Drummond, Harry Martinson, George Seferis, Jaroslav Seifert, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Mário Cesariny, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, Octavio Paz, and of all those poets Wislawa Szymborska was the one I liked the most. And yet at a first glance there’s nothing remarkable about her poetry. Borges talks somewhere of intellectual poets and of poets who had ordinary ideas, more images than ideas. (2) He couldn’t, however, conceive poetry without emotion. And this is what I feel with Szymborska’s poetic language, emotion in everything she writes.

I love Szymborska’s poetry for the same qualities I find in Alexandre O’Neill’s poetry: a different way of seeing ordinary things, a transformative power over reality. Truth be said, these qualities can be generally applied to most poets. But I also enjoy in her poetry the tone of friendly mockery and irony, a resigned tolerance of mankind’s stupidity, which brings her close to O’Neill. I like how, using simple words and syntax, she makes very precise and revelatory observations about things we take for granted, how she makes us see them from different angles. Her poetry is very topical, in that each poem works as a dissection of a topic, an idea, an object, a thing, a concept, in order to reveal nuances that routine looking has made us blind to. One can almost imagine her opening up an encyclopaedia and randomly picking a topic to write about. It’s a strange way of making poetry, but it worked very well for her.

I’m not here to discuss her poetry at length. This is a short collection of poems I love: some are complete, others just a stanza I loved. A poemarium for fans of her and perhaps for people who never read her before.


We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.

One would have
to live a long, long time,
unquestionably longer
than the world itself.

Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.

Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.

For the sake of research,
the big picture
and definitive conclusions,
one would have to transcend time,
in which everything scurries and whirls.

From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.

The counting of weekdays
would inevitably seem to be
a senseless activity;

dropping letters in the mailbox
a whim of foolish youth;

the sign “No Walking on the Grass”
a symptom of lunacy.


If there are angels
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic-
i.e. inhuman—occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

There’s one called “The Real World” whose first stanza reads:

The real world doesn’t take flight
the way dreams do.
No muffled voice, no doorbell
tan dispel it,
No shriek, no crash
can cut it short.

This is the amazing first stanza of “Hatred:”

See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape –
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

And one of the funniest war poems I’ve ever read:


After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

And perhaps her most famous poem:


Some people—
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with two per thousand.

but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
or compliments, or the color blue,
your old scarf,
your own way,
petting the dog.

but what is poetry, anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

A recent new favourite, because I’ve been re-reading her poems, is “True Love,” in which she asks in the first stanza:

True love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Also extraordinary is the poem about the pointlessness of space exploration, “Warning,” in which she asks not to take jesters into outer space:

Fourteen lifeless planets,
A few comets, two stars.
By the time you take off for the third star,
Your jesters will be out of humor.


The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

And one poem so attuned to our dehumanized age:


What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose a résumé.

Regardless of the length of life
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves mention only the marriage,
of all your children only those who were born.

Who knows you counts more than who you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honors, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you’d never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm’s length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what’s inside.
His shoe size, not where he’s off to,
that one you pass yourself off as.
In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

Wislawa Szymborska is dead, but her poems still exist, so I encourage everyone to read them. A collection I recommend is Poems – New and Collected 1957-1997.

1. Of course now I’m not sure if it shouldn’t be poemary instead, by analogy with bestiary. Morphology is a complicated business. Poemarium seems nicer, it has a Latin tinge that adds respectability.

2. He considered, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson an intellectual poet and Paul Valéry a poet without great ideas, who nevertheless was a great poet too.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The 2012 Liebster Award

My life took a more complicated turn after I was informed that I had become the recipient of the 2012 Liebster Blog Award, given to bloggers with less than 200 followers, whose blogs are “the best kept secrets” of the blogosphere. For that honour I must thank Brian Joseph, of Babbling Books, who didn’t give up until he managed to include my name in the select list of candidates. I remember that when we spoke about this, last March, over the phone, I wasn’t very optimistic. “Come now, Brian, the Academy’s members are never going to vote for me. You know they’ve been avoiding me since that post on Vladimir Nabokov’s mediocre first novel, Mary. They don't like contrarians; they're afraid of what I'd say if I delivered a Liebster Lecture.”

“They liked the post about Jorge de Sena,” he replied. I could hear the tone of joyful anticipation in his voice.

“Follies of my youth, no one remembers it anymore,” I mumbled into the speaker. “It’s been linked at, what, one blog?”

“You just wait,” he said, and hanged up the phone. After that I didn’t hear from him until some months later. I continued to live my life, amused that someone thought I was worthy of an honour I was certain, in the most intimate recesses of my soul, I hadn’t been born for. Out of curiosity, though, that same day I had a look at Labrokes; the odds weren’t good:

seraillon: 7/1

ImageNations: 12/1

A Common Reader: 12/1

Caravana de Recuerdos: 20/1

St. Orberose: 500/1

Poor Brian, I thought. I was up against older, more experienced bloggers. How could anyone think I was going to receive the Liebster? I felt bad for him, his disappointment, I feared, was going to be bigger than mine, for I was used to expect the worst, always.

Then around April I got a new call from Brian. “It’s yours!” he shouted.  “You won by unanimity!”

I could barely think straight, not because of the news, which had been overwhelming, I admit, but because I had just come out of a bad period in my life. The day before I had submitted to my editor the 76th draft of my blog post on Salvador Dalí, which, I tought, was going to revolutionise contemporary art theory. I had poured my soul into it, I had struggled with a bout of depression, I had started drinking and I had lost twenty pounds in weight. I knew the final draft was unsatisfactory, but my editor, probably out of pity, told me it was perfect as it was. Every blogger should have a kind-hearted editor ready to lie for their physical and mental health. But I had a lingering suspicion that if I had written a 77th draft I could have strengthened the post’s connection between Dalí and De Chirico. For some inexplicable lapse of judgment I had ignored my blogger instincts, for the first time since I had penned my ground-breaking blog post on Aquilino Ribeiro, which had drawn praise from, amongst other veterans, Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos.

So with everything that was going on in my life at the time, the news did make me feel ecstatic, and somehow validated, even if I knew fully well what the prize entailed. Everyone in our circles has heard of the Liebster curse. There’s hardly a blogger who has gone on to write another great post after receiving the Liebster. Most tend to decline in quality, or they die in car crashes or of old age shortly afterwards. And I still had too much to write, too many posts to link at my blog, too many commentaries to write on other people’s blogs. I sold my car as a precaution and went to see a doctor for a routine check-up.

No sooner did I receive the news than my editor called. He was thrilled. This was going to help boost the number of hits on my blog, he told me. Several of my blog posts, long out of print, would get a new lease on life: the José Saramago pentalogy on Clarabóia, the forgotten one about Imre Kertész. I think he was happier than me. He added that other publishers were calling about wanting to buy the rights to link my posts in other blogs. Without going into specific numbers, my editor told me that links to my Jorge Luis Borges pair had come out at several blogs with excellent new commentaries. This was success at last.

By the end of the day, everyone had linked the news all over the blogosphere. On one blog I came across a video of the permanent secretary of the Liebster Academy speaking during the press conference. He declared that they had awarded me the prize for my “idealistic blogging that continues, with poetic honesty, to chart new geographies across the landscape of a suppressed language.” I felt a shiver run down my spine. What was this nonsense? They spoke nothing about my posts on Mario Vargas Llosa, Dario Fo, Philip Roth. Instead they focused on a small part of my oeuvre which belonged mostly to the beginning of my career. All of a sudden I saw myself being pigeonholed in a niche.

Trying to find a new direction for myself, I decided to fight back with my series of posts on War and Peace, collectively known as the Tolstoy Quintet and considered by some critics a modern blogging classic.

People immediately took notice of the change of content, but not in the way I expected. I first had a glimpse of this resistance to my change while I was attending the Glasgow Bloggers Congress, this year devoted to the theme “Blo(om)gging: Ulysses in the Era of the Blog.” After a tedious conference delivered in the form of an entry of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and an incomprehensible one about Finnegans Wake done as an optophonetic mock-epic poem, I had a meal with Tom from Wuthering Expectations, who revealed some of rumors which, till then, I had been ignorant of:

“Some people are saying your blogging is more conventional than it used to be,” he said.

“Oh?” I said coolly.

“I’m not going to say who, of course. But they say your blog writing changed considerably after the award.”

“How so?” I asked as I tried not to look too eager or worried by slowly sipping my red wine.

“Well, your book choices, they are, how should I put it, more typical. Tolstoy, for instance,” he said. And then added: “Borges. You used to write about Portuguese literature, obscure poets, that sort of stuff…”

“Like Adília Lopes,” I murmured.

“Yes. And now, I don’t know, I mean, first this Tolstoy affair. And now Melville. I mean, I’m not judging, but you can see why someone would say that you’ve sold out. Does blogging even need more posts about Melville?”

“I guess I should have continued to write about Jorge de Sena, uh? Stay stuck in the past? Never change? That would just make everyone happier, wouldn’t it!”

“Well,” Tom replied, without looking me in the eyes, “you did promise a post about his correspondence with Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. A long time ago.”

Tokenism, I thought. They want me blogging about the same thing forever: untranslated, obscure writers no one’s ever heard of. But he was right. My blog posts about Portuguese writers didn’t have as many hits as Tolstoy’s. But to say I had ulterior motives, that I was a sell out…

“Maybe I’ll write about Raul Brandão!” I shouted, defiantly. “You’d just love that, wouldn’t you?”


You’ll find out who! Soon enough all of you will!

I was furious and Tom probably saw that in my bloodshot eyes because he subtly turned the conversation in another direction. We didn’t speak again during our stay in Glasgow.

When I came back home I decided I was going to shut myself in and start working on my series of José Saramago blog posts for his 90th anniversary in November. But even in seclusion I couldn’t stop the world’s envy from rearing its ugly head. One day, sorting my mail, I found an envelope: it had a recent copy of the Italian newspaper Il Corriere del Blog, containing an unsigned article about me. (From the style one can easily identify the author of this irresponsible text, but I prefer to let the person in question, if she has any scruples, to accuse herself) Although the article is long, I’ll translate just the most relevant part:

“(…) but, even if that is the case, what becomes clear, once again, is that the Academy prefers to take into account the laureate’s political sympathies rather than the respective content of his blog posts, which, any objective critic will agree, this year are without the merit and innovation that should accompany the work of a Liebster Laurate.
   One need only consider the obsessive attention, which the blogger doesn’t even try to hide, given to Dario Fo, self-declared communist, atheist and apologist of terrorist acts in at least three different countries, whereas Mr. Václav Havel, playwright extraordinaire and ideological rival, is barely mentioned in St. Orberose. Obviously the author, like many of the communist lackeys he fawns over, has little consideration for genuine democracy and its martyrs. Anyone counting the number of labels will see that the inconsequential Italian jester has 6 entries but the celebrated writer of The Memorandum, the man who single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union with theatre, has only 3. This decision to emphasize idealism over quality does much to hurt the integrity of and respect for the Liebster Award, but given its track record in recent years, one fears this tendency will not end with the author of ‘Dario Fo, in his own words.’
   Fifty years from now (…), who will read St. Orberose’s blog posts? Compared with perennial contenders like Argumentative Old Git, who celebrate the true life of the mind, one can see how short-sighted, safe, not to mention reactionary, this year’s decision was, a grave setback for blog writing everywhere, and, if anything, an encouragement for young bloggers not to tread the risky but rewarding venues that lead to the necessary development of the art of the blog (…)”

As I cried over the phone, my editor, to whom I had sent these pages through the fax, told me that I was going to start seeing a lot more of this from now on. “It’s just jealously,” he said. “You’re going to have to develop a thick skin, at least until the ceremony. Give it a few weeks and it’ll all blow over.”

He was right. By the time I attended the ceremony, where I read my Liebster Lecture, entitled “The Book Blogger Is Not The Book’s Executioner,” most of the controversy had subsided. In my lecture I spoke of the influences I had during in my formation years, of the duty of the blogger to unearthing the truths and verities of the text, of how in dictatorships the book bloggers, after the book writers, are the first to be persecuted, of the dangers of mean-spiritedness in book blogging, of the ideal qualities a blogger must have: humility, passion for the topic, curiosity, and the will to learn more. “Although ours is the first age to know blogging,” I concluded, “literature has nothing to fear from this new activity, it should see in us its most loyal friends, and just because we’ve dethroned print critics, we are no less its promoters and defenders than a Gabriel Josipovici, a Stanley Fish, a Terry Eagleton, or a Steven Moore. Indeed, I daresay we are more committed to and passionate about literature than they have ever been. We will give our lives, commit murder and acts of sabotage, betray our countries’ literatures to foreign ones, cheat, forge and blackmail, throw sulphuric acid in the face of a child that refuses to read, lose our identity in order to adopt the character’s, commit suicide for an author, and, yes, separate ourselves from those we love if they don’t share our impeccable tastes – that and more we will do for books!”

I must have struck a chord with the audience, for it applauded in a standing ovation that lasted fifteen minutes, leaving this humble speaker immensely proud and happy.

I also did not fail to mention in my lecture five great blogs which, like mine, have less than 200 followers, run by excellent bloggers all of them who have enriched the blogosphere and deserve more recognition, visits and linking to, namely:

seraillon, whose eclectic posts on Fernando Pessoa, Antonio Tabucchi, Leopoldo Lugones and Carlos Drummond have been a joy to read;

ImageNations, for his devotion to promoting African literature and the excellence of his analyses;

Surreal, Imaginary, Mysterious and Fantasy Art, for bringing my attention to many new marvellous artists;

Quodlibeta, for a funny, thought-provoking mix of history, politics, science and books;

and SPLALit, for its fine work promoting, amongst other things, Portuguese literature in English.

During the customary lunch after the lecture, there was some odd nitpicking about the award’s rules, which some claim should be simplified. I disagreed and remarked that the rules, as they were, were quite fine:

1. Thank the person which nominated you in a blog post.
2. Nominate up to five other blogs.
3. Let them know via comment on their blog.
4. Post the award on your blog.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Borges on Melville

In 1984 Jorge Luis Borges and the Argentine poet, Osvaldo Ferrari, started having weekly conversations in a radio programme at the Radio Municipal of Buenos Aires. Once a week they discussed culture, history, philosophy, politics (inasmuch as Borges liked to talk about politics), his trips around the world, and also his work; but what they mostly talked about was books, books, books.

Lately I’ve been re-reading my Portuguese translations of En Diálogo because I’m looking for a specific passage where Borges talks about the role of fantasy in the history of literature. My two-volume collection contains ninety dialogues, that’s some 600 pages. So it’s going to take a while to find it.

But it’s been great reading it again because Borges was an excellent raconteur and conversationalist, and he had a subtle sense of humour. And it’s also interesting to return to these dialogues years later, with a few hundred more books behind me. Dialogues I originally read without great understanding are now demanding my attention as I am, well, a bit more well-read.

For instance I didn’t care much about a dialogue in the past because I wasn’t very familiar with these two authors, but now “Conrad, Melville y el mar” (Conrad, Melville and the sea) strikes a chord with me.

Osvaldo Ferrari gets the conversation going by saying that from time to time they remember two writers who were mainly concerned with the sea: Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.

“Yes, and they’re nothing alike at all, ah?” Borges says. “Absolutely. Because Conrad cultivated an oral style or, well, fictitiously oral. Of course, they’re the narratives of that gentleman named Marlowe who tells almost all of the stories. Whereas Melville, in Moby Dick – which is a very original book – reveals, however, two influences; there are two men looming over that book – beneficially, of course: Melville, sometimes, tends to reflect or repeat… or, better saying, two voices echo in him. One would be Shakespeare’s, and the other Carlyle’s.”

Shakespeare’s influence I spotted in my reading of Moby Dick, in Captain Ahab’s magnificent speeches. But Carlyle is a writer utterly unknown to me, of I him I know nothing save one page somewhere in El Hogar, I think, where Borges claims that his philosophy today (and that was in the 1930s) could be summed up in one word: Nazism. I don’t see how that influenced Melville at all, since I read the novel exactly as a repudiation of authoritarianism, but perhaps readers better acquainted with both authors can see the connection. I actually thought, for a moment, that Borges was going to say Rabelais as his other influence, the father of the heterogeneous novel, of which Melville, Joyce and many others are true heirs.

Borges then discusses the whale’s whiteness. “Now, in Moby Dick, the theme would be the idea of the horror of whiteness. He may have been led to: he may have thought, at first, that the whale had to be identified amongst the other whales. The whale that had mutilated the captain. But that’s a miserly hypothesis, it’s best to assume that he felt the horror of whiteness; the idea that white could be a terrible colour. Because one always associates the idea of terror with darkness, with the dark; and then with red, with blood. And he saw that the colour white – which would be, for the sight, the absence of all colour – could be terrible also.” Borges then suggests that Melville may have found this idea in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which abruptly ends with the narrator meeting a “shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” This is why I love to Borgess non-fiction, the way his vastly erudite mind works, establishing connections, and so many sensible ones.

Also fascinating is how this point about whiteness segues into a discussion of the origins of the word white and black. Borges argues that black comes from the Old English word for bleak, which meant devoid of colour. Although this word turned into black in English, in the Romanic languages bleak became the Portuguese branco, the Spanish blanco, the French blanc, the Italian bianco. So the word, he argues, split into two opposites. It’s an interesting theory.

Next he compares the final line of the final chapter of Moby Dick with the last line from Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, namely the episode narrating Ulysses’ journey from Circe’s island.

Compare Moby Dick’s ending:

A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

   Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

with the Canto XXVI’s ending:

With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them. To the dawn
Our poop we turn'd, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the' other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean-floor
It rose not. Five times re-illum'd, as oft
Vanish'd the light from underneath the moon
Since the deep way we enter'd, when from far
Appear'd a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e'er beheld. Joy seiz'd us straight,
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel. Thrice it whirl'd her round
With all the waves, the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow clos'd. (1)

There it is, Borges says, the same idea of the ocean closing upon both Ulysses and the Pequod.

The episode of Ulysses, Borges says, is the most memorable in The Divine Comedy. “But what is there in The Divine Comedy that isn’t memorable?” he asks. “Everything is, but if I had to choose a canto – and there is no reason why I should – I’d choose Ulysses’ episode, which moves me perhaps more than the episode of Paolo and Francesca…” This of course immediately reminded me of one sentence I never forgot from Borges, somewhere in these dialogues: “I’ve always been easily moved by the epic.”

Although the title of the dialogue was Conrad and Melville, Borges has very little to say about Conrad before the radio programme’s time runs out. I’ll continue to read the dialogues and see if I find something about Conrad.

1. Translated by Henry Francis Cary

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

On Not Liking Moby Dick

There are many ways of not liking a novel. The reader may like the characters but not the story they’re in, find the plot interesting but not its execution, or enjoy the wordplay without seeing anything else of worth in the novel. There are novels I enjoy even when I sense they’re not very well written, because the plot is gripping enough or the dialogue is witty, or because the author makes a subtle observation about an ignored aspect of life. Others I realize are extraordinary and yet I can’t make myself like them. Then there are long novels I breeze through, like Crime and Punishment and Sophie’s Choice, slowly relishing each page, while short novels like Witold Gombrowicz’ Cosmos leave me stumped. After finishing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I figured that I no longer had excuses to leave Herman Melville’s Moby Dick unfinished. After a hiatus of two months, I mustered some courage to pick up the novel again, and it’s finally finished. But I’ll be damned if those last 200 pages weren’t harder than Tolstoy’s gigantic novel!

I didn’t like Moby Dick very much. It’s a rambling, sprawling, chaotic novel, although of novel per se there are only some 200 pages, interspersed with many chapters about whales that wouldn’t be out of place in encyclopedias. Sometimes the plot moves as much as ship with a torn sail on a windless day. Allegedly Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab and the white whale he wants to kill for having taken his leg. Ahab first shows up in page 61, and Moby Dick isn’t mentioned until page 134. Both disappear for long stretches, until their fates are resolved in the final fifty pages.

I think my mistake was to think that Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of revenge over a dumb beast that had not fault in taking his leg. Ahab has as much right to feel indignant as the toreador left comatose by the bull he provokes in the arena. Of course attributing human characteristics, like evil intent, to creatures that act by instinct is one of the ironies that defines the insanity of Ahab’s search. However, Ahab is not a complex character, I fear he’s even a bit one-dimensional. This novel is about a far more interesting, and no less obsessive character, the narrator Ishmael, crew member of the Pequod. Whereas Ahab is concerned with one whale, Ishmael encompasses in his narrative the whole of the world of whales. Ahab wants to kill Moby Dick, so does Ishmael, being a whaler himself. We always kill the things we love, says Oscar Wilde. But Ishmael doesn’t just kill them. He celebrates them, he overanalyzes them. He doesn’t get them out of his mind. The chase for Moby Dick is just an excuse, in film terms it’s a McGuffin, the thing that gets the plot started, a skeleton on which Melville hangs the story of Ishmael and his love for all things whale. The novel is in fact a compendium of legal, historical, scientific, philosophical, economic and biological facts, anecdotes and ruminations on whales, alternatively fascinating, informative, boring, exaggerated, exasperating, and hilarious. Ishmael’s good-humored pride for the profession and awe for the whales pervades the whole book:

As Queequeg and I are now fairly embarked in this business of whaling; and as this business of whaling has somehow come to be regarded among landsmen as a rather unpoetical and disreputable pursuit; therefore, I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales.

He justifies this endeavor with the importance of whaling in his life. “I prospectively ascribe all the honour and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” And indeed Ishmael, a sailor, shows a vast erudition about whales, oceans, seamen and travelers. I’m only sorry that Melville, being fluent in the Portuguese language and a reader of Luís de Camões, did not sneak in a reference to Father António Vieira’s sermon “The Sermon of Saint Anthony to the Fish,” Portugal’s modest contribution to fish literature.

But there might a reference to The Lusiads in the novel. In the chapter “The Prophet,” Ishmael meets a man called Elijah at the start of the voyage who casts a dark shadow over Ahab’s intentions. This ill omen is reminiscent of the episode narrated in Book IV of Camões’ epic poem, one of the most memorable episodes of the poem. As Vasco da Gama sails out to India, an old man on the pier admonishes that nothing good will come from the voyage:

"Curs'd be the man who first on floating wood,
Forsook the beach, and braved the treach'rous flood!
Oh! never, never may the sacred Nine,
To crown his brows, the hallow'd wreath entwine;
Nor may his name to future times resound;
Oblivion be his meed, and hell profound!
Curs'd be the wretch, the fire of heaven who stole,
And with ambition first debauch'd the soul!
What woes, Prometheus, walk the frighten'd earth!
To what dread slaughter has thy pride giv'n birth!
On proud Ambition's pleasing gales upborne,
One boasts to guide the chariot of the morn;
And one on treach'rous pinions soaring high,
O'er ocean's waves dar'd sail the liquid sky:
Dash'd from their height they mourn'd their blighted aim;
One gives a river, one a sea the name!
Alas! the poor reward of that gay meteor, fame!
Yet, such the fury of the mortal race,
Though fame's fair promise ends in foul disgrace,
Though conquest still the victor's hope betrays,
The prize a shadow, or a rainbow-blaze,
Yet, still through fire and raging seas they run
To catch the gilded shade, and sink undone!" (1)

What most interests me about Ishmael, though, is the religious awe he has of whales. Consider this passage:

In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.

By comparing whales to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, he’s giving these creatures an aura of wondrous mystique, making them magical and mysterious like gods. But perhaps not without some vanity, he also avails to himself the role of interpreter of their mysteries, for that is what Moby Dick is, one big holy book of whales, written with religious fervor. If doubts exist, the next lines couldn’t be less ambiguous. After quoting a traveler on a temple made of whale bones in Africa, Ishmael concludes:

In this Afric Temple of the Whale I leave you, reader, and if you be a Nantucketer, and a whaleman, you will silently worship there.

Ahab goes even further and likens the head of a dead captured whale to the ancient Sphinx. "Speak, thou vast and venerable head," he says, "which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.”

When Ishmael isn’t discoursing on whales, the novel is about Ahab, a Gothic villain if I ever saw one. He has the intensity of Heathcliff and displays the same ruthlessness in his single-minded objective. Frankly he didn’t seem a human person to me. His rage has something owing to the childishness of the gods, it’s nearly superhuman and treads carefully the path that separates the tragic from the absurd. I’m with Starbuck when he says that it seems blasphemous to seek ‘vengeance on a dumb brute’ that took his leg ‘from blindest instinct! Madness!’

At one point I noticed that Ahab wasn’t so much a character as a voice. This was evident to me with Tolstoy’s characters still fresh in my memory, constructed as delicate and logical accumulations of behaviors, patterns, reflections, experiences, mistakes, disappointments shaping their consciousnesses over time. Ahab instead is all dialogue, he’s a tone, a mood sustained by rage, he’s theatrical (and Melville turns the novel into a play sometimes to show this), he barely acts, his persona is all in his words, in his incredible monologues. He’s the best Shakespearean character the Bard never wrote, strutting on Pequod’s deck as he journeys to his implacable fate. Let’s marvel at some of the lines Melville puts in his mouth:

“What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!”

Speak it aloud and savor the music of the words.

The next excerpt I hereby declare as the greatest speech of English-language literature:

"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know'st what, in one another's eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab—his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he's floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"

Ahab has so much charisma he keeps his crew under spell even when it’s clear he’s leading everyone to destruction. There’s a running theme of the individual versus the community in the novel. And the boat is an obvious metaphor for America, that much is clear in the ‘Knights and Squires’ chapter, when Ishmael lists the many nationalities (2) that constitute the ship’s crew, a truly international group bound together for a single purpose but also by comradeship and tolerance. Nor does Ishmael hide the fact that he has more sympathy for the crew “chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” than for Ahab, guilty of ‘usurpation’ in his view, and whom “with perfect impunity, both moral and legal, his crew if so disposed, and to that end competent, could refuse all further obedience to him, and even violently wrest from him the command.” There is then also here a story of freedom and dictatorship, of democracy as part of America’s mythology. That Ahab manages to take the whole crew to the bottom of the ocean, including ‘poor Queequeg,’ Ishmael’s best friend, perhaps shows a pessimism on Melville’s side that the promises of democracy haven’t been realized.

If anything shows Ishmael’s love for democracy and tolerance, it’s his friendship with Queequeg. A native of Rokovoko (“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”), Ishmael initially fears him because he looks like a dangerous savage, always carrying around a tomahawk. In an early episode at an inn, he has share a bed with him and is afraid he’ll kill him, until Queequeg’s politeness disarms him:

"You gettee in," he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

From there on they become inseparable friends. He gently mocks some of his customs, like in the “Ramadan” chapter, where Queequeg feasts for days in an immobile position, but he also shows respect for his god, the little idol Yojo. Although there’s a tinge of the Noble Savage in Queequeg, Ishmael humanizes him. He even launches into a defense of cannibals:

Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.
But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it? Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose? With a feather of the same fowl. And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronise nothing but steel pens.

Tolstoy wrote of War and Peace that it was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle." As someone who loved the novel, I do have to ask, what was he thinking when he wrote this? It’s clear to anyone that it’s a cross between the historical novel and the realistic novel championed by Balzac, with a dash of Romanticism thrown in. A handful of chapters about historiography don’t change the fact that it’s very conventional in form. As I was reading Moby Dick, I thought that it didn’t look like a novel at all, and yet it’s one of the most novelistic novels ever written. Here is the novel as an example of what Russian critic Mikhail Bakthin called the super-genre: the novel as a format that encompasses all other genres without losing its own identity. And Melville’s novel has everything: prose, song, memoir, monologues, an encyclopedia, shifts between third and first narrator, and the obliteration of narrator when the novel turns into theater. There’s a lot of Rabelais in this novel, of the freedom of the early novel before its structure fossilized into a type. Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel talks about how the novel could have taken a different course, how each innovation in the novel also meant shutting off many other possibilities. Melville gives here a glimpse of what the novel could have been. We can also see in his novel what José Saramago meant when he once said that he wrote the way he did, making little difference between fiction and essayism, because he wanted to return to the Renaissance novels that were great compendiums of human knowledge. Remarkably this doesn’t make the Moby Dick look like a relic but rather a 20th century novel closer to James Joyce than Tolstoy, a modernist novel ahead of its time. (3)

The novel is disjointed, yes, and Melville is fully aware of that because Moby Dick is also its own ars poetica. Melville is writing about writing Moby Dick. “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” says Ishmael. And indeed there is a sense of incompleteness in the novel, of things left unsaid. After so much foreshadowing about ‘poor Queequeg,’ for instance, he just disappears in the last fifty pages, never mentioned in Ahab’s final fight with the white whale. When Melville is telling a story it seems his heart is not in the writing. It’s only when Ishmael is on the page, discoursing about obscure whale trivia in his unique way, that the author is having fun. Ishmael is a garrulous, verbose, passionate narrator and one of the friendliest companions a reader will ever have in a novel.

These are my thoughts about a novel I didn’t like very much.

1. Translated by William Julius Mickle (1735-1788). Richard Francis Burton is the author of a more famous one, but I couldn’t find it.

2. The day after I finished reading the novel, I was in the car on my way to the beach when a radio program starts. It was about the old Azorean whalemen, who fished whales in the Atlantic until the 1980s when Portugal banned whale-fishing. Ishmael mentions the Azoreans in his roll-call. I thought it was a neat coincidence.

3. Moby Dick received mixed reviews in its time. It wasn’t until the 1920s, with the advent of Modernism, that its consecration began. Critical success had to wait until there was a new generation of readers and writers ready to understand and appreciate its innovations.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why Tolstoy is better than self-help gurus

So Pierre has had an education abroad, he returns espousing the ideals of the French Revolution, he even initially admires Napoleon. Then his father dies and he inherits his fortune and nobility title. He joins the Free Masons, practises philanthropy, and unsuccessfully attempts to release his serfs from their bondage. Suffering from delusions of grandeur, he dabbles in the occult and gets in his head the notion that Napoleon is the Antichrist and that he’s destined to kill him. Instead he’s wrongly arrested for arson, but he survives captivity and returns to his estates.

How does Pierre feel at the end of such a complicated search for meaning and peace throughout his life?

He felt like a man who, after straining his eyes to see into the far distance, finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.

War and Peace is a rare great novel where the characters seem to have a happy ending. They marry, their fortunes increase through their own labour, they have loving children, they have loyal friends. Tolstoy’s solution for a good, happy life is remarkably simple: learn to appreciate the things around you, what you have and the traditions you come from. Instead of foreign ideas, learn to love your country. Instead of sweeping revolutions that leave everything in ruins, change and improve things gradually, according to everyday needs. After such a complex novel about the human soul, Tolstoy’s moral philosophy comes down to what could be the final line of a Paulo Coelho self-help novel. What did Madonna say about one of his books? The Alchemist is a beautiful book about magic, dreams and the treasures we seek elsewhere and then find on our doorstep.” Finding the treasure on the doorstep. That’s exactly what Pierre does, after searching for it everywhere else to no avail.

Why is it that great novelists are often excellent at writing about the problems and evils of society, and at exposing its hypocrisies, contradictions, stupidities, injustices, but when it’s time to picture an ideal, good, happy, moral life they can’t advance anything but banalities and clichés?

Mind you, Tolstoy’s guide for a good life is in no way a naïve philosophy. It’s very close to what several of the finest Greek philosophers taught in ancient times. When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel, the great conqueror asked him if he wanted anything, and Diogenes replied, “Yes, step aside because you’re blocking the sun.” Diogenes’ philosophy rejected possession of worldly goods and he taught his followers to live without concern for what others thought of them. His philosophy later influenced stoicism.

Epictetus, the slave who became a Stoic philosopher, had a similar outlook of life:

Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.


He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

One of his followers later collected many of his maxims in the book Enchiridion.

The Epicurean school wasn’t very different. In the words of Epicurus:

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.


If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.


Of all the things which wisdom provides to make life entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.

Epicureanism has a bad reputation nowadays. Many think it’s a philosophical system devoted to pleasure, so it’s often mistaken with Hedonism. But what many don’t realize is that Epicurus’ way of achieving pleasure was to abstain from worldly desires, by being thankful for what we have instead of longing for more. “The summit of pleasure is the elimination of all that gives pain.” If you wish nothing, you suffer no pain, and thus you achieve pleasure.

Perhaps the ancient Greek philosophers were just over-glorified self-help gurus, but the path to a good life doesn’t stray far from adherence to these precepts. These things are self-evident and valuable truths to most people, I think: be honest, be thankful for what you have, love yourself for what you are, seek support in friends and family.

Of course knowing what a good life is, is much easier than having the strength to live one. In defence of philosophers like Diogenes and Epicurus, what we know of their lives shows that not only were they able to talk the talk but walk the walk. Nor do I think writers are hypocrites if they’re unable to live according to the principles they espouse in their writings. When I’m reminded that Sartre, the philosopher who placed freeeeeeeedoooooooom! at the centre of his system, was also whitewashing dictator Stalin’s mass murders in order not to demoralize the French proletariat, I’m more amused than indignant. It’s such an ordinary moral failing. But of course he’d do such a thing. It’s so human of him. The fact that most writers are, once we bother to learn about their personal lives, despicable people only shows that the problem isn’t knowing what goodness is but having the conviction to live it.

The precepts of the ancient Greeks concerned things are within our immediate control: we can choose to be honest, if we’re willing to pay the price of total honesty all the time, every time; we can surround ourselves with friends, if we know how to esteem them, and relatives, if we can stand them; we can abstain from desire, if we have the willpower to do so. If we can be complete saints, living a good, happy life is a relatively easy affair. We don’t need writers who tell us what a good, happy life is because we all instinctively know what that is. What literature exists for is to capture our extraordinary and infinite ability to be unhappy.

What makes the apparently blissful ending of War and Peace so enjoyable is that it’s preceded by a long, destructive war and considerable misery. It’s not a God-given happy ending, a reward to the characters for all their suffering. They’ve built their own happiness through their actions and choices. It’s not a gift bestowed upon them. It’s the result of much living and searching, meditation, mistakes, and failed experiments in living. Nor does the text show that it’s the end for them, that now they’re in a stasis of bliss. The 1100 pages before them showed the lives of people being disrupted by events outside their control, indeed that is one of the main themes of the novel, and so the reader is left with the bittersweet impression that their newfound happiness is just an interlude, until the next war, the next cataclysm, the next crisis, the next death in the family. Indeed the novel ends with fissures showing up in Pierre and Nikolai’s friendship. Why? Because people don’t just live by friendship, they also give importance to ideas like honour and duty, because people with differences will always clash. Because people are dynamic and live in a flux, and no one can live every instant in harmony with the world and others. Because life is complicated and messy.

That’s the fundamental difference between Tolstoy and the self-help guru. In the novel there’s no illusion of happiness being a permanent state, Tolstoy doesn’t pretend to have discovered a key for happiness, which has eluded everyone else for millennia but him. (1) Many self-help gurus think they hold this key, as if through some design of fate these few select people have been chosen, from the billions who have walked on this planet, since the beginning of history, to have a unique insight into the matter; and not just that, but the majority of the population, through some masochistic drive, refuses to drink from their wisdom, because happiness is something we’re not in a constant pursuit of. And yet ignore them is what we do, most of us anyway. I always take comfort in the fact that Paulo Coelho has only sold 140 million copies so far. The Little Prince has sold 200 million, and being a children’s book, it manages to speak more about the texture of life.

The only lives these people have improved selling their silly brand of new age mysticism, have been their own lives at the expense of gullible people whose only crime is to think happiness comes with a user’s guide. Great novelists don’t know less than they do about happiness, in fact they know more, they know what a lovely, fragile thing it is, how it seldom blesses us with its presence, how hard it is to attain it, how easy to lose it, how it’s an integral but unequal part of us, how it moves at a different pace than our wishes, how it refuses integrating with our other needs, how finding it is a matter of knowing how to articulate it with many other elements, to form a delicate compromise between disparate parts, and it’s never a finished process. This is what great novelists teach us, if teaching is what they do, about happiness.

By the way, it’s my 50th post on St. Orberose. Hurrah!

1) That is, until Tolstoy had a crisis of faith, became a Christian self-help anarchist guru, and started writing pamphlets about the Gospels and God. But let’s pretend that didn’t happen.