Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Odds & sods

Taking on some slighter things while waiting against the day:

Stefan Themerson, Hobson's Island: Clever, in the way Roubaud's Hortense series is (unadvertised as one in a series of sorts itself). Barbara Wright's preface was a surprise, in that Themerson wrote in English, but: he also prevailed upon her to take up translation, with Jarry's Ubu Roi to cut her teeth on, for his Gaberbocchus Press, for which she is 'eternally grateful'. Me too. (Dalkey has redesigned its website to take direct orders over the 'net, but its physical location is up in the air since the transfer from Illinois State to Rochester fell through -- spent some time between colleges myself ... which might segue into:)

Cees Nooteboom, Philip and the Others: Not so much coming of age as going of youth. Nooteboom went on to write travel books before returning to novel writing; this first novel presages but does not approach the later work (earning a high GPA at complete-review, which excludes this one from consideration). From his last stateside publicity tour, a profile (this VN-ese idea is curious -- does CN's The Knight has Died echo Sebastian Knight?) and interview; last week comp-rev pointed to a Baedecker of an undiscovered country.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen: Reportage from a privileged position inside Auschwitz, important as testimony but eclipsed by Primo Levi and others (even Kertesz treats stripping conceit as a conceit). The writing occasionally rises to another level, as with Letter VII from "Auschwitz, Our Home": "You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realized he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made war over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were 'aesthetic' and carried on subtle debates."

Marguerite Duras, The Square and Moderato Cantabile: The first half of Four Novels (novellas, really) repackaged by Grove Press, various translators; strong and spare character studies, not as innovative as other nouveau roman works, but no less worthwhile for that.

I've been interspersing my reading with making my way through Seamus Heaney's Opened Ground, selected poems '66-'96 (having been impressed by his versions of Beowolf and Sweeney). The Page has recently brought to notice other Nirish poets, such as Michael Longley (though wife Edna steals the show in the lede), Paul Muldoon ... so I'm a little behind the curve: SNYTMag weighs in with a profile.


Calculus of Variations

... is what I should be reading, but I've procrastinated with a chess book. Shades of my checkered college career (which lasted long enough to qualify as such), but the temptation was embedded in one of the maths book's co-author's name, I.M.Gelfand -- the chess Gelfand (Boris) is an IGM (int'l grandmaster), BelaRussian-born, now residing in Israel (which is what the I. above stands for). So, calculation of variations instead. Well, not so much that, as I gave up serious study of chess long ago, not that it was ever that serious; rote memorization (e.g. of opening lines or endgame positions) is not my forté (odd that I'm thought a "detail guy" at work), but it had to be done to a certain extent to be competitive. My inclinations, anchored by some natural tactical skill, lean towards the pretty combination or sacrifice, the endgame study or chess problem. Chess as a spectator sport has the virtues that one can play along and that it need not happen in real time, and in fact expert commentary underpins both. (Then there's the game's rich history and other byways.) That's more or less what I expected in picking up a collection of IGM J.H.Donner's chess journalism, The King: Chess Pieces. Instead, I got an insider's ironic commentary on the state of chess up through the years when I was an active tourney player (when there were 50, not 500, IGMs) and on the state of a strong chessplayer's mind that resonated on more than one level. Blunders outnumbered brilliancies, not only the the board (though even of a handful of studies included, the first one is cooked, i.e. incorrect) -- Donner's prognosis for how long it would take computer chess to be competent was off by a factor of 100 -- but such errors and provocations (contentions such as "Chess is and will always be a game of chance.") are redeemed by an inimitable style (per the above-linked review, just about as close as the Dutch can come to gonzo -- that reviewer also edited the print selection Heroic Tales: The Best of Chess Cafe 1996-2001). Replaying those years was how I was repaid, in part. But the real surprise was the literary dimension.

It happens that Donner was friends with Harry Mulisch, and wrote a monograph on him (in Dutch: Mulisch, I Presume). And Mulisch returned the favor, after Donner's death, with a tribute to their friendship in the form of The Discovery of Heaven, his magnum opus: the character Onno Quist is recognizably modeled on Donner. (65 chapters, the 65th square: shades of Pale Fire! speaking of chess and literature.) What is it with the Dutch and chess, anyway? The smallest European country to sport a world champion, Euwe, who briefly took the title away from Alekhine (who had taken it from Cuba's Capablanca; Donner's Havana adventures also noteworthy btb) but, the last amateur, preferred to remain pedagogic. Donner's journalistic style also infected Hans Ree; Tim Krabbé maintains an excellent cabinet of curiosities (the Open Diary particularly) as well as writing thrillers (not my cuppa, but in light of Nabokovian problematics I may have to investigate); even in the annotation category, Jan Timman has exceeded all others in The Art of Chess Analysis, as well as editing New in Chess magazine (my subscription lapsed), which also published the Donner collection. Yet Donner spills much ink over the supposedly sorry state of Dutch chess and Dutch literature.

It seemed that proceeding from Donner to Paul Valéry's Monsieur Teste would be natural. It turned out to be artificial. Not even up to the least of Pessoa's heteronyms. Quite a disappointment.


Keeping Up Appearances

Juan José Saer, The Witness: Testimony of an orphan whose passage as cabinboy to the New World culminates in ten years captivity by a cannibalistic tribe, told from the perspective of the elderly man who had since been returned to the Old World, no less out of place; based loosely on Francisco del Puerto (not on a retelling of the Columbus myth as some booksellers would have it, though a lunar eclipse does figure in to it in the end). As it happens, this was an ideal book to follow Fatelessness (perhaps as Rootlessness?), similarly structured but assessed from a distance, poetic rather than prosaic but still ruthlessly, though with greater ambiguity about what is given -- there's some sense of inversions of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, of Borges' mythical Tlönian language, of Roa Bastos (as in I the Other?). (And, as we await the day, Pynchon's GR seems pertinent as well.)