Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Knowing the Score

A week late to the party: April 23 birthdays for Vladimir Nabokov and for Sergei Prokofiev, who was closer to the former's cousin, the composer Nicolas*, though both VN and SP drew upon Gozzi's commedia dell'arte The Love for Three Oranges (Senderovich & Shvartz track the motif through VN's ouevre in Nabokov Studies #6, along with its carnivalistic aspects [but without any Bakhtin reference]). They also shared a common interest in chess, though Nabokov's was more problematic (like that of concert pianist and problem composer Rudolf Heinrich Willmers who, while playing Schumann's 'Carnaval' in a piano recital in Copenhagen, stopped suddenly, wrote on his cuff, and then continued, explaining afterwards that he had been struggling for a week to solve a difficult problem when the solution came to him in a flash. 'I had to jot it down to get it out of my head and let me concentrate entirely on my playing.' [source])

The latest NYRB reviews the translation of Prokofiev's diary (not online, alas), devoting a section to his enthusiasm for chess, something shared amongst St Petersburg Conservatory musicians, "where games were often played in the intervals between rehearsals and concerts. Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and Rimsky-Korsakov were all keen chess players." (A continuing tradition.) Prokofiev played world champions from Lasker (holding him to a draw in a 1909 simultaneous exhibition) to Botvinnik (in 1951), but developed a friendship with Capablanca after they met in simuls at the St Petersburg 1914 tourney, in which Prokofiev scored 1-2 against the up-and-coming Capa. (Tarrasch, Capa's spoiler and author of the tourney book [his piano playing praised in Prokofiev's tourney report in Dyen], still classic, later wrote that "Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy." The title Grand Master was first established here, bestowed by Tsar Nicolas II on the finalists.) Biographer David Nice: "After his triumph Prokofiev took tea with Capablanca. He was a little dismayed, when he played through the Liszt transcription of the Tannhauser Overture, that Capablanca displayed 'total ignorance, saying that he'd heard the piece somewhere but didn't know what is was' ..." The Sergei Prokofiev Foundation provides the relevant diary extracts; Prokofiev's victory can best be played here, while Ed Winter covers both St Pete '14 and, later, Botvinnik, who says of his first exposure to Prokofiev's music: "If I am not mistaken the name of the piece was Despair [which doubles as the title of a VN novel]. It made a deep impression on all of us. Unfortunately I have never heard it since; if I had I should recognize it at once."

* Among other things, Nicolas set one of Vladimir's Russian poems to music, and was instrumental in getting him to know Edmund Wilson.

[filigree added,EW permlinked]


Detective Analysis

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives (trans Natasha Wimmer): The daily diary of the youngest acolyte during the key phase of the visceral realist revival, bracketing a montage of dated testimonies moving through two decades, anchored by the raveling of an episode at its beginning catalyzing a quest through the desert for Cesárea Tinajero, the mother of visceral realism, the only one whose poetry appears, the complete works, in only three lines, explicated at one remove:

"... although I did catch some phrases, some stray words, the predictable ones, I suppose: Quetzacoatl's ship, the nighttime fever of some boy or girl, Captain Ahab's encephalogram or the whale's, the surface of the sea that for sharks is the enormous mouth of hell, the ship without a sail that might also be a coffin, the paradox of the rectangle, the rectangle of consciousness, Einstein's impossible rectangle (in a universe where rectangles are unthinkable), a page by Alfonso Reyes, the desolation of poetry."

This rectangle reappears at the conclusion. (Ship arriving too late ...)

There has been little dissent among the litblogs (nor reviewers) of this novel's worthiness, or its author's, which does little to augment any argument of its merits; a little ambivalence helps, so my own first impressions are embedded like ham on wry over at Waggish:

... there are certain transpositions (e.g., the Manet-Duranty duel), obscured sourcings (ultraismo), but I lack enough familiarity to place much of it (the abyss is somehow familiar). Eliot’s Four Quartets also seems relevant. (The Auxilio chapter is Amulet in miniature. The other episode you mention [African intranecine conflict] smacks of Conrad. And the labyrinth you don’t, of both Paz and Borges.) The set-up and denouement may be necessary not just as frame (or as orientation) but as coming-of-age contrast to the arrested developments in mid-sandwich (which are consequences not costs), and not just of characters but of movement (lot of that though, Central America-Europe-Middle East-Africa …) and movements of a more literary character … but I have to let this settle a bit before I feel as if I have it.

Not that I feel as if, but I can unpack some of this. The Manet-Duranty duel was, like that of the novel, a swordfight between artist and critic (neither swordsmen; knives are another matter) in which the former brings his point home, if only briefly, on the latter's breast, but which ends without resolution. I stumbled upon the comparison because PBS aired "The Impressionists", emphasizing how the mass-impressionist movement was viewed as immoral in its time. That Manet later suffered locomotor ataxia (a disorder of movement -- not straight is the gait) may also pertain. The vignette also embeds "Nude Descending a Staircase" (which one character misattributes to Picasso), Cubism being another such movement, and, in this instance, one frozen in time. Beyond apparent motion, and apparent motive, this may provide a clue to the structure (or, better, pattern) of the novel.

Unfamiliar reference: The abyss is "The Chasm" by Pío Baroja, one of the stories embedded in the narrative (curiously, he also wrote Caesar or Nothing). The Sturgeon story of cloning lovers ("When You Care, When You Love", the first part of an unfinished novel, described by the second-youngest, Chilean, acolyte, who provides the only other continuous thread through the testimonies [a third thread, by the patriarch who provided transport, ends half way through with his return to sanity]) rang a bell, but some 30 or so years distant for me; it also introduces recursion more explicitly. But I'm lost as far as Mexican literary culture goes, beyond Paz, Rulfo, and a few odd bits here and there; similarly with Latin American poets and Spanish writers, excepting the headliners. So part of the value of The Savage Detectives is lost on me (and on Anglos), though it helps to open a window on a blank space on the map.


Graven ruins

Carlos Emilio Gadda,That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (trans William Weaver): In a word, overripe. The faded, fated, feted, fetid glory of Rome in early ilducean times (March '27) -- an investigation of a double crime that hits its principal investigator close to home. It is an aw[e]ful mess, a maze of false turnings: Language ornate, wordplay baroque, some gems, mostly semiprecious, gilding the gelding -- a barrenness of great wealth or power set against the fecundity of poverty, chaos, decay. Many mixed messages, multiple dualities; the signal-to-noise ratio is low, but meaningfully so. Unlike Joyce's Dublin or Cabrera Infante's Havana, I felt hindered by a lack of geographic familiarity, especially as to its historical overlay (and history is as much a culprit, or at least an accessory after the fact). Even so, a difficult read, in any case. [excerpt]

I'm glad to see the NYTBR devoting long-overdue attention to fiction in translation. Minor cavil: Scant coverage of presses devoted to bringing this about -- no Dalkey Archipelago on their maps, one lone nyrb offering (the only press covered twice [well, once and a half] is Seven Stories). Nary a word of Int'l PEN coming to town either.


Not my grail of tea

Shusaku Endo, Stained Glass Elegies (tran Van G. Gessel): For the most part, Endo operates within a matrix of Japanese Catholicism and its suppression, illness, and the war's domestic effects, in that (dis)order, with an overlay of the interplay between cowardace and martyrdom. The stories here struck me as hit and miss, many of them sketches better elaborated in his novels, of which I've enjoyed Silence, but among the standouts here are "Mothers", which extends considerations of faith broached there.

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland: A moral traveller seeking lost wilderness, finding lost churches; a window on a past window on the past ... I'm deferring Boswell's parallel account for now, as variances between them don't particularly interest me, and as I've had enough of preparatory sketches for the moment.

It being National Poetry Month, my attention naturally turns toward detective fiction: That Awful Mess and Savage ...