Good news from amazon: the new Pynchon novel is on its way to me overnight. Haven’t looked forward to reading a new novel this much since…1990, reading Vineland after getting back from my post-college Asian wanderings, or 1998 reading Mason & Dixon in grad school, or lugging Against the Day around London in 2007… We’ll see what the next one (another good title) has to offer.
My favorite painting in the world is in Massachusetts at the Peabody Essex Musuem until Sept 7, and it’s also in today’s New York Times:
All these 17c seascapes come from the National Maritime Museum’s collection, in Greenwich (London), where I was a fellow in 2007-8. As the article notes, seeing all these paintings together reminds you that these are generic works, fairly similar each to each. But as documents of the increasing fascination with the maritime world that was transforming European culture in the 17c, it’s hard to find anything more visually striking.
I remember the first time I saw “The Wreck of the Amsterdam,” the anonymous Flemish painting that’s the lead image in the Times review. It’s a huge canvas, and I came upon it in an exhibition at the Queen’s House in Greenwich (built in 1605 by Inigo Jones) , and the thing almost knocked me over. It’s beautiful, powerful, and just overwhelming. You see the huge ship heeled over almost horizontally by the waves, being driven onto a rocky coast, with an already-wrecked ship on one side and a flaming shipped manned by devils on the other. A lone sailor clings to the mast. An allegorical portrait of life at sea?
I’ve been shopping for a play to take my students to this fall, and I think I’ll go with ShakespeareNYC’s Lear, which will play Oct 9 -31. They’ve done some good shows for us before.
Williamson’s bio reminds me that Borges died in June 1986 in Geneva, where he went with his wife with the intent never to return to Argentina. Borges had lived in Geneva as a young man, and also seems to have imagined the Swiss ideal — independent neutrality — as a possible model for his troubled nation. So much of his work seems to be about creating an imaginative space of separation and distance from the pressures of reality, and also about the impossibility of doing so. Interesting that he may have envisioned Switzerland (which I always think of as a fairly dull place) as part of that project.
I also remember hearing of Borges’s death when I was in college, and thinking, as I almost never think when famous writers die, that I’d lost a chance to see him in person. A classmate of mine had heard him speak at Andover, I think, and my freshman lit prof had somewhat pompously described his “lunch with Borges” during class that spring. I can think of very few 20c writers who I’d rather have heard speak.
Just finished Edwin Williamson’s massive bio, Borges: A LIfe (Viking, 2004), which charts the master’s production story by story against his surprisingly stormy love life, which saw him engaged (or nearly so) several times during his adult life, and then finally married twice, the first time disastrously and the second time to a longtime student and assistant who was several decades his junior (and who Williamson interviewed for the biography). Williamson also makes large claims for the controlling power of Borges’s mother (with whom he lived in a small apartment for most of his adult life until she died in her 90s in 1975) and the failed example of his father, who never succeeded as a novelist.
Most of the reviews took Williamson to task for his over-analytic readings of Borges’s work, but more than anything what struck me was a line from Pierre Menard about the author’s habit of sometimes writing exactly the opposite of what he believed. Maybe Borges never really wanted to marry? Williamson takes on faith that Borges idolized each of the women with whom he was connected romantically, and that he imagined each as the “new Beatrice” who would make possible his final literary triumph. But it’s hard to imagine a more triumphant literary career than Borges’s — and it’s worth remembering that Dante never married his Beatrice. Might it be just as possible that Borges’s first loyalty was to his work and his imagination, and that the various women and visions of a new domestic life never managed to crowd that out? His mother was a kind of literary secretary for him for much of his adult life, and then his second wife filled that voidfor his final decade.)
I think of Picasso’s remark that everything he did in life, including his various marriages and affairs, was a rehearsal for what happened when he stood in front of the canvas with a brush in his hand. Borges, too, has always seemed to me an absolute artist, uncompromising and dedicated. I certainly can imagine why so many women would not, finally, have wanted to marry him.
Went yesterday to the Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The Worlds of Henry Hudson show at the Museum of the City of New York (5th ave at 103rd st). Some really fantastic stuff, mostly from the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. There’s a model’s of Hudson’s ship, the Half-Moon, some great atlas & other books, a canon recovered from underwater, clothing, one sword and part of another…
The exhibition used a lot of reproductions and also projected images from maps on the wall, so that they could show more material. There were several audio clips, one of a Dutch sea-chantey. Navigational tools included a log line, magnetic and geometric compasses, and a gorgeous pair of 17c globes.
But probably the most interesting part of the show was the explicit connection between the 70-foot long space of the exhibition hall and the 70-foot long ship on which Hudson sailed upriver. Two “sails” flew overhead, and the center of the gallery space was framed in with dark wood panels so that you felt you were on a (small) ocean-going ship. A great way to bring the material into the lives of the audience.
Though the truth is that my daughter loved the 19c dollhouses upstairs more than even the 17c tiles that showed Dutch children at play.
It’s a slight, slim volume, but a fun read, esp for Borges nostalgists like me. My favorite snippet comes when JLB admits he never felt compelled to finish any book (including Finnegans Wake, on which he would subsequently lecture). “I am a pleasure-seeking reader,” he said. “I’ve never allowed my sense of duty to have a hand in such a personal matter as that of buying books.”
I’m also reminded of how Borges help R.L. Stevenson (who I mostly think of as a boy’s novelist, much as I love *Treasure Island*, which my son & I listened to on tape last year) and Kipling, among a more usual list of suspects (Whitman, Joyce, Wilde, Carroll, Twain, the Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics, Virgil, etc).
Among modern authors who cite Borges, Manguel mentions Foucault, Umberto Eco (in *The Name of the Rose*), Goddard’s film Alphaville, George Steiner’s After Babel, and Bruce Chatwin, who calls him the Wise Old Man of Buenos Aires in his great travel memoir In Patagonia.
I’ve stolen the title, and the content, of this post from my DA student Chris Hellestrom, who did a Directed Reading course with me on Borges and Pynchon this past fall. Chris was rightly struck by how much Thomas Nagel’s famous philosophical article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974) sounds like a Borges story. The article is easy enough to find online, but a few excerpts show the gist —
“Bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we [humans] possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.”
“Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.”
“Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.”
The story this most reminds me of is Funes at first, though it may, upon reflection, be more like Tlon.
This is more of a preview of a future post, but I just picked up a new book called With Borges by Alberto Manguel. It seems that Manguel, who’s now a famous writer-on-reading (I read The History of Reading some years back & enjoyed it, though I remember thinking it was somewhat Borges-lite), got his start as a teenager by reading books aloud to the blind Borges. This short memoir is his recounting of what it was like to be a bookish teenager, working in a national library, & then called in to read to an old man who, I can only imagine, must have seemed a bit like God…
Actually sounds like a story by Borges, come to think of it…
Roberto Bolano continues to be my favorite not-all-that-new writer. I’ve recently read *Amulet*, a great novella about the student uprisings in Mexico in 1973, and I’m currently working my way through a bilingual edition of *The Romantic Dogs*, the only book of his poems that’s appeared in English yet (I think). (The cover has a great image of a dog on it, Bolano’s puns not being all that subtle.)
I like his manic energy more than anything — *Amulet* ostensibly takes place in a bathroom while the army occupies the university, but it’s also a portrait of Latin American literary culture in the 1970, and it moves in huge, crazy loops.
*Nazi Literature in America* is another good one, a novel in Borges-like portraits of imaginary right-wing writers from Argentina to California to Indiana.
The two master-works are *The Savage Detectives* and *2666*.