Riyoko Ikeda, Claudine

ClaudineClaudine by Riyoko Ikeda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.

I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.

claudine2This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”

There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.

On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.

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Jean Giono, Melville

Melville: A NovelMelville: A Novel by Jean Giono

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twentieth-century French novelist Jean Giono is currently being introduced (or re-introduced by NYRB Classics) to American readers, and what better introduction than Giono’s bio-fantasia about Herman Melville, now translated by Paul Eprile? Melville was published in 1941 in France, and written in the wake of Giono’s own translation of Moby-Dick. The novella’s swelling, excitable style, and its conversion of description into philosophical speculation, are obviously inspired by Ishmael’s boisterous prose.

Giono does not tell Melville’s whole life story but only narrates one partially-invented episode. Melville traveled to England in 1849 to arrange for the publication of White Jacket, but Giono imagines a fanciful journey within this factual one: Melville, freshly married to a somewhat conventional bride (and the child of a fastidious mother), is overcome with wanderlust in England and sick of writing marketable fiction. He gets himself outfitted in a sailor’s costume and sets out, half at random, on a voyage to the countryside.

Unlike the Melville of contemporary academe (and of another striking twentieth-century French narrative, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail), Giono’s Melville seems entirely heterosexual; accordingly, he meets on the road and falls in love with Adeline White, a woman who is his intellectual and spiritual equal and who spends her time illicitly smuggling food to the starving Irish.

The above is about the extent of this short, lyrical novel as far as events go; the point is not a crowded plot but an examination of the desire to live a life consecrated to challenging the given and rising against the gods, whether in spirituality, art, or social life. According to Giono, the Biblical leitmotif of Melville’s life is his “battle with the angel”:

He never breathed a word of it to anyone. But plenty of times, since he came back from the sea, he’s locked again in secret tussles with the wing-bearer. While he’s been hunched over his manuscript, alone in his writing room, the angel has often leapt onto his shoulders from behind and grabbed hold of him. Grabbed hold of him with the terrible kind of grip that suddenly twists your neck a merciless sort of cruelty. Merciless: oh yes, no question about it! The cruelty that takes no account of weariness, of wants, of the right you have to live in peace. A right, after all, that you possess like everybody else: the right to live peacefully, while lying a little, ever so innocently, from time to time. Simply to live, to give up on grand resolutions, on yearnings for sacrifice, for self-denial, for things that are tough, things that are difficult to accomplish, things to which you have to drag yourself by the scruff of your own neck, things that wake you up in the night; to live like everybody else, with that great, complacent selfishness taught to us by all the churches and by all the powers that be; to travel the well-trodden roads, to hold the key to all the unbarred doors in everybody else’s stairwells and corridors, to everybody else’s bedrooms (short of venturing into the bedroom of Henry VIII…). To live, with one’s wife, one’s house, one’s garden, one’s modest job.

And Adeline, while not an artist, denounces the reductionism of economic theories and preaches an anti-calculus of love:

“Humans are the weakest creatures in the word because they’re intelligent. Intelligence is, by definition, the art of turning a blind eye. If you want to remedy an ill, you can’t turn a blind eye. For me, in this instance (choose your own, according to your nature), it’s a twenty-year-old boy who’s dying of starvation. He was born to live and to love.

“No dying person behaves better than someone who’s starving to death: He doesn’t speak, doesn’t moan…he dies without making a fuss, lying on the ground….And most of the time he hides his face, as though he were ashamed. To him you can turn a blind eye the most easily. But have the courage (or the sentimentality, if you like) to lift that head up and look at that face, and you’ll say to yourself: This man has to eat. He has to eat immediately.

“Then you won’t think anymore about selling. You’ll think about giving.”

To use the language of Melville’s Pierre, Giono’s hero and heroine are chronometers rather than horologes, keeping heaven’s time on earth while everyone else, whether in church or government, in marriage or at work, is just punching the clock. Both Melville and White (the reader of Moby-Dick will catch her surname’s significance) are inspired in their ecstasies by the abundant example of nature, as Giono remarkably recreates the rolling landscape as only a slower sea.

Melville is a strange, buoyant little novel, one seeking to escape the spirit of its own grim time and place (Europe, 1941) in quest of a more hopeful and energetic age (Europe and America in the age of democratic upheaval)—even if, as at the novel’s end, Melville’s own hopes for love and art are, after Moby-Dick, shipwrecked.

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Dante, Paradiso

Paradiso (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume III)Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is what you’ve heard about the Divine Comedy: the Inferno, with its poignantly vivid tortures and its cacophony of wicked voices, is the most entertaining canticle, beloved of various and sundry; the Purgatorio, with its wistful focus on the lives and ambitions of poets and its chastened mundanity, is of special interest to writers and artists; and the Paradiso, with its saints in chorus, its mystical refusals of imagery, and its long disquisitions on Scholastic philosophy, can be appreciated exclusively by the faithful, and even they might nod off.

Being a contrarian by nature and a producer of “fresh content” by mission, I am supposed to tell you that everything you know is wrong. I will, eventually, but for now let’s give the devil his due: Dante’s Beatrice-guided tour of Paradise is depressingly devoid of drama. At one point when Dante seems to feel fear, Beatrice rebukes him and reminds him that nothing bad can happen in Heaven.

What can happen in Heaven? Dante can have the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Beatrice and a host of sometimes literal luminaries (St. Thomas Aquinas, the emperor Justinian, Charles Martel, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and more) explain to Dante the nature and purpose of God’s creation, from the dark spots on the moon to questions of salvation. Dante doesn’t even have to ask, because everyone in Paradise can read his mind. The Paradiso, therefore, very often reads like a beautiful digest of medieval thought rather than much of a narrative or drama—interesting on historical grounds, but a good deal less exciting than even Dante’s earlier rivals in epic poetry, Homer or Virgil.

As for Beatrice, I admire Dante’s Troubadour audacity in elevating his school crush to a level of holy authority just below the Blessed Mother, but Bea must be second only to Milton’s God in the annals of Christian poets’ divine disappointments. Unlike the solicitous and even maternal Virgil of the previous canticles, Beatrice lords it over Dante like a stern schoolmistress or martinette. She rarely—at least in translation—speaks a word in tenderness or spontaneity; comparing herself to Jupiter when he accidentally annihilated his mistress, she notes, “‘Were I to smile, then you would be / like Semele when she was turned to ashes'” (note the gender swap—Dante=Semele, Beatrice=Jupiter—more of which below). She sometimes seems like a machine programmed with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas—as, to be fair, do the rest of the saints in Heaven. At times in reading the Paradiso, the incorrigible post-Christian reader feels a nostalgia for the agitations of hell.

For the purposes of this piece, I am going to omit discussion of the Paradiso‘s philosophical particulars—if you would like to know why there are hierarchies among the angels or whether or not there are degrees of divine dessert among unbaptized infants, the answers are there in the poem, even if I have not managed to hold them all in my mind or understand all their logics (“‘he who hears, / but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing,” chides Beatrice—o mea culpa, bella donna!). Instead I will seek elements of literary (as opposed to philosophical) and human (as opposed to divine) interest.

Dante begins the poem with a petition to Apollo, lord of light and of boundaries. This is in fact a poem of light as it narrates Dante’s increasing powers of sight as he approaches the divine:

From this you see that blessedness depends
upon the act of vision, not upon
the act of love—which is a consequence…

It is also, like the trilogy of which it forms the final part, a poem of boundaries: Paradise, like Hell and Purgatory, is carefully ranked according to the merit of each of its constituent elements. God does not permeate the universe equally, and where His light shines lowest, matter is freest to take its errant course, hence the presence of those who have failed in some way even in the lowest layers of the heavens.

While Dante refers early in the Paradiso to “the mighty sea of being,” his Apollonian imagination inclines to nothing so chaotic as the ocean. (The aforementioned Semele, by the way, was pregnant with Dionysus—Apollo’s archetypal opposite—when she was incinerated by Jove.) When sea imagery recurs, Dante deploys it to make sure we as readers are kept in our place as possibly unworthy subordinates in his poetic armada:

O you who are within your little bark.
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take have never been sailed before…

Despite this adventuresome rhetoric, and despite a climactic comparison of himself to Jason, Dante’s poetic project is less an uncharted voyage than the charting of everything. Recall that Ulysses, reimagined as an irrepressible explorer, was damned. When Dante reaches the sphere of the Primum Mobile at the height of Heaven, he looks down at earth for the second time in his ascension. The first time, he noted that, from his height, the earth appeared “scrawny.” Now he overlooks the distant Mediterranean, as if to put Ulysses the secular quester in his place at last, far below the spiritual pilgrim:

I saw that, from the time when I looked down
before, I had traversed all of the arc
of the first clime, from its midpoint to end,

so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’
mad course and, to the east, could almost see
that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.

Why does Dante disparage the earth, which he twice calls a “threshing floor,” the unglamorous site where godly wheat is separated from infernal chaff? As Beatrice explains, implying more than perhaps she means, the fault is time, the medium through which the errant will moves and matter decays:

“The will has a good blossoming in men;
but then the never-ending downpours turn
the sound plums into rotten, empty skins.

For innocence and trust are to be found
only in little children; then they flee
even before a full beard cloaks the cheeks.”

The Paradiso is a politically as well as religiously didactic poem. Dante does envision a political solution to the corruptions of earth. Beatrice continues: “‘on earth no king holds sway; / therefore, the family of humans strays.'” Dante deplored the political conditions obtaining in Europe around the turn of the fourteenth century. He believed that the church had corrupted into a worldly and temporal power, even as the rightful temporal power—the secular emperors—were weak. Division is again the solution: let the church tend the spirit and the state discipline the body. Charles Martel complains to Dante:

“But you twist to religion one whose birth
made him more fit to gird a sword, and make
a king of one more fit for sermoning…”

These political issues are not abstractions to Dante. His own city has fallen into moral ruin, and he himself has been exiled from it. In Paradise he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who gives a lyric portrait of Florence’s golden age, and, in some of this canticle’s best-known lines, prophesies Dante’s banishment:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.”

Upon reaching the court of Heaven, where the highest saints and the angels are arrayed as the white rose of Paradise around the blinding Borgesian aleph that is God, Dante, despite his conviction that the temporal and spiritual powers must be kept apart, cannot help but see the sight as a barbarian’s first glimpse of the finest political order, the Roman Empire itself:

If the Barbarians, when they came from
a region that is covered every day
by Helice, who wheels with her loved son,

were, seeing Rome and her vast works, struck dumb
(when, of all mortal things, the Lateran
was the most eminent), then what amazement

must have filled me when I to the divine
came from the human, to eternity
from time, and to a people just and sane

from Florence came!

His final guide, the mystic St. Bernard, introduces the personae of Paradise as “great patricians / of this most just and merciful empire.” Spiritual and secular authority, which Dante had taken pains to separate, here collapse back into each other so that Paradise is an ideally ordered empire. Dante seems to be at the verge of the post-Christian world, very nearly imagining, like Hegel or Marx, that God might be nothing other than the imagination’s projection of good governance onto the heavens.

Though Dante was thus (to use an anachronistic term) a totalitarian, he was no phallocrat. Writing in the mariolatrous Middle Age—St. Bernard, reports one of Allen Mandelbaum’s endnotes, did much to revive the cult of Mary—and nearly deifying his first love, Dante places an ideal image of woman at the center of his vision and pictures Paradise as centered upon a rose, not a phallic but a vulvic image. No wonder the Apollonian male poet allows himself to be figured by his beloved as Semele, mother of Dionysus.

These initially puzzling slippages of our poet’s ordered intelligence, which seems to confuse sacred/secular and male/female when it had been so concerned throughout the poem to separate their spheres, are explained when Dante finally does behold God, or the Eternal Light:

In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

By conceiving his self, his book, and his universe as a unity, Dante accomplishes the transfiguration of epic into lyric that will become the mark of modern poetry from Wordsworth to Whitman to Walcott. But if epic is imperial, lyric is personal, the staging of a psyche in motion, as when Dante, just before mounting up to God, records his struggle to recall and write his vision:

As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

I have never read a better analogy for the attempt to write poetry or fiction than that of trying to remember a dream whose emotional impression colors the whole day even after its events have evanesced from the mind. In the endnotes to Mandelbaum’s translations, the editors comments on this passage:

Dante, the poet attempting to record his vision, is like a man awakening from a dream he does not remember, filled with the emotion of a dream, but with no clear recollection of its particulars. We are reminded of Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan,” where the poem itself is presented as the recollection of a dream. Reading this last canto, it is easy to see how the Romantic poets were attracted by Dante. The stupendous tension of the remainder of the poem derives in large part from Dante’s dramatization of his present struggle to recollect (i.e., imagine) and describe (i.e., create in words) the content of his final vision.

Earlier in the poem, Beatrice explains to Dante that God—whom we know from his sculptures in Purgatory to be an artist—created the universe for the same reason that any artist creates, not for company and certainly not for gain but merely to affirm that what exists exists:

“Not to acquire new goodness for Himself—
which cannot be—but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare ‘Subsisto,’

in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.”

Not just a static affirmation then, but one in motion. God seeks “new loves”—should this not be foreclosed by Beatrice’s logic when she claims God seeks no “new goodness”?—and so blossoms as the rose does. Again, we suspect that Dante can’t do it: he cannot separate divinity from nature, nature from art, though Aristotle or Aquinas tell him he must. God is a rose is an artist.

Dante’s final vision is of the Trinity, specifically of its second person; he beholds a man inscribed into a circle, our effigy fused with divinity in the Incarnation. At the center of the universe and the middle of the rose, he finds the figure of the human. So in his archaic, forbidding poem, we might find ourselves, “more truly and more strange.”

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Dante, Purgatorio

Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy, #2)Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allen Mandelbaum begins his introduction to his wonderful translation thusly:

 

For the Virgil of Dante’s Purgatorio, “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII, 104-105). To find one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.The descent through Hell and ascent through the seven terraces of the Mount of Purgatory are the tale of that education of Dante’s hungering, longing, thirsting will.

The Purgatorio is the most human canticle of the Divine Comedy, many commentators say, since it alone takes place on earth—specifically on the mountain of Purgatory, which rises to the heavens at the opposite pole from Jerusalem in medieval cartography, and which was the last sight that greeted the living Ulysses on his doomed quest for knowledge in the Inferno. In line with this latter parable, Virgil cautions Dante against relying on reason, rather than seeing with the eye of faith, as they traverse the terraced mount:

“Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.

Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.”

The Purgatorio‘s spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem more “realistic,” in the sense of representing human norms, than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of we’re all fellow sufferers and pilgrims here similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a plane. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, Statius on the birth of souls, and more. The long-awaited and climactic appearance, in the Earthly Paradise, of a Beatrice full of maternal anger amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that commentators must sometimes admit ignorance is a memorable moment, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante makes me wonder—and Mandelbaum does not clear this up, nor to my recollection does Dorothy L. Sayers in her translation/commentary—from whence Dante derives her spiritual authority, which he likens to that of Christ; he has boldly added a major figure to the Christian pantheon, drawn from his daily life.

The pageant in the Earthly Paradise that concludes the canticle is spectacular in its bravura imagery and that imagery’s encoded representation of Christian history. To my mind, however, it also shows the limits of the allegorical method, since the vehicles of its metaphors are simply fantastical, with none of the earthiness of Dante’s human figures: women dancing who are green, red, and white, thus representing certain virtues, for instance, or a chariot emblematizing the church drawn by a griffin standing for Christ. I’m sure I just lack the proper taste and knowledge to appreciate medieval art, but these passages (cantos XXVII-XXXIII) with their imagery mostly untethered from human reality struck me as a poetic anticipation of CGI. Similarly, the poem’s long explanations of how shades can feel pain or how there can be wind in the Earthly Paradise feel to my post-Romantic sensibility, its faith in open-ended symbolism, like an overindulged “world-building” impulse. What can I say? Dante is a genius, no doubt, but Joyce once hesitated between Shakespeare or Dante for his desert island book before finally deciding on “the Englishman”—whereas I would not hesitate at all.

On a happier note, before the parade in the Earthly Paradise begins, the Purgatorio is a poet’s canticle, full of artists and striking disquisitions on art. God, for one thing, is Himself an artist: He has carved imposing reliefs modeling humility and chastened pride into the mountain walls, representations so real that “even Nature, there, would feel defeated,” as they trick Dante into thinking he hears the songs and smells the smoke he only sees. Dante compares himself to a child and Virgil to his mother, and the heaven-bound poet Statius, paying tribute to Virgil, calls the Aeneid his nurse and mother: poets honor their precursors in what Dante would boggle to hear me call a queer genealogy. (Would he be less comprehending at another modern critical tradition’s calling it a patriarchal one? Dante curses Eve for getting us evicted from Eden, and he dreams an alluring Siren—”that ancient witch,” Virgil calls her—whose “belly” exudes a “stench”; to these wicked women Mary and Beatrice stand as antitypes, so that the moral cosmos is organized around poles of abstracted femininity.) The Troubadours, Dante’s predecessors in the beautiful new style of love poetry, are hailed in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out of the lust-purging fire:

“I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!”

The poets do allow, though, that the fame of art is fleeting:

“Your glory wears the color of the grass
that comes and goes; the sun that makes it wither
first drew it from the ground, still green and tender.”

Again, the poem’s theme is “the education of desire.” Virgil explains that human love and desire are, when misdirected by the bad exercise of free will, the sources of sin, even as they may the source of virtue; in a similar psychological monism, Dante refutes Plato (and his inverted latter-day disciple Freud) in denying that there can be any division in the soul. This theme is enacted by the poem’s structure: Dante allows us to understand that his strict narrative structure and verse form impose the discipline on art that will allow it to serve the end of virtue. Virgil advises Dante to use his will to choose between good and evil, to recognize the “keeper of the threshold / of your assent”—and perhaps that is the role played in art by form:

[B]ut since all of the pages predisposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.

Even so, Virgil, representing the apogee of poetry as well as the limits of secular perception, is left behind at the threshold of paradise. His last words to Dante:

“Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

Nevertheless, Dante has three prophetic dreams and an ecstatic vision, whose sights he refers to as his “not false errors”; he is likewise told in the Earthly Paradise that the pagan poets’ vision of the Golden Age intuited Eden:

“Those ancients who in poetry presented
the golden age, who sang its happy state,
perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place.”

Our poet can’t help himself: even the phantasmagoria of the visionary, even the verses of the unchristened, tell the truth: art is real, beauty will save the world. Hence, despite every misgiving, Beatrice’s instruction: “‘when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen.'”

Weighing in on the perennial question of how to separate the great art from the sinning artist, Dante allows that he will almost certainly have to spend time on the Mount of Purgatory to purge the very pride without which he certainly never would have embarked on such an audacious epic (“already / I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”). When among the prideful, as they learn humility by being bent like crushed caryatids under heavy stones, Dante’s own pity enjoins him to bend with them even though Virgil counsels him to “stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake” and he himself says elsewhere that “erect” is “the stance most suitable to man.” For the curbed Christian, it sometimes seems, the energy of desire might at any moment be aimed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help but admire Ulysses in the Inferno, and I was sad to see Virgil go here, especially as he is replaced by a Beatrice whose severe reproofs leave Dante in tears. “[W]e are worms,” Dante says, waiting to attain our final form, on butterfly wings in Paradise. But I prefer the early cantos, their simplicity and starkness:

Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour,
which fled before it; in the distance I
could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
like one returning to a lost pathway,
who, till he finds it, seems to move in vain.

On Dante’s earth, language becomes the body, the face, rather than accommodating fantastical beasts in forests rustled by the wind from heaven: in the visages of the starved gluttons of Purgatory, Dante perceives the word “man,” or “omo,” formed by the flesh-purged lines of brow and nose. One sees “man,” too, in Belacqua, made sluggish by sloth, his tragicomic posture often all we can manage on earth:

And one of them, who seemed to me exhausted,
was sitting with his arms around his knees;
between his knees, he kept his head bent down.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Dante, Inferno

Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1)Inferno by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know the story: a man in the middle of life is lost in a shadowy forest of ignorance and error, his path to wisdom blocked by impassable beasts. Then he is saved by the shade of the great poet, Virgil, sent to rescue the wanderer by his dead and heavenly beloved, Beatrice. Salvation comes in the form of a journey through the Christian afterworld: a descent down the funnel of hell, a climb up the mount of purgatory, and a sojourn in paradise. Our hero, like many an epic hero before him, will quest through strange realms, even as our poet-philosopher—the hero’s own later self, recollecting the odyssey in rhyme—discloses its significance for humankind. This tripartite poem is threefold in genre: it combines epic, autobiography, and philosophy in one. Such a yoking of incommensurates marks the achievement of Dante. What ambitious imaginative writer that follows has not wished to fuse personal life and local politics with the wisdom and personae of eternity, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice”?

To ascend, you must first descend, as Odysseus and Aeneas and Freud and Jung understood. Virgil leads Dante down what Lawrence, referring to Orpheus rather than Dante, will later call “the strange lanes of hell.” Their strangeness is what should be emphasized for the contemporary reader. Dante must be the most off-putting canonical poet, his vision almost totally encrusted in allegorical interpretation: you feel like you must halt at every line of verse and ask, “What does X stand for, what does Y stand for?” And maybe—my native contrarianism makes me question the post-structuralist chaos theory of textuality—this is the ultimate or final form of reading imaginative literature, the point just before reading itself ceases because truth has been realized. But first you just have to read: the text before the commentary.

Reading the Inferno, what stands out is the inventiveness, the prodigality of imagination. Dante was hoping it would. Poetry and philosophy may rest in the end a little lower than wisdom, but we poets and philosophers sometimes feel we can stand in their fainter light forever. Hence in Limbo, at the threshold of Hell, Dante joins the great shades of antiquity—Homer and Socrates, Aristotle and Ovid—in the odd university town that is their ambiguous immortality. Neither saved nor quite punished, they are able to control themselves by force of reason but unable to redeem themselves through faith: “we have no hope and yet we live in longing,” says Virgil of his own sphere, speaking for all of us who have not been able to unite reality and justice.

But I write on Halloween morning—though the poem takes place on Easter weekend—so let me proceed to the horrors:

And—there!—a serpent sprang with force at one
who stood upon our shore, transfixing him
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot.

No o or i has ever been transcribed
so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
and, as he fell, quickly turned to ashes;

and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
the dust of him collected by itself
and instantly returned to what it was…

Dante’s horrors are uncanny in the Freudian sense of the displaced familiar; his Hell is our world, distorted. His use of epic simile, which compares the epic poet’s marvelous narrative with homely or natural places and events to make the poetic material seem more plausible, begins to work in reverse, so that the everyday comes to be seen by hellfire, just as the modern novelist, reversing the epic poet’s procedure, likens homely or domestic affairs to the strange and outlandish:

The demons did the same as any cook
who has his urchins force the meat with hooks
deep down into the pot, that it not float.

Hell, as I said, is a strange place. Writing before the Last Judgment, when the dead will rise from their tombs and rejoin their souls, Dante necessarily makes Hell a simulacrum of what will later hold full reality. Again and again, it is Dante alone whose feet dislodge stones or whose weight bears upon boats and the backs of demons. At the end of the Inferno, he even encounters the soul of a sinner who has not yet died on earth (“as soon as any soul becomes a traitor, / as I was, then a demon takes its body / away”).

The genius of Dante, then, is to organize vivid images of spiritual states: the place in the organization of Hell you occupy is a kind of metaphor for what your soul in its sinful state already looks like. The imagery of Hell is the true picture of reality that is under what we take for the normal world. If you are politically or religiously sectarian, then you are already, right now, a walking catalogue of mutilation, part cleaved from part; if you are a seller of spiritual goods, you are already, right now, upside down in a hole, having elevated the base over the holy; if you are sexually incontinent, you are already, right now, fused to another and buffeted by violent passion. One sinner, who “carried by the hair its severed head…like a lantern,” even announces God’s method to Dante, who merely copies it in his art:

Because I severed those so joined, I carry—
alas—my brain dissevered from its source,
which is my trunk. And thus, in me,

one sees the law of counter-penalty.

But it is not just that we get what we deserve; it is that sin is its own penalty. Dante invents endless haunting horrors to shock us out of sin, from rains of fire to fields of shit to vats of pitch to lakes of ice. As the two poets descend down the spiral that leads to the bottom of the universe, Virgil counsels Dante not to pity the sufferers. Is their suffering not just? Has God not ordained it? The drama of the Inferno is Dante’s growing confidence in his own judgment. He swoons with pity when he hears the story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, but by Canto XXXII he is grabbing heads frozen in ice by the scruff to enjoin them to speak. What, by the way, do the souls of sinners want from Dante? On learning he is a poet, they all want him to write of them on earth, to bring their names and stories back into circulation. This is a backhanded tribute to poetry: it is the only secular way to a relative immortality, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of eternity if even the damned can be satisfied by it? Virgil, while condemning usury as perverse replication of wealth without labor, argues that art must follow nature, which is the artistry of God:

“Philosophy, for one who understands ,
points out, and not just in one place,” he said,
how nature follows—as she takes her course—

the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;
and if you read your Physics carefully,
not many pages from the start, you’ll see

that when it can, your art would follow nature,
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild.”

Yet the God of the Inferno is an artificer of perversity; he must be, in giving the perverse their just desserts. I am not quite about to launch into an argument that Dante was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Even so, compassion accompanies clarity throughout the Inferno, if only for humanity as such and the distortions we are prey to, as when Dante sees the soothsaysers and magi with their heads twisted around in punishment for trying to see too far ahead and by ungodly means:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Perhaps the force of palsy has so fully
distorted some, but that I’ve yet to see,
and I do not believe that that can be.

May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
from what you read; and now think for yourself
how I could ever keep my own face dry

when I beheld our image so nearby
and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.

Dante and the reader, though, feel undeniable esteem for certain of the damned. The sodomite Brunetto Latini in Canto XV, whom Dante sees as a mentor, for instance:

And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser.

There is Dante’s Ulysses, who speaks of his restless voyaging beyond the pillars of Hercules from the flame where he is entombed, and who narrates his rousing speeches and his own death with tragic dignity:

“‘Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’

[…]

…for out of that new land a whirlwind rose
and hammered at our ship, against her bow.

Three times it turned her round with all the waters;
and at the fourth, it lifted up the stern
so that our prow plunged deep, as it pleased an Other,

until the sea again closed—over us.”

A theological objection does occur to the reader: if a soul like Ulysses can be so articulate and knowing about his situation, then how can grace be withheld him—or, to put it another way, if the soul remains intelligent after death, how might it not be saved? This is just another way of tormenting the nuns in religion class with the old question about God: if God is all good and all powerful, why must anyone be damned or anyone suffer? Why has a benevolent God arranged a universe with so much evil and suffering? (“We made him do it,” goes the answer; “But he made us,” goes the reply; and so on and so forth, from Genesis to Blade Runner.)

Like all reasonable ancients and moderns, but perhaps not medievals (to use an overly simplistic historical narrative), I accept that the universe is so horrifically arranged while discarding the possibility that a universally benevolent power has so arranged it. Insofar as Dante remains a poet, he does no less, and this is shown in his insistence that eternity is a kind of Florence writ large, only our own world, but seen through the eye of God.

One of the glories and sorrows of the Inferno is the amount of space taken up by Florentine politics in Dante’s time. This necessitates frequent recourse to endnotes and glosses, and, unless one is a historian, the politics never quite come clear. I grasp that Dante belonged to the leftmost wing of the republican party that initially supported the papacy against the empire, and that after he was permanently exiled by a rival faction he developed a political philosophy emphasizing a division between spiritual and worldly power. (The corruption of spiritual authority is particularly important in the Inferno, as Dante denounces church corruption and even traces it to the Donation of Constantine, which is to say the founding of the church as a secular power.) I see too how this desire to neatly arrange different types of perfection and happiness belongs to the same poetic imagination that fuses thought and image into complex but intelligible philosophical arrays.

But all the Florentine personalities tend to blur every time I read this poem, and I sometimes question the wisdom of this literary strategy; for myself, I would not ask readers almost a millennium hence to recognizes the names of, for instance, Paul Manafort and John Podesta (to choose only Italian names from the present American political inferno). Even so, I am stunned by Dante’s boldness in putting his contemporaries right next to the personae of religion and mythology and retaining a level and authoritative tone while doing so: Paul Manafort and Ulysses, John Podesta and the Titans of Olympus (I use the aforementioned contemporary American figures because I cannot just now recall the names of any Ghibellines), all occupying the same metaphysical plane.

The Inferno is a worldly city. It is, perhaps, the city we all live in on earth, and in the tones in which so many sinners speak we hear our own voices, complaining about politics and recounting our despair, chastened by the absurdity of it all and the necessity of enduring it:

My home was in the city whose first patron [Mars]
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,

he’ll always use its art to make it sorrow;
and if—along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,

those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.

I made—of my own house—my gallows place.

Postmodern psychology is the opposite of Dante’s: do we not invert his hierarchies, honoring impulse and desire over the reason that was, we hear, discredited by its bringing of inferno rather than paradise to those it colonized, enslaved, and immolated? If God does not exist and Auschwitz is the other name of reason, then it is not even any dishonor for us to acknowledge that we live in the infernal city. We have learned, perversely perhaps—but do you have any better ideas?—to enjoy the agonies our offenses bring us, to admire our own woundedness. Of Dante, we ask only vividness and discard the wisdom.

A final note on this translation. Allen Mandelbaum, working toward the end of the twentieth century (this translation dates from 1981) and working in rhyme-poor English, knew he could not replicate Dante’s terza rima while translating clearly and faithfully; but free verse would be a poor substitute for the poet’s sonically intricate yet clear and rapid Italian. Mandelbaum’s solution is superb: he chooses “close sonic packing,” he says in his introduction, “with pure rhymes, pararhyme, assonances, alliterations, and consonances often called into service.” (I tried something like this myself when trying to see the greatness in Mallarmé through a poor translation.) English is suited to such a technique: alliteration, not end-rhyme, was the major sound technique of the earliest English poets, and alliteration, assonance, and consonance serve perhaps more naturally than rhyme as sonic unifiers in English poetry. This means that while Mandelbaum’s poem does not rhyme quite as Dante’s does, it chimes throughout. In this way, it proclaims even in English, when read aloud, the unity of God’s creation as not only described but also verbally enacted by the poet.

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César Aira, Ema, the Captive

Ema, the CaptiveEma, the Captive by César Aira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading and rereading Wilde over the years, I note a fact that his panegyrists seem not even to have suspected: the elementary and demonstrable fact that Wilde is nearly always right.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “On Oscar Wilde” (trans. Esther Allen)

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.

To emphasize the stakes of the conflict, David’s victims are a crew of married couples on a mission to colonize a new planet (in a bathetic attempt to offset the film’s homophobic deep structure, we are provided among the crew a gay-married couple). The film’s emotional core is a scene wherein David attempts to seduce the crew’s own android, Walter. Both played by Michael Fassbender, the scene, notable for the double entendres that had the frat bros in the audience cackling (“I’ll do all the fingering,” David says as he teaches Walter to play a pipe), evokes the Narcissus topos of gay male desire. The seduction, alas, fails, as we might have predicted from the two androids’ verbal mannerism: Fassbender plays David in homage to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, all insinuatingly nasal cultivation, while he plays Walter with the exaggerated accent British actors always use when their characters are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth middle Americans.

The film seemingly pits family values against its queer Satan, who is more monstrous than the monsters he manipulates, and Scott and co. cynically deploy homophobia (and heterosexual titillation) to keep those frat bro ticket-buyers entertained; but I ultimately hesitate at the judgement that the film is homophobic. Who could demiurgic David represent if not the film’s maker? Who does an artist watching the film have to identify with besides its maestro of mayhem, whether director Scott or Scott’s surrogate droid? Family values, the “good” in good vs. evil, are colors on the palette (or tastes on the palate), but the artist—whether Oscar Wilde or Ridley Scott, David or myself—are in this for the excitement, beyond good and evil.

The laborer in the factory of popular culture cannot publicly advertise amoral aestheticism, however, or not for long, anyway. There is too much money at risk, too many constituencies to please, so values must be affirmed. Hence Alien: Covenant‘s plucky widow, its explicit protagonist, en route to fertilize the cosmos. Even a pop artist who does endorse aestheticism must eventually come back to hearth and home: witness the current public-spirited sorrow of poor Lana del Rey, once our nightingale of sexual nihilism, now so distressed about “tensions…rising over country lines” that she must ask, like a PTA or PSA mom, “What about all of these children?”

In “high culture”—or as Pierre Bourdieu calls it, the “field of restricted production”—you are allowed say, “Well, what about them? And who cares, anyway?” (Which vicious aloofness has this to recommend it: if you can recall being a child, you might remember that this was what you always wanted to say in the face of the adult world’s furrowed brow.) Hence Wilde’s theoretical essays and dialogues, which are forthright in their dismissal of extra-artistic interest from art; hence Borges’s equanimity in contemplating the replacement of reality by fictions, the process he narrates again and again, which politico-moral critics try to recoup as a critique of totalitarianism, like trying to convince yourself that pornography is a moral warning against fornication or, as we now call it, objectification.

By a commodious vicus of recirculation, I return from Ridley Scott’s interstellar jaunt to Argentina—not to Borges, but to his distinguished successor in his country’s avant-garde, César Aira, who candidly tells an interviewer, “maybe all my work is a footnote to Borges” (maybe?). I justify the above digression—can you begin an essay with a digression?—with the statement that Aira’s second novel, Ema, the Captive, now translated into English for the first time, tells the same story as Alien: Covenant, right down to the breeding motif (called by a character “sodomy incarnate”—i.e., queer reproduction). Though Aira wrote this book, according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

Aira is an avant-garde writer whose rejection of traditional novelistic realism and psychology takes the form of a sort of surrealist automatic writing practice: he writes his novels forward, without planning, research, or revision, inventing as he goes. Ema, the Captive is my third Aira novel, and like the other two, its story is an allegorization of the pleasures and perils of this procedure. Like the other two I have read, Ema concludes that there is in fact no “forward” in this life, nor any separation of art from nature, just an interlocking set of gestures and processes, pursued by animal, vegetable, and mineral alike, in the making and remaking of the world.

Ema, the Captive has roughly four movements. It begins with a military caravan of white men and convicts as they cross the pampas to reach a distant European outpost in the wilds of nineteenth-century Argentina. The hero of this section is a French engineer named Duval who is gradually initiated into Aira’s endorsement of procedure for its own sake:

But he cherished the hope that the task assigned to him would be all-encompassing and absorb his life entirely. He could not, in that state of mind, have found satisfaction in anything less sublime.

We meet the Ema of the title only in passing; she is a “white” convict caring for her child (though Aira mocks the arbitrariness of racial classification by noting that she does not at all look white but functions as white in both European and Indian racial economies because both groups wish her to be so for their own purposes).

She is eventually traded to the Indians, and the second movement details her experiences with her “husband” Gombo in a native settlement near a European fort, where she contemplates the colonel Espina’s introduction of money into native society as a medium of pure and meaningless representation that somehow creates value (one character makes the analogy to art clear: “Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as a means of passing the time”).

Their town is attacked by Indians from the frontier, however, and the third movement, mimicking the first, features Ema only as a side character as it details the languid, melancholy, Huysmans-like pleasure of prince Hual, on an island sojourn with his courtly retinue, including Ema. On this island, he delivers himself of beautifully nihilistic speeches—

“Life,” he said, “is a primitive phenomenon, destined to vanish entirely. But extinction is not and will not be sudden. Destiny is what gives the incomplete and the open their aesthetic force.”

—as the Indians pull a fish like a “very white woman” out of the water, thus certifying the universality of captivity.

In the fourth movement, Ema decides to take some control of her fate by breeding pheasants and thus participating in the complicated and interconnected economies of various Indian nations and the white colonizers—like Espina, like her creator, she too wishes to invent a self-replicating system of arbitrary values. This should not be read as a conventional triumph, however, but only Ema’s own initiation into what the other characters, from Duval to Gombo to Hual to Espina, have come to understand: as Gombo tells Ema, “If it weren’t impossible, life would be horrific.” I take “impossible” to mean, paradoxically, both “unendurable” and “full of infinite potential.”

That was the last and definitive lesson remaining for her to learn. Then everything fell into silence. There was no anabasis.

One could object all day long to this novel on political grounds, from its blasé depiction of the heroine’s rape to its wholly fantastical portrayal of Native Americans, but this would be an external critique and so somewhat beside the novel’s point (Wilde: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming”), which is that all life is a skein of procedures stretched over the void. As this article explains, Aira wrote the novel under conditions of a fascist regime, so his apolitical styling was an evasion worth making. Aira anyway evades the usual stereotypes in pursuit of new ones: his victimized heroine is not the “strong female character” of captivity narratives celebrated from Mary Rowlandson to Ellen Ripley by what critics have called a culture of imperialist feminism, but a novitiate in the aesthetic clerisy, while his Indians are not noble savages but, like Wilde’s Japanese, a nation of exemplary artists:

Imitating them was like returning to the source. Elegance is a religious, perhaps even a mystical, quality. The aesthetics of polite society: an imperative departure from the human. […] But the Indians kept still; their sole occupation was hanging from the blue air like bats.

Ema, the Captive is short, but it took me a long time to read. Aira remarkably recreates the trance-like state of his benumbed characters as they contemplate the impossibility of everything. In Chris Andrews’s translation, Aira’s phantasmagoria comes to listless life, feverishly dreamy, grotesque and sexy, a genuine and difficult pleasure:

They realized that they were, by chance, about to witness the act of mating. The male could barely control his excitement. When he swam upside down, they saw two horns, one on either side of the anus, as long and thick as pencils, with sharp points. The female turned over: her anus was surrounded by bulbous rings of throbbing tissue. The creatures coupled and sank to the bottom. The water made their cries sound distant. They tumbled in ecstasy, still clamped together. A web of white threads spread out around them.

I recommend Ema, the Captive with reservations (it is slow; it is, in its way, didactic), but even the reservations are recommendations—it is as slow as its preponderant mood of entranced nihilism demands; what it propounds is the truth, or one mood or mode of truth, even if we are not usually permitted to admit that we find life meaningless and impossible. To repurpose a line from the novel, Aira’s “words [stand] out beautifully against the ambient strangeness.”

The complete severance of art from life—or the claim that life is art, which amounts to the same separation as it undoes the hierarchy that allows art to be understood as a representation of nature—is the logical terminus of the aesthetic, its becoming free, like the droid-bred alien that menaces the crew of the Covenant. Art is too powerful to remain at large, though; readers of my recent reviews, those on Georg Lukács and Gillian Rose, will know that I fully expect—and in some part of my divided psyche, I even welcome—a forced recapture of art to affirmative values. Maybe it has to be that way, even from the perspective of art’s own interests: Aira is an end, not a beginning, and the paradox of aestheticist art, as I am always saying, is that it is less exciting than art that more urgently narrates the conflict of values. As he writes in this novel of an Indian ceremony, Aira’s work “require[s] the maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” For now, though, we can say with Borges that Wilde was right whether we like it or not about art’s separation from life, and learn to enjoy, along with Aira’s text and Scott’s subtext, the fact that we are all, in the end, equally alien, and that there is no known higher authority with whom we may covenant as we invent ourselves and our planet.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd

Faces in the CrowdFaces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The honest critic must be content to find a VERY LITTLE contemporary work worth serious attention; but he must also be ready to RECOGNIZE that little, and to demote work of the past when a new work surpasses it.
—Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Faces in the Crowd is Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s first novel, published in Spanish in 2011 and in Christine MacSweeney’s English translation in 2014. The English translation is named for Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—the Spanish title, by contrast, translates to The Weightless—and the novel can be read as a tribute to modernism. Like the modernists, Luiselli writes in fragments organized by mood and meaning rather than plot; and like the modernists, she is committed to both the evanescent self and the modern city through which it drifts. If her first novel is not entirely successful, if it is too emblematic of the present’s will-to-curation and cleverness, it is not for lack of intelligence.

Faces in the Crowd tells two stories as one. The main narrator is a young mother of two in a troubled marriage to an architect; she lives in Mexico City, and she is writing a fictionalized reminiscence of her younger days in New York City when she worked for a publisher of translated literature. Because of her childcare duties, she explains, her novel will have a fragmented form:

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Consequently, the novel is divided into very brief sub-divisions, few longer than a page.

For the novel’s first half, Luiselli divides the narrative between the main narrator in Mexico City, whose husband is becoming increasingly suspicious of what he reads over her shoulder, and the narrator’s New York past. In New York, she had been friends with a variety of urban artist types I have already forgotten—too much of this part of the book reads like hipster-hijinks Brooklyn indie comedy, ready to be filmed with Greta Gerwig in the lead. On top of that, the fractured storytelling ensures that we never get to know Moby, Salvatore, Dakota, and the rest in any but the broadest outlines since we spend so little time with them. Nevertheless, the heroine’s job at the publishing house and her conversations with White, her editor, allow Luiselli to situate her own work not only biographically—she was a new mother when she wrote it, like the narrator—but also within the sociology of literary markets:

Weren’t you a friend of Bolaño? White shouted from his desk (I worked at a small desk beside his, so the shouting was unnecessary but it made him feel like a real editor). He took a long drag on his cigarette and continued in the same mode: Haven’t you got any letters from him or an interview or something we could publish? he shouted. No, White, I never met him. Shame. Did you hear that, Minni? We have the honor of working with the only Latin American woman who wasn’t a friend of Bolaño. Who’s he, chief? asked Minni, who never knew anything about anything. He’s the most popular dead Chilean writer ever. His name gets dropped more than coins into a wishing well.

Eventually, she tries to get her translations of the real-life early-20th-century Mexican poet Gilberto Owen published, passing them off as rediscovered translations by his American friend Zvorsky (really a fictionalized Louis Zukofsky).

From there, the narrator abandons her memoir-like fiction about her own past and composes instead a neo-modernist city novel—though still intercut with her own present—about Owen’s life in America. Owen narrates in the first person, and his own story has two temporal levels: the “present” of his section of the novel is the 1940s, when he is a Mexican consul in Philadelphia, alcoholic, divorced, and going blind; from this dismal vantage, he recalls his glory days in the 1920s, when he spent his time in Harlem drinking and writing with Lorca, Zukofsky, Nella Larsen, and others. Throughout the novel, Owen and the narrator have been seeing each other in the subway, just as Ezra Pound supposedly saw the ghost of his dead friend in the metro, prompting the epochal poem that gives this novel its English title.

Is all the foregoing the reverie of a house-bound mother, regretting the artistic life she was not able to lead? That would make the novel a somewhat standard political statement, but Luiselli has metaphysical ambitions. The end of the novel distinctly implies—in what I believe is a nod to one of Luiselli’s major precursors in the Mexican novel, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo—that all of the characters are dead and are interacting as ghosts in an afterlife of picturesque urban desolation. Rather than the clear utterance of a single narrator, the mother in Mexico City, the novel becomes a Möbius strip whose narrators and narratives pass through and into each other almost imperceptibly until the final sentences, when Owen and the narrator seem on the cusp of discovering how they have haunted each other. The novel’s last line has the force of a riddle’s solution—it is worthy of Nabokov.

Faces in the Crowd is ingeniously conceived, but also a bit of a mixed achievement. As I said above, the whole strand of the plot set in the narrator’s New York past comes to seem extraneous—what do we need all of its quirky characters for? And the section on the narrator’s present life generates and then squanders the suspense of her husband’s increasing suspicion. The narrator’s young son, moreover, has the worst raison d’être for any fictional child—he was invented, alas, to say The Darnedest Things, which he does for the novel’s entire length:

What’s your book about, Mama?
It’s a ghost story.
Is it frightening?
No, but it’s a bit sad.
Why? Because the ghosts are dead?
No, they’re not dead.
Then they’re not very ghosty.

And the obtrusive and portentous metafictional asides (“A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart,” “A vertical novel told horizontally”) are the sort of thing that should be edited out of a first novel.

More seriously, Faces in the Crowd‘s reflection on the status of Mexican literature and identity will perhaps read oddly or even offensively to U.S. readers; it relies on Owen’s racial typology, never notably contradicted by the novel overall, which positions the Mexican uncomfortably between the abstract “Swedes” and the earthy “blacks” who seem to divide what he calls “the United Estates” between them. The real-life figure of Nella Larsen comes to serve as the novel’s symbol for this polarity—

Nella Larsen was a writer. She was also Danish and a mulatta. In that sense, she was a walking, wiggling paradox who united the two characteristics that separated the Owens from the Federicos of this world: the Swede and the African, the world of the whites and the world of the blacks, what was not mine and what was not his. That to which we both aspired in a culture incapable of absorbing us.

—though Larsen’s own assessment of her conflicted cultural and social position, particularly in her extraordinary first novel Quicksand, is far more rational than Owen’s racial mysticism would suggest. Does Luiselli share Owen’s hoary theory about Ice People and Sun People and the poor Latins in between? Hard to say—though the narrator’s own depictions of African-American characters earlier in the novel (“[she] screamed, You madafaka, then beat his face with the chicken leg”) hint that she is not deploying stereotype as critically as she might.

In any case, the purely literary problem here is less essentialism or racialism than their likely source in Luiselli’s nostalgia for modernism. She may mock the Bolaño trend, but it is probably underpinned by the same nostalgia, and this is not to mention Enrique Vila-Matas, author of the Joyce-worshipping Dublinesque, who provides a lavish back-cover blurb; nor is this post-postmodern curation of modernism confined to Spanish-language contemporary writing, as we know from the autofiction and flânerie vogues in post-Sebaldian Anglophone fiction. This is not to disparage modernism, but to question the vitality of a literary period that is providing annotations to the last major high point in western literature rather than attempting to create new forms—which is what the modernists themselves were trying to do. If they looked to the past, it was to transfigure it, not to imitate it. Faces in the Crowd warns in its epigraph, quoted from The Kaballah, “If you play at ghosts, / you become one.

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