Monthly Archives: February 2009

Too many books…

It’s reached the point where I now feel just plain overwhelmed. I went on a holds-placing frenzy, and now as a result I have so many books littered in the hallway of our just moved-into house that I feel overwhelmed and at a loss of where to start. I’ve reacted by smuggling home children’s books from the Learning Center at the B&G Club, the Domain of which I count myself as Master and Overlord (today one of the other part-time staff said that the chick who previously had my job lasted a week, before leaving in tears… it made me feel pleased as punch, there on my knees, picking up the scattered Uno cards). This week I’ve devoured many childhood favorites: “The Boxcar Children,” “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” “Ramona the Pest,” “Anastasia’s Chosen Career,” “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil something-or-other,” ‘Bridge to Terabithia,” “Bunnicula” (a brilliant novel–I read this in 1st grade, apparently it’s 6th grade reading level… daymn, was I smart stuff–I feel like Greg in Tori’s “Pretty Good Year” just thinking about it, they say you were something in those formative years, hold onto noting as fast as you can.

Despite this impressive-sounding list, sadly enough, everything else sits untouched and unread. The enormous Salman Rushdie book I already know I should return, because there’s no way I’m ever going to read it. “Lolita” and “Ulysses,” the two main competetiors for the Why Haven’t You Read This In Full Yet?! Feel Ashamed category (these two are the others on this shameful list. To be fair, I read “Lolita” in sixth grade, it made a nice wooshing sound as most of its literary value and merit flew straight over my head). Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms.” A big pile of other random books I’m not even going to list because I know there’s no way I’m going to have time for them so they’re just going to end up getting returned. And god knows what other holds-arrival notification e-mails will be sitting in my inbox tomorrow.

It’s not that I haven’t been reading, though. I read Onetti’s “Los adioses” in English (Balderston translation), a weird and truly wonderful novella about a basketball player with tuberculosis. My goodreads account claims I’m reading “Pride & Prejudice”, which I did, for about ten minutes, back wen I was sick as a dog on its deathbed over the weekend with a flu so bad that even my eyes hurt, making even reading difficult (the ultimate sickbed activity). “P&P” is one of those books I’ve started 10 times but have never made it past the 50-page mark… now that I’ve seen the wonderful TV series, I’m wondering if it may be time to just give up the ghost, say “I Do Not Care for Jane Austen” (as opposed to what I really think, which is that Jane Austen really does just sucks).

So basically I think I’m going to tackle “Rios profundos” next, another book recommended to me back in the day by my advisor, mostly because I really miss reading in Spanish, and because I was helping Corey with his Spanish homework the other day, and was annoyed by how many times I had to confess that I wasn’t exactly sure of the words for “blender” or “walnut” and had to shamefully retreat to an online dictionary. I have the Spanish version, checked out very kindly by Corey from the PSU library (the absence of Summit in my life has by far been the only sad thing about not being a student anymore).

And then what? I had an epic plan there for a while to read “Ulysses” and Homer’s “Odyssey” (the Fagles translation) at the same time, alternating between chapters. I don’t know how into that plan I am anymore; it feels a little gimmicky–plus those are damn heavy books, and it’d be super lame to carry them around in my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink backpack all day). Who know? I’ll worry about it then, I guess!

One small yet significant (to me at least!) success story is that the books I own are proudly stacked and shelved. Nothing makes me feel more at peace or at home than a shelf full of books. It’s the very first thing I did when we moved in, even before putting away my clothes. Here is the first shelf:
The Corrections
Sacred Hunger
Fight Club
Staying ALive- Real Poems for Unreal Times
The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (huge green Bible-sized compilation from CTY days)
The Art of the Tale
Life of Pi
Respiracion artificial (stolen from Argentinian in Ecuador–I have officially become a person who borrowed a book and never returned it)
The Ruins
The Duchess (Mom’s)
La muerte de Artemio Cruz
El Matadero
The Safety of Objects
Cien Anos de Soledad (Corey reading this one right now and greatly enjoying it!)
Asi que pasen cinco anos
The years of Rice and Salt (I had two copies of this–why?)
The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories
Sophie’s World
The Woman Warrior (taken from free box at Wesleyan)
Se’s Come Undone
How Far Can You Go? (<3 David Lodge)
Kafka’s Complete Short Stories (the typeface in this book is so bad that a ton of periods are missing… so in sixth grade or something I went through and replaced a lot of them with a pen. It makes reading the stories so annoying and distracting that I think I am just going to have to buy a new copy)
Extremely Loud and Everything Close
Everything is Illuminated

There is definitely a story behind every book purchased, about the time in your life when you read it, and so on…

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History as the Only Refuge: "Artificial Respiration"

Man, this is one of my favorite books. I’ve never read anything else quite like it. It’s like reading all the notes and theories and ideas from my advisor’s classes condensed into a single volume of fiction (which would make sense, since Piglia was his advisor at Princeton). I read it over the summer in Spanish and have now recently re-read it in English, in a version translated the same guy who translated the Onetti versions I used for the T (why am I still talking about this thing a year later? Suddenly I understand why you get more than one year for your PhD dissertation… nine months is just not enough time, not at all).

The best way to describe Piglia’s fiction is literary criticism masquerading as fiction. Or perhaps fiction masquerading as literary criticism. I can definitely see someone reading this and throwing it across the room, complaining loudly that “nothing ever happens in this book!” That is definitely true. The last 100 pages or so consist of a Polish expat espousing on his theories on the relationship between Kafka and Hitler, the theories of Wittgenstein and other such deliciously philosophical nuggets. I for one loved it, and I think whoever says that these parts of the book are irrelevant or distracting from the main storyline are missing the entire point (upon second reading, I now seriously think the Kafka-Hitler section is the key to the whole book, and not just because how the description of Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in a sanatorium provides a key to the book’s title).

In the introduction, Balderston cites a useful quote from Piglia on the importance of literary coding in his work:

“Piglia argues that it is a mistake to read Artificial Respiration as a simple product of a period of state terror. “I believe,” he says, “that coding is the work of fiction in any context… I believe that fiction always codes and constructs hieroglyphs out of social reality. Literature is never direct… What I do believe is that political contexts define ways of reading.”

Codes and attempts to decipher play an important part in this book (isn’t that all what literary criticism is anyway? An attempt to “decode”?). As the Polish character says near the end of the novel, “To read, one must know how to associate.” More than anything else, AR asks us to associate, to decode–to be good, active readers, which is imperative considering the subject at hand.

It’s interesting that Piglia mentions the period of state terror in which AR was written, because I can definitely imagine someone (albeit someone a bit clueless and stupid) reading this book and just plain not getting the state terror angle at all, because it is never directly referred to, not at all, not once. One thing that makes this translation particularly useful to read is that Balderston includes all these endnotes explaining Piglia’s references to different historical figures and events in Argentine history. You can definitely tell that Piglia was a historian by training. Balderston raises the interesting possibility that the books title refers to the Argentine Republic (Respiracionn Artificial–Republica Argentina). Is it be possible to read this entire book as a sort of retelling/narration of the history of Argentina itself? Probably yes x1000 (there’s definitely enough endnotes to reinforce that argument).

Anyway, it’s interesting to see that Piglia sees state terror as such an important presence in the work, and yet it is hardly mention. That deliberate silence in the novel completely changes everything, casting a giant shadow over everything that takes place, from the character that everyone waits for in the last 100+ pages who never appears, to the stand-in-for-the-reader character pouring over old letters and notes, looking for codes and hidden messages. It’s like a giant Voldemort lurking on the edges of the pages, a dark He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. As the Polish guy says, “To speak of the unspeakable is to put in danger to survival of language as the bearer of human truth.” (213)

In reference to this silence of trying to speak of the unspeakable, the famous quote by Wittgenstein is cited several times by different characters: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In AR, what cannot be spoken about refers to both events and knowledge. As I see it, all of AR revolves around the following question: how do you speak about the unspeakable? That’s why the section that describes an imagined encounter better Kafka and Hitler is so important. Kafka is described as “the one who knows how to listen,” (206) “attentive to the sickly murmurs of history,” sitting at the cafe table, listening to Hitler’s angry rants and passionate plans for his future domination. History = his-story. Kafka writes fiction that masquerades as coded messages from the past about the future; he speaks of the unspeakable. Piglia writes about the state terror of Argentina while not writing about it, and it doing so, he is making a lot of interesting implications about how it is possible to write about reality (the same dilemma Joyce attempted to tackle). He seems to be saying to do so is impossible, which is why he focuses so much on characters talking, on letters, on outlines and drafts for potential novels, on techniques that are the logical follow-up to Borgesian fictions. Wow, it all just kinda really blows my mind.

The last thing about this this book I want to briefly touch upon is the theme of the classical Bildungsroman. There’s a lot of talk by the characters on the importance of experience in the formation of characters and lives (I think it is here where PIglia’s fanboy Onetti homage is most evident). Let me share with you some of my favorites:

Sooner or later, I thought, I am going to become a great writer, but in the meantime I should have adventures. And I thought that everything that happened to me, no matter how idiotic, was a way of accumulating that depth of experience on which I assummed great writers built their work… what can one have in life but two or three experiences? All of us invent a variety of stories (ultimately versions of the same story) so as to imagine that something has happened to us in the course of our lives: a story or series of stories that ultimately are all that we really have lived, stories we tell ourselves so as to imagine that we have had experiences or that something meaningful has happened to us. But who can guarantee that the order of the story is that of life?”

This is so related to my thesis that it makes me want to die.

Here’s my other favorite quote, from the chapter narrated by the Senator, who is perhaps the most Faulknerian character in the appropriately most Faulknerian chapter:

“Sometimes, I think I understand it all.. The understanding lasts but a moment and in that moment no doubt what has happened is that I have fallen asleep when I thought I was thinking or understanding… how could I expalin that? How would I–how could I–do that? That’s why I must stop talking now I, the Senator, should, for a moment, stop talking. What I cannot explain without words I prefer to keep silent,” said the Senator, “as I am unable to explain without words.”

This quote sounds a lot better in Spanish; it reads a little clunky it English, which is unfortunate.

I have six more pages of handwritten notes about AR, but I think it’s best that I stop here. It’s books like these that make me glad I’m alive.


Filed under Bildungsroman, books, experience, review, truth

I’m not looking for you to see like me, feel like me, or be like me

While I like my little routines (bread with pepperjack cheese for breakfast… making my lunch the night before… really, really hot showers), at times I’m afraid that they make my life a little monotonous, as opposed to comfortably reliable.

I really like my jobs, and maybe it’s just February (it SNOWED two days ago), but at this point working on an organic farm in Nicaragua or Honduras for an indefinite period of time is beginning to sound more and more appealing.

Aaaaand I don’t want to miss my bus.

Expect a really great entry I’ve been working on (time! where is the time?!) the Civil War and death this weekend. I like writing long book review-based entries, but that style may find itself replaced by the short sound-byte style above, 24-hour AP news cycle, for the time being… at least until I figure out how to cram more hours into my day. Depressingly enough, getting my own computer so I don’t have to use Corey’s would help.

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I am so sick of this nasty, sugary peanut butter my bro got at Fred Myer that it has driven me to return to blogging (and now I will probably miss my bus).

However, there is absolutely nothing else in the house to eat. There is not even a stick of butter or a drop of oil with which to fry an egg.

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