Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

The first few pages of Nooteboom’s novella The Following Story called to mind the same eerie calmness one finds in Kafka’s Metamorphoses.  Herman Mussert goes to sleep in his apartment in Amsterdam but wakes up a hotel room in Lisbon where twenty years previously he had spent a few days with his lover.  Mussert recognizes the room but doesn’t know how here got there or which body he occupies—his current one or the younger one he had on his visit twenty years ago.  He decides to retrace his steps around Lisbon while remembering the events in his life that caused him to visit this city before.

When he was in his early thirties Mussert was a classics teacher at a high school; he loved teaching Latin and he was very successful at it.  In the first part of the book Nooteboom is writing about metamporhosis-–how his character’s life, his career, his loneliness have evolved over the past twenty years.  Mussert had an affair with a colleague, a fellow science teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose obnoxious husband also works at the school and is having his own affair with a student.  The centerpiece and most clever piece of the narrative takes place in Mussert’s  and Marina’s  classrooms when they observe one another’s lessons.  While in Maria’s class Mussert learns all about beetles who use the carrion of rats to mate and reproduce.  Mussert also teaches a lesson on metamorrphosis, that of Phaeton borrowing his father Apollo’s  chariot and crashing it while carrying the sun.  “It is obvious from the start,” Mussert thinks, “that disaster will befall him, that Apollo’s foolish son will come crashing down with his golden chariot and fire-breathing horses.”  Nooteboom’s language is filled with striking images that foreshadow Mussert’s fate.

The catalyst for change in Mussert’s life is his love for Maria.  Life after Maria involves solitary nights with his books, his cat, a different career and an attempt to forget about his time with her.  His strange and sudden appearance in Lisbon brings all the stages of his metamorphosis back to him:

Ignis mutat res (fire changes everything), I muttered, but my matter was not to be changed by any fire. I had already changed. Around me there was burning and melting, other two-headed creatures came to life, but I had long since lost my other, so red-haired head, the female half of me had broken off.  I had become a sort of cinder, a residue.  My reason for being here, on this perhaps or perhaps not sought-after journey, could well be a pilgrimage back to those days, and if so I, like a medieval pilgrim, would have to visit all the sites of my brief hold life, all the stations where the past had a face.

In the second part of the book Mussert suddenly finds himself on a ship, sailing on the ocean, then on the Amazon river, which becomes an elaborate metaphor for his  voyage to the afterlife. Nooteboom’s narrative is filled with images of death and allusions to the underworld.  Mussert describes the last few days of his teaching career, during which time he was giving a lesson on the Crito and Socrates’s death, which ends suddenly and tragically.  Mussert’s fellow passengers on this trip, a priest, an airline pilot, a child, a journalist and an academic, all take turns telling tragic stories of loss suffered during their lives.  And Mussert thinks about his translation of Horace Odes, Book II, and in particular his translation of the lines: Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?  Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?

As the ship makes its way down the river, the underworld and death metaphors become more obvious with Nooteboom’s stunning language:

The water turned a deeper, more disturbing shad of brown. Large pieces of wood floated on the surface. This was the throat of the great river, this was where the continent spat out its gut, this mud had been carried down from the Andes, through the wounded jungle guarding its last secrets, its last hidden dwellers, the lost world of eternal shadows, the tenebrae. Procul recedant somnia, et noctium fantasmata,  Protect me from bad dreams, the phantasms of the night.

Phaeton. Gustave Moreau. 1878

 

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Don’t Talk So Much: Convalescent Conversations by Laura Riding

I started reading the wonderful poetry of Laura Riding after I discovered her in Michael Schimidt’s book Lives of the Poets.  And I realized that I had two of her prose books published by Ugly Duckling Presse sitting on my bookshelves.  Convalescent Conversations was first published in 1936 by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, under her pseudonym Madeleine Vara.  It is a short novel with two central characters, Eleanor and Adam, recovering from unspecified illnesses, in the same nursing home.  They are both in their 30’s, single, and from the same social class.  When their nurse wheels them both out onto the same veranda every day for some fresh air, they find lots of things to talk about.

Riding’s  experimental piece of writing is described as having no real plot, which, I think, best showcases the brilliance of her talent.  Her characters are charming, humorous, fussy, and philosophical so there is no need for a traditional plot.  We don’t miss it.   The only real twist, if we can even call it that, is when Eleanor and Adam seem to be developing romantic feelings for one another, even though they vehemently resist this idea.  Their conversations range in topics from politics, to marriage, to sex, to religion, to language.  Eleanor seems to be the guiding force of the first eight chapters.  Riding gives her the most interesting and profound pieces of the dialogue.   When discussing the topic of beauty, for instance, Adam asks, “But have women a secret—a real secret?” to which Eleanor responds with a humorous and astute argument:

Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all.

The dialogue also veers into very serious topics, which read like a Platonic dialogue, in which Adam is the one who brings up conventional wisdom and Eleanor plays the role of the true philosopher like Socrates and disputes these conventional ideas.  Riding sometimes even sets up the text to look like a Socratic dialogue with characters’ names inserted into the text.  In their discussion on religion Eleanor starts with, “I don’t have ideas or pictures about God. God to me is a name—a name for all the most important things that nobody can define, and not the right name.”  Adam responds, “You mean things like truth and goodness and reality?”  Which question brings forth from Eleanor one of her longer arguments:

Yes, things like that—all the impressive ideas that people don’t believe in privately, but only in groups. Or perhaps privately they believe in them a little. Then you throw a lot of people together and they believe in such things in a big way. That’s what churches are for: you get people together and add up all the fractions of belief or interest that each one has in things which don’t bother them very much in their daily lives—and the answer is ‘God’. But no single person has more than a fraction of interest, and so the combined feeling isn’t very strong—only louder; like when a schoolmaster gets the whole class to recite a poem because no single boy recites it with much enthusiasm. He gets more volume from the class as a whole, but not more enthusiasm.

In the last few chapters, a new invalid is introduced into the mix, a Mrs. Lyley who quickly realizes that Eleanor and Adam have developed feelings for one another.  She too, has astute and philosophical observations about life and relationships that she shares with her younger friends: “But don’t you believe that when two people are thrown together and find themselves in sympathy they owe it to—well, to each other—not to draw apart again? I mean, it’s like finding something nice in the street that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone—it’d be sinful to kick it aside and pass on. Like a rose: you’d take it home and put it in water. I know I would.”

Mrs. Lyley invites Eleanor and Adam to finish their convalescence at her country home, but with the condition that they must fall in love with one another.  Eleanor is especially resistant to the whole idea and overthinks this generous proposal.  Adam finally steps in with the right arguments to convince her to take up Mrs. Lyley’s offer.  He suggests they hold hands and call one another ‘darling’ and brings up the topic of love:

Eleanor: Have I ever said I loved you?

Adam: No, but I love you. And I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me.

Eleanor: Well, I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me. So that makes just the conversational deadlock you pride yourself this isn’t.

Adam: Oh, but it isn’t a deadlock. If I say I won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, and you say you won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, that’s not a conversational deadlock, but an identical expression of an identical hope. And the chances are that the weather will be fine, and that we’ll go out together. Or stay indoors together if it’s not fine.

Eleanor: Don’t talk so much.

The other Riding book I have yet to read, which is also part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, is entitled Experts are Puzzled, which, after sampling her prose, I am also very much looking forward to reading.

My friend Tony has also written a wonderful review of this book at his blog: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/convalescent-conversations-madeleine-vara-laura-riding/

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Body into Body: Lucretius De Rerum Natura 4.1096-1120

Just as when a thirsty man, in his sleep, attempts to take a drink but the moisture needed to extinguish the fire in his limbs is no where to be found; so instead he looks for images of liquids and struggles in vain and drinking in the middle of a roaring river he is still thirsty.   In the same way, Venus, in matters of the heart, teases lovers with images; and these lovers, even when face to face and looking at one another’s actual bodies, can’t satisfy themselves; and even when their hands are wandering  hesitantly over one another’s body they are not able to scrape off anything of  their lover’s tender limbs.  And when, at last, with limbs entwined, they enjoy the fruit of their age, and when their bodies are on the point of ecstasy, and Venus is on the edge of sowing the woman’s field,  they greedily join their bodies and mix together the saliva of their mouths, and breathing into each other they press teeth on mouths. But all this is in vain since they are still not able to scrape off anything from each other, or to penetrate one another or to enter completely into one another—body into body; they often seem to not only want this but they also struggle to do this. And so they longingly cling together in the bonds of Love and, shaken by the force of their pleasure, their limbs melt away.  Finally, when the desire, mounting from their pleasure, bursts forth, there is a brief pause in this violent passion at least for a little.  But once again, this same madness returns and that fury revisits them.  When they are desirous and look to hold onto something—but they aren’t sure what—they are unable to find  a way to conquer the ache.  And so,uncertain, they waste away from this mysterious wound.

 

My reading of Sade and a recent thread from @Noxrpm on Twitter inspired me to spend some time translating this section of De Rerum Natura.

 

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Dispelling our Fears: Aline and Valcour Volume 3 by Marquis de Sade

Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes.  Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus.  The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union.  The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate.  The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.

Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment.  Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system.  Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters.  All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact.  Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry.  He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.

But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral.  Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure.  It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover.  His arguments are cold and chilling:

…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it.  It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.

Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided.  But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire?  The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.

In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion.  Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative.  Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined.  Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife.  But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife?  Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?

In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose.  Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers.  We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge.  In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.”  This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife.  It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.

The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:

After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.

The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel.  In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world?  Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives.  My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.

One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice  copies of the illustrations from the original publication.

 

 

 

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Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2020

It’s time for my annual Respice Futurum post about possible books and reading projects I am interested in for the new year.  I’ve explained in previous years that the institution where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has this simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape what I will read moving forward.

There are authors this year whose work I’ve just started to explore and am very eager to continue reading.  These include Camus, Gabriel Josipovici, Fanny Howe, Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Handke and Milan Kundera.  I’m also thrilled to read Boris Dralyuk’s new translations of Tolstoy’s short stories out now from Pushkin Press. I never got around to reading Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry which I really want to read this year.

I also continue to be heavily influenced by the wonderful readers I’ve met on literary Twitter and in the blogging community.  Some of the recommendations from these friends include Sandor Marai, Hélène Cixous, E. Arnot Robertson and Thomas Mann. I’ve also been inspired to tackle some challenging books such as  Broch’s Death of Virgil, Joyce’s Ulysses, Pound’s Cantos, and to reread Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Thanks to my literary friends, you know who you are!

I usually like to have a least one long-term reading project every year.  While I was reading Proust over the summer I decided it would be interesting to read a series of books on music.  So far I have Adorno’s Essays on Music, Gide’s Notes on Chopin, Quignards The Hatred of Music and Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home.  There is a thread on Twitter with a wonderful list of additional recommendations as well and I have ordered several more books for this project.

And finally, here is a list of my favorite presses who have new/forthcoming books I am very excited to purchase and read:

Carcanet:

Fifthy Fifthy: Carcanet’s Julilee in Letters, ed by Robyn Marsack

Forgetting by Gabriel Josipovici

Prose by Yves Bonnefoy, ed. by Stephen Romer and Anthony Rudolf

The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn and with illustrations by Jeff Fisher

Contra Mundum:

Microliths by Paul Celan, tr. Pierre Joris

Chapter on Love by Miklós Szentkuthy

Seagull Books:

The Red Scarf by Yves Bonnefoy, tr. Steven Romer

Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poems and Prose by Charles Baudelaire, tr. Beverley Bie Brahic

Mysterious Solidarities by Pascal Quignard, tr. Chris Turner

There is also a new Jean-Luc Nancy forthcoming from Seagull translated by Charlotte Mandell

New York Review of Books:

Abigail by Magda Szabo, tr. Len Rix

The Criminal Child: Selected Essays by Jean Genet, tr. Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman

Margery Kempe by Robert Glück

The Magnetic Fields by by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, tr. Charlotte Mandell

The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

Pushkin Press:

The Marquise of O by Henrich Von Kleist, tr. Nicholas Jacobs

And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon: Selected Stories by Nikolai Gogol, tr. Oliver Ready

I will also keep my subscriptions to A Public Space, Poetry, and maybe Ugly Duckling Presse for poetry books and chapbooks.

Of course, all of this reading is subject to mood, the weather, the alignment of the stars, etc.  I never really know where my reading adventures will take me.  At least this gives me a few ideas…

Happy New Year!

 

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