Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tragic sense of life

As a young man in Paris, I was impressed by this book by a great Spanish writer, which I used to read in an elegant English translation. The small volume is still present in my bookshelves. These days, however, I rarely reopen this category of old-fashioned stuff.


Initially, the title alone had seduced me: Del sentimiento trágico de la vida. Then I admired the art and skill with which Miguel de Unamuno—a resolute aficionado of Don Quixote—could juggle with reverential references to Jesus Christ, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Ávila without ever telling us explicitly whether he did or did not believe in the god of Christians. Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for a popular philosopher to remain so wishy-washy, no matter how noble his prose. Unamuno signed his masterpiece in 1912, before the madness of the Great War. He died a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1936, a broken-hearted witness of events, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, after a violent public confrontation with the Falangist general José Millán Astray concerning the terrible oath "¡Viva la Muerte!".

In a different context, at a later point in time, Unamuno might have evolved into an Albert Camus. Instead, he remained an elusive Basque observer of a world that had become too complex, too chaotic and too terrible for him to understand. Nevertheless, he stood up firmly and courageously, like a matador awaiting the charge of the black toro. Finally, though, a las cinco de la tarde, the blood stains on the sand of the arena of History were those of Unamuno's Romantic "philosophy". Six months before Unamuno's death in Salamanca, the 38-year-old poet Federico García Lorca had been shot stupidly, on 19 August 1936. Yes indeed, in those days, life had assumed a tragic sense.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Old phoney has finally gone

Over the last couple of decades, it was hard for a former fan such as me to believe that the goddam old guy still actually existed somewhere in flesh and blood, in a remote corner of his native land. For ages, the great US novelist J D Salinger—who happened to have been present as a soldier at Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day—had become a recluse, who shunned contacts with the outside world.

Like countless adolescent readers throughout the planet, I was convinced that the teenager Holden Caulfield, hero of The Catcher in the Rye, was indeed my alter-ego. Fortunately, though, by the time I got around to reading this ground-breaking work of fiction, I had already left school, so my parents and former teachers escaped the unpleasant ordeal of enduring an obnoxious Caulfield imitator swaggering around and using coarse American slang. But I'm sure that younger school generations of brooding adolescent fans of Salinger filled in for me amply.

I was particularly fond of Salinger's novellas featuring the weird but wonderful siblings of the Glass family: Seymour, Buddy (the narrator), his sister Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, and the two youngest children Zooey (male) and Franny (female).

Last Wednesday, when the old story-teller finally locked for the last time his secret vault of tales, it might have been a great day for Steve Jobs and his iPad, but it was definitely a bad day for Bananafish.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From existentialism to evolution

My article of 25 December 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display] was designed deliberately to be misunderstood. All I really wanted to say was a truism: The presence of life in the Cosmos is an outcome of the existence of organisms capable of reproducing themselves. And I wanted to celebrate the work of the mathematician John von Neumann, who had developed a theory of self-replicating automata. At an anecdotal level, I started out that article by saying that I used to be infatuated by the works of French existentialists, whereas I've never agreed with Albert Camus, at any moment in my life, that suicide is a "truly serious philosophical problem".

Today, I would like to correct, or at least attenuate, the false suggestion that I'm no longer impressed by the work of the French existentialists. When Natacha and Alain were driving me through Lourmarin in the Luberon, I was constantly conscious of the fact that this was the place where the Nobel laureate was buried, after his death in an automobile accident in 1960. His Myth of Sisyphus remains one of the major texts of my adolescent years in Sydney, along with English translations of books by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Camus, above all, was a non-believer (from a religious viewpoint) who nevertheless clung to humanistic values rather than falling into some kind of nihilistic and suicidal despair. "I do not believe in God," he declared, before adding: "And I am not an atheist." Today, I would say that the juxtaposition of these two statements is illogical, but I can understand that Camus did not wish to be thrown into the same ballpark as the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, subject of one of his plays, who imagined that, once God was chased off the cosmic stage, only barbarian infamy could remain.

Jumping ahead to the present day, I was thrilled by a recent appraisal of Richard Dawkins by a US psychologist, David Barash, who places the English writer firmly in the domain of the literature of the absurd, alongside Camus and Beckett... not to mention the late great writer friend of Dawkins named Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The vast verbal vortex of half a century from existentialism à la Camus to evolution as explained by Dawkins has been indeed, for me as a reader, a fabulous trip through our Earth-centered corner of the Cosmos. And the only possible name of that fascinating guided excursion, of course, is Absurdity.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Facts versus fantasy

Before rushing to sit down for a meal such as last Saturday's annual lunch for the senior citizens of Choranche and Châtelus, I like to spend a little time observing who is seated where, to make sure that I'll be surrounded optimally by charming fellow citizens. The kind of lunch-table neighbors I attempt to avoid are those who have the habit of talking enthusiastically as soon as their mouth is full of food such as sauce or vegetables. My appetite disappears instantly as soon as I find that my face or plate is getting spat at. There can also be problems concerning neighbors who have either too much to say about uninteresting topics, or nothing to say about anything at all. Consequently, the choice of a table and chair is the outcome of a series of rapid observations and decisions. Above all, I avoid sitting down alongside or opposite chairs that are not yet occupied, because you never know who might slide into such an empty slot. In general, for a single person such as me, sitting down in the midst of married couples is a fairly sound strategy, because you can usually count on them—if the worst comes to the worst, as it often does on such occasions—to talk among themselves. But this kind of situation is risky, because you can never be certain beforehand that individual members of the various couples will soon get around to talking to one another, which means that you can be caught up in the crossfire.

Skillful hosts and hostesses at bourgeois dinner evenings place potentially sympathetic individuals alongside one another, in the hope that congenial communications might ensue. The French publicity chief Jacques Séguéla revealed his mastery of this art when he recently invited along to his Parisian apartment two single individuals named Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni for a dinner among smart friends. As far as we can ascertain, the conversation was lively, and no one complained afterwards about getting spat upon.

Getting back to last Saturday's lunch at Le Jorjane in Choranche, I made a beeline for an empty chair between two couples, diagonally opposite the mayor of Châtelus. This jovial fellow amuses me. Besides, I had heard a rumor that he would not be contesting the forthcoming municipal elections, and I thought he might be prepared to come out with some frank talk about his years of experience of local politics. Things got off to a good start when I asked him if he was affiliated to a political organization, whereupon he made it clear that he was a fervent socialist. He immediately asked me where I stood at a political level, and he appeared to react positively when I told him that I too was a partisan of the French Left. But then, all of a sudden, my hopes for an interesting discussion were demolished by his next out-of-the-blue statement (which I shall translate into English): "William, you're Australian. Well, you could never guess what I'm reading at present. One of the most fabulous novels I've ever unearthed: The Thorn Birds. Last night, I reached the turning-point in the story where Ralph de Bricassart finally gets into bed with Meggie Cleary!"

This intriguing saga crammed with outback passion has attained fame in France through the movie version. Exceptionally, the French title is more catching than the original. A thorn bird is described by the author, Colleen McCullough, as a magnificently-plumed creature that impales itself on a spike and sings beautifully while it dies. In French, the expression "birds who hide to die" evokes a mysterious elephantine graveyard, and attracts readers to a great fable. The only minor fault of this exceptional literary work is that many readers (such as the mayor of Châtelus, for example) are likely to believe that tales like that really unfold in a commonplace fashion in Australia. In other words, readers end up imagining that a handsome Catholic priest in a desolate outback setting could indeed inherit a vast fortune from an infatuated female parishioner, and then use this newfound wealth within the context of his employer, the Church, to purchase eventually a title of cardinal... while seducing, along the way, a young lady of the "ranch" (American term used by McCullough to designate what we Australians call a sheep or cattle station). Funnily enough, this popular TV series (aired regularly in France) that is supposed to present viewers with an awesome vision of outback Australia was actually shot in California!

Personally, I've always been bored by most literary constructions set in my ancestral land. I far prefer authentic Australian biography, history and (in my privileged case) genealogy. My attitude is summed up perfectly by these words from the great American writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain [1835-1910]:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange that it is itself the chiefest novelty the counry has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

If Twain's judgment is correct (as I believe), then, instead of The Thorn Birds or Riders in the Chariot (Patrick White), we would be better off reading ordinary factual stuff such as Kings in Grass Castles (Mary Durack), Squatter's Castle (George Farwell), Islands of Angry Ghosts (Hugh Edwards) or simply The Fatal Shore (Robert Hughes) and The Great Shame (Thomas Keneally), not to mention The Bloodiest Bushrangers (John O'Sullivan). The only problem is that none of the books I've just mentioned could be adapted easily, preferably by Americans, into a movie that would be immensely popular, say, in France.

Friday, August 31, 2007

First word of a poem

Over the last couple of weeks, I've got back in contact with one of my earliest passions: the literature of Rilke. I discovered this poet when I was a young man back in Sydney, and my love of his work took on a new meaning during the many years I spent in Paris, which was also Rilke's adopted city for a while.

I'm looking into the idea of writing a cinematographic adaptation, in French, of Rilke's great novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This would not be an easy task, but I'm highly motivated to tackle this project.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Myths

Exactly half a century ago [when I had just started science and philosophy studies at Sydney University, and was about to meet up with computers for the first time], the Parisian intellectual Roland Barthes wrote a book, entitled Mythologies, that made him famous overnight. In it, he analyzed various phenomena that had acquired the status of myths in French society. At that time, a typical example of a mythical object in France was the new Citroën automobile with stylish lines and hydraulic suspension:

It was referred to by a pair of letters, DS, that looked like a trivial codename. But, when these two letters were pronounced in French, they produced the word déesse, meaning "goddess". And that was exactly how French people looked upon this divine automobile. Barthes wrote: "I believe that the automobile, today, is a rather exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals." Barthes spoke too, in his book, of a less mechanical goddess who, at that same time, was being transformed into a myth in France: Brigitte Bardot.

In Mythologies, Barthes described the Tour de France as a cultural event that had attained mythical proportions, whose stars were like heroes in ancient legends, often moving through fairy-tale landscapes with quaint villages, green fields, mountains and castles.

As a longtime Tour de France fanatic, I've often been intrigued by the fact that we are constantly so fascinated by the stage of the race that is actually taking place at the present moment that we often tend to forget that this historical event has always had a legendary allure. Today's Tour makes us forget about yesterday's. To put it bluntly, each time we witness the Tour, it is as if we are seeing its magic for the first time.

Back in Paris, in a different domain, I used to have a personal "theory" to explain why I was capable, from one day to the next, of setting my eyes [no more than my eyes] upon such-and-such a female, encountered in the street or maybe in the métro, whom I would instantly think of as the most magnificent creature in the universe. I got around to believing that I surely had a deficient visual memory. The image of a new goddess would dominate my sensations simply because all the images of previous angels had been erased. Now, this was really a very bad explanation of what was happening: a little like saying that new sexual encounters are significant simply because we've forgotten all the previous ones. An analysis in terms of myths is more to the point. If I see the Tour de France constantly with new eyes, as if I'm gazing for the first time ever at a superb nymph, this is simply because I'm dealing with mythical phenomena. I'm no longer observing reality. I'm seeing extraordinary things that are happening, primarily, in my imagination. And—to borrow a Gaelic utterance—I never think that its like will ever be there again.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bloomsday

Today, throughout the world, admirers of James Joyce are celebrating the 104th occurrence of Bloomsday. The initial day, 16 June 1904, was the subject of the novel Ulysses: the day-long Odyssey in Dublin of Leopold Bloom. In reality, this was the day on which James Joyce himself had his initial romantic liaison with Nora Barnacle, a Dublin hotel maid who would later become his wife.

Ulysses remains one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, but it's a complex novel, reflecting the author's erudition. To appreciate Ulysses, the reader needs to be prepared by a text such as Stuart Gilbert's study.

James Joyce was the archetype of the expatriate writer living in Paris. He was invited to Paris by Ezra Pound in 1920, and stayed there for the remaining twenty years of his life.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts that should just go away

When I was a child, I was terribly marked [in an interior way, because I've never mentioned this anecdote up until today] by an image of horror related to a news item. Two young kids had come upon a discarded refrigerator in a municipal dump. They scrambled inside. The door shut. And they suffocated to death.

In our house at Grafton, we had one of these self-shutting refrigerators. I came to hate it. Even today, more than half a century later, I'm terrified when I discover, for example, a village butcher's shop in which the unwitting butcher could shut himself into a cold room and freeze to death. On the other hand, I hasten to relativize what I'm saying, in that I've never developed any abnormal tendency towards claustrophobia. But I've never been tempted to go for a ride in a submarine or a bathyscaph, and I have no desire to get involved in the sport of speleology, which delights some of my Choranche neighbors.

In another domain, as a child, I was alarmed at the thought that kids my own age, suffering from polio, might be expected to survive in a newly-invented respiratory device named an iron lung. Here's a photo [circa 1953] of an entire ward of such gadgets in an American hospital:

In a related realm, I found it hard to fathom [no pun intended] that certain individuals would wish to earn their living by donning a diving bell, such as this one in my hometown museum in Grafton:

No, in general, I prefer to spend my time with my head out in the open air... which explains why I like living here at Gamone.

Now, why am I saying all this? Well, ten years ago, the French intellectual world was stunned by the publication of an autobiography by a 46-year-old man about town [of the kind that French media people would now refer to, in crazy English, as a people] named Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby's 140-page book informs us that he was struck down on 8 December 1995, in an abrupt and totally unexpected manner, by a cardiovascular accident. When he woke up in hospital, he was terrified to find himself a victim of a mysterious condition referred to as LIS [locked-in syndrome]. What this meant is that Bauby, while totally conscious of his situation and predicament, could no longer communicate with the outside world. Happily [the adverb is unseemly], Bauby's body retained a single functioning element: his left eye. He could flap his eyelids like the wings of a tiny but beautiful butterfly. Over a period of two months, with the help of a literary Florence Nightingale named Claude Mendibil, Bauby used the open/closed eyelid movements of this left eye as a binary semaphore device enabling him to transcribe his tale onto paper. Of an afternoon, Bauby's female alter-ego would read out aloud to her literary partner: the daily press, or even Zola.

In November 1996, Claude Mendibil read out to Jean-Dô (as he was called affectionately) the final version of their typescript. Reaction of a tired but contented Bauby: "I could never have written another line." The best-seller was born. And Jean-Dô disappeared into the diving bell of Eternity exactly four days after its publication.

Since then, his book has appeared in English. And today, a film on the awesome drama of Jean-Dominique Bauby is being shown at Cannes.

I was wrong in thinking, once upon a childhood time, that there are thoughts that should simply go away. In thinking of such unthinkable thoughts, we unlock the locked-in world. In writing about the unwritable, we achieve, not only art and enlightenment from anguish, but profound freedom.