30 December 2011

My piece on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard is up today at The Millions.

I found it surprisingly difficult to write. I suppose that when a book strikes you dumb, when it’s doing so many beautiful wonderful things, it is very difficult to write about.

(Love this Italian book jacket)

What I didn’t include in the piece, because I couldn’t figure out how to do so without it seeming a non sequitur, is the fantastic dog character (Bendicò) who, it turns out, Lampedusa himself felt was “a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.”  The novel in fact closes with an image of Bendicò.

Speaking of which, stay tuned for my “Dogs of Buenos Aires” photo-post, coming up soon.

26 December 2011

Phew — made it.

Every year, during the month that starts at Thanksgiving and ends after Christmas, I feel like an undersized running back at the two yard line (deep in my own team’s territory), working my way down the field.  I keep hoping that the quarterback will hail-mary us to the end zone in one gorgeous, painless swoop; but it ends up being more like piecemeal progress, fending off tackles, a little achey and bruisey.

There’s just too much expectation around these holidays.  Some of which I feel unable to meet, some of which I am unwilling.

In a few days my homage to Giuseppe di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard will go up at The Millions; and in it I write about how much I sympathize, and even empathize, with Don Fabrizio, the novel’s middle-aged Sicilian protagonist, a Prince circa 1860 no less.  What could I possibly have in common with the Prince of Salina during Italy’s Risorgimento?  Well, principally this:

I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.

My family life is not conventional enough to conform to holiday expectations; and I suppose I am not (yet) unconventional enough at heart to truly feel free from all those expectations.

Anyhoo — officially, we (if you happen to relate to this) can now come out of hiding.  It is okay to be doing non-holiday things — like work, correspondence, etc — without seeming too much like a sad weirdo.  Here is a bit of what we did on Dec 25, here in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Parque de la Memoria (for The Disappeared) — “To Think/Contemplate is a Revolutionary Act”


Kitschy Nativity Scene, outside Congreso


Quiet subway platforms — a gathering of tourists mostly!


Families fishing along the Rio de la Plata


Football (soccer) stadium, River Plate Team, the rich team (think Yankees)


In Once (OHNsay) – an immigrant neighborhood centered around a place called Plaza Miserere (yikes) that reminded me of Queens (and not really miserable at all)


And what did we eat?  Leftover Chinese takeout, sauteed gai-laan, leftover peach pie (homemade, by a lovely young expat  who hosted us for Christmas eve dinner), and flan from the corner bakery.  Whiskey and soda, cheap Malbec. Good stuff.

15 December 2011

Can I just say how much I love the siesta concept, here in Latin America (and many places around the world)?

I’m using mine to catch up on… well, to catch up on everything at this point, but at the moment, catch up on blogs and literary periodicals.  From Claire Messud‘s review of Michael Ondaatje‘s new novel, The Cat’s Table:

In a rare, distinctly essayistic moment in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje articulates his position thus:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they: we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves…. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

This view, almost an authorial ethics of representation, explains some aspects of Ondaatje’s literary style: his prose, while gorgeous, is on occasion quite oblique, and his narratives—as is true of The Cat’s Table—can be strikingly fragmented. (It is wonderful and, in these fundamentally homogenizing times, increasingly rare to encounter a writer who does not shape his art to a known and satisfying form, but instead fashions the form around his content.) His goal is to reach toward that elusive complex we might call experienced human reality, and in so doing, precisely to grant each of his characters his own wisdom and autonomy. In an Ondaatje novel, there is much that we do not directly know, much that we cannot know for certain.

I think often about what it means, in this current cultural moment, to be a “literary” writer; and if that terminology even matters anymore.  There is a sense that it doesn’t; that it is an anachronistic, old fuddy-duddy kind of categorization; that you will die in dinosaur-like fashion if you hold too tightly to such high-art ideas.  But something about Messud’s description of Ondaatje’s literary vision speaks to what I consider to be literary — to be art — in a way that matters.  Uncertainty; unknowability; “experienced human reality” as elusive and complex; ultimately a reading experience that effects some discomfort and reminds us that life is a mysterious, unstreamlined business.

2 December 2011

The annual YEAR IN READING extravaganza is on at The Millions.  See what writers have been reading (and loving) this year.  Up today, Jennifer Egan and Ben Marcus.

1 December 2011

Lisa Peet, whose blog Like Fireyou should add to our blog feed, contributes to our “Post-40 Bloomers” series at The Millions with a terrific piece on Isak Dinesen.