The Wandering Unicorn, by Manuel Mujica Lainez

If the last novel I reviewed was a typical Latin American novel written by a European, this is a European novel written by a Latin American (an Argentinian). In fact, I can’t think of a Latin American novel I’ve read which is as untypically Latin American, or has as little interest in Latin American themes or the Latin American experience. But saying it is a European novel is also wide of the mark. The work I’m reading currently which it has most in common with is that pre-Don Quixote medieval saga, Tirant lo Blanc. For Mujica Lainez’s book is more or less a faux-medieval romance crossed with the novel.

My edition has an introduction by Jorge Luis Borges in which he denounces the realistic novel, the psychological novel and the avant-garde (“the arduous experiments of Joyce”), and suggests that future generations will return to novels of adventure – he mentions Stevenson, Hugo and – Ariosto. I understand where Borges is coming from; it is what he claims throughout his writings, even if his own fictions seem to be mere scholarly reflection on the thing rather than the thing itself; and it is in the list of things he admires, including this novel.

So what’s it about: – it’s about a fairy Melusine and her love for a knight called Aiol. Much of its early part is spent in France, as the characters concern themselves with knightly matters and jousts, before everyone sets off for the Holy Land to fight Saladin. (Which is, of course, pretty much the same plot as Tirant lo Blanc – except in the latter book the early action is largely relocated to England). The fairy is immortal and is telling the story from the present day, recalling these medieval events from her past, which perhaps justifies the novelistic encroachments into an otherwise medieval pastiche (not, of course, that it needs any such justification). For on saying it’s a medieval novel, it also comes as no surprise that it was written in the 1960s. Courtly love is portrayed much in the manner of free love, which I have an idea it was not; – it’s portrayed as a suspect challenge to the prevalent moral orthodoxy; – but, on the other hand, I feel a bit more tentative about my concept of courtly love after reading this, since Mujica Lainez demonstrates a familiarity with, in particular, troubadour poetry which I do not have. Nonetheless I still sense there was something fundamentally illicit about adultery in medieval courtly circles which possibly doesn’t come across in Mujica Lainez.

Anyhow, it’s good fun; but not, pace Borges, I feel, of any great significance [he says, as he plans his own faux-medieval works].

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Tyrant Banderas, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

It’s traditional by now to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán for Spanish Literature Month – though it’s a tradition which might have to end soon, because I’m not sure there’s all that much else in English. As we (no doubt) noted last year, his books vary widely in style, and indeed, in content in a way that most authors’ don’t. This novel is a far from the Sonatas novellas depicting the leisured lives and loves of aristocrats. Instead it is your typical – indeed, archetypal, since it was published in the 1920s(?) – Latin American dictatorship novel; although Valle-Inclán was himself of course a Spaniard and is at least in part displacing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera to that other continent.

Tyrant Banderas seems to have been particularly influential on Miguel Angel Asturias’ The President, whose basic structure and plot mimic it. A dictator rules a South American country and our narrative drifts from person to person – though largely, it is true, remaining in the upper echelons of government – giving as it does so a panorama of the country, and a multi-sided view of the dictator. Banderas is himself an interesting character – perhaps more so than leaders from other South American dictator novels – since although he may kill and oppress, even as he does so, he remains concerned to distance himself from those activities, and particularly to maintain a respected position in the opinion of the wider world.

Like Asturias’ The President, the novel also follows the fortunes of a politician who falls foul of the dictator and goes over to the revolution; though the outcome in this case is certainly less depressing, since Banderas turns out ultimately to have a far less secure position from which to act; – one feels maybe Asturias – and other later Latin American writers – are more inured to the idea of dictatorship being a permanent form of government, from which one can see no forthcoming release. Valle-Inclán does share too with Asturias a certain unflinching pitilessness – an interest in the grotesque – which we remember well from the, at times, shocking plays of his we read last year: – there is a scene in this, for instance, where a baby, after his mother is taken away by the secret police and he is left on his own, is eaten by pigs.

The Dolls’ Room, by Llorenç Villalonga

I started reading The Dolls’ Room for last year’s Spanish Literature Month, so perhaps some of the nuances of the plot and the novel’s meaning may in that time have escaped me. This is in fact a re-read too; – I read it many years ago, until the different title of Bearn (I was tricked into buying a second copy of the same book – just as recently I have been with Queneau’s The Blue Flower and Between Blue and Blue, and Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk and Liza).

The novel is one of those c20th surveys of an aristocratic family dying out as society changes, similar in this regard to say Lampedusa’s The Leopard or anything by Gregor von Rezzori. Similar too to Lampedusa in that it’s set on an island – this time, Majorca. Our narrator is the family chaplain, who comes from peasant stock and has been favoured and educated by the Bearn family; and the story he narrates is of what he sees as the last two Bearns, Don Toni and his wife Maria Antonia. He venerates his master, and yet throughout the book in no way understands him, for our narrator is of an ancient conservative order, whereas Don Toni is interested in modernity, in the new world of immorality and scientific discovery, taking this so far as to run off to Paris for a few years with his beautiful niece, Dona Xima, who also exerts also a fascination with our narrator, which he seeks to repress. Dona Xima eventually leaves Don Toni, who after many years makes up with his wife, and it is during this time of him settling down and on the surface at least giving up his more modern notions that the majority of the novel takes place. The book is an interesting exercise in a man misunderstanding his fellow.

This novel is, I think, something of a c20th classic in Spain. Villalonga wrote many other novels, but I’m not sure any of them have been translated into English.

Solitude, by Caterina Albert i Paradís

Caterina Albert i Paradís wrote Solitude under the absurdly patriotic pen-name Victor Català; – it was published in 1905. It tells the story of a woman, Mila, who marries a lazy fat clergyman who’s just, at the novel’s beginning, got a job looking after a hermitage perched halfway up a mountain. Mila sets about cleaning and looking after the hermitage, while her husband goes out begging, gambling and generally associating with ne’er-do-wells. Luckily there’s an old shepherd who acts as a kind of guide and mentor for Mila, showing her round the mountains and telling her the local myths. Mila forms a few bonds with some of the locals, but generally, aside from the shepherd, finds herself alone. There is little fulfillment either to be found in running the hermitage: – when there is a festival and everyone climbs up the mountain for the service, the place gets trashed in an orgy of drunkenness.

The blurb compares Albert’s portrayal of female sexuality with Lorca and DH Lawrence (both men), but what this book reminded me of most – perhaps for the particular rural setting, as much as for the sexuality – were the writings of Grazia Deledda. The two women were both writing about the same time about places (Catalonia and Sardinia) which don’t seem so very far removed. The sexuality in Albert’s book is never particularly explicit; it exists for the most part as a persistent sense of vague longing for something indefinable; with the sense too that, within this rural society, married to a useless man for whom she feels only contempt, Mila has no opportunity to explore any of her feelings and must instead repress them.

The book is published by Readers International – which I think was a publishing arm of Amnesty International; – and has a tendency to publish books either by writers suffering oppression or about such oppression. In general this seems to lead to books of varied quality – since quality is not the prime motivation of the publisher – but Solitude is unquestionably my favourite so far of all their publications I’ve read.

Wings of Stone, by Robert Menasse

I read this book some time last year, and never even finished it (I read about two-thirds), but I wanted to review it because I found it had a lot of similarities with Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which I didn’t like in the least and which I reviewed here and here. This book is far, far better than Lerner, and yet – who the hell is Robert Menasse?

Well, he’s an Austrian writer, and this book was published in 1991 (and in English by John Calder). It’s about a young man who grew up in Brazil but has now moved to Vienna where he is studying Hegel, just in the way that Lerner’s book is about an American who has moved to Madrid as a student to study – well, in fact to just become a poet. There are some differences though: the hero Leo’s family here had previously lived in Vienna and had fled to Brazil during the Nazi era. Nonetheless, Leo is reminiscent of Lerner’s hero in that, in returning to Vienna, he is remarkably uninterested in Austria or the Austrians. He is in fact almost entirely solipsistic: any event he undergoes is analysed at length and his interest is only in his own thoughts, Hegel and a woman called Judith.

Yet despite the intense solipsism of the two protagonists, there are significant differences between the way this takes effect in the two books. For a start, Lerner’s book is written in the first person, while Menasse’s is in the third person, and even though Menasse is still fundamentally writing from Leo’s point of view, this gives him much more latitude to undercut Leo’s pose both as intellectual and human-being. Yet I’m not sure it’s this – any form of authorial comment, or if it is, it is very subtle – which Menasse uses so much as a few other devices: namely, the attitude of other characters, particularly Judith and a third character Lukas, who is also pursuing Judith and becomes a sort of friend to them both (though naturally Leo despises him); and something essentially absurd in Leo’s pretentiousness which seems absent in Lerner: – Lerner’s hero takes himself and his concerns seriously; and we are meant to too; but increasingly as the novel goes on, it is difficult to side with Leo’s view. He is in love with Judith but we wonder, just with Lerner, what she can possibly see in him: but here, in the end, she doesn’t, and stops seeing him – and it is in these and like actions of others, we find the attitudes we naturally feel we should be adopting confirmed.

And then there is Leo’s absurdity, which undercuts his (narratorial) claims of seriousness. Not merely the episode where the three of them travel to Venice and Leo falls in the canal, and his subsequent change of clothes and endless insight in the significance of these events; but even more I would said in the essays on Hegel which he writes and which he sends to Judith as peculiar kinds of love-letters, in which she is expected to interpret the underlying meaning of the work as a discussion not so much of Hegel as of their own relationship – but which she clearly finds laughable and tedious.

Also, there is a political dimension to Menasse absent from Lerner. Where Lerner’s hero manages to exist in Spain without ever managing to make a single comment about Spain or Spanish culture; while it is true Menasse’s hero lives in a similar world, Judith on the other hand is very involved in current Austrian culture, takes him on anti-Nazi marches, and tries unsuccessfully to make him believe that he is never going to be able to change the world merely by studying Hegel. – Incredible the things you can do with a novel by having more than one real character!

Anyway, his father dies and he goes off to Brazil to manage some of his businesses there, and meets an old acquaintance, and then becomes suddenly famous when he starts using Hegel’s historical dialectic to predict future events (like the outcome of football matches), but then there’s a military coup – and that’s about where I stopped reading; because, despite all these things, to be honest the novel wasn’t really going anywhere, and seemed to have made its point.

But it was an interesting book for a while – and particularly recommended if you like endless jokes about Hegel, most of which went completely over my head.

Duo / Le Toutounier, by Colette

Duo is what I would consider (like most of Colette’s work) a quintessentially French book (as quintessentially French as the films of Eric Rohmer): – it’s about the intimate relations of two people, disturbed by the intrusion of a third – and that is all. Duo is quite extreme in this respect, in that the third person never actually appears – he only exists off-stage – and the entire book is perceived through the minds of the two. Indeed, only two other characters even put in an appearance (unsurprisingly therefore, and seeing that it mostly consists of conversation, or silence, it was made into a successful play. Someone should make a film of it too – in the manner of Eric Rohmer – though, maybe they have). It all takes place in a house somewhere in the French countryside. The husband discovers his wife has had a short affair; as a consequence their relationship collapses; that is the entire action. But it is all very well and plausibly done:the psychological reactions – of course, you think, their relationship collapses, what else could be the outcome; – the only implausible bit, I felt, was the ending.

The introduction reminds me that Colette really is on the side of the woman in all her books – and it’s only now and then she remembers her male character too has a justifiable point of view and gives him a few lines of reasonable defence. For in reality it can’t be proved he ever did anything wrong (even though he’s a man, so he no doubt has by definition), and has only ever himself been wronged. Yet all the while I find myself siding with the women; not understanding why the man can’t be more understanding; until I too, like Colette, catch myself up and realise that maybe it is in some way her fault.

Le Toutounier is a kind of coda to Duo, in which our heroine, after the events of the first book, returns to the home of her childhood, where two of her sisters are living, both of whom are involved with married men. So we get more of the nature of relations between men and women; and it is even more clearly this time from the women’s point of view, since the men themselves barely appear – only one of them once, for a moment or two – otherwise again they are just off-stage, and yet at the same time, like in Duo, what is off-stage is the focal point of these women’s lives.

This novella didn’t seem to have the focus of Duo; the plot is just a sort of passage of life, a vision of a kind of existence, in which some inconclusive decisions are reached about the future, yet which was enjoyable enough – I liked the inter-relations of the sisters, and their reversion to a childhood camaraderie (and language). Yes, Colette is very good at people. (Well, women).

That Bringas Woman, by Benito Pérez Galdós

I haven’t made my mind up yet about Pérez Galdós: – previously I’ve read his novel Miau, and now this one (if I have read any others, I have forgotten them). There’s certainly worthwhile elements to That Bringas Woman; but on the other hand, I did also at times find myself bored.

The woman of the title is married to Bringas, a miser who works for the Spanish state; her only interest is in clothes and other finery, such that she can cut a figure in the best Spanish society. She’s friends with other women whose husbands, while being less miserly than Bringas and on the surface making more money, in reality have themselves become indebted through the impossible struggle to maintain their own status in society. So we have a portrait of a society where everyone is living beyond their means – and, of course, our heroine is led to follow their example.

Now in writing That Bringas Woman, Pérez Galdós seems to have swallowed Emile Zola whole; and overall this is a bad thing; – because really I’m not so interested in pages and pages on ladies’ haberdashery, and it’s here I start to yawn and I lay it aside for a few weeks. But thankfully this is not the whole of the novel. I enjoyed the opening with its description of the hair picture (it’s a picture made out of human hair), but my favourite bits were the descriptions of life in the palace of the Spanish king – an entire world unto itself not unlike Mervyn Peake’s Gormanghast – a vast warren of a royal residence, in which families serving the state live according to status. But though it’s a nice spiteful take on Spanish society – and though a reckoning is coming in the form of Republican unrest – in truth not much really happens, and what does is usually repetitious.

I might read another Pérez Galdós though: I have Melancholia, which is one of the more famous ones.