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.

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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.

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, by Italo Calvino

This is Calvino’s first novel, and one which for a long time after writing it he disowned. I was assuming this was because it was written in the post-Second World War Italian neo-realist tradition, which Calvino also disowned – or at least, diverged from immediately after (the stories in his next book, Our Ancestors, are a long, long way from neo-realism) but apparently not: he disowned it for its contemptible lack of authenticity.

The novel is about a boy (a teenager) growing up in Italy (San Remo) during the Second World War, and follows him as he becomes increasingly involved in the Italian resistance against the Germans, drifting through the war-time landscape in a manner very reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See. Its most successful parts I found to be the early parts of the narrative: of the boy who comes from the lowest rung of society, looked down upon by all, whose upbringing has made him too grown-up to belong among other boys but not yet either accepted in adult society. Strangely – or perhaps not so, considering Calvino’s later writing – this is also the element most divergent from Calvino’s own life: it is when the boy meets the resistance that the novel becomes less striking. Calvino’s own basic complaint about this book is that he felt he did a grave disservice to the comrades he fought alongside in the resistance, making them for literary reasons merely caricatured versions of themselves; and in so doing, he sees his novel as a failed attempt to express the Italian experience of this particular part of the war. He recommends instead reading Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Matter, a book which I have indeed read but remember almost nothing about (a man perhaps takes his own private revenge over something, while at the same time fighting for Italy?).

Calvino’s criticisms are true enough, but it serves for a passable yarn.

The Eumenides, by Aeschylos

Thus God and fate are reconciled

One evening recently I read Aeschylos’ whole Oresteian Trilogy, and then a week later I re-read its last play, the Eumenides, to see if I could resolve any of the questions that that first reading had left in my mind. – I’m not wholly sure I did.

As always when we get older, reading Greek Tragedy seems mostly a matter of unlearning – or at least questioning – all the nonsense we were taught about Greek tragedy when we were young.

And what were we taught when we were young about the Oresteia?

Here’s Cliffs Notes, which I think is a fair summary of our misconceived opinions:

The main idea of The Oresteia is that injustice and such primitive instruments of morality as the blood-feud must be eliminated if human society is ever to attain to a high level of social organization, which can only be done by the introduction of a public morality and civil legal processes. A compromise must be reached between those old ideas that are good and those new ideas that are good.

Perfect, of course, for your school-child who has little experience of life and is in search of a neat explanation which he can repeat back to his examiner in exchange for merit. But let’s try for a better explanation, eh?

Let’s say we only consider Orestes’ speeches in the Eumenides; what then does the play seem to be about?

Despite being the main (only?) character in the play, Orestes doesn’t really get that much to say; and going by the above explanation, not much of it seems to the point either. Since he’s murdered his mother, he’s spent his entire time wandering round Greece, throwing himself as a suppliant before the altars of the gods, carrying out purgative rituals to wash the pollution of blood-guilt from him, and now he finds himself at Athena’s altars in Athens. All his speeches are him saying, “I am no longer polluted by my mother’s murder, for I have washed myself clean by ritual observance.” The only other time he speaks in the play is when he is cross-examined by the Furies in the “Athenian court of justice”, where he admits matricide, says that Apollo told him to do it, believes Apollo will help him now, and then, when pressed on whether he thinks it was really ok to kill his mother, hasn’t got an answer and asks Apollo instead to explain why it was justified. Finally, after the “court” rules in his favour, he thanks them, glad that now he is free from the pollution and can go back home to Argos.

So then the play is about a man who has murdered his mother, recognises that in doing so he has committed a “sin”, and penitently seeks absolution for this crime, which is then granted to him?

Yes, in essence.

But what about all these other things in the play, like the gods, and the Furies, and the Athenian legal process, and the blood-feud, and these old and new ideas? And why did you put “sin” in inverted commas?

Well, you see, people tell me that the Greeks had no concept of “sin” and “guilt”, even though they constantly use both words we would translate as such and concepts we would understand as such. Matricide is certainly conceived of in the play as something beyond the pale; it’s not a crime in the ordinary sense (like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon) but something that is taboo and makes the man who commits it polluted. The Furies which pursue Orestes are not in the play an embodiment of blood-feud – they make this very clear: the only reason they are interested in persecuting Orestes is because he has killed his mother; Aegisthus (Orestes’ cousin, whom he killed at the same time) is never even mentioned in the Eumenides, despite being a significant element of the blood-feud in the Choephori (preceding play).

The idea of an unending cycle of blood-feud, which is indeed a significant element in the Choephori, is only once hinted at in the Eumenides, by the Chorus of Furies:

Fate’s enemy, my enemy too,
Shall not give sanctuary to sin.
Orestes is accurst, and he,
Though he seek refuge with the dead,
Shall find no place where guilt is free;
Soon there shall come, of his own kin,
A like Avenger, to renew
Fate’s curse upon his branded head.

“Fate’s enemy” here refers to Apollo. Orestes’ fate is that he must pay for matricide – or the wider doom of the House of Atreus, if you like, for their previous taboo crimes (eating own children etc.) – the Furies are certainly seen as allied to / agents of fate – and Apollo, by even allowing him access to his temples (from which he should be excluded, since his crime is too great), is attempting to avert that fate. But even this is not the concept of blood-feud itself, but the specific and deserved curse of the House of Atreus, persisting through the generations. In general though, the Furies are less specific about the future, merely suggesting that Orestes will never escape his guilt, even after death. This connection of the Furies to fate also informs their most important general characteristic: that they are implacable (at least, under general circumstances). It doesn’t matter how much you pray at their altars or what rituals you undertake – you cannot evade their demand.

Now, to a modern reader, it’s difficult to escape the idea that the Furies are all in Orestes’ mind: that they form that part of his own conscience which he cannot convince, even by his purgative rituals, of his own innocence. Could people in the ancient world have seen this too? I find it hard to conceive that they didn’t; that this idea entirely escaped them; that even in writing it Aeschylos was unaware of what he was doing.

(I turned to E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and The Irrational (a book I increasingly regard with scepticism, I must admit), to see what he might have to say on the matter, and indeed he speaks of our friendly Erinys (Furies) thus: “Yet they are objective, since they stand for the objective rule that blood must be atoned; it is only Euripides and Mr. T.S. Eliot who psychologise them as the pangs of conscience”. – Hmm, objective eh? As objective as any other anthropomorphisation of a human concept, no doubt. But even if to the Greeks they are objective and outside our mind, they still associate them with the human experience of guilt. And no, they don’t really stand for the rule that “blood must be atoned” (the Furies, as mentioned before, aren’t the least bit interested in Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon, for instance – they explicitly state that they couldn’t care less); they stand for the idea that there are certain crimes which cannot be atoned.)

Here’s another thing worth noting. In neither the Agamemnon (first play) nor the Choephori do any of the gods appear as characters, though their presence around the action is constantly invoked by the human characters calling upon them and interpreting their desires and intentions. In the Eumenides on the other hand, the characters in the play are almost entirely gods – Apollo, Athena, the Eumenides themselves, even the ghost of Clytemnestra – while Orestes is the only human character, and the one with whose actions and conduct all these gods are solely concerned (there is the introductory Pythian priestess too, though I’d incline to see her as something of a conduit to this world of the gods). The effect of this, it seems to me, is to distance us from the idea that the Eumenides is taking place in the real world at all; we can deny too that it is taking place in Orestes’ mind; but it does seem to be taking place in some sort of religious sphere abstracted from the reality of the previous two plays.

The play then centres on a conflict among the gods (old and new) over whether an act which is so heinous there can apparently be no absolution can be absolved. The new gods (who are in general placable, though not necessarily easy to placate) say that it can be absolved; the old gods (the Furies) deny it. So we have our court case with its “civil legal processes”; Athena brings in twelve Athenians jurors to adjudicate; and we listen to both sides of the case.

This brings in another element I haven’t yet mentioned. You see, Orestes didn’t just kill his mother for no reason; he killed his mother because Apollo had told him to do so, and more importantly had threatened him with eternal torment if he didn’t. His crime this time would be that he let his father’s murder go unavenged – something Apollo regards in the same light the Furies regard matricide. So Orestes has been put into a position where there was no right move he could make. The court case then becomes a brief argument over which particular sin takes precedence.

And what do our marvellous rational jury decide, thus encapsulating the new dominion of civil law over barbarity. – What’s that? Oh, they can’t reach a majority decision, so a god has to decide it for them. And what does the god decide: she decides on balance that killing a mother to avenge a father is ok; – that is to say, and I think it’s worth repeating, that the outcome of the court case is: it’s ok to kill someone, so long as it’s to avenge the killing of someone else. – Which is going to stop this culture of blood-feuds, right?

What it does end, however, is the particular curse on the House of Atreus, which possibly was the real point all along. For I don’t think the Eumenides does offer a resolution to the question of law in society; it offers only a resolution to the events of the two previous plays.

Oh, there’s lots more I could write about this play. Why’s there no real drama in it and it’s just religion from beginning to end? What all that stuff is about after Orestes is acquitted? Why’s there so much about religion in Greek plays anyway? Are there other plays which shine a light on this one? What about Sophocles’ Ajax? Isn’t that on the same topic? And what about Oedipos at Colonos? Why’s there all this ritual cleansing, and can we find some connection between this and the concept of drama – of art – itself?