Monday, 14 August 2017

Gasoline


The back cover of the Open Letter Books edition of Gasoline (Benzina is the original Catalan title) includes a quotation from the New York Times: ‘a gifted writer, he draws well on the rich tradition of Spanish surrealism’. Since the book concerns an artist (or rather, two artists) then if Spanish Surrealism refers to Miró, Dali, Massanet etc. then I can see what the reviewer may have meant. I have not read very much Catalan literature, however, and therefore cannot comment on whether the Surrealism referred to goes in that direction too. For me, the literary similarities are perhaps to certain French surrealists (such as Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, 1947); or perhaps postmodern American fiction writers (such as Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). In making these potentially misleading comparisons (my memory of Vian is ancient; Pynchon is much more challenging to read …) I should also say that Gasoline is a very original novel, and I can understand how it might have achieved a sort of cult status as a result.

The plot concerns an artist named Heribert, whose main love is Helena, but whose mistress is Hildegarda, and whose lovers include a myriad of women whose name begins with ‘H’. Heribert is some sort of overnight success in the New York arts scene, and as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition, has reached a stasis and boredom with his success (as an artist and lover of women). His actions are ‘surreal’ in the sense that he is impulsive and defies logic in how he goes about his daily life and art. For example, once he suspects that Helena may have taken a lover of her own, he follows her, dressing in a disguise so outlandish as to provide paradoxical cover. Helena’s lover, as it turns out, is Heribert’s double – named Humbert – and in true Dostoevsky tradition, seems to take over Heribert’s life from this point on.

Humbert is a hungrier version of Heribert, and just when the reader imagines a character couldn’t be a more shallow success as an artist and a man, Herbert takes it all to another level. To say any more would ruin the reading experience for others – as it is, perhaps I have already said too much. This, perhaps, is the difficulty of writing about such a short novel (141 pages) which has a relatively simple plot and is more about the listing of ideas and the playful scenes of eating, drinking, making love, and movement – there’s lots of movement – from one idea to the next, and one location to another.

Barcelona is somewhere in the background with its labyrinth streets and its Surrealist artist’s shadows. It must be a wild ride in Catalan, particularly when it was first published in the early 1980s after years of repression of both Catalan language and (one assumes) sexual expression in Franco’s Spain. To read it now, it’s easier to see satirical elements and perhaps to dwell on those. It’s also just great fun – like Humbert’s endless scrawling in notebooks, or Humbert and Helena’s international meals, or Heribert’s random train catching in search on inspiration. I'd be very interested to hear about what other readers think!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Time of the Doves



According to the introduction (Graywolf Press edition, 1986) Mercé Rodoreda started her career as a prolific writer with five novels by the age of about 28; by 1939 things changed dramatically. No only were Catalan books burned and Catalan newspapers suppressed, but the author herself went into exile and felt disconnected from her language and culture. In 1960, Rodereda returned to the novel form and penned this stream of consciousness novel, in the voice of the long-suffering Natalia from Barcelona. This is a life story which begins and ends with courtship; of Natalia and Quimet, and much later with Natalia’s daughter Rita and her love, Vincenḉ. This life cycle is interesting enough – on the basis of the close observations of domestic life and the relationship between the married couple (with Quimet the domineering, passionate kind – though not without interest in others). What makes it more captivating is the way that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath enters the lives of the characters and changes their lives, seen from Natalia’s point of view, far from any battle ground or city siege.  We see the initial interruptions (charcoal seller out of charcoal; milkman’s delivery ending; strikes and shortages). Because Natalia has at this time a job cleaning the house of a more wealthy family, we see the threat of the militia and there are stories of petty revenge (while the wealthy family is portrayed not without criticism in terms of their reported actions). Beyond this, churches are being burned and priests harassed or worse, Quimet helps smuggle out of danger a local priest, while at the same time joining the militia as a matter of immediate calling.

The title comes from another passion of Quimet’s – that of doves. He sets up a dovecote in the house and on the roof; Natalia is left to do most of the work and comes to loathe the domination of the birds over her life. The fate of the birds and her own intertwine, at least in terms of characterisation and imagery: ‘And I took off. Higher, higher, Colometa … with my face like a white blotch above the black of mourning …’ (p.151). There are several moments of near madness for Natalia – such as a night when she walks the street with a knife; otherwise she copes with the sort of fortitude and inner strength that drives others to the extremes of faith or despair. This is an intimate portrait – not of the Spanish Civil War directly – but exploring its profound effect of a good woman’s life; a working-class woman who wants nothing more than safety, family, and a little living. It helped me to understand something of the times through this unique and yet very-relatable voice. It ends with ellipsis, which is not to give anything a way but just to suggest the sort of novel it is – dealing with moments mostly, but occasionally years …