Saturday, April 19, 2014
"The Professor and the Siren" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1961, to be published in translation by NYRB 2014)
In the last few months I have been reading in the works of the great European Aristocrats of 20th century literature. Among writers like Stefan Zweig, Gregor Von Rozzi, Joseph Roth, Marcel Proust, and his fellow Italian, Curzio Malaparte must be counted Giuseppe Lampedusa, author of The Leopord. I was recently very kindly given The Professor and the Siren by The New York Review of Books, a collection of three short works of fiction by Lampedusa, translated by Stephen Twilley, to be published later this year. All were originally published after the author's death. The wed page of the publisher indicates that these stories and his great master work, The Leopard, were his only fiction.
The title story in the collection, "The Professor and the Siren", will, I predict and hope, in time be added to the beyond dispute greatest short stories of all time. It alone makes the collection near must reading and buying for those who want to read the finest works of the short story. It would be an excellent class room story for advanced readers. It is a perfect reading life story about a professor whose life centers on his reading of Ancient Greek texts.
As the story opens a man in his twenties is in a cafe on the island of Sicily. He is thinking about the woman who just walked out on him. He begins to go to the cafe everyday. He notices a very distinguished looking man in his seventies, always alone. A waiter tells him the man is a famous scholar of Classical Greek culture. The brilliance and sheer marvel of the story begins as the two men gradually become friends. I don't want to recapitulate the growth of their relationship but just sitting in on the remarks of the professor was wonderful. I would gladly have read 1000 pages of them. The heart of the story is a 10 or so page account of the professor 's love affair with a mermaid.
The story really is a love affair with ancient culture and the reading life. It is also an attack on the shallowness of contemporary culture and scholarship of the ancient world.
The elegant translation was by Stephen Twiley.
I am very much looking forward to reading The Leopard.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
I was really happy yesterday to read on the Facebook page of The Paris Review, that for a limited time only, they have a new short story by Zadie Smith (London, 1975) on the public area of their web page. "Miss Adele Admist the Corsets" is my first encounter with the work of Smith but will most certainly not be my last. I have been given a free copy of her recent novel NW and will now prioritize reading that highly regarded novel.
My main purpose in this post is to let my readers know they can read this story (but The Paris Review will take it down once issue 209 comes out so if you are interested, read it soon) online. The story centers on a 46 year old transvestite man of color who works in a cross dressing show in New York City. It is really about finding a way a way to deal with all the prejuduces faced by those a bit different. It is about being different in the big city. Smith really brings the man to life for us. She lets us figure out for ourselves that he is a gay man who dresses up as a woman for a living. He is facing the fact that he is getting a bit old for this. His once pristine body is not what it used to be. He needs to buy a new corset to hold him into shape for the shows. The very real fun and power of the story begins at the corset shop. The shop owners are a couple, maybe they are Muslims, maybe Orthodox Jews, as seen through the eyes of Adele. It is a comedy of incorrect mutual perceptions that sends Miss Adele off the deep end.
This is a very enjoyable, perceptive story. I am very glad I read it.
You can read it here
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Mahasweta Devi (1926, Dhaka, India) is best know for prolific literary and cultural studies of the lives of women in Indian Tribal societies and Dalit classes (once called "Untouchables"). Frank O'Connor famously wrote that short stories at their best are often about marginalized and voiceless classes of people. No group of people more fits this description than those Devi focuses upon. In post colonial literary terminology, she writers about the subaltern populous of India. I find an irony that a term from British military usage in the Raj has become a term in the post colonial vocabulary. I admit I never heard of her until yesterday. Sometimes I get in a panic knowing the 1000s of great writers I will never get to read or maybe even hear about. In the case of Devi, I fortunately have this story and one more in e-book anthologies I have of Indian short stories. I looked for more stories on line or a kindle edition of her stories but could not find any works.
"Draupadi" starts out as a satire of the militarized Indian police forces that are assigned the task of wiping out villages of tribal people. These groups are often labeled as "Maoist" to demonize them and get international support for India's war on them. This is a very powerful story. It is structured to shock and almost cudgel the reader into seeing the reality behind the war on the tribals. It begins with a comic look at the trials and tribulation of the soldiers and police involved in the war. They are constantly being attacked by insects, they fear the in their mind vicious tribal people. Underlying this, Dalit women and tribal women who immigrated to the Indian mega-cities were often more or less forced into prostitution. Any one who follows the news about women's rights in India has to have been appalled by the legal treatment of rape victims. Project back to a time when Dalit women had no legal right to speak against upper class accusers and onto tribal women viewed as the enemy and you have a culture in which rape is a political weapon. Devi takes us deeply into the pervasive corruption and evil of India's treatment of tribal people. As the story closes and has passed from lighthearted to unspeakable horror, a tribal woman has been raped, as part of a standard interrogation, over fifty times. When a soldier tries to cover her body with a cloth, in a searing a moment as I have read in a long while, she pushes of the cloth saying she will not accept anything from him.
I read this story in this high value collection
This story was translated from Bengali by Gayatru Spivat.
PS if anyone knows where I can read more of her work online, please let me know
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a perfect match for the announced long ago theme of my blog, literary works about people who lead reading centered lives. To make it even more a treasure, the central character Mr. A. J. Fikry owns a quirky seen better days independent book store on a resort island and he loves above all else, short stories. He lives above the store. He is a childless widow, his wife was killed two years ago in a senseless accident. His priceless first edition of a work by Edgar Alan Poe, worth enough to allow him to retire, has been stolen. Two things happen that will change his life forever. One day a two year old baby girl, Maya, is left at his store, abandoned by the mother who leaves a note saying she things a book store would be a good place for a child to grow up. Fikry is kind of irrascible, does not take readily to change, but he decides to adopt Maya. He also meets Amelia, a book company representative when she calls on him to present her publishers new works. At first he is irritated that his old rep has died but gradually they develop a relationship. The novel covers a lot of years and it is fun to see Maya grow up around the store. Fikry does not just read short stories, he frames his life experiences within them. Maya has begun in her middle teens to write stories and when she is in a sluggish period her father offers some reading ideas.
Here are some stories he recommended to Maya
As I read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry I was, as I saw the character of Mr. Fikry develop and show a softer sued maybe he did not know he had, I was reminded of the development of the lead character in Silas Marner by George Eliot brought about by his adoption of an orphan.
I greatly enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone who loves books about people who love reading books about bookish people and book stores. I learned a lot about the challenging life of an independent book store owner from this novel.
Monday, April 14, 2014
I have been reading the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore (Calcutta, 1861 to 1941, awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, 1913) for a few years now. (There is back ground information on him in my prior posts.). I hope to be reading them for a long time. Tagore was a man of profound wisdom, deeply versed in Hindu traditions. Einstein enjoyed metaphysical conversations with Tagore and W. B. Yeats was enthralled by him. Ganhdi came to him for moral advice.
"The Auspicious Vision" begins on the bank of a river. A wealthy man is on a duck hunting expedition accompanied by servants. He spots a beautiful young woman, just adolescent on the banks of the river. She is holding some ducklings in her arm. He tells her don't worry I won't shot them (In reading stories such as this, recall marriages were mostly arranged and girls once 13 or so were considered of marriageable age.). The girl runs off without speaking to him. He tells his men to find what family she is from as he wants to marry her. He goes to visit her father and the father, happy to have a rich son in law, readily agrees to give his daughter in marriage. As is the custom, the groom will not see her until what is called in Bengali wedding tradition, "The Auspucious Moment". At that moment the groom gets a surprise that at first angers him. The bride is not the girl he saw. Then he realizes the father in law was never told who the girl was so he simply married him to another daughter. There is a further surprise to come and I will leave that untold. I liked this almost fable like story a great deal.
You can easily find this story online.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
"Whorehouses and shrines, I feel at peace no
where else."- Saadat Hasan Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto was born 1912 in Ludbiana in the Punjab region of India and died 1955 in Lahore, Pakistan. Bombay Stories, edited and translated from Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, is a really valuable anthology of fifteen short stories written by Manto from 1945 to 1955. Literary works about the dark side of the great India mega cities are very popular now and are among the best so far of 21st century literature. The editors of the anthology in their very informative remarks say that Manto was the first to write about the gangsters, pimps, film industry people, whores and their customers who made much of the population of Bombay, now sadly called 'Mumbai'. In every one of these stories prostitutes, Manto uses the term, "whore" a lot, play a part. In about half of the stories prostitutes are the central focus of the stories. Gangsters feature in several of them. Manto made, or tried to make, a living as a Bollywood screenwriter and through his short stories, and elements of this appear frequently. Manto did not spare himself. If I were able to time travel and do a tour of the brothels of Paris in 1855, I would love to have had Flaubert or Guy de Maupassant as my guide. If made a similar tour in Bombay in 1950, Manto would be the perfect host. His life was as tortured as any Irish poet.
These stories are very gripping. You feel you are in back alleys of Bombay. In teeming apartments, in whorehouses, talking to gangsters and getting drunk or high with your last rupee. I found it fascinating to learn one of his first published works was a translation of Oscar Wilde's play about Russian revolutionaries, Vera into Urdu He also translated short stories of Gorky and Chekhov as well as some of Victor Hugo's works into Urdu.
These stories should be on the reading list of any lover of the short story and Indian Literature. Some may find his treatment of women debasing. He did marry and tried to be a good husband but it was not meant to be. Some of the stories are very funny,in parts. Some, maybe most, are at their core tragic. There is an excellent translator's afterword. The only fault I have with the anthology is we are not told when and in what magazines the individual stories first were published. This is important information.
I was provided a free copy of this book.