Monday, July 16, 2012

THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Is Antonio Lobo Antunes Europe's greatest living writer? The question is far from absurd, and the answer might well be 'yes.' (Of course, no one who suspects any other answer would bother to ask this particular question.) Since the death of Jose Saramago, Lobo Antunes is widely considered Portugal's GLW--and many Portuguese readers preferred him even during the Nobel laureate's lifetime. And when I consider the contemporary European literary scene as a whole, only a few other writers (Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Peter Nadas and the late W. G. Sebald come immediately to mind) have produced bodies of work comparable in beauty, originality and profundity to the novels of Lobo Antunes. So why is this other Portuguese novelist still something of a secret in the United States? Unfortunately, it seems that we American readers have only ourselves to blame. Grove Press published translations of Lobo Antunes' 1980s novels throughout the 1990s, and they are still in print and/or readily available on the used book market. Recently, both W. W. Norton and Dalkey Archive have published translations of 4 additional novels and a so-so collection of short nonfiction pieces (The Fat Man and Infinity). So as of this writing (and to the best of my knowledge) ten of Lobo Antunes' 21 novels are currently easily available in English translations by translators as distinguished as Gregory Rabassa, Richard Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. Here's a list, with dates of original Portuguese publication:
  • The Land at the End of the World (1979)
  • Knowledge of Hell (1980)
  • An Explanation of the Birds (1981)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983)
  • Act of the Damned (1985)
  • The Return of the Caravels (1988)
  • The Natural Order of Things (1992)
  • The Inquisitor's Manual (1996)
  • The Splendor of Portugal (1997)
  • What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire (2001)
That leaves 11 of his novels still untranslated, including all of his fiction since 2001 (quite a backlog) and, apparently, his first novel, 1979's Elephant Memory. But the ten translated novels should be more than enough to elevate Lobo Antunes to household name status among American readers. He should be as well-known as Garcia Marquez or Vargas Llosa and at least as widely read as Saramago, Sebald and Bernhard.

Fado Alexandrino is his breakthrough novel, the work in which the dark, claustrophobic monologue style of his earlier novels (an original combination of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Camus' The Fall, among other precursors) opens out into a symphony of interpenetrating voices and stories, but the grand Fado is also a few hundred pages too long to be a good introductory text. The best place to begin an exploration of Lobo Antunes' oeuvre is probably Margaret Jull Costa's recent translation of the novel known in Portuguese as Os Cus de Judas and which Costa chooses to call The Land at the End of the World. The Portuguese title is better: translating literally as 'the asshole of Judas,' it colloquially means 'the most godforsaken place imaginable'; an acceptable (but still unsatisfying because it loses the theological element) American English equivalent would be 'the asshole of nowhere.' In the present context, Judas's asshole represents both the remote backlands of Angola during Portugal's long colonial war and the dull, dreary, postfascist Lisbon of the late 1970s, which the narrator despises almost as much. The novel is easy to describe--a veteran of the Angolan war relates his experiences in 1970s Africa and Portugal in a Fall-style monologue--but in a Lobo Antunes novel (especially his earlier ones), the 'story' is always only part of the story. The real story here, the thing that impresses me so much that I want to read every word this man has ever written, is the amazingly beautiful, deeply thoughtful and utterly original prose style. Lobo Antunes' compulsively metaphorical prose combines with his profoundly materialist sensibility to constitute a style that might be best described as 'baroque lyrical naturalism.' Even his most eccentric lyrical flights remain anchored (for the most part) in the hard, resistant facts of the body and the world, the tragic realities from which Lobo Antunes, at his unforgiving best, refuses to contrive Saramagoesque fantastical escapes. It may be this very refusal of escapism at the heart of his surrealism that makes Lobo Antunes unpalatable for some readers; an imaginative exit is always more exciting and viscerally satisfying than the multiple no exits of reality. Other readers may be turned off by the Bernhardian obsessionalism with which he returns again and again, in novel after novel, to the African colonies and the Salazar dictatorship and the Portuguese Revolution and its aftermath and his generally negative view of the entire freaking world--but then again, those same readers might have advised Faulkner to get the hell out of Yoknapatawpha and stop whining about 1865. (My Faulkner comparison is entirely deliberate, for Lobo Antunes is yet another of those great 'foreign' writers upon whom the man known to some southerners as "Wiyum Fognuh" exercised a decisive influence.) Whatever the reasons, the undeserved American oblivion of Antonio Lobo Antunes deserves to end. He's not only the 'macho Saramago' and the Lusitanian Faulkner; he's also the Portuguese Norman Mailer and the closest thing his country has produced to a native Joyce. He is one of those rare writers with enough raw talent and original imagination to move the art of the novel several steps beyond where he found it. And that may be the most any novelist can hope to achieve.

Addendum: Here, copied from the otherwise scandalously lame Lobo Antunes Wikipedia page, is a seemingly complete list of all the man's novels. Those of us who don't read Portuguese are missing some intriguing-looking titles (Treatise on the Soul's Passion; Archipelago of Insomnia, etc.):

  • Memória de Elefante (1979) Elephant's Memory
  • Os Cus de Judas (1979) The Land at the End of the World (available in English)
  • Conhecimento do Inferno (1980) Knowledge of Hell (available in English)
  • Explicação dos Pássaros (1981) An Explanation of the Birds (available in English)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983) Fado Alexandrino (available in English)
  • Auto dos Danados (1985) Act of the Damned (available in English)
  • As Naus (1988) The Return of the Caravels (available in English)
  • Tratado das Paixões da Alma (1990) Treatise on the Soul's Passions
  • A Ordem Natural das Coisas (1992) The Natural Order of Things (available in English)
  • A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994) The Death of Carlos Gardel
  • O Manual dos Inquisidores (1996) The Inquisitors' Manual (available in English)
  • O Esplendor de Portugal (1997) The Splendor of Portugal (available in English)
  • Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999) Exhortation to the Crocodiles
  • Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) Don't Go Through That Dark Night So Fast
  • Que Farei Quando Tudo Arde? (2001) What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? (available in English)
  • Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo (2003) Good Evening to the Things From Here Below
  • Eu Hei-de Amar uma Pedra (2004) I Shall Love a Stone
  • Ontem Não te vi em Babilónia (2006) Didn't See You In Babylon Yesterday
  • O Meu Nome é Legião (2007) My Name Is Legion
  • O Arquipélago da Insónia (2008) Archipelago of Insomnia
  • Que Cavalos São Aqueles Que Fazem Sombra no Mar? (2009) What Horses Are Those That Make Shade On The Sea?
  • Sôbolos Rios Que Vão (2010)
  • Saturday, July 14, 2012

    Judging Books by Their Covers

    I'm writing this post from a literary fortress walled with about five thousand books. Good books, great books, bad books, dirty books, clean books, crappy books, jungle books, city books, old books, new books, unread books, re-read books--and all are real books. By which I mean they're constructed from ink and paper, not bits and bytes. They are printed on pages identically cut and glued together or bound like submissive lovers. Now that death knells for the paper book are beeping and burping from every e-reader in the world, I've decided to skip the oblivion phase and go directly to nostalgic revival. Return with me now to a time before Kindles and Nooks. Remember how wonderful paper books were? How their batteries never ran down, how they could be tossed from high windows and still function properly, how you could drop them in the bathtub, fish them out, let them dry, and continue reading them (although they did gain a few new curves in the ordeal)? Remember the fetishistic feel of your thumb sliding across the upper corner of a page to pinch that skin-like texture between thumb and forefinger and lift, lift and turn, turn the page? Sontag didn't go far enough. Along with an erotics of art, we need an erotics of reading, something much sexier than any porn novel and with far more than fifty shades of gray. And one part of such an erotics must be an examination of the book cover as art. Since this art form seems destined for the dire fate of album covers (which reached a fairly high level of aesthetic value in the 1970s and 80s before the coming of compact discs fatally downsized the medium), I've decided to scan and share a few real book covers within easy reach of my writing desk.

    We begin with Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul:

    An early edition used one of Balthus's nymphets on the cover, but this is the cover image I will always think of when I think of Lolita. Barnaby Hall's remarkable photograph on this early 1990s Vintage International edition outdoes both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne by giving us a Lolita of the correct age. This entire edition of Nabokov's novels featured great photos by Hall, all of them wonderfully appropriate. Here's Transparent Things:

     The design--more prominent here--is by Marc J. Cohen, who also designed Lolita. This cover is even better, and all of the Hall-Cohen covers are superior to the current Vintage run, featuring a series of photographs of paper shadowbox constructions by Chip Kidd.
    I understand the reasoning (if anything, the foregrounding of trompe l'oeil artifice on these newer covers is too obvious to be truly Nabokovian), and they do function to illustrate an important aspect of Nabokov's aesthetic, but their minimalism clashes too jarringly with another important aspect of that aesthetic, its maximalism.

    Turning from Vlad the Inscriber to James the Joyous, here's my favorite cover illustration for Ulysses. Again, it's from a Vintage International printing of the early 1990s (when the publisher was on something of a roll).
     Angela Arnet's illustration marvelously signifies Leopold Bloom, that man made out of Joycean words, as a literal man of letters with eyeglasses to read the title he spells. It's a clever and very Modern conceit, and its humanity contrasts with the oddly Soviet-looking artwork chosen for the Gabler edition, a Ulysses that makes me want to build a dam for Lenin:

    All the New Directions covers of W. G. Sebald's novels benefit from a decision to design them as seamless collages of tinted versions of photographs from the texts. The covers are thus as enigmatic and thought provoking as the books they bind:

    Compare this to the following UK cover of Sebald's Vertigo, which appears to have been created under the misapprehension that the book was a novelization of the Hitchcock film:

    As an example of what is being lost forever with the death of paper books (and the trashing of vintage paperbacks), check out this perfectly lovely vintage Penguin paperback of Thomas Wolfe's short stories.

    The design is perfectly understated (as Wolfe never was), the illustration perfectly grandiose and nostalgic (as TW often was). It's one of the prettiest old paperbacks I own.

    At the other end of the artistic spectrum, check out the pulpy, sensationalistic cover Signet used to market a European literary novel (in translation, no less) to the 1950s American audience:

    As another memento of a time when highbrow literature was available in cheap paperback form, here's the 75-cent Fawcett Crest edition of Sartre's The Words, marketed as a "famous bestseller," just like Peyton Place

    Back to beauty. Here's another of my favorite covers, the intriguing High Modernist Nikolai Punin illustration for Antonio Lobo Antunes' Fado Alexandrino:

    Completely different but equally effective is the gorgeous Wanda Wulz self-portrait looking off toward the spine of David Grossman's Be My Knife:

    My award for most effective and aesthetically pleasing series design must go to the Library of America. Their signature basic black dust jackets with a significant but non-jingoistic red-white-blue stripe (which in Ashbery's case surely signifies both the poet's nation of birth and his French literary inheritance) and a small author portrait at upper right are both tasteful and ultra-cool. They are what the fashionable American writer will be wearing this season.

    This 1970s Bantam paperback of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a good definition of 'groovy.' The nostalgic hipster in me prefers it to the posthorn covers.

    Lawrence has inspired some very good covers, but this ca.1990 Bantam Classics edition is my very personal favorite. It encourages me to study botany:


    I would prefer to see Rep. Paul Ryan's face on the cover of Bret Easton Ellis's misfired (in my opinion) satire, but this sober male model is very creepy indeed--and too big to fail.

    The entire Modern Library Proust six-pack is beautifully designed, right down to the box, but the photo chosen for the Captive-Fugitive volume makes it my candidate for the sexiest literary book cover currently in print. Love that leg:

    A breathtakingly beautiful color photograph distinguishes this recent edition of Naipaul's Indian travel book. Whoever chose this photo made an amazingly good decision.

    The Viking Portable Joyce was the second Joyce book I ever owned--I purchased the Penguin Portrait as a teenager; its cover featured the same Berenice Abbot portrait of the author--and I will probably always visually associate his work with the cover image of a gull-crazed sky over choppy Irish waves.

    Need I mention that this edition of Kundera's Laughable Loves is from the Seventies? Inside the sexy cover, I highly recommend the great short story "The Hitchhiking Game," a work of Kunderan existentialism. 

    This Routledge Classics edition of Slavoj Zizek's Enjoy Your Symptom! appears at first to be unimaginatively spartan, austere, minimal--everything Zizek is not. But then we notice that thing (a specifically Lacanian 'thing') in the upper right corner. What the hell is that? Closer examination confirms that it's the lipsticked rim of a mouth opened wide to cry out its subject's ecstasy at the moment of ultimate jouissance. And it's more than that, of course: the tiniest hint of tooth at the top edge transforms it into another kind of 'thing,' a vagina dentata opened to engulf and destroy the author's phallic name, the ultimate nom de pere...and so on and so forth, until we find ourselves living in the end times.