Recently I saw in The New York Review that Nabokov said by the end of his teenage years he had read Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Flaubert in their native languages. I can’t really do anything productive with that, but I should consider myself privileged to be able to read just one of those authors.
So I think I’ll make another push on the Shakespeare I have yet to read. Measure for Measure reminded me of The Tempest, which also has a powerful figure guiding the characters to their deserts. Unlike The Tempest, though, that figure is not a sorcerer, and the sexual maneuvering of the characters and the sanctimony it arouses are distinctly hard to sympathize with. I’m not complaining. Though the highly arranged plot seems at odds with the anti-romantic actions of the characters, it’s an interesting ride.
You could say Titus Andronicus is an interesting ride, too. Surely this is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play; beyond that I’m not sure what the point is. Marlowe does this kind of thing with more panache in The Jew of Malta.
I don’t read the sonnets because they are nice love poems. There are a few of those, but a lot could just as well be called anger poems or excuse poems. Some of the best sonnets, like “When my love swears that she is made of truth” and “A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted” make cynical fun.
I don’t read them because they are particularly good for imagery. For every “kissing with golden face the meadows green” or “and sable curls all silvered o’er with white” there are three lines like “who do not do the thing they most do show”.
I don’t read them because I think they’re truthful. He says, “My love shall in my verse ever live young”, but who sits around thinking about how attractive Shakespeare’s beloved was?
That is to say, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the sonnets, but I find it really hard to say why.
I’ve been hearing good things about Cesar Aira for a while now. I’m not sure what I read and where, but when I was looking for something diverting and found a clutch of the Argentine’s novellas at my bookstore, I knew that Varamo was the one I wanted to try. Varamo is a Panamanian civil servant in the early twentieth century, a sort of amiable nonentity who suffers through a series of fantastic episodes the night after an upsetting incident at work. Some of these episodes are very funny, from slapstick involving a (possibly) dead fish to a cafe conversation with three cutthroat publishers.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but Aira’s plotting is not exactly seamless. I have a vague notion that it’s in the cool reaction to jarring events over which the protagonist has no control that I detect a similarity to other South American writing. Interestingly, it was easy to tell, not because of any serious anachronism, but because of minor characterizations, that Varamo is a totally contemporary novel, as opposed, for example, to something like Epitaph for a Small Winner. Though I still wonder if there is a distinctively South American tone, Aira is not some rehashing of Borges.
I feel like I neglected an important way of reading Varamo, though it’s hard to say how much hope should be held out for it and how much my failure to bear it in mind the first time around is a reflection on me or on Aira. The novel involves a poem, a masterpiece of modern literature, which, naturally, the reader is not given directly. The reader is, however, explicitly told that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the poem and the day in the life of Varamo. I’d like to try again, paying more attention to some of the more meditative, less madcap, and hence, oddly, less explicable parts of the novel. At any rate, I hope to return to Varamo and Aira soon.