May 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

The New to the Old: Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry, Mister Walser

In North America, literature moves quickly and forgets fast. Maybe it’s an unavoidable symptom of an industry forever in search of the New, but you don’t hear much about old authors after schooling, unless there’s some revival, a new biography, a posthumous novel, a novel based on the former writing -- they are, for the most part, left out, aside from the discovery of (the New) old author. Some are clearly outdated for whatever reason; others -- through a sort of literary six degrees -- remain barely afloat.

Names like Bertolt Brecht that sixty years ago could hardly be avoided in a conversation about the arts are now extinct, washed-up runes, somewhere between mausoleum and museum. And Marxism? Morality? They almost sound like part of an alternative universe. Paul Valéry, whom T.S. Eliot named as the most important poet of the twentieth century, is clumped together with Verlaine and Mallarme, as Rimbaud’s cronies. Robert Walser, who practically wrote the prenup with postmodernism, is only recognized thanks to his new -- or, more precisely, newly deciphered -- manuscripts (penciled microscopically).

In Ibero-America, as well as Iberia, however, things move more slowly. Somehow, those that once had big names still do, and are still widely read, still cited, still considered important for one reason or another. Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas wrote a whole book about Robert Walser (unfortunately a redundant dud). Valéry is translated and re-translated, along with the rest of the decadent poets. And Brecht? Well, that’s a good question.

With that question in mind, I decided which volume of Goncalo M. Tavares’s Neighborhood series to read first -- Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry, or Mister Walser. So Brecht, he’s alone in a room by himself. Brecht once a “must,” Walter Benjamin’s budding boy, has long since faded, mostly read in theater and even then, for his innovative dramaturgical techniques. However, Tavares focuses on Brecht the poet and playwright. Subtract his Marxism, and we’re left with a nearly abandoned subject in literature: morality. The stories are fables that, when delivered from the mouth of Mister Brecht, become biting and bloody. It’s as though the narrator of Red Cavalry had stepped in to tell bedtime stories. In “Aesthetics,” a fat lady begs a doctor, “Cut off one of my legs.” “Perfectionism” reads: "A bird was shot down by gunfire. He had just flown over the border." Other tales that lack ferity remain painfully truthful, like “Poets,” which I read while waiting on line in a bank: “In an enormous line that already extend past the corner of the next block, the poets took advantage of the wait to carefully fill in the form.”

In Tavares's world, Brecht has hardly any communism left in him. In the end, he’s left telling gloomy, twisted tales: queens and kings have their heads hacked off, horses lose their legs, and things generally go feudal. In most cases the bloodshed occurs in the name of poetic justice. And I forgot how jeering poetic justice can be; then again, I haven’t really heard poetic justice in a while, not since Pinsky’s then-new translation of Dante.

As the illustrations in Mister Brecht would have it (each of the volumes comes with black and white illustrations), the empty room Brecht begins in, on each page fills with more people (it works as a flip book) until the last page, in which the stretched shadows take up an entire page. I can’t be certain, but I think it’s an allusion to Baudelaire, who said that multitude and solitude were one and the same. Who? Nevermind. Tavares didn’t write a book about him. 

After Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry seems vaudevillian. He’s a goofball with a hat that he can’t get off his head; he conjectures and pontificates about the most absurd things. We’re told he jumps a lot, so he concludes, “I’m just like tall people for a good while.” Others are more profound: “Mister Valéry only knew two people. The person that he was, at that precise moment, and the person he had been in the past. Mister Valéry used to say, ‘If I continue to live, I will know a third person.’” Mister Valéry, as you can see, speaks in what-ifs.

Most of his problems are binary -- something we might have expected from Mister Brecht (at least back when he was a Marxist). How can he dress black in black to counterbalance his own enthusiasm? How can you sell the inside of a plate? In one case, he tries to figure out how the dark side and lighted side can share a street. Then, the real pattern emerges: Valéry must find a way to resolve duality. His results, for the most part, are mixed (I apologize for the pun).

Is this really French intellectual par excellence? Friend to Einstein, H. G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Stravinsky, and Picasso? The pure mind? According to Tavares, yes. For one, his character takes abstract epistemological questions personally, like Valéry did. That much is clear. But was he really such a doof? Or are these books only made to encapsulate an author’s system of thought, the author’s proper logic, in which case some of Valéry’s sounds extremely zealous, if not naïve? Here’s one of Valéry’s real daily écrites from one of his cahiers: "The transformations that any given system undergoes are reversible when the system is able to return from a certain state to an earlier state, passing through the same states during the return as it had on its way here, only in reverse order. This definition, though its origin is in physics, is sufficiently general that one can attempt to apply it to the mind and view the mind as a system of transformations." No wonder Derrida and Lacan liked him.

So I turned to Mister Walser in hopes of some good old not-much-happening; at least that would be clear, and wouldn´t require diagrams. I was right, and I liked Mister Walser the best of the three. Robert Walser, the cultured counterweight to the Swiss Miss, was perhaps the most eccentric of the three in real life. Broke and undiscovered, he’s the classic case of a revered author among a privileged underpaying few (among them Walter Benjamin). His fame, if we can call it that, only begins posthumously in the 1960s, and even later in English. His death is almost sadder than his life: after escaping from an insane asylum, he wandered away in the winter, and froze to death.

But back to Mister Walser in the Neighborhood. His house is a shack surrounded by trees, far away from the other thinkers in Tavares’s fictional world. As soon as he arrives, filled with enthusiasm, he realizes he must live in it first, before it can be a house. Instead he spends his time trying to make it one, rather than living. He’s so busy rearranging and reconstructing that he doesn’t have time for anything else, except maybe good thoughts about the future. Not to mention, he makes for a horrible handyman. One of the men fixing the house has this dialogue with him:

– What’s that for? – asked Walser, pointing to the
scaffolding.
– It’s the roof – answered the man.
– It has a hole in it.

In comparison to the rest of the series, Mister Walser is the closest to novella: There’s chapter numbers and a clear time and place. It’s a story; that of Walser happy to have found “not merely a place that humanity had conquered from the surrounding forest.” He envisions great conversations with “learned men” in this new house. If only he could host symposiums, instead of renovating. Not to mention that all of this work only makes him tired and he falls asleep, happily fantasizing about his wonderful house, that is, when it is complete.  

The book reflects Walser’s love for the unresolved and his fiction-for-the-sake-of-fiction attitude. Clearly, the house will never be complete, and he will not be granted conversations with “men of letters.” Also, like in his stories, nothing, if anything, of any weight happens. However, there is little real Walser here: no alcoholism, or insane asylums. He’s an optimist, and stupidly, if not vaguely, so.

In fact, none of these are biographical sketches. They are experiments: place the author inside his own universe, following his own rules (there are few women in his Neighborhood, and none written that Tavares has written in). Tavares’s background in formal logic shows. Essentially, these are logical formulations as created by each of the others, one of those magical layers of fiction I would prefer not to peel back.  

They are neat records of an author playing his own game, namely that of the reader. Every reader interprets and builds reality as dictated by the author. These senhores are the product of Tavares’s readings of who he considers to be his inspiration, whoever they might be now. If Tavares’s style interests you, you might want to read them all; if you’re only interested in one of the thinkers, then you might want to read just that volume. (I should warn the reader that I found a few awkwardly translated sentences, and a few printing errors, not worth mentioning, but their denial would be an oversight on my part.)