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Max Porter–LANNY

Note:  Max Porter was WINNER of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize for Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

“Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap…and scrapes off dream dregs of bitten glistening, thick with liquid globs of litter.  He lies down to hear hymns of the earth…then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detrivores.  He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fiberglass bath stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.”

cover lanny Described in the press release as a “brilliant novel thrum[ming] with anarchic energy,” a “daring [and] ringing defense of creativity [and] spirit,” Lanny, Max Porter’s second novel, is certainly all of that and more, but it is also very different from Max Porter’s prize-winning debut novel, Grief is the Thing With Feathers.  That novel focuses on a young father’s challenges after the death of his wife, an intimate and affecting novel about grief which also incorporates some of the imagery associated with author Ted Hughes as he dealt with the death of his own wife, poet Sylvia Plath.  Lanny, by contrast, is neither quiet nor reflective.  Instead, it explodes with coarse energy, opening with the lead description of Dead Papa Toothwort, an unusual earth spirit who has been hiding below ground for an unknown number of years, waiting for the best moment to reappear on earth.  Toothwort, obviously not a gentle, romantic spirit, awakens wanting to “kill things,” then slips through “one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles his way between trees.”  Hiding as part of a tracksuit, a rusted jeep bonnet, and a leather skirt, he pauses, then “plucks a blackbird from the sky, cracks open [its] yellow beak, peers into its ripped face…then flings it across the forest stage,” an image totally different from the first big scene with Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers.   There Crow appears unexpectedly at the front door of a grieving father and then moves in with the bereaved family to provide emotional help, eventually providing a delightful and memorable learning experience for the family and for the reader.

Max Porter, winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize for Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

Max Porter, winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize for Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

Once the spirit of Dead Papa Toothwort, appears in Lanny, he then makes himself invisible again and begins to listen to human sounds, an activity which triggers a dramatic change in the formatting of the novel’s text, which suddenly breaks free of all normal constraints.  Words and phrases wander free around the page, interrupting ordinary text about Toothwort, and revealing Toothwort’s attention span of only a second or two as wild images and memories appear and just as rapidly change into something else as they move around the page.  When he suddenly hears “the lovely sound of his favorite. The boy,”  he celebrates, hugging himself “with diseased larch arms…dribbles cuckoo spit down his chin,” and wanders off “tingling with thoughts of how one thing leads to another again and again…with no such thing as an ending.”  Operating independently of Toothwort as the story line begins are Lanny’s Mum, an actress and now writer of a violent crime novel; Lanny’s Dad, who works in the city and is rarely at home; and Pete, an elderly artist who is teaching Lanny the basics of drawing.  The interactions of these characters with each other and with Lanny soon begin, as changing points of view contribute an operatic tone to the emerging story of Lanny and who he is. Toothwort is foreign to them.

Peggy, a gossip, has seen a listing in the Domesday Book (1086) for Puer Toothwort (Boy Tootwort). "He's been here as long as there has been a here."

Peggy, a gossip, has seen a listing in the Domesday Book (1086) for Puer Toothwort (Boy Toothwort). “He’s been here as long as there has been a here.”

Part II begins at the halfway point of the novel, by which time the reader is well familiar with the main characters, though never quite sure of what Lanny will or will not do next.  A carefree spirit, he seems to have free rein in his activities and in his choice of companions, going where and with whom he wants.  Often alone, he listens to his own voices and does not seem to need or want friends – at least not friends of his own age.  Though the characters are not named in this section, most readers will find identification of each speaker easy because the author is careful to include clues.  When Lanny suddenly disappears, a massive search is started, and the Child Abuse Investigation Unit arrives and sets up an office.  Rumors fly.  Psychics, fakes, and those who would like to be important all arrive offering to help try to find Lanny, each person wanting to be the “hero of the hour” and each behaving as if he’s “the action star of a soap opera.”  Others seem to canonize “St. Lanny, and people who don’t lift a finger for anyone else their whole miserable existence suddenly spring into Search-and-Rescue Save-the-Child-of-Light mode.” In Part III Lanny’s mother, father, and art teacher Pete all receive invitations to a presentation, “Dead Papa Toothwort Presents Lanny: The Ending,” at the village hall.  A drawing comes to life, and more than one ending is suggested regarding Lanny.

UK ed, lanny

UK edition.

Those who love fantasy, other worlds, sci-fi, and mythical characters will find much to love in this novel, which maintains its own otherworldly style as the novel progresses.  The “rules” of fiction and its long history of development are challenged here, as author Max Porter tries his hand at bending, breaking, and ignoring many old traditions regarding the author and his relationship with his readers.  Should a reader expect to share a certain level of involvement in a book of fiction in order to enjoy it?  Does the author have any obligation to write for his reader, or is his primary role to set forth his story and his characters and let the result speak for itself?  Are there any absolutes regarding the writing of fiction?  Porter seems to be challenging our expectations here, writing a novel in which Lanny, the main character, is different and difficult to know or understand from the outset of the novel.  Dead Papa Toothwort, the earth spirit, is also different from spirits seen in other novels, and what we are supposed to think of him is not always clear.   Is he a “good” or “evil” spirit, or neither, and does it even matter?  At times the novel feels as if it is a journal of ideas, instead of a coherent and carefully crafted creation with themes providing unity and a sense of direction.  Porter is a brilliant and imaginative thinker, and at his young age, the whole world is his stage.  I will be interested in seeing where he goes with his third novel.  His debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was on my Favorites List for 2016, and I hope he will return to that more elegant and carefully crafted creative style for his next work.


Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.hayfestival.com

The Domesday Book, in which Peggy found a reference to “Puer Toothwort,”  (The Boy Toothwort) suggests that this spirit has been active since the time of the Domesday Book, 1086, almost a thousand years.  https://www.ancient.eu

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Imagined Time, Literary
Written by: Max Porter
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 05/14/2019
ISBN: 978-1555978402
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Yukio Mishima–STAR

“Once I was behind the camera with the film unspooling, time flowed like the cool, clear waters of a high ravine, where I could swim my way upstream.  My body took on buoyancy, and even walking the same ground as before felt like something more than walking.  I became the force of time incarnate, following a steady rhythm, passing through the scripted motions one by one like they were floating weeds that curled around my body.”

cover starFans of Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) will celebrate this first-ever English translation of Star, one of the thirty-four novels written by Mishima before his death by ritual suicide at age forty-five.  Written in 1961, Star tells the story of actor Rikio Mizuno, a twenty-three-year-old film star whose whole life is fraught with intense anxiety, alleviated only by his opportunities to become someone else in films.  The author himself was well familiar with the joys of acting and producing theatrical works, writing approximately fifty plays, working as an actor and even as a film writer, when he was not writing his thirty-four novels.  His insights into acting and the actor’s feeling of becoming another “person” are obvious here in this novella, which is filled with insights into drama and its fine line between imagination and reality.  In one episode in Star, for example, the actor Mizuno is criticized by the director of the film because he does not look sufficiently annoyed during a key scene, leading Mizuno to comment that “I found myself adrift in the lonely expanse that an actor enters upon being criticized, but I remained enveloped in my role as if it were an invisible skin, close and protective.  It traced the contours of my mind and body, wafted up like ether, shielding me from reality. I may as well have been behind a castle wall.”

Author Yukio Mishima

Author Yukio Mishima

Actor Mizuno’s relationships with his director and his co-stars remain professional, partly because he also has a special romantic relationship with Kayo, his female assistant, who lives with him and, secretly, shares his bed. She helps him to think up tales of young romance to share with his newspaper interviewers to keep things “interesting,” allowing him always to tell the press “a different story, with a first love at age seven, another at ten, one for fifteen, one for seventeen. It goes without saying that each account had to be innocent and pure in keeping with the vision of the PR Office.”  His own job for the PR office is to come up with his own backstory of violence, a difficult task since he has always been shy, but his acting role in the film is that of a yakuza, a member of organized crime, “with its simplistic attitude toward death and the pretty woman who resists him hiding her true feelings.”  Gradually the author suggests deeper themes.  One night-time scene in a quiet landscape suggests to Mizuno that he is actually participating in something from the gates of death, and when a beautiful young woman, who is not part of the original cast, begins to assume a role in the film, he becomes convinced that he has slipped into another dimension. A failed suicide attempt by this actress is eventually used to advantage by the PR office, which decides to emphasize that she had chosen “to take her own life rather than live a lifetime without [Mizuno], but thanks to his intervention she was spared.”

Shinobazu Pond, Ueno Park, where the final scene of the novel takes place.

Shinobazu Pond, Ueno Park, where the final scene of the novel takes place.

The extreme romanticism, both of the plot line and of the literary style, are clearly deliberate here, a way to keep viewers, especially female viewers, engaged and returning for additional films involving the “star.”  The conclusion of the film, the involvement of the press, and the already advanced preparations for the actor’s next film, ready to begin immediately after the final scenes from this film are completed, keep the “star” busy and the audience anticipating more.  With filming on a new work due to begin the next day, it is not surprising that the actor himself begins to become both fatigued and depressed, eventually even considering suicide himself.  This leads the loyal Kayo to declare that “For a star, being seen is everything, but [the powers that be] know that the reality everyone thinks they see and feel draws from the spring of artifice that you and I are guarding.  To keep the public pacified, the spring must always be shielded from the world by masks…worn by the stars….If you never cycle out the masks, you run the risk of poisoning the well.  The demand for new masks is insatiable.” 

Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan from 1901 - 1989, but his powers were severely curtailed after World War II.

Emperor Hirohito (1901 – 1989), ruled Japan during World War II and afterward, but his powers were severely curtailed after the war.

Those fans of Yukio Mishima who have already read some of his much more serious novels, especially the four novels of his Sea of Fertility Tetralogy (written between 1969 and 1970), will find this novella a fascinating curiosity which hints at but does not fully develop some of the major themes of his life and career.  Mishima wrote this novel, however, in the middle of his writing career, nine years before his ritual suicide.  As a study of the film world and the experiences of an actor in thrall to it, Star conveys both the lure of popularity and an actor’s increasing dependency on it for his own identity, a point emphasized at the end of the novella, when the young Mizuno goes to the barber shop.  There he sees a now-elderly actor, formerly a “living god, male beauty sublime” whose famous face “had become a dingy plaque, a place to hang a mask – the mask of the handsome face that he had lost.” Mizuno is “struck by unfathomable terror” as he looks into his own mirror, inspiring a darkly romantic conclusion to this study of the acting world.  In contrast to Star, author Mishima’s famous Sea of Fertility tetralogy were the last four novels of his illustrious career, an epic summing up of Japanese twentieth century history, the author’s own feelings about it, and his hopes for change.  He had hoped that these last creative works would help inspire a small group of followers as they tried to inspire a national coup to re-establish the emperor’s rule with all its powers, lost in the aftermath of World War II.  When the coup failed, Mishima epitomized his own beliefs with his ritual suicide at the age of forty-five.

ALSO by Mishima, reviewed here:  From the SEA OF TETRALOGY series:  SPRING SNOW (#1),     RUNAWAY HORSES (#2),     THE TEMPLE OF DAWN (#3)

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://mandegar.info

Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park is from:  http://hiyuka-tokyo.hatenablog.com/

Emperor Hirohito (1901 – 1989), ruled Japan during World War II and afterward, but his powers were severely curtailed after the war.  https://en.wikipedia.org/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Japan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Yukio Mishima
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 04/30/2019
ISBN: 978-0811228428
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Patrick McGuinness was WINNER  of the Wales Book of the Year,  WINNER of the Writers’ Guild Award for Fiction, and WINNER of the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger for French translation for his debut novel, The Last Hundred Days in 2012. This is his second novel.

“Death’s tenses are important; it’s one of the ways the shrinks and forensic speech scientists catch the inconsistencies in the murderer’s stories – how they might accidentally use the past or overemphatically use the present;  how they are relieved when the body is found because they don’t any longer need to watch their tenses, because they can finally talk about their victim in the past – which is where they put them.”

coverPatrick McGuinness became a favorite when I reviewed his first novel in 2012, The Last Hundred Days, the story of the days leading up to the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, ruler of Rumania for twenty-four years until he was driven from power in 1989.  With a broad view of history, a vibrant sense of his characters and their struggles, and the ability to tell a big story in language so vivid that the reader actually experiences the events, he turned this complex novel of political history into a literary prize-winner.  He continues his career with this second novel, Throw Me to the Wolves, a book which inevitably will be called a “murder mystery,” though that so underestimates McGuinness’s literary performance that it is almost an insult to limit it that way.  Here the author uses the real murder of a young woman and its aftermath in the small British community in which she and the suspect both live as the starting point for a comprehensive study of the town’s various social groups, their values, their history, and the extent to which the citizens will force their wills on others to protect their own vision of what a community is and should be.  What begins as a “detective story” quickly becomes an enthralling story of social interaction and reaction, a story of deep conflicts and divides, one in which, ultimately, characters must tread that narrow line between promoting communal values and protecting one’s own sense of self.

author photoBased on the true story of the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010, the novel takes place in Kent, where an elite private school prepares students for an equally elite college life.  The author himself attended such a school, though he was not part of the social elite, and he became an admirer of one of his teachers there, Christopher Jefferies, a quiet, studious man to whom he says, in an interview, he owes a great personal debt.  Years after McGuinness had graduated, the murder of Joanna Yeates, an acquaintance of his now-retired teacher/advisor, led to the teacher’s questioning by the police who had, at the time, no other suspect.  The local press went wild, dredging up past students who loved seeing their names in the paper as they made statements attacking the teacher and inventing “facts” which affected the perception of the teacher by the press and within the community.  Eventually, the embroidered stories quoted in the local papers, the desire of some investigators and journalists to profit professionally from their increasingly extreme editorializing, and the desire of some jealous citizens in the community for payback regarding this elite school and its students created such a toxic atmosphere that many residents considered the case closed before there had even been an arrest.  McGuinness uses all these real situations, familiar to those whose “news” is so often based on conjecture, to create in this novel an atmosphere in which the rumors about the case soon supersede the facts and the former teacher becomes victimized in ways from which no kind and sensitive person could ever possibly escape unhurt.

Fatberg floating in the waters of North Amsterdam. Story in Footnotes.

A fatberg, like this one, floating in the waters of North Amsterdam, is a continuing symbol here. (Real life) researchers Mike Thompson and Arne Hendricks are studying these as part of their investigation into what fatbergs mean for the future of food.  Story in Footnotes.

The novel, set in the 1980s, deals with a similar murder and teacher/suspect. Here McGuinness creates two detectives who are totally different, allowing him to show the comparisons and contrasts in their ideas and values and the growth of both of them as they investigate the murder of Zalie Dyer, whose body has been found in a “bin-bag” near the river Thames.  Ander, a lead detective, is the child of parents from Ghent, an immigrant who was taught English by his teacher Mr. Wolphram,  who becomes a suspect.  Called “Prof” by Gary, his partner, because of his degrees in psychology and criminology, Ander does not initially indicate to Mr. Wolphram or anyone else that he knows him from over fifteen years ago, wanting to stay objective under circumstances which will be difficult for both of them.  Gary, by contrast, is from a working-class background, more prone to using his own observations in forming his opinions.  Together they work well, with Ander taking a long view and Gary more concerned with the immediate.  Not worried about the soul or the spirit or mortality, Gary worries about “fatbergs,” composed of waste and litter and the cast-off and the used-up, clogs of waste which accumulate under our feet, a symbol which returns throughout the novel as the murder is investigated and the press becomes involved.

The Beheading of St. John by Caravaggio, 1608, a painting Mr. Wolphram has in his room.

The Beheading of St. John by Caravaggio, 1608, a painting Mr. Wolphram has in his room.

In one episode which no reader will ever forget, McGuinness describes an event involving Danny McAlinden, Ander’s best friend, the son of an Irish father and English mother.  With the aid of a truly demented teacher, Dr. Monk, the deputy head of school and the only one with a PhD., the bullies of the class are encouraged to hold a mock trial of Danny, a thirteen-year-old scholarship student whom they abuse viciously because of his Irish father at a time in which the IRA was active in the UK.  It is not surprising that another symbol, that of the beheading of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio, a painting which Mr. Wolphram has in his classroom, appears as the aftereffects of the experience with Danny are unfolding.  Commentary on the effects of the school atmosphere on faculty also appears, as the best and most sensitive teachers seem to disappear after one term.  Gradually, the depiction of the faculty becomes a vicious satire of the “thrill of the safe,” those who have nothing to lose, while many young students, like Danny, have everything to lose.  Mr. Wolphram, whose innocence has been questioned from the beginning, is at the mercy of the press, the community, and his own sense of who he is.


Almost every character in this novel has a feeling of having been thrown to the wolves.

Patrick McGuinness is a writer so thought-provoking and so talented in his ability to make the reader understand big issues that it is difficult for me to believe that he has received so little attention and praise in the US.  His debut novel, The Last Hundred Days, was Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2011, and was Winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2011.  While prizes and nominations do not ensure that a book is brilliant and/or important in contemporary literature, it is a clue that it does have a lot of wonderful surprises, and McGuinness is so good in that area that I can think of few contemporary writers of his equal.  This novel may attract a bigger audience than one about Romania.  I just hope that we do not have to wait another seven years before we are able to read his third novel.


Photos.  The author’s photo appear on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Mike Thompson and Arne Hendricks are studying the existence and creation of fatbergs, a continuing symbol here, as part of their study regarding the future of food.  That story and interview is here:  http://www.brokennature.org/

The Beheading of St. John by Caravaggio, 1608, a painting Mr. Wolphram has in his room.  It becomes an ironic symbol here.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

This ancient quotation by Diogenes (as stated here) or by Seneca (as stated elsewhere) is a hopeful and ironic thought in the midst of the troubles of Mr. Wolphram.  https://www.goalcast.com/2019/03/15/seneca-quotes/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Mystery, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Patrick McGuinness
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 04/23/2019
ISBN: 978-1620401514
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Those who had money and power would never give way.  Don’t fool yourselves, lads, this isn’t the Scandinavian bourgeoisie, which agrees to sacrifice its profits in order to survive.  The rich here will call in the military, even if the military then swallows them whole….[No,] they’re going to strike and wipe us out…They’re going to crush us, put us in jail, smash us to a pulp, annihilate us.”  Comments shared privately by five young men in Uruguay, 1973.

spring-time in a broken mirror coverIn the years between 1973 and 1981, Uruguay was ruled by the rich and powerful – autocrats who used the power of the military to secure their rule and their continuing wealth – while the needs of the rest of the country were ignored.  Idealistic young people and students often talked of challenging this brutal “establishment,” but there was no single leader around to inspire and organize them.   As a result, rebellion, if it were to occur at all, would be hit or miss, the private actions of individuals.  Journalists often risked their lives to report on news events, student gatherings were monitored, and anyone in the public eye was vulnerable to the whims of those in power.  Even the appearance of disloyalty could lead to instant arrest and harsh punishments, including long imprisonments, solitary confinement, immediate exile for a person and his/her family, and even executions – over a dozen a week, on average.

Author Mario Benedetti

Author Mario Benedetti

Uruguayan author Mario Orlando Benedetti, widely regarded as one of the most influential writers in South America, was himself arrested and exiled during this time, and he knew many people who were imprisoned, if not executed.  Using his firsthand knowledge, he published this extraordinary and revelatory book in 1982, in the days immediately following the end of military rule, giving his audience and the rest of the world a vibrant, literary study of the effects of imprisonment on the hearts, minds, and psyches of people like himself, and of those at home who loved them.  Using vignettes featuring various characters in seven different categories of chapters which rotate and repeat throughout the novel, Benedetti begins with The “Intramural” section (“within the walls”), which takes place in prison where an unnamed, sensitive inmate, thinks aloud in separate vignettes as he contemplates his extreme loneliness, his tendency to see phantoms within water stains on his wall, his various memories of his life, including trips to a seaside resort, and the hopes that arise when he thinks of being released.   The prisoner feels like an ordinary man – and he undoubtedly is one – one among many who happen to find the government and the military bloodthirsty and merciless and immune to the needs of the general population.  Gradually, this character becomes personalized as main character Santiago, a stand-in for the author and all others who came afoul of their rulers.

Villa Dolores, a zoo in which the animals are confined to small cages.

Villa Dolores, a zoo in which the animals are confined to small cages.

“Battered and Bruised” introduces Graciela, the wife of Santiago, whose life changes dramatically over the course of her husband’s five-year imprisonment.  Working a full-time job as a secretary, she has little free time to spend with their nine-year-old daughter Beatriz, and gradually, as her sections evolve, she begins to feel less “unbalanced, disoriented, and insecure,” and much tougher.  Santiago, as shown through his letters, has become, by contrast, much more tender.  It is only a matter of time before she is attracted to someone who has been a big supporter for her as she tries to reconcile life and happiness.  The “Don Rafael” sections feature Santiago’s father, a former writer living in voluntary exile in a different city, where he dreams of the “kids of today…[becoming] the vanguard of a realistic uprising.”  The “Beatriz” sections provide a break in the mood and a child’s point of view, as Beatriz, daughter of Santiago and Graciela, misses her father and especially wants him home so he can take her to the Villa Dolores, a Montevideo zoo, a zoo in which the animals are confined to small cages.  (See footnote.). “The Other” sections tell the story of Graciela’s potential lover and the results.

Uruguayans march every year on 20 May in memory of those who went missing under military rule.

Uruguayans march every year on 20 May in memory of those who went missing under military rule.

“Exiles,” some of the most personal entries, begin in Montevideo with an unnamed writer receiving a coded warning that the military might be coming his way, leading him and his wife to burn compromising books and newspapers.  A succeeding section identifies him as Mario Orlando Benedetti, the author and exile, located then in Lima, Peru, where the police come to him wanting to see his visa.  They want him out, obviously on orders from supporters of the junta in Uruguay.  He has already had death threats in Argentina, and is willing to go to Cuba, though there is no plane to get him out of Peru in time.  In the hour allowed to make his decision, he chooses to go to Buenos Aires.  Eventually, in later sections, the impact of the Uruguayan chaos is shown by the Uruguayan exiles he meets who have already moved to Australia, Mexico City, Bulgaria, Germany, and Cuba.  At one point, the speaker recalls having met Bolivian President Sales Zuazo in Montevideo twenty years before, when the Bolivian president was himself in exile in Uruguay.  There they talked together about Marcel Proust and other literary topics, and met again later on several occasions.  Ironically, the speaker sees Saldes Zuazo by accident, in Buenos Aires, and when the speaker confesses aloud that this is his third change of location in his exile, Sales Zuazo admits that he himself is on his fourteenth change. “That night we didn’t talk of Proust,” the author says.

Hernan Siles Zuazo, President of Bolivia, 1956 - 1970.

Hernan Siles Zuazo, President of Bolivia, 1956 – 1970, with whom the speaker became friendly during the president’s exile.

Ultimately, the Intramural sections yield to an “Extramural” section after a long journey for the speaker, both real and symbolic.  Concluding in 1980, the speaker says, cryptically, that he feels “strange I feel strange walking on this ground/ just as well it’s raining/ the rain makes everything the same and the umbrella becomes humanity’s common denominator/ at least of sheltered humanity,” a particularly poignant ending for this novel about war and peace, not just within one country but within almost a dozen other countries in Central and South America, during the 1960s to 1980s.  By concentrating on the human toll of these uprisings in Uruguay, author Benedetti achieves a kind of universality by which American readers can achieve a better understanding of the horrors of the juntas in many other countries, several of which were supported by the United States.  The sense of impermanence – and danger – which pervaded the society in which the characters of this insightful novel lived affected everyone who was not part of the military or the ruling class, forcing everyone to concentrate on the present moment, unable to plan for the future.  As the speaker of “Extramural” says, after five years in prison, “Springtime is like a mirror but mine has a broken corner/ it was inevitable it wasn’t going to stay intact after this pretty full five years/ but even with a broken corner the mirror is useful/ spring is useful.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://profesorbaker.wordpress.com

Villa Dolores, the zoo in Montevideo, featured many small cages with bars containing the animals. In 2015, the zoo responded to complaints by the populace and closed the zoo for four years to reconfigure the cages and make life better for the animals.  It reopened in 2019.  http://www.uruguaysalvaje.com/zoo-montevideo/

Uruguayans march every year on 20 May in memory of those who went missing under military rule.  https://www.bbc.com.

Hernan Siles Zuazo, President of Bolivia, 1956 – 1970, with whom the speaker became friendly during the president’s exile.  https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Uruguay, Military Rule
Written by: Mario Benedetti
Published by: The New Press
Date Published: 04/30/2019
ISBN: 978-1620974902
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Maria Gainza–OPTIC NERVE

“All of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you.  And the tiniest thing can make a difference.  I had only to set yes on the painting and a sensation came over me: you might describe it as butterflies, but in fact for me it’s less poetic.  It happens every time I feel strongly drawn to a painting.”  Speaker upon first seeing the painting of ‘Dreux’s Deer’ for the first time.

41P8tt8X4eL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Optic Nerve, Argentinian author Maria Gainza’s narrator invites the reader into her life to share her love of art – paintings which inspire the glorious feelings which come to her, often suddenly, when she sees something unique in a painting and suddenly connects with it emotionally.  These unexpected moments add thrills to her life, joining her spiritually with the people and places associated with the art.  As she muses on these moments in this collection of stories of her life, she allows her mind and its associations free rein, celebrating not just the original artwork but the long-term effects it has had on her life.  Although this is a novel, the effects of the special paintings on the speaker are so vivid that they seem real and personal, revealing, over the course of the novel, all aspects of the narrator’s life over many years and  her growing understanding of life’s ultimate themes – the unique ways in which we, as individuals see and feel life and death, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.  Time in these stories is flexible, as the speaker jumps from one time and place to another, sometimes across centuries and continents, following a thread of memory which ties it to a painting and the speaker’s past.

Maria Gainza in her first book in English translation.

Maria Gainza in her first book in English translation.

The “chronology” of these memories, or lack of it, is clear from the first episode,“Dreux’s Deer.”  Here the speaker finds herself in Belgrano, a section of Buenos Aires, after she has been hired to take two tourists to see an art collection in an enormous private home.  Arriving late because she has been caught in a deluge along the way, she is drenched and disheveled when she arrives, and the owner of the house looks at her with incredulity, wondering why this person has been hired to do a job which she believes she herself could have done better and with more finesse.  When the speaker is unable to answer questions about horses in a hunting scene by Alfred de Dreux (1810 – 1860) on the tour, the painting’s owner makes snide remarks.  The speaker, however, regards that painting as simply “decorative” and “conventional,” evading the owner’s sarcasm about a painting which she considers unimportant.  After this memory, she expands the story, telling the reader that five years later she saw, for the first time, a painting of a deer hunt by the same Alfred de Dreux, and this time her reaction was “fireworks, what A. S. Byatt called ‘the kick galvanic’.” 

"Dreux's Deer," by Alfred de Dreux, unknown date, 19th century.

“Dreux’s Deer,” by Alfred de Dreux, unknown date, 19th century.

Further describing this experience as a reaction to dopamines being released in the brain, observations she attributes to the author Stendahl, she goes on to recall Dreux’s background as a child model for artist Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), briefs the reader on who Dreux was and who Gericault was, then describes hunt paintings in general, flashing back to Gothic art of the Middle Ages.  In the Dreux painting, the deer is trying unsuccessfully to evade the teeth of the hunting dogs, something the speaker sees as the “atavistic symbolism” of Dreux’s work: “the struggle between good and evil, light and dark.” This scene ultimately reminds the speaker of something that happened in her own life three years ago, when one of her friends from university was visiting a sister in France and was killed, accidentally shot during a hunt at the sister’s chateau.  In conclusion, she admits that she does not know why she is mentioning this “ridiculous” death now, and concludes, casually, that “You write one thing in order to talk about something else.”

"Lightning at Sea," by Gustave Courbet.

“Lightning at Sea,” by Gustave Courbet.

Following this “flexible” pattern, the speaker wanders through her most vivid memories of some of the paintings and artists that have dramatically affected her life, works which vary significantly in style and time period.  Argentinian artist Candido Lopez (1840-1902) is described while he is at work on the battlefields during the war between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay from 1864 – 1870.  When his work is eventually sold to the Museum of National History in Buenos Aires, a guard reports that it is accompanied by ghosts in white uniforms, an image which lingers during a later description of the speaker’s marriage in the same chapter.  “The Enchantment of Ruins,” by Hubert Robert (1733-1808), who specialized in painting ruins as part of the “aesthetics of decay,” reminds the speaker of a quotation from Truman Capote at age twelve:  “The world was…unlasting, what could be forever?”  And in “Lightning at Sea,” Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) establishes a style of realism which aims at saturating the senses. Later in that same story the speaker connects “the saturation of the senses” with the life of her cousin, whom she believes is mad.

Toulouse Lautrec, "En Observation," 1901.

Toulouse Lautrec, “En Observation,” 1901.

“Out of the Traps” features Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901), whose work was discovered at the museum by the young speaker who never “got into Monet’s style.”  “A Life in Pictures” tells of  a person in a doctor’s waiting room, terrified by an issue involving her eyesight, who sees a picture by Mark Rothko (1903-1970).  The story of Rothko’s life alternates with the speaker’s own issues, her husband’s critical illness, and his good response to a copy of a Rothko painting which she brought to him.  Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910) appears in “The Hills from Your Window,” and Augusto Schiavoni is featured in “To Be a Rapper.” 

Gainza adds depth to her art focus with references to famous writers, including their comments on art throughout the book.   A. S. Byatt, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Truman Capote, Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo, and Carson McCullers are quoted here, and other writers, like Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, Nikolai Gogol, and J. D. Salinger are referenced. 

Henri Rousseau, "The Dream, 1910.

Henri Rousseau, “The Dream, 1910.

It is easy to imagine a reader who loves art and literature becoming totally engaged in these stories of artists and and their lives around the world, with many episodes from the speaker’s life also connecting to them – in the author’s mind, at least.   Indicating in one place that her name is Maria, a name she shares with the author, the narrator tells her stories with imagery so vibrant it suggests that this novel may be memoir, at least as much as it is fiction, and as the personality of the speaker evolves peripherally, the reader becomes intrigued with author Gainza as well. Ultimately, a reader is reminded of the book’s epigraph by Joseph Brodsky for the most insightful commentary on its ideas: “The visual aspect of life has always been of greater significance for me than the content.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.theguardian.com/

“Dreux’s Deer,”unknown date, by Alfred de Dreux (1810 – 1860), is the first painting featured in this novel about the dramatic effects of a painting with which a viewer connects on all levels. https://commons.wikimedia.org

“Lightning at Sea,” by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), establishes a style of realism which aims at saturating the senses. Here the speaker connects the saturation of the senses with the life of her cousin, whom she believes to be mad.  https://ro.m.wikipedia.org/

Toulouse Lautrec’s “En Observation,” 1901:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream,” 1910. https://en.wikipedia.org/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Argentina, Experimental, Exploration, Historical, Literary
Written by: Maria Gainza
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 04/09/2019
ISBN: 978-1948226165
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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