Category Archives: Rear View Mirror

REAR VIEW MIRROR #3

When they hand the house over to the wreckers they will open the doors and the windows. The light will come in as it did before. And they will find the house despoiled of doors and panels and door jambs and baseboards and parquets, a husk which will fall at the first blows of the pick into ruins in the garden overrun with weeds. But I would prefer it to end in a fire set by those children, a gigantic animita lit to her memory. . . . Joso Donoso’s college thesis concerned “the elegance of mind” of Jane Austen — seemingly strange for a man who constructed novels as houses of horrors, peopled with grotesque witches, prostitutes, and magicians.  But there may be no better analogue for this master of the darkly surreal.  His novels turn on perspective and desire, just as much as Austen.  Donoso was certainly a modernist architect of the macabre, but this obscures his facility with the brighter side of the sublime: in a Donoso book, emotion, time, and identity shift in ways that narratives struggles to contain, but are fundamental to the possibilities of being human.  There is a certain humor, too, in Donoso that is hard to resist. Today, just as back then, Donoso’s work is eclipsed by the equally expansive, but gentler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the more overtly political Carlos Fuentes.  Indeed, if he is lumped anwhere, it is with the edgier and, even less read, Spanish language writers Adolfo Bioy Casares, Alejo Carpentier, and Julio Cortazar. Perhaps now is the time for his dark star to rise. HOW’s is pleased to present the writer David Auerbach, the fiercely intelligent mind behind Waggish — as this installment of Rear View Mirror takes a closer look at two of Donoso’s more important novels.  .  .  . —Andrew Zornoza Peta Ponce’s incessant tempest: Jose Donoso. By David Auerbach           A symbol means nothing to me. What I want is that these symbols be dynamic, vague, ambiguous, opaque. –Jose Donoso The works of the Chilean writer Jose Donoso (1924-96) evoke an excruciating balance between the realm of nightmares, the harsh social landscape of Latin America, and most of all, the experience of raw suffering. Though considered part of the Latin American “Boom” of the 1960s, Donoso remained on the periphery of the movement, little known until he produced his masterpiece The Obscene Bird of Night in 1970. Donoso’s work does share some superficial surrealist, political, and indigenous touches with the famous writers of that era (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortazar being the big four), but his achievement is considerably different from theirs, and, arguably, greater.  It is rare for prose so surreal, so confusing, so experimental, to seem so wholly lived, utterly thought through in all its multiplicative chaos. Donoso, who struggled with chronic illness and pained familial and sexual relations, must have experienced so much of the emotions and experience that come through in Obscene Bird. That much is easy to say, but the question of his narrative methods is a much more difficult one. How were they so effective? Samuel Beckett and Robert Musil managed such things, by very different means, and I think that for any work of sufficient greatness,  a writer must inevitably invent his or her personal means of negotiating between emotion and language, never to be reused. For Donoso, this negotiation begins in his dark, visceral prose, but it ends, perhaps, in his unique use of structure.  Throughout his body of work, Donoso cannily creates two or…

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REAR VIEW MIRROR #2

“All this is what makes them marginal. The space which they inhabit is artificial. Hence their tendency to bundle towards the edge of it. (Beyond its edges there may be real space.) In some cages the light is equally artificial. In all cases the environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity. They have nothing to act upon.” So says John Berger about the creatures in a zoo in his influential essay, “Why Look at Animals?”  30 years after its publication, he might as well be talking about us.  What happened?  Stateside, Berger was — and still is — a seldom discussed intellectual.  In his native England, he is known for his BBC television series “Ways of Seeing” which combined close-readings of canonical art with cultural critique.  But Berger has also authored thirteen novels, among them the 1972 Booker Prize winning “G” and the 2008 Booker nominated “From A to X.”   His “Into Their Labours” trilogy documents the lives of peasants in the small Alps village of Quincy, where Berger relocated after leaving Britain in 1962.  Berger is a rarity, the critic who creates — well.  His lefty humanism is singular: a mashup of Georg Lukacs’ theory, Emile Zola’s realism and the high-low restlessness of poet John Ashbery — and seems, to me at least, to contain some antidote to the post-modern blues.  Here, in this essay, the writer Michael Powers discusses T-Mobile’s “Home for the Holidays” advertisement campaign, Cary Foulkes, Jesus toast, Jorie Graham, David Foster Wallace and the “promise of total semiotic freedom” as he searches to find a place for Berger’s fiction in the age of now. . . . —Andrew Zornoza Ways of Singing: Belonging to No Place.  Voice and Context in John Berger’s “Into Their Labours” Trilogy. By Michael Powers           In a recent television commercial for T-Mobile, pegged to the 2011 holiday shopping season, a young woman, blonde, very pretty in one of the conventional ways, rides up an escalator in a suburban shopping mall. She is wearing a satin or satin-esque dress—short, sleeveless, seasonally out-of-place—the specific pink of which is the only clue thus far as to what is being sold here. She is singing—softly, contemplatively, as if to herself—Robert Allen and Al Stillman’s secular Christmas classic, “Home for the Holidays.”  In a moment she is passed by a cluster of four more women on the down escalator, all of the same approximate age, wearing the same dress, all very pretty in other conventional ways, singing harmony. At this point the game is up. We know—as do the mall shoppers, whose delighted, anticipatory faces the camera keeps showing us—that some highly orchestrated spectacle has been prepared for us, and is about to unfold. When girl number one reaches the top of the escalator, she is suddenly joined by dozens of women running in double rows from side alleys. They are of all sizes and colors, some of them not pretty in any of the conventional ways. They are all wearing the same vaguely luminescent pink dress, and they are all singing, so that what began with one slightly melancholy voice has swelled to a rousing and joyful chorus. Now the camera pans up to the mall’s top level, where a large black woman begins to belt out a gospel solo that both transcends and transforms the familiar song. She is very good. Her voice is a force totally separate from everything else that’s happened here. It rises to the height of the mall’s glass ceiling, and now everyone is clapping and…

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REAR VIEW MIRROR #1

What follows is the inaugural essay for Rear View Mirror, a new column that aims to reintroduce neglected and undervalued authors to a new audience. Under the aegis of HOW magazine, the editors encourage you to explore these works, to find them in your libraries, to pass them to friends, to add your voice to the comments section, and, most importantly, to keep these precious books alive. . . . Rear View Mirror #1 João Guimarães Rosa was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In a language of puns and invention, with winding narratives of love and adventure, and characters larger than life, he created an entire cosmology out of the primitive Brazilian hinterlands. His masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas—or as it is seen in the USA, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—is an epic love story as gritty as a Sergio Leone flick, but as vertiginously modernist as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The publishing house Knopf has held onto the rights of this novel since 1962: long out of print, copies go on the marketplace for hundreds of dollars. The  World Library agrees with the marketplace’s valuation, placing the book on its top 100 novels of all time, putting it on a shelf with like-minded relatives such as Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Absalom, Absalom!  Here, the writer Felipe W.Martinez discusses Rosa’s work, laments the state of translation in the United States and shines the light on this almost forgotten, great author. . . . The Higher The Level Of A Work, The More Does It Remain Translatable Even If Its Meaning Is Touched Upon Only Fleetingly, Or: João Guimarães Rosa, The Whole Wild Word There must be innumerable authors we’ve never heard of before. Whose work is long out of print, or was written in another language and never translated, or never happened to fall into our line of sight. Writers who didn’t succeed, or never had much to offer, or who had brilliant ideas and stories to tell, but who failed to be noticed. There are countless reasons why we readers may be ignorant of any given writer. In the United States, when it comes to foreign literature, I’m certain this is largely due to the fact that only a tiny fraction of our literature is translated from other languages. I won’t go into statistics. But what I wish to assert here is that we must acknowledge that our knowledge of foreign literatures has, in large part, depended upon the decisions made by publishers who are, especially in the case of large publishing houses, businesses with bottom lines. Now, whether a lack of monetary gain or secret conspiracy (as many have joked) is to blame for the dearth of material available by the Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa, no one can be sure. What is certain however is that, in the United States, Guimarães Rosa continues to be one of the most unduly neglected Latin American writers of the twentieth century. João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) is renowned in his native Brazil as the preeminent literary figure of post-world war II modernity, and yet, he’s virtually unknown in America. You can’t buy his books unless you’re willing to search diligently, and, on top of this, they are egregiously expensive. Further, three of the four extant translations are of debatable quality.1 Between 1963 and 1968, English translations of three of Guimarães Rosa’s works were published in the United States by the prominent publisher Alfred A.…

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