Friday, August 23, 2013

Labyrinths by Borges

Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other WritingsLabyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first Borges book, or shall I say, "My first Borges experience!"

Labyrinths is broken down to three sections: Fictions, Essays, and Parables. It starts complicated enough with the first story, and despite the false appearance to grow simpler, it gets more complicated as the book progresses. These are not short stories; these are conundrums blending fact, fiction, reality, and dreams. I cannot begin to fathom the amount of research that went to his stories, as even today, with the World Wide Web it would have taken me years to find and understand the vast amount of 'data' he throws around as if nothing. Jorge Luis Borges was a genius, a mad genius.

There were times when, while reading the book, I did not know whether to continue reading or whether to blow my head off. The only other book that made me feel this way was Anacalypsis by Sir Godfrey Higgins. Borges masterfully manipulates dream-like states and combines them with historical facts, mind-boggling revelations, and all this while looking at things from angles one would normally not consider. To be honest, I'm not even sure I understood this book completely (if that is even possible) but I already know I'll have to reread it.
There were stories and essays that made me question my own sanity, my own understanding of the world. There were beautiful stories that I read twice (The Library of Babel; The Secret Miracle; The Immortal; Deutsches Requiem; The Zahir). And then there were pieces that just blew me away and left me puzzled (The wall and the Books; A New Refutation of Time, for example).

In the end, I feel I have nothing new to say about this book that has not been said before. I'm left perplexed, yet strangely satisfied. I'm left wondering while my mind wanders, hungry for more yet unable to swallow one more morsel for fear of exploding. This will not be my favorite book of all time, it will not go down as the most memorable read of the year either...but...Borges, you shook my world in a profound, inexplicable way.

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A new review

I just stumbled upon this review of Escaping Barcelona. This is special for me in so many ways, as Dactyl Review is a site devoted strictly to literary fiction.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quiet Days in Clichy

Quiet Days in ClichyQuiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quiet Days in Clichy - there is nothing quiet about Miller's days in Clichy.

Henry Miller is my 'one author who affected me the most' (and I am not using the word influenced on purpose). I've read and reread his novels countless times, always finding new meanings, hidden messages, obscure sentences that burst forth with life. Miller has the power to pick me up when I'm down, the power to make me laugh when I'm sad, the power to see beauty in our messed-up world. Why? Because his works are full of life; life unrestricted, untamed, like pure blood just drawn and spilled all over the pages while still warm. That's Miller for me.

Quiet Days in Clichy chronicles a period of about one year. As usual, Miller is broke, sharing an apartment with his friend, who in this book goes by the name of Carl (Alfred Perles, an excellent author himself). In Miller's own words: "When I think of this period, when we lived together in Clichy, it seems like a stretch in Paradise. There was only one real problem, and that was food. All other ills were imaginary. I used to tell him so now and then, when he complained about being a slave. He used to say that I was an incurable optimist, but it wasn't optimism, it was the deep realization that, even though the world was busy digging its grave, there was still time to enjoy life, to be merry, carefree, to work or not to work."

This statement, is straightforward Miller if you never read him. Miller, throughout his books and most of his actual life, has had problems with money, or rather the lack of money. As for being an incurable optimist? - no, Miller was not an optimist, he was a man who has lived life to the fullest, tasting all and baring nothing. If you are familiar with his books, you know it wasn't always easy.

"It was a period when cunt was in the air." Did I forget to mention that Miller was awfully honest when it came to matters of sex? Most of his works have an underlying sexual motif, a presence of sorts. Some more than others, and Quiet Days in Clichy is of the former category. While many call Miller obscene and even go as far as calling his books pornographic, I've never felt this way. Miller's sex scenes and encounters are spread throughout his work in a matter-of-fact way. He assigns them no importance beyond their occurrences and their consequences. His sexual encounters (while prolific) just happen, so to speak. Here now, tomorrow... It would be foolish to deny that sex played an important role in Miller's life and in his writing, but his writing of sex is not meant to arouse or to provoke, it just is. Sort of like Bukowski's drinking - it just is.

This short novella has a surprising amount of crazy encounters in it. Knowing that during this period Miller was writing my favorite book of all time, Black Spring, helps put things into perspective. There is sex peppered throughout the pages, but the sex itself is of no importance. The encounters, however, are. The people Henry and Carl encounter are all rather interesting, their interactions almost psychotic. Especially the episode which results in their departure to Luxembourg.

Here, we are offered a different side of Miller. Instead of the carefree, jovial Miller tasting all life has to offer, here, he sounds more like Miller in New York.
He's discontent, "...observing the quiet, dull life of a people which has no reason to exist, and which in fact does not exist, except as cows or sheep exist." and "All they were concerned about was to know on which side their bread was buttered. They couldn't make bread, but they could butter it."
And despite finding beauty in the Pfaffenthal, "A thousand years' peace seemed to reign over this somnolent vale. It was like a corridor which God had traced with his little finger, a reminder to men that when their insatiable thirst for blood had been appeased, when they had become weary of strife, here they would find peace and rest."
He compares Luxembourg to the gray city he dislikes so very much, "Luxembourg is like Brooklyn, only more charming and more poisonous." "Better to die like a louse in Paris than live here on the fat of the land..."

Upon arrival back in Paris, Miller states: "Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet. Now I know what makes the world civilised: it's vice, disease, thievery, mendacity, lechery. Shit, the French are a great people, even if they are syphilitic. Don't ever ask me to go to a neutral country again. Don't let me look at any more cows, human or otherwise. I was that peppery I could have raped a nun."

What comes next is an insanely exaggerated scene were sex takes over and all boundaries cease to exist. Cheating a whore by giving her an uncovered check is not anything to be proud off, but Henry and Carl put on quite a show to disguise the fact that the check is bad. This episode, while seemingly unimportant brings to what I consider the best in Miller's writing - the words that resurface in Black Spring. "Head rolls off table-head rolls off...little man on wheels...wheels...legs...millions of legs..."

The surreal, creative Miller takes over here. This is the Miller I love. The sex scenes end, and he retires with this: " I got off my ass, yawned, stretched, staggered to the bed.
Off like a streak. Down, down, to the cosmocentric cesspool. Leviathans swimming around in strangely sunlit depths. Life going on as usual everywhere. Breakfast at ten sharp. An armless, legless man bending bar with his teeth. Dynamic falling through the stratosphere. Garters descending in long graceful spirals. A woman with a gashed torso struggling desperately to screw her severed head on. Wants money for it. For what? She doesn't know for what. Just money. Atop umbrella fern lies a fresh corpse full of bullet holes. An iron cross is suspended from its neck. Somebody is asking for a sandwich. The water is too agitated for sandwiches. Look under S in the dictionary!"

This reminds me I'll have to revisit Black Spring soon.

Overall, Miller's narrative in this novella is what one would expect from Miller. Being an early book, it appears as if he is holding back a bit, but not enough to be politically correct.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Lazy Book Reviewer : Henry Martin Interview

The Lazy Book Reviewer : Henry Martin Interview: Independent author Henry Martin has been kind enough to take part in an interview for this blog. I hope you enjoy this interview as muc...

Friday, August 9, 2013

The House of Certain Death

The House of Certain DeathThe House of Certain Death by Albert Cossery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The House of Certain Death by Albert Cossery; New Dirrections 1949; Translated by Stuart B. Kaiser.

My review may, perhaps, be a little biased, since I adore Cossery's writing. I have yet to meet an author whose descriptive language is as poetic, his prose so direct yet flowery. Comparing this book to his other works, however, I must admit that Mr. Kaiser's translation was perhaps not the best for Cossery's style, especially compared to Thomas W. Cushing's translation of Proud Beggars. I'm basing this statement not on the knowledge of the original text, but on comparing it to Cossery's other works translated by other translators. Somehow this one seems more 'choppy'.

Nonetheless, if you like Cossery, this book should not be overlooked.

As with his other works, The House of Certain Death is set in Egypt and deals with lower class elements of society. The settings are familiar, and the message is consistent with his other works. Cossery is the lone voice of the masses, the unfortunate, the derelicts, the beggars, cripples, miserable beings who dwell in the native quarters, far away from the shiny lights of the European city.

The book opens with: "It was winter, the cruel winter of poverty-stricken Egypt. The day had dawned in the misery of glacial cold. First, the wind tore through the streets of the modern city with its concrete structures, strong as invincible fortresses. Then it savagely attacked the native quarter. There, it found no serious obstacle to oppose its violent intensity. It engulfed the countless tumbledown dwellings and filled the alleys with devastating gusts. It was an icy wind, full of poisonous damp. It blew through the reeling walls of the wretched hovels; it tumbled them into ruins; it twisted around the squalid rubble, stirring up a pestilential odor of misery."

We are thus introduced to the house which is at the center of this novel, the house owned by the detested landlord Si Khalil. A house that threatens to collapse at any moment, so the entrance to the alley is forbidden to vegetable pushcarts and even vendors with loud voices. As for the inhabitants of the house, Cossery introduces us as: "Only poor wretched creatures, blinded by their abject misery, could find shelter for their precarious existence inside those dilapidated walls."

The story revolves around the house and its inhabitants. There are several colorful characters that only reality or Cossery could throw together in one place: Abdel Al, a carter and his wife Mabrouka; Chehata, a carpenter and his wife Khecha; Old Kawa who is going blind; Bayoumi, a monkey trainer and his wife Zakiya; Soliman El Abit, a melon peddler, and his wife Nefissa; Rachwan Kassem an oil-stove repairman, and his wife Om Saad; Abd Rabo, a street cleaner, and Souka a singer in a cafe. Along with these principle characters, there are numerous children in various stages of hunger, and the infamous landlord Si Khalil.

Chehata spends his days at the courtyard messing with the few pieces of wood he possesses. He actually never makes anything, or sells anything. No one ever hires him to do any carpentry.
Souka, who works as a singer in the red-light district, struggles with platonic love for the young wife of Abd Rabo, who, out of jealousy, keeps her locked up. Actually, Abd Rabo, being the only person with a steady job and income, holds a special social value among the tenants. Soliman El Abit spends most of his time sleeping, since it is winter, and winter is not a good time for melons. Bayoumi prances around with his monkey and a goat, making living in any way possible, that is, until his goat mysteriously disappears and is never found - the carpenter's family ate her. Rachwan Kassem holds a very high opinion of himself as an educated man because he can fix oil stoves. Abdel Al, the most important character in this book has revolutionary ideas, such as not paying rent until the landlord fixes the house. Due to this, he is accused of reading books, something frowned upon and almost forbidden.

While the focus point in the story is the house - which by way is falling apart threatening to cave in any day - what is uniquely Cossery is the stuff between the lines. As in his other books, the idea of a revolt (not a full blown revolution) against the status quo, against the higher class is deeply present. Showing a deep division between the tenants, the poorest of the poor, by their perceptions of themselves, he takes on the whole caste system as a joke. Si Khalil, the landlord, became wealthy only because of his shady dealings in the past, and is the worst slumlord one can imagine. Yet, he has the respect of the police and the people.
His tenants, unable to read or write, hire a drug addict to write a letter to the government to complain about their landlord. From that day on, however, they fear the government will come and hurt them. The women in this story do not receive much respect (same in his other writings), which is likely due to the general culture and era (not that this justifies it). They are controlling, loud, and the men fear them when the women are together yet disrespect them when the women are separate.
But back to the idea of revolt. Every single book by Cossery I've read deals with similar issues. Revolt against injustice, revolt against social status, revolt against progress which seems unfair to the natives. While the modern city (European center of Cairo) benefits from all that is new and spectacular, the natives are left in mud.

Cossery, to me, is a master when it comes to depicting slums. His characters are real people with real problems. He is the champion of the oppressed masses, and the house in this story is the entire system designed to keep the people at bay. And, as a good revolutionary, he ends with: "The future is full of outcries; the future is full of revolt. How to confine this swelling river that will submerge entire cities? Si Khalil can visualize the house collapsing into dusty ruin. He sees the living arising from among the dead. For they will not all die. They will have to be reckoned with when they rise up, their faces bloody, and their eyes filled with vengeance."

So, The House of Certain Death is not about a house after all.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013



Seeping through the smoke soaked curtains, the twilight fills my living room with peaceful serenity. Seated on a love seat, which hasn’t seen any love since the day I brought it home from the store, I take a deep breath. My lungs expand, my chest rises, and then I let go. The trapped air eagerly escapes with a hiss as it clears my clenched teeth. I am afraid to open my mouth—the scream could awaken the women in my bedroom.
    Thanks to the twilight, the atmosphere lingers on the mellow. Or so it seems. Should I look? I try moving my foot. The muscles respond, with an attitude, and the foot slips as I put it down. I must still be bleeding. I force myself to look down. In a puddle of blood, my foot looks like an alabaster boat about to cross the Red Sea. I follow the curve to where my ankle should be, only to find a tangled mess. The tendons, staring at me from a deep wound, look like something an insane man with too much rope at his disposal could have done if he had any artistic inclinations and no knowledge how to tie a knot. My head spins. I feel faint.
     I pull a cigarette out of my pocket and light it. This distraction, although momentary, allows me to regain my composure. Feeling stronger, I look down, and find my foot again. I follow the bloody path from there all the way to the bear trap in the middle of the room.
    If only I wasn’t so paranoid, none of this would have happened. Who the fuck ever heard of bears in skyscrapers.

Copyright 2012
This story appeared in Coffee, Cigarettes, and Murderous Thoughts.