Tag Archives: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Escapades in the Picaresque

Gabriel García Márquez is perhaps the grandfather of fabulist fiction, but the tradition goes far beyond his works of magical realism...

I find that lately I’ve been developing a soft spot for books that move away from the more traditional forms of storytelling — perfect plot arch, realistic descriptions, few narrative digressions, consistent characters, and so forth — and into literary universes that are altogether more fanciful. My readings have brought me to discover three such novels in the last couple of months, and I thought I’d share the pleasure with which I read them. All three of the books are quite famous, but they emerge from unique different traditions; still, they are all similar in their approach to certain artistic truths by their exhilarating stories and exuberant prose-styles.

The first of these books is The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is, simply, a masterpiece. Written in 1938, two years before the author’s death, it was only published in 1967, Bulgakov’s works having long suffered at the hands of the Soviet censors. The novel, which meanders through the lives of a cast of vivid characters, follows the arrival of the devil in person (accompanied by a few of his hilarious henchmen) in a hot spring in Moscow, and his meddling in the affairs of Margarita, a beautiful, brilliant woman, and her lover, nicknamed the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate (the reader is also privy to three chapters from this novel, interspersed throughout the book). It’s a thrilling, sparkling ride, with an intrusive narrator leading the reader on with obvious relish. Thanks to Bulgakov’s powerful, elastic writing, the story is at once funny, fantastical, sexy, moving, and violent. A myriad of adjectives for the myriad of moods and sensations the novel provides with such perfection. 

The Vintage cover for The Master and Margarita, just as wild and wonderful as the novel itself.

The second book I read in the same vein was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I came to this novel with a certain amount of reticence, since I found everything I’d read by Woolf to be utterly depressing. Not so Orlando. It was a writer’s holiday for Woolf, who worked on the novel as a kind of joke for her charistmatic, bisexual friend (and sometime lover) Vita Sackville-West; it’s also a real treat for the reader, who gets the chance to experience a writer at the top of her game, writing on a rampage, free from the bonds of tradition. Orlando is the story of the eponymous character, who begins life as a man in the 16th century and then sails through the centuries until first quarter of the 20th century, changing sex along the way. Woolf often focuses on beautifully rendered moments of fancy, like “The Great Frost”, during which “birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground” and the Tames becomes a pleasure ground for the city of London, or the cloud that comes to rests upon the British Isles on the first day of the 19th century, altering “the constitution of England”:

The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted the after-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing room to glass cases, and glass cases to artificial flowers, and artificial flowers, and artificial flowers to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, and pianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping a stage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home — which had become extremely important — was completely altered.

 The tone is light, the writing carefree; Woolf is free as bird and can do whatever she likes, while creating an insightful satire of history and raising questions about the role of women in society. Orlando alone proves Michael Cunningham’s recent claim that Virginia Woolf was fun at parties, something many find difficult to believe. 

The original Hogarth Press dust jacket for Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

Last, and certainly not least, in this small list of fabulist fiction of mine is a very strange novel called Gould’s Book of Fish: A novel in twelve fish, by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. I have never read anything quite like it before. In the first section of the novel, we meet a male narrator, in modern-day Tasmania, who discovers in an old junk shop an original copy of The Book of Fish, a 19th century document filled with watercolour paintings of fish (which really does exist, by the way). What’s special about this book is that it’s also covered in writing; in a way it acts as the testament of Gould, the artist who painted all the fish, who was a convict in Van Dieman’s land. The narrator reads through Gould’s story, fascinated, but learns that Gould depicts only fictions in his Book of Fish, relating to people and events that never existed. In The Book of Fish, he recreates his own version of the penal colony in Van Dieman’s land, with a fake commander ousting the real one and establishing a Republic of New Venice, building a railway that goes nowhere and a great Mah-Jong Hall. When the book mysteriously disappears, however, the narrator decides to rewrite Gould’s story by memory, which makes up the eleven other sections. So the story we read is a recreated fake, even within the universe of the novel, and things get only worse from there. Like an intricate, tricky hall of mirrors, versions of fakery and artistic inventions are made to stare at each other in the face, multiplying the fictions into infinitely divisible versions. All of them are valid, but none of them are real. Truth is inconsequential in Gould’s Book of Fish; instead, the novel revels in the joyful possibilities of the counterfeit. There are echoes of Borges at times, for instance when Gould, reading the fictitious archives of the penal colony that another character has written, comes upon the very words he is now writing in a kind of mind-boggling narrative circularity. What keeps everything together is Flanagan’s mastery of language. His prose is exuberant and majestic — he uses countless metaphors related to the sea in order to maintain a coherence in imagery — and he is especially successful in crafting an original, provocative voice for his Gould, which gives the novel its energy and thrust. 

These are three excellent novels, which create exciting universes and really original reading experiences. In the wake of Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize victory this week for her imaginative novel The Tiger’s Wife, we should perhaps expect more of these fabulist pieces of fiction to emerge as a counter-movement to the realism that has been dominant for the last decades. Authors exploring new magical realism or the picaresque certainly have a strong tradition to rest upon and emerge from, and their books are bound to be interesting and altogether different, as these seem to be inherent tropes of the genre. 


The Travelling Library

The ultimate travelling library: "Archive II", designed by David Garcia, which allows you to walk away with half a ton of books!

The most important part of preparing any trip — be it a weekend at the cottage or a longer stay abroad — is most certainly packing your bags. However, I’ve found that one specific aspect of packing often takes up a lot more of my thoughts and time than it should: deciding what books I’m going to bring along with me. I always take along at least two books, no matter how long the trip, to make sure I have a backup if I finish or get tired of the first one. If travelling involves flying, I find that complicates the decision-making; I always want to bring something really long I’ve been meaning to get to for a while because I tell myself that a flight will give me several solid hours with no interruptions and nothing better to do, although of course I should bring something lighter and really engaging because airplanes are so uncomfortable. I always end up bringing loads of books with me on planes and read only very little — I tend to switch to the little screen rather quickly.

Of course, reading is enjoyable at home, but there’s a very vivid satisfaction in sitting in a park or a café abroad and doing something so usual, so normal. It’s a good way to escape the eery feeling of displacement that travelling gives me, and slip into that very moment, enter the texture of life in the place where I am a stranger. I have very fond memories of visiting a lot of truly fascinating places in Ireland when I went backpacking there for a month in 2008, but I also remember — with equal fondness — reading DeNiro’s Game on a bench in the gardens of Saint-Patrick’s Cathedral, or José Saramago’s The Cave in a hostel common room on a rainy day.

Reading Dostoyevsky with a nice, cold beer in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I’ve found it’s really important not to bring something too engrossing to read on a trip, however, or else all I want to do is read and skip all the sightseeing and experiences the place has to offer. On another backpacking trip two years ago, in Turkey and the Balkans, I brought One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Brothers Karamazov, Voyage jusqu’au bout de la nuit, and other stuff I’d wanted to read for a long time. These proved perfect: good to escape elsewhere in long, hot bus rides, but not exactly thrillers. My girlfriend and I learned this truth the hard way when she brought The Shadow of the Wind on the same trip; she mostly wanted to stay by the hotel pool for the (very short) time it took her to read it. I ended up bringing way too many books on that particular trip myself, some of which I didn’t even get around to reading (Le Rouge et le noir, if you really want to know, which still stares at me accusingly from my shelf, as yet unread). All those books did serve a purpose when my backpack was searched in the night train on the border between Bulgaria and Serbia. “Books! Books! BOOKS!” cried the customs officer as she shuffled through my backpack, pulling out volume after volume. She sighed rather desperately and gave up her search. If ever you need to pass anything illegal through Eastern-European borders, now you know how.

My "to read" pile.

I know what you’re thinking: an e-reader would solve that problem, and I could carry an entire library with me in the volume of a single, paperback novella. But the thing is, the love I have for ink and paper books still outweighs the advantages of those clever little machines. I like how I can annotate my books, I like turning the bottom corner of pages I want to read to G., and I like being able to measure how much I have left to read by the space between my thumb and index. I also have a tendency to buy books abroad, where they become mementos of the places I visit. Downloading them abroad just wouldn’t be the same. For example, I cherish my Everyman edition of Ulysses all the more because I bought it in Dublin, from the James Joyce Center. Similarly, I needed to get something — anything — from Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, the first time I went there a few months ago (I finally settled on a book about bookstores, The Yellow-Lighted Bookstore, by Lewis Buzbee, which I felt was appropriate). I didn’t see many decent books in English in the Balkans, although I did find a nice edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in English, with an introduction in Bulgarian, in a street market in Sofia. My foreign book buying activities have gotten a little problematic in the last year, since I’ve been studying abroad in England and, although I brought a decent number of books along with me, I’ve also been buying lots of books here, because I like to surround myself with books — it gives me comfort and makes wherever I live feel like home. The problem is, come June, I need to bring all these books with me back to Montreal.

The nature of residence rooms means bookshelves also holds crockery and wine glasses. It adds to the charm, I suppose.

The core of my library-away-from-home is made up of the books I brought with me (The Measure of Paris, by Stephen Scobie, Possession by A. S. Byatt, and others), then there are books I needed to buy for school (Henry James and Shakespeare figure prominently here), and finally all the books I bought here: The Granta Book of Irish Short Stories, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Al Alvarez’s Risky Business, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita bought at Mr B’s Book Emporium, in Bath), Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter (bought in the London Review bookstore), and (too) many others. Some of these I’ve read, some I haven’t. In my defense, I’ve promised to stop buying books while I’m here — if only because of the logistical problem of bringing them back home with me — at least until I’ve read all of those I have.

Meanwhile, I have another problem; it’s Easter vacation and I’m leaving for a short trip to Italy this week… which books, I wonder, will get the chance to visit Florence with me?


The Craft of First Lines

Is it as easy to judge a book by its first line as it is to judge it by its cover? Speaking of covers, this is a really beautiful one: simple and stunning.

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King will shortly be coming out. I won’t be reading it, at least not soon, but I remain greatly intrigued by the author. David Foster Wallace suffered from severe clinical depression for most of his life, and hanged himself in 2008. He is widely recognized as one of the most original and prominent American writers of his generation. If you’re interested, there’s a very good Charlie Rose interview with Wallace, dating from 1997, which showcases Wallace’s intelligence quite vividly. Watch it here.

The opening sentence of The Pale King was released online a couple of weeks ago in The Millions. It looks like this:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Now, I haven’t read much of Wallace’s work, but it seems quite clear to me that these opening lines are almost perfect. The first word creates a movement and a direction, as the reader is immediately drawn into what the protagonist sees. The following descriptions have an uncertain beauty to them (“blacktop graphs”, “canted rust”, “tobacco-brown” and so on) which mirrors the imperfect beauty of the landscape being described. But the language is still luscious; take the “weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water”, which is such a gorgeous image, bursting with truth and life. The details root the vision in the moment and place, and yet the movement introduced with the first word continues throughout with the introduction of “the place beyond the windbreak”, a destination, of sorts, or maybe just a kind of mirage, “shimmer[ing] shrilly in the a.m. heat”, a place you’d like to get to but cannot. I just used a “you” there on purpose — the inclusion of the “you” at the end of the sentence is brilliant, throwing the reader’s gaze, which had been wandering past all those weeds and into the distance, right back to him/her and his/her personal, sensuous experience. It all ends with the simile of “a mother’s soft hand on your cheek”, which is at once modest and universal. Of course, there’s also that long enumeration, which may put off some readers (I know I sometimes unconsciously skip over lists when I read) but which, I think, really brings this piece of writing to life. Lists are a strange literary tool, with a kind of hypnotic power, relevant in this case since The Pale King is supposed to have boredom as one of its themes. I am reminded, for instance, of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, which is so potent at conjuring what it enumerates. Lists offer the most perfect form of realism, because they can’t leave anything out.

Lists can be really interesting and poetic, I swear. Even Umberto Eco says so.

Looking at the first sentence of Wallace (especially in isolation, without everything that follows) has got me thinking about the first lines in books and how tricky they are. Many people will tell you first lines are an essential part of books, and you can often tell a good book by the quality of its first sentence. There are loads of examples of fine first sentences, but I think the incontestable master is Gabriel García Márquez, who consistently begins his novels with elegant, thoughtful, fascinating, and memorable lines. Take the famous first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Here’s the first sentence of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, equally delicious, although I found the novel itself a little disappointing: “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” Or have a look at the first sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera, which is so contemplative, full of quiet potential: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” A master of the craft of first lines, there is no doubt.

As the examples above illustrate, good first sentences must, I think, must bring the reader in media res, that is, in the middle of things — and here, we return to Homer, who begins his Iliad and Odyssey in a similar fashion. Beginning your story this way ignites curiosity in the reader, who will naturally jump to the next sentence to answer the questions which arise out of the first. Ian McEwan usually writes unremarkable first sentences, but I think his opening for On Chesil Beach was an exception. It’s pitch perfect, albeit a tad tortuous: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Makes you want to read more? I certainly do. Other fine examples can be found in The Golden Bowl, by Henry James (“The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him…”) and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (“One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: — it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”)

 

When the sentence is that good, why not wear it as jewelry?

Then there’s that very strange kind of first sentence which can act independently as a kind of proverb. Two examples of this are still very well known: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Although these stand very well on their own, I don’t like them too much in the context of the book (despite the biting irony which emerges from the Pride and Prejudice example) because they feel disconnected from what follows. They’re so good and they reveal so much information and truth from the start, that you feel like you’re starting the story all over again with the second sentence. Henry James begins The Portrait of a Lady in a similar way: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Wonderful, but not altogether intriguing, I find.

There are also some first lines which are really only decent, but fit so well within the works they begin that they act as a kind of microcosm of these works, and have become famous in and of themselves. I think the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses is definitely one of these: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” I really love the opening pages of the novel, they have a quick pace, they’re full of life and wit and the prose is dazzling, but is the first sentence particularly good? Does it stand very well on its own? Does it compel the reader to keep on reading? Well, not really. I’m not so sure “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” would be so remarkable if it didn’t introduce one of the greatest and most influential novels of the 20th century. The first sentence of Out of Africa — “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills.” — is elegant and simple, like much of the book, but it strikes me as being similar to the first sentence of Ulysses in that it only bears interest in light of the entire book. It’s still a fine sentence though, and very well used in the movie adaption (I can hear Meryl Streep’s voice when I read it now, in that low-pitched Swedish accent she gave herself for the movie).

Whenever I start reading a new book, I always hope I’ll be pleased by the first sentence. It’s hit or miss. The first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea still gives me shivers: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Stunning. A last favourite of mine is the opening page of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I find so rhythmic and engrossing: “I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods…” Sometimes I get really disappointed if the beginning of a book could’ve had a really fantastic first sentence, but the author put something plain and not particularly attractive instead — for instance, I can’t understand why Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori doesn’t begin from the very first line with the alarming phone call: “Remember you must die.” It’s a little bit frustrating, a kind of missed opportunity.

I’m bound, of course, to find loads more fine first sentences as time passes; it’s something I like to keep an eye out for. If you know of any other good ones, by all means, please share them!


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