Sunday, November 19, 2006

Houston's Shame

Mounted police trample striking janitors in downtown Houston. Two proud symbols of culture, Jones Hall and Miro's Personnage et Oiseau, loom in the background as this atrocity unfolds. I have no pride in Houston today.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Return to Twin Peaks

I have now finally seen all of Twin Peaks (I never saw most of the second season), andwhile I want to avoid the obsessive fan culture that grows up around a project like this (just look at what exists online about this show), I have a couple of comments.

First, I was living in Seattle when Twin Peaks first appeared. That was an exciting time to be in Seattle—you could feel its importance growing as a vibrant creative scene (combined with a strong, high-tech economy) suddenly tipping over into the national consciousness. Weirdly enough, I think Twin Peaks was part of that. Even though only the exterior shots were filmed up there, it sent a message to America that the Pacific Northwest was an odd, interesting place. For us in Seattle, it was fun to go to Snoqualmie and see the locations (and eat pie and coffee at the Mar-T--the exterior of the diner in the show). This town was just outside Seattle (but enough out that it felt completely rural) and was a popular location for short hikes.

The other thing is to consider how odd a show it seemed at the time. Since then, there have been a lot of self-consciously mysterious or odd TV shows, but whoever in 1990 thought it was a good idea to give David Lynch his own show must have been fairly brave.

The show was designed to be a perpetual motion machine, but by the middle of season two, I started thinking—enough already. I’m sure other viewers did as well, especially after Leland was revealed as Laura Palmer’s killer. They did more-or-less manage to wrap it up in the final few episodes, so one isn't left with a feeling of incompleteness. There were loose ends that were never resolved, but nothing too important. Considering how it could have wrapped up, they did an OK job of it.

What sticks with me is the accumulation of bizarre details, some small, some large (like all the red room scenes).


Friday, November 03, 2006

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges derives this story from Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, the same book that provided some of the source material for the Martin Scorcese film. Borges even mentions the Dead Rabbit gang in passing, although the protagonist of this story, Monk Eastman, enters the history of New York long after the demise of the Dead Rabbits. Here is how Eastman is described:

He was a battered and monumental man. He had a short, bull neck, an unassailable chest, the long arms of a boxer, a broken nose; his face, though legended with scars, was less imposing than his body. [ . . . ] He might go shirtless or collarless, and often went without a coat, but he was never seen without a narrow-brimmed derby atop his enormous head.

I like way Hurley turns “legend” into a verb, but it makes me wonder how this was expressed in the original Spanish by Borges.

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The Widow Ching—Pirate

Ching is a woman who takes over a pirate fleet after the death of her husband. (Her husband was murdered by the shareholders of the fleet after he accepted an offer from the emperor of China to assume the position of master of the royal stables, in exchange for giving up piracy.) The emperor twice sends fleets to subdue her. The first is wiped out. The second flies dragon kites above Ching’s fleet and she reads in their passage an omen that instructs her to surrender and sue for mercy. She is pardoned by the emperor, retires from piracy, and spends her remaining days in the relatively peaceful occupation of opium smuggling.

Another quick (and presumably true) vignette from Borges’ Universal History of Infamy.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro

This is another one from A Universal History of Infamy (1935). Tom Castro, under the tutelage of Ebenezer Bogle, imitates Roger Charles Tichborne, beloved son of a wealthy family, who was drowned when the naval vessel on which he served sank. Tichborne’s mother refused to accept his death and ran advertisements all over the world asking for information about her son. Tichborne was a handsome, dark-haired man who grew up in Paris and spoke perfect English with a French accent. Castro was an uneducated country bumpkin, barely literated, chubby, light-haired, and freckled. Bogle’s genius was that he knew any overt imitation of Tichborne would be instantly sussed out—but a claimant who in no way resembled Tichborne must be authentic because such a claimant is obviously not trying to fool anyone! (This reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit about the Smucker’s jelly slogan, which included the immortal quip, “With a name like painful rectal itch, it has to be good!”)

After Tichborne’s mother dies, Castro receives a large part of the estate, but finds the will contested by other family members who can see the obvious. But Bogle fairly successfully convinces the court and public opinion (including fomenting an entirely fictitious Jesuit plot against Castro to sway the public in Castro’s favor). But Bogle dies in a carriage accident before the conclusion of the trial, and the doltish Castro, without his brilliant coach, collapses and is sent to jail.

Here is a curious line from the story, describing Bogle (who was black):

Bogle had another quality, as well—though some textbooks in anthropology deny this attribute to his race: he was possessed of genius.

One wonders what Borges thought of blacks. I think he held opinions more or less common of men of his generation, and he was a politically conservative person in many ways. But weirdly ambiguous statements like the one above occasionally pop up in his work.

(A note to readers: I am reading the translations by Andrew Hurley that appear in Collected Fictions, which I highly recommend.)

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell

Borges wrote A Universal History of Iniquity at an early age and later in life said of it, “. . . under all the storm and lightning, there is nothing.” Most of the stories are somewhat fictionalized biographical sketches of legendary badmen. Lazarus Morell’s scheme is to encourage slaves to escape, allow themselves to be resold in another state, then escape again, splitting the proceeds with Morell. But Morell, to protect this franchise, always makes sure that the slaves in question end up prematurely deceased somewhere down the line. He is a redeemer, but cruel in the false hope he offers and the ultimate fate he delivers. Borges describes these stories as baroque, and his language, even in translation, is delightfully so:

We do know, however, that he was not particularly good-looking as a young man and that his close-set eyes and thin lips did not conspire in his favor. The years, as time went on, imparted to him that peculiar majesty that white-haired blackguards, successful (and unpunished) criminals, seem generally to possess.

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Blogging Borges

I will be blogging about Borges' stories and essays for a while. I want to write about short succinct pieces of work (Borges rarely wrote long), presented in disciplined, short, succinct blog entries.

Before diving in, and because I am a narcissist, here’s how I first encountered Borges. I was in my early 20s, a sophomore in college, and my dad had arranged for me to work that summer on one of the seismic boats his company had in the Gulf of Mexico. (The company was Western Geophysical, which after many mergers and acquisitions is now WesternGeco and a subsidiary of Franco-American oil tools giant, Schlumberger.)

I decided to pack some books for the job, and the themes that suggested themselves were the sea (duh) and the exotic (which was a stretch since we never really left sight of the shore and worked mainly in Louisiana). For the sea, I picked Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick, and for the exotic, I picked a V.S. Naipaul book (I think Guerrillas) and the Modern Library collection of Borges’ short stories.

These choices were more-or-less shots in the dark. But they were lucky shots. Mutiny on the Bounty was the least of them, and it was utterly entertaining and compelling. The others really nailed me to the wall, and I subsequently read everything I could of Naipaul and Borges. Borges also opened my eyes to Latin American literature as a whole, and the mid-80s was a good time to be into that—lots of cheap paperback editions of Latin American modern novels were being published. I especially liked Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado, Vargas Llosa, and one that almost no one talks about anymore, Ignacio Loyola Brandão.

Borges turned out to be an especially rewarding writer. He was a prolific short-story writer and essayist, and he had his favorite subjects that he continually returned to. This kind of return could be tedious, but I never saw it that way. I saw it as him rolling them over and over in his mind. In his great essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” he links Kafka to several writers and literary works that in some way anticipate aspects of Kafka. It’s a delightful essay, and one that explained a particular Post-Modern notion of the author very well, but he unwittingly shows how his lifetime of learning combined with this process of rolling his knowledge and memories over and over like a gem polishing machine can lead to unexpected conclusions. Borges is so at home with his own influences—Kafka, Poe, Kipling, de Quincey, etc. Indeed, that sense of comfort pervades even his strangest works. He writes about the gradual replacement of our real world by the fictional world Tlon with all the “at-homeness” of Richard Russo writing about small-town New York State.

So I love this author, and blogging about him will give me a chance to revisit his stories and essays—a true pleasure.

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