Archive for the ‘Projects: Antwerp’ Category

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The Antwerp Project by Morgan Meis

07/11/2011

While in Antwerp, Morgan Meis wrote a series of connected sketches. “Bad Translations” gave way to a series of linked meditations on Robert Bolaño’s novel Antwerp.

Bad Translations

The idea for Bad Translations came to me a number of years ago in Ecuador. My wife and I, the mysterious Shuffy©, were staying in a little pension outside of the old town in Quito and there was a ramshackle bookstore nearby we would duck into during violent confrontations between groups of young protesters and the police. People were pissed off about the dollarization of the currency. Gustavo Noboa had recently been elected president. But this is ancient history.

Jorge Carrera Andrade

I found an old volume of poetry by Jorge Carrera Andrade. The pages hadn’t even been split and it smelled of dirt. Andrade is more or less a big deal in Latin American literature though you don’t hear his name very often up north. Such is the way of things. The poems were in Spanish, since Andrade wrote them that way. My Spanish is terrible. But I decided to start translating them anyway.

Some years ago, before even the trip to Ecuador, the man who taught me to read Golden Age Latin, the hairy and intense Alan Fishbone, made a comment to me over a game of pool. “You know,” he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s all syntax, …. And syntax is magic.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant at the time, though it sounded cool. He was a cool guy, likely he still is, though his Juvenalian Foundation for a New Humanism located on Elizabeth Street in New York City only lasted about a year. Money did not pour in.

Fishbone’s comment stuck with me over the years. I came to realize that he was talking about how language manufactures meaning. He was saying that meaning happens in how the grammar of a sentence holds together. When you put a sentence together correctly, the meaning jumps right out. Boom, there it is. There are rules for this sort of thing but, on the other hand, the mechanical application of rules doesn’t always get you there. You can translate each word in a foreign sentence completely correctly and, still, the meaning eludes. Anyone who has read an instructional manual translated directly from the Chinese is aware of what I speak. That’s the part Fishbone was referring to when he spoke of magic. Syntax works via magic.

It is in the act of translation from language to language that the magic of syntax is most deeply experienced. You can struggle and struggle with a sentence, knowing its grammatical structure and the definition of all its words and the damn sentence still refuses to release its secrets. Then, suddenly, it pops into place. The magic of syntax.

When I started working on my bad translation of Andrade I realized that what I was getting down on paper was often that elusive little place between sense and nonsense where the magic of syntax does its work. Sometimes the line felt right, I was getting the real meaning of it. Other times I was just off. In some ways, I was using the slippery power of syntax to create a wholly new, and surely inferior, poetry out of the original poetry created by Andrade. But it held its own interest, this new monstrous stuff. It was compelling standing on its own.

Boon’s little book

Now we are living in Antwerp and tooling around some of the bookshops here. There is no violence to flee, though recent tensions between the Flems and the Walloons could, well, who knows? I found a little volume that I fell in love with even before I came to really love it. It is by Louis Paul Boon, who is pictured on the cover wearing a funny hat. It’s called “Boon-Apartjes: aforismen, citaten en iutspraken van Louis Paul Boon verrameld door Gerd de Ley.” This translates roughly, badly, as: “Boon one-on-one: aphorisms, quotations, and pronouncements by Louis Paul Boon, loosely collected by Gerd de Ley.” I think the title is actually even funnier than that but, again, my Dutch (Flemish) is so bad that it is hard to say. Louis Paul Boon is, by the way, a wonderful character and brilliant writer but I’ll let you discover that, if you’re interested, on your own. The following Bad Translation is from the first three pages of his little book. These pages are found under the title, “De voorstad groeit” (The Suburb Expands). My comments on the bad translation are in the brackets, in italic.

De voorstad groeit

roman, 3e druk, Em. Querido’s Utig. N.V., Amsterdam 1963

You want someone. And as you are with two, it shows you were nevertheless happier, easier, and a divine, solitary thing, alone.

[I have no idea, really, how to translate this sentence. “Als ge met twee zijt blijkt” continues to elude me, syntactically. I feel pretty good about the comparative adjectives. Then it all falls apart again with the divine, solitary (goddelijk eenzamer waart, alleen). What is “waart”, by the way? A slightly archaic form of “zijn”(to be) probably? Who knows. Not even the internet seems to know]

To depart is nothing; as your head and heart are filled up with illusions. To come back, though, with empty hands and an empty soul, standing out on the corner of your street, the look-out, already past midnight, and not to dare to go in, not to dare, that is something else.

[Many problems here in the middle. I really like the way it sounds in my bad translation, though, what with the standing and the not daring.]

Just as a man who smokes encounters something, it’s the same whether it be joy, sorrow, or danger, the first thing he does is to grab that pack of cigarettes. And set him up for two hours without tobacco, he’ll creep under the door for a touch.

[“Creep under the door for a touch” (hij kruipt onder de reet van de deur om er aan te raken) is nonsense. Or is it?]

the little book near Flemish cheese with some flowers on it

Many people don’t open their mouth at all and you think: That is a man who really knows, that is someone who can’t be bothered to find another word to open his mouth for. Come on, it could just as well be that there’s such a prodigious emptiness in his skull that he simply has nothing to say.

That your knee hurts, that is something you’re allowed to trumpet forth about. Everyone would agree. That’s a true gentleman! But when your heart is in pain, must you hide it away like a crime?

[Alright, you tell me what “is het ochheren waar!” means, tough guy. I say it means “That’s a true gentleman!” I think this sentence is quite beautiful, though, even in the bad translation.]

Now, all at once you understand that the world, like him, rotates and whiffles. In the beginning, it all went well. The water, the mountains, the depths and the trees, all stood in their place. The flowers and the beasts were alone, in joy. But now.

[I decided on “rotates and whiffles” for “draait en waait”. I think “whiffles” should be a real verb.]

Someone who has fallen right away seeks someone else who is already down on the ground. All this just for you not to be alone, alone with a troubled conscience.

And whilst there is a pause in the war, all day healthy folk do their building and other folk in broken pieces return, and the master gives the same lesson as a thousand years ago. That you must be good and tender hearted, that you must give her the left cheek after she whacks the right. Of course, a lesson is a lesson and not the real world. We are big men, knowing that a story in a book is not the story of life. But children who still believe in everything they’ve made up are tossed hither and tither, between truth and trickery, lies, hatefulness, right and underhanded kerfuffles. Whilst there is but one thing that is the real kicker: Seeing that you got a nice sandwich, and are beloved in a fat place of approval.

[I believe I was doing pretty well, minus some of the nuance, up until the sandwich and the fat place of approval. But there is talk, in the Flemish, of a “boterham” and a “dikke plak bijval er tussen.” Anyway, I have become quite fond of the idea of a fat place of approval. I want to go there myself.]

A person who trusts in his work, is content. Labor is thus a sort of narcotic for his character.

When you are completely alone, you can easily persuade another, you shove another speech into the mix and everyone is bluffed. Every fanciful person around you all of a sudden simultaneously yields. But in the daytime when it is living faces you stand before with their obstinacy, with their apathy, and with their sneers, then, dejected, you search for the right word, you grope in a murky corner for your brains and find them not. You stand in an ever-rising tide of gruel, which always strangles your good intentions and pinches off your best thoughts.

[Mufffed on some details here, I’m sure, but I think I grasped the essentials. Haven’t we all groped in that murky corner for the brains and whatnot?]

the little book near my cat, Huck

Why must every man be convulsed and hurled here into the world, a world of sabulous clay and cement, blood, sinews, telephone poles and sin, men yet to be born and men who’ve died, and another world that haunts our mind without knowing whether it exists, subsists, or ever will come?

[I do not know what sabulous clay is either.]

What, really, is more enticing, more mysterious, more devilish than a forbidden book?

You know, people love the flap about the book more than the contents, from which copper can finally be teased out: that is now the by product of this book! And it mostly becomes something through which the writer of the book, in praising the book, praises himself…

[Whatever he is doing with the copper and the teasing was too sophisticated for me. Maybe there is some kind of alchemic reference. I don’t know. But I get the last part.]

*

I

On the back of my copy of Robert Bolaño’s novel Antwerp is the following quotation from the man himself, “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” I assume he was speaking only of the novels he wrote, but maybe not. Maybe he meant all the novels, every single one.

+*+*+*

There is nothing sexier than a book you haven’t read yet. Especially if it has a nice cover and nice fonts. Especially if it is by someone with an aura. The volumes of Kierkegaard’s writings put out by Princeton University Press used to drive me crazy. The block of color on top and the pure black underneath. The line drawing of Kierkegaard’s profile in an oval in the middle of the book.

I had a few of those volumes for years. I never read a single word. I was scared that the content could never live up to the promise. In that way, books are tiny lessons in the disappointment of life. You’d think that we would never open a really important book again. Never do it. It hurts.

Maybe Bolaño was never embarrassed about Antwerpbecause it is a story that isn’t really a story in a book that isn’t really a book. It is literature that reveals so few of its secrets that it can never be less than its promise, never be dumb. That’s one thing I think Bolaño could never have accepted, that he be obvious, that he be dumb.

+*+*+*

Bolaño could have called his novel Antwerp for the same reason that I am in Antwerp. Because it is on the river Scheldt. Because the river Scheldt was silted up for years and years during the wars of reformation and counter reformation. Because Rubens roamed around the dead city of Antwerp for years and years, and then painted his massive Baroque canvasses. Because Antwerp looks good as a word, physically on the page, but it is a little bit hard to say. Because Antwerp isn’t the first city people think of.

+*+*+*

The go-to quote when it comes to Antwerp is what Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor once said. He called Antwerp the Big Bang, the tiny explosion from which the entire universe of Bolaño’s literature emerged.

That is an intriguing possibility. We want it to be right Plus, Antwerp is a book of clues, a detective story whose central crime is literature itself. When you follow the threads in Antwerp you make your way into the infernal realm, Bolaño’s mind.

I’m not reading Antwerp anymore as a text in itself, but as a clue-book. The next task, then, is to figure out what the riddle is to which the book is providing clues. Or maybe not. Maybe the riddle is just; What can literature be?, or What should literature be?

+*+*+*

Soon, then, we have to find out more about Sophie Podolski. She appears in Chapter 7 of Antwerp. “The hell to come … Sophie Podolski killed herself years ago … She would’ve been twenty-seven now, like me.”

We know this, she wrote poems in her own handwriting like William Blake. And, “She attempted suicide in Brussels on December 19, 1974 and died 10 days later as a result.” The wikipedia entry is two paragraphs long.

+*+*+*

And one more thing to look at before next we go exploring. Javier Moreno’s explanation, in The Quarterly Conversation, of the great triangle of Bolaño’s work.

*

II

Bolaño wrote a preface to Antwerp in 2002 when he found out it was finally being published. He called the preface, “Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later.” The “total anarchy” is a reference to a piece of paper tacked over Bolaño’s bed in those days, the late 70s. He’d asked a Polish friend to write ‘total anarchy’ on the scrap of paper in Polish. Maybe there is another connection to our Sophie Podolski here, our suicidal Belgian muse?

This preface is like a little drink of water for the dying men who readAntwerp, I suppose. Bolaño seems to tell you a thing or two in the preface, explain the context within which he wrote his opaque novel. I read the preface three times before I realized it was a trick. He says, “I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.”

That’s a joke, man, it’s just a joke. Dead people are the only ones with time enough to sort this novel out. You’d have to be dead, and in possession of infinite time, to figure out if the hunchback really did it and what movie they are watching on that sheet hung between the trees at the campground.

I think the hunchback did do it. I’m just not sure what he did.

+*+*+*

At the end of the preface, Bolaño says, “Then came 1981, and before I knew it, everything had changed.”

willem elsschotThe sentence didn’t even register with me the first time I read the book. Then, this morning, I was walking down an ancient alley near the Letterenhuis where they have an exhibit about the literature of Willem Elsschot, a Flemish man Bolaño would have appreciated if he’d known him. Elsschot wrote an entire novel about a man who is trying to unload some cheese. It’s called Kaas(Cheese). I was listening to Duran Duran. Suddenly, the number 1981 popped into my brain. 1, 9, 8, 1.

What happened in 1981?

+*+*+*

I don’t know anything about Roberto Bolaño. How am I supposed to know what happened in 1981? I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time, with my parents. Many Americans live with their parents at that age. I was nine. I’d barely even begun to develop my own prose style.

Bolaño was living in Spain. He was writing, I suppose,Monsieur Pain. That was the first novel that got Bolaño some attention. Maybe that is what he is referring to in the preface to Antwerp. In 1981 he started to become a public artist. But then I’ve seen reference to the fact that Bolaño started writing Monsieur Pain in 1982.

Did Bolaño start using heroin in 1981? Did he ever, actually, use heroin? Did his liver give out, finally, because of the heroin?

Important things happen in The Savage Detectives and in 2666 in 1981. I can’t remember, right now, exactly what they are.

2666 minus 1981 is 685. On the other hand, 2666 plus 1981 is 4647. The Byzantine emperor Constantine IV was born in 685. We do not know, as of yet, what will happen in 4647.

+*+*+*

Anyway, it is true that space and time are mysterious. Specific dates are the craziest of all. They pick out a moment and make it concrete. But why one thing and not another? Why is anything in one spot of space or time and not another? That’s a variation on the biggest question of all, why is there something and not nothing?

Bolaño opens Antwerp, his first novel, with the following quote from Pascal:

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after—memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?

In the notes that were later collected together and published as Pascal’s Pensées, this quote appears on page 1981.

I’m just kidding….

Or am I?

*

III

There was a strange piece published recently about Roberto Bolaño’s novel Antwerp. It is worth reading if for no other reason than that it tracks down the references and explains the importance of the very last sentence of Bolaño’s novel.

That last sentence of Antwerp reads, “Let my writings be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage.” As the writer of our odd essay explains, this sentence by Bolaño is a double reference to literary Romanticism. The point, we gather, is that by referencing Biga’s reference to Leopardi, Bolaño is himself making a claim about the ongoing importance of Romantic literature and placing himself directly within that history.

Not an uninteresting thought. It would mean that Bolaño is hardly the free-wheeling hippie radical post-modernist sometimes talked about in the press and at the fashionable literary get-togethers of our day. No, it would make Bolaño something more of a classicist at least in that he seems very concerned with the literary tradition as it has come down. Very concerned indeed. It would seem, as well, that he thought he had something to contribute, something that only people aware of that tradition were really going to be able to understand.

+*+*+*

I think we may have to go ahead and take the leap: Bolaño is a metaphysician. There, I’ve said it. I feel a little better.

Bolaño dares to speculate about time. He has time on the brain. That’s a dangerous place to put your time, as the famous quote from Augustine long ago reminded us. Best just to experience your time, let it flow. Once you start thinking about it, the problems pile up.

But that is the central problem for all Romantics, time and thinking. Reading through Antwerp again I’m struck by how much it is a novel of youth. That’s not to say it is a young book, but that it is interested in the idea of youth. Much like the poet Leopardi, Bolaño took little comfort in his youth. He was too busy feeling old. He was too busy watching each moment of his youth flittering away into the void of time. Poor Romantics, they don’t even get to have their own experiences, for the simple reason that they are already watching them.

+*+*+*

Chapter 25 of Antwerp is titled “Twenty-Seven.” Read from our new perspective of literary Romantic metaphysics of time, it is a chapter about being twenty-seven years old. What can one say about being twenty-seven? Nothing. Just a few things. They are already gone.

He goes out on to the street, pulls up the hood of his blue jacket, buttons all the buttons except the top one. He buys a pack cigarettes, takes one, stops on the sidewalk by the window of a jewelry shop, lights a cigarette. He has short hair.

Somehow the sentence “He has short hair,” blows me away. It is the saddest sentence ever written. Oh Roberto, Oh Hamlet. And of course Hamlet appears in Antwerp. Bolaño calls Hamlet a work of “youthful breathing.” Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience. “Youthful breathing,” that’s very good.

What about the lines from Milton:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!

+*+*+*

I walk by Rubens’ house here in Antwerp almost every day. I like just to walk by.

Rubens once designed the cover page for a book of numismatics. It was 1632. In the drawing, Time hurls all the worldly kingdoms down into the abyss. Simultaneously, the forces of history in the guise of Hercules, Minerva, and Mercury, dig up the ruins of the past in order to give them back to the living world. Time destroys, history restores. A pointless though productive cycle. There is something deep there that Bolaño would have appreciated. Maybe you can say to yourself what it is better than I can. Maybe you’ve latched on to the terrible problem.

Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience.

*

IV

I went to Chi-Chi’s restaurant. It is located just off the Grote Markt in the center of Antwerp’s old town. You may remember Chi-Chi’s as a third rate Mexican food chain. Chi-Chi’s went bankrupt in 2003. Later that same year, a major Hepatitis A outbreak was traced back to a Chi-Chi’s in Pittsburgh. It was, in fact, the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in US history. Four people died. Hundreds were seriously ill.

The bankruptcy and the Hepatitis outbreak were too much and the place closed down on North American shores. There are no more Chi-Chi’s to be found in the US. Chi-Chi’s, however, is alive and well in Belgium.

I ordered a vegetarian burrito, which arrived sizzling on an iron plate like you’ll sometimes see with a plate of fajitas. Onions were popping and frying on the sides, spattering bits of the barbecue sauce all over my glass of Cola Light. (They do not serve Diet Cokein Belgium, or anywhere else in Europe I can recall, they serve Cola Light or, now, Cola Zero).

When I say barbecue sauce, I mean exactly that. The burrito was covered in a hot and bubbling barbecue sauce. It was very sweet. The whole plate burned and steamed for about ten minutes before I could eat it, which I did. Inside the burrito were more onions, green peppers, and a healthy serving of broccoli.

I do not know why I went to Chi-Chi’s. I’m not sure, genuinely unsure, about the motivation. You could say that it was the desire for “comfort food.” The morning had included a disagreement with my wife, the unforeseeable Shuffy. But I wasn’t particularly angry and I do not think of Chi-Chi’s as “comfort food.” I like Mexican food, it is true. I was raised in Los Angeles where such food can be found in abundance. Chi-Chi’s, however, is not Mexican food, a fact about which I have long been aware. It is, thus, for me, the opposite of comfort food. Like many Angelenos, I find bad Mexican food particularly annoying. You could say that being in Belgium I simply longed for something familiar. Perhaps. I don’t remember feeling such a longing, and Chi-Chi’s would have been a strange choice, given my relative lack of experience with the establishment. Also, there are plenty of joints in Antwerp that promise the vague quality of Americaness. There are also a number of establishments where one can get reasonably good Mexican food. Certainly more recognizably Mexican than the food served at Belgian Chi-Chi’s.

Still, there is one fact not in dispute. I did go to Chi-Chi’s. Moreover, I did order a vegetarian burrito and I did eat it.

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Literature about crime, or crime stories in general, hold their interest for one of two reasons. In the first case, exemplified by, for instance, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, we are presented with a mystery that, through various twists and turns, gets solved. This is exciting and satisfying. We didn’t know who done it, then we get to know who done it.

The second kind of crime writing is more illusive. Crimes may get solved, but the question of “why” often takes precedence over “who.” The question of who is relatively easy to answer: it was that guy. The question of why is more intractable. It tends toward a lengthy regress. OK, he did it for the money or for love, but, still, why? In the novels of James M. Cain or Georges Simenon, for instance, there are crimes and those crimes are sometimes solved. But buzzing around the Who and the What is a troublesome Why that often does little more than buzz. The novel ends and the buzzing fades away, only to reemerge in the next novel.

Once, in an interview with Giulio Nascimbeni, Georges Simenon was asked about a recurring dream. Simenon replied, “Yes, it’s true. It was night and I could see a large and calm lake, reflecting the moon. Black mountains rose around it. I arrived from between two of these mountains, I looked at the lake and the moon, and that was it, nothing else happened.”

*+*+*+

I propose that Roberto Bolaño is a crime writer of the endless buzzing variety and that Antwerp was his first attempt to set the volume of that buzz.

By the time Bolaño wrote 2666 he had mastered the art of the buzz. The shaggy dog tale of Archimboldi and the terrible murders of Santa Teresa is a long buzz indeed. Bolaño had learned to tell stories by then. He became interested, actually, in telling stories. The stories, the specific acts, the specific motivations, they all worked together to give structure and purpose to what Bolaño had already isolated as a feeling and a mood. That mood exists already as Chapter 46 of Antwerp, “The Dance.”

On the terrace of the bar only three girls are dancing. Two are thin and have long hair. The other is fat, with shorter hair, and she’s retarded … The guy being chased by Colan Yar vanished like a mosquito in winter … Though really, I guess in the winter all that’s left are the mosquito eggs … Three happy, hardworking girls … August 7, 1980 … The guy opened the door to his room, turned on the light … There was an expression of horror on his face … He turned out the light … Don’t be afraid, though the only stories I have to tell you are sad, don’t be afraid …

*+*+*+

Maybe that is another thing Bolaño is doing in Antwerp, stripping the structure of the crime story down to its essence, a feeling, a what, a when, a where, a who, a vague buzzing of why.

The Feeling: a look of horror.

The What: a murder, always a murder.

The When: August 7, 1980.

The Who: Colan Yar.

The Why: a question buzzing around.

And that’s all you need. You just keep repeating the essential elements over and over in different arrangements.

Something that drives all good writing is that we want to know something about ourselves and other people but we can’t.

*+*+*+

One reason I went to Chi-Chi’s is because I like the name Chi-Chi’s. Maybe the spade turns right there. I can’t dig any deeper. For some reason I like the name Chi-Chi’s and so I will always carry within me the possibility that I will actually go toChi-Chi’s. At my core somewhere, I am a potential Chi-Chi’s goer. That is one of the things that makes me, me.

*

V

The other thing we should mention about Bolaño is that he was plumb crazy. I don’t mean that in the romantic sense. I mean it in the crazy sense. He was a serious writer, but he was crazy.

I bring this up because we were talking last weekabout crime. We were thinking about the way that crime has the structure of all experience. We can have all the information we ever want when it comes to crime. We have the whos and whats and wheres and whens. We even have the whys, in a trivial sense. But all the little whys always fail to add up. You mighta done it for this and that reason, for a million reasons. But the explanations never come together. They never fully satisfy. In the end, we have a bunch of whys but we don’t know Why. The funny thing is that even the guy who done the crime finds himself in the same position. He can’t really tell you why, not really. He can’t even explain it in his own head.

Everything is like that, actually. Crime just brings the insanity of it to the front and center. The wrongness of crime, the inevitable punishment makes crime an extreme case of an everyday affair. Because every experience we have lacks in why. Every decision we think we are making becomes incomprehensible if we interrogate the details long and hard enough. Generally, of course, we don’t do this, valuing our sanity.

+++

James M.Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (one of the single greatest novels in the English language, to my mind) once put all this business about crime and experience into a very succinct comment. He said, “I write of the wish that comes true – for some reason, a terrifying concept.” Well, that’s a hardboiled thought from a hardboiled man.

It is a sentence that comes at our problem the other way round. The wish that comes true is terrifying, for the simple reason that we don’t know what we really want. Since we do not know what we are doing, it follows that we do not have any idea what to wish for. You can’t have one without the other. Just to make the human condition extra ridiculous, it also happens that we don’t understand this whole situation of not knowing what we are doing or what we want. And so we cannot accept it. And the wheel turns around once more, the postman comes back to ring again. The comedy continues. Cain captures this final absurdity with his seemingly thrown away phrase, “for some reason.” It shouldn’t be terrifying that a wish come true. But it is.

+++

Ever an insightful psychologist, Spinoza once wrote in his Ethics the following:

It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.

Judgment comes second. A terrible thought, if you think about it. Of course, the essence of crime is contained in this thought. And the reason that crime is nothing more or less than a sub-species of all experience.

+++

If crime tells you something about experience in general, then murder tells you something essential about crime. Murder is the most extreme case. In murder, The Why looms at its largest in terms of incomprehensibility. The crazy thought, the thought that people like Bolaño and Cain allow themselves to play with, is the idea that murder is thus the most authentic form of experience. I’m not saying that crazies like Cain and Bolaño are “for” murder. They are simply super-interested in murder. And that is because they are interested in experience. And that is because they are interested in the whylessness of experience at its root. Sometimes, Bolaño liked being from Latin America because the violence was closer. It scared him, but he liked it. He could smell the murder and so he knew that experience was right there.

+++

10. THERE WAS NOTHING

There are no police stations, no hospitals, nothing. At least there’s nothing money can buy. “We act on instantaneous impulses” … “This is the kind of thing that destroys the unconscious, and then we’ll be left hanging” … “Remember that joke about the bullfighter who steps out into the ring and then there’s no bull, no ring, nothing?” … The policeman drank anarchic breezes. Someone started to clap.

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Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño V

14/09/2010

The other thing we should mention about Bolaño is that he was plumb crazy. I don’t mean that in the romantic sense. I mean it in the crazy sense. He was a serious writer, but he was crazy.

I bring this up because we were talking last week about crime. We were thinking about the way that crime has the structure of all experience. We can have all the information we ever want when it comes to crime. We have the whos and whats and wheres and whens. We even have the whys, in a trivial sense. But all the little whys always fail to add up. You mighta done it for this and that reason, for a million reasons. But the explanations never come together. They never fully satisfy. In the end, we have a bunch of whys but we don’t know Why. The funny thing is that even the guy who done the crime finds himself in the same position. He can’t really tell you why, not really. He can’t even explain it in his own head.

Everything is like that, actually. Crime just brings the insanity of it to the front and center. The wrongness of crime, the inevitable punishment makes crime an extreme case of an everyday affair. Because every experience we have lacks in why. Every decision we think we are making becomes incomprehensible if we interrogate the details long and hard enough. Generally, of course, we don’t do this, valuing our sanity.

+++

James M.Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (one of the single greatest novels in the English language, to my mind) once put all this business about crime and experience into a very succinct comment. He said, “I write of the wish that comes true – for some reason, a terrifying concept.” Well, that’s a hardboiled thought from a hardboiled man.

It is a sentence that comes at our problem the other way round. The wish that comes true is terrifying, for the simple reason that we don’t know what we really want. Since we do not know what we are doing, it follows that we do not have any idea what to wish for. You can’t have one without the other. Just to make the human condition extra ridiculous, it also happens that we don’t understand this whole situation of not knowing what we are doing or what we want. And so we cannot accept it. And the wheel turns around once more, the postman comes back to ring again. The comedy continues. Cain captures this final absurdity with his seemingly thrown away phrase, “for some reason.” It shouldn’t be terrifying that a wish come true. But it is.

+++

Ever an insightful psychologist, Spinoza once wrote in his Ethics the following:

It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.

Judgment comes second. A terrible thought, if you think about it. Of course, the essence of crime is contained in this thought. And the reason that crime is nothing more or less than a sub-species of all experience.

+++

If crime tells you something about experience in general, then murder tells you something essential about crime. Murder is the most extreme case. In murder, The Why looms at its largest in terms of incomprehensibility. The crazy thought, the thought that people like Bolaño and Cain allow themselves to play with, is the idea that murder is thus the most authentic form of experience. I’m not saying that crazies like Cain and Bolaño are “for” murder. They are simply super-interested in murder. And that is because they are interested in experience. And that is because they are interested in the whylessness of experience at its root. Sometimes, Bolaño liked being from Latin America because the violence was closer. It scared him, but he liked it. He could smell the murder and so he knew that experience was right there.

+++

10. THERE WAS NOTHING

There are no police stations, no hospitals, nothing. At least there’s nothing money can buy. “We act on instantaneous impulses” … “This is the kind of thing that destroys the unconscious, and then we’ll be left hanging” … “Remember that joke about the bullfighter who steps out into the ring and then there’s no bull, no ring, nothing?” … The policeman drank anarchic breezes. Someone started to clap.

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Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño IV

24/08/2010

I went to Chi-Chi’s restaurant. It is located just off the Grote Markt in the center of Antwerp’s old town. You may remember Chi-Chi’s as a third rate Mexican food chain. Chi-Chi’s went bankrupt in 2003. Later that same year, a major Hepatitis A outbreak was traced back to a Chi-Chi’s in Pittsburgh. It was, in fact, the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in US history. Four people died. Hundreds were seriously ill.

The bankruptcy and the Hepatitis outbreak were too much and the place closed down on North American shores. There are no more Chi-Chi’s to be found in the US. Chi-Chi’s, however, is alive and well in Belgium.

I ordered a vegetarian burrito, which arrived sizzling on an iron plate like you’ll sometimes see with a plate of fajitas. Onions were popping and frying on the sides, spattering bits of the barbecue sauce all over my glass of Cola Light. (They do not serve Diet Coke in Belgium, or anywhere else in Europe I can recall, they serve Cola Light or, now, Cola Zero).

When I say barbecue sauce, I mean exactly that. The burrito was covered in a hot and bubbling barbecue sauce. It was very sweet. The whole plate burned and steamed for about ten minutes before I could eat it, which I did. Inside the burrito were more onions, green peppers, and a healthy serving of broccoli.

I do not know why I went to Chi-Chi’s. I’m not sure, genuinely unsure, about the motivation. You could say that it was the desire for “comfort food.” The morning had included a disagreement with my wife, the unforeseeable Shuffy. But I wasn’t particularly angry and I do not think of Chi-Chi’s as “comfort food.” I like Mexican food, it is true. I was raised in Los Angeles where such food can be found in abundance. Chi-Chi’s, however, is not Mexican food, a fact about which I have long been aware. It is, thus, for me, the opposite of comfort food. Like many Angelenos, I find bad Mexican food particularly annoying. You could say that being in Belgium I simply longed for something familiar. Perhaps. I don’t remember feeling such a longing, and Chi-Chi’s would have been a strange choice, given my relative lack of experience with the establishment. Also, there are plenty of joints in Antwerp that promise the vague quality of Americaness. There are also a number of establishments where one can get reasonably good Mexican food. Certainly more recognizably Mexican than the food served at Belgian Chi-Chi’s.

Still, there is one fact not in dispute. I did go to Chi-Chi’s. Moreover, I did order a vegetarian burrito and I did eat it.

*+*+*+

Literature about crime, or crime stories in general, hold their interest for one of two reasons. In the first case, exemplified by, for instance, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, we are presented with a mystery that, through various twists and turns, gets solved. This is exciting and satisfying. We didn’t know who done it, then we get to know who done it.

The second kind of crime writing is more illusive. Crimes may get solved, but the question of “why” often takes precedence over “who.” The question of who is relatively easy to answer: it was that guy. The question of why is more intractable. It tends toward a lengthy regress. OK, he did it for the money or for love, but, still, why? In the novels of James M. Cain or Georges Simenon, for instance, there are crimes and those crimes are sometimes solved. But buzzing around the Who and the What is a troublesome Why that often does little more than buzz. The novel ends and the buzzing fades away, only to reemerge in the next novel.

Once, in an interview with Giulio Nascimbeni, Georges Simenon was asked about a recurring dream. Simenon replied, “Yes, it’s true. It was night and I could see a large and calm lake, reflecting the moon. Black mountains rose around it. I arrived from between two of these mountains, I looked at the lake and the moon, and that was it, nothing else happened.”

*+*+*+

I propose that Roberto Bolaño is a crime writer of the endless buzzing variety and that Antwerp was his first attempt to set the volume of that buzz.

By the time Bolaño wrote 2666 he had mastered the art of the buzz. The shaggy dog tale of Archimboldi and the terrible murders of Santa Teresa is a long buzz indeed. Bolaño had learned to tell stories by then. He became interested, actually, in telling stories. The stories, the specific acts, the specific motivations, they all worked together to give structure and purpose to what Bolaño had already isolated as a feeling and a mood. That mood exists already as Chapter 46 of Antwerp, “The Dance.”

On the terrace of the bar only three girls are dancing. Two are thin and have long hair. The other is fat, with shorter hair, and she’s retarded … The guy being chased by Colan Yar vanished like a mosquito in winter … Though really, I guess in the winter all that’s left are the mosquito eggs … Three happy, hardworking girls … August 7, 1980 … The guy opened the door to his room, turned on the light … There was an expression of horror on his face … He turned out the light … Don’t be afraid, though the only stories I have to tell you are sad, don’t be afraid …

*+*+*+

Maybe that is another thing Bolaño is doing in Antwerp, stripping the structure of the crime story down to its essence, a feeling, a what, a when, a where, a who, a vague buzzing of why.

+ The Feeling: a look of horror.

+ The What: a murder, always a murder.

+ The When: August 7, 1980.

+ The Who: Colan Yar.

+ The Why: a question buzzing around.

And that’s all you need. You just keep repeating the essential elements over and over in different arrangements.

Something that drives all good writing is that we want to know something about ourselves and other people but we can’t.

*+*+*+

One reason I went to Chi-Chi’s is because I like the name Chi-Chi’s. Maybe the spade turns right there. I can’t dig any deeper. For some reason I like the name Chi-Chi’s and so I will always carry within me the possibility that I will actually go to Chi-Chi’s. At my core somewhere, I am a potential Chi-Chi’s goer. That is one of the things that makes me, me.

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Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño III

03/08/2010

Read Parts I (here) and II (here) of Morgan Meis’ unfolding essay on the novel Antwerp.

There was a strange piece published recently about Roberto Bolaño’s novel Antwerp. It is worth reading if for no other reason than that it tracks down the references and explains the importance of the very last sentence of Bolaño’s novel.

That last sentence of Antwerp reads, “Let my writings be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage.” As the writer of our odd essay explains, this sentence by Bolaño is a double reference to literary Romanticism. The point, we gather, is that by referencing Biga’s reference to Leopardi, Bolaño is himself making a claim about the ongoing importance of Romantic literature and placing himself directly within that history.

Not an uninteresting thought. It would mean that Bolaño is hardly the free-wheeling hippie radical post-modernist sometimes talked about in the press and at the fashionable literary get-togethers of our day. No, it would make Bolaño something more of a classicist at least in that he seems very concerned with the literary tradition as it has come down. Very concerned indeed. It would seem, as well, that he thought he had something to contribute, something that only people aware of that tradition were really going to be able to understand.

+*+*+*

I think we may have to go ahead and take the leap: Bolaño is a metaphysician. There, I’ve said it. I feel a little better.

Bolaño dares to speculate about time. He has time on the brain. That’s a dangerous place to put your time, as the famous quote from Augustine long ago reminded us. Best just to experience your time, let it flow. Once you start thinking about it, the problems pile up.

But that is the central problem for all Romantics, time and thinking. Reading through Antwerp again I’m struck by how much it is a novel of youth. That’s not to say it is a young book, but that it is interested in the idea of youth. Much like the poet Leopardi, Bolaño took little comfort in his youth. He was too busy feeling old. He was too busy watching each moment of his youth flittering away into the void of time. Poor Romantics, they don’t even get to have their own experiences, for the simple reason that they are already watching them.

+*+*+*

Chapter 25 of Antwerp is titled “Twenty-Seven.” Read from our new perspective of literary Romantic metaphysics of time, it is a chapter about being twenty-seven years old. What can one say about being twenty-seven? Nothing. Just a few things. They are already gone.

He goes out on to the street, pulls up the hood of his blue jacket, buttons all the buttons except the top one. He buys a pack cigarettes, takes one, stops on the sidewalk by the window of a jewelry shop, lights a cigarette. He has short hair.

Somehow the sentence “He has short hair,” blows me away. It is the saddest sentence ever written. Oh Roberto, Oh Hamlet. And of course Hamlet appears in Antwerp. Bolaño calls Hamlet a work of “youthful breathing.” Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience. “Youthful breathing,” that’s very good.

What about the lines from Milton:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!

+*+*+*

I walk by Rubens’ house here in Antwerp almost every day. I like just to walk by.

Rubens once designed the cover page for a book of numismatics. It was 1632. In the drawing, Time hurls all the worldly kingdoms down into the abyss. Simultaneously, the forces of history in the guise of Hercules, Minerva, and Mercury, dig up the ruins of the past in order to give them back to the living world. Time destroys, history restores. A pointless though productive cycle. There is something deep there that Bolaño would have appreciated. Maybe you can say to yourself what it is better than I can. Maybe you’ve latched on to the terrible problem.

Time, death, metaphysics, experience, the impossibility of experience.

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Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño II

27/07/2010

Read Part I of Morgan’s Meis’ notes on Antwerp here >>

Bolaño wrote a preface to Antwerp in 2002 when he found out it was finally being published. He called the preface, “Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later.” The “total anarchy” is a reference to a piece of paper tacked over Bolaño’s bed in those days, the late 70s. He’d asked a Polish friend to write ‘total anarchy’ on the scrap of paper in Polish. Maybe there is another connection to our Sophie Podolski here, our suicidal Belgian muse?

This preface is like a little drink of water for the dying men who read Antwerp, I suppose. Bolaño seems to tell you a thing or two in the preface, explain the context within which he wrote his opaque novel. I read the preface three times before I realized it was a trick. He says, “I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.”

That’s a joke, man, it’s just a joke. Dead people are the only ones with time enough to sort this novel out. You’d have to be dead, and in possession of infinite time, to figure out if the hunchback really did it and what movie they are watching on that sheet hung between the trees at the campground.

I think the hunchback did do it. I’m just not sure what he did.

+*+*+*

At the end of the preface, Bolaño says, “Then came 1981, and before I knew it, everything had changed.”

willem elsschotThe sentence didn’t even register with me the first time I read the book. Then, this morning, I was walking down an ancient alley near the Letterenhuis where they have an exhibit about the literature of Willem Elsschot, a Flemish man Bolaño would have appreciated if he’d known him. Elsschot wrote an entire novel about a man who is trying to unload some cheese. It’s called Kaas (Cheese). I was listening to Duran Duran. Suddenly, the number 1981 popped into my brain. 1, 9, 8, 1.

What happened in 1981?

+*+*+*

I don’t know anything about Roberto Bolaño. How am I supposed to know what happened in 1981? I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time, with my parents. Many Americans live with their parents at that age. I was nine. I’d barely even begun to develop my own prose style.

Bolaño was living in Spain. He was writing, I suppose, Monsieur Pain. That was the first novel that got Bolaño some attention. Maybe that is what he is referring to in the preface to Antwerp. In 1981 he started to become a public artist. But then I’ve seen reference to the fact that Bolaño started writing Monsieur Pain in 1982.

Did Bolaño start using heroin in 1981? Did he ever, actually, use heroin? Did his liver give out, finally, because of the heroin?

Important things happen in The Savage Detectives and in 2666 in 1981. I can’t remember, right now, exactly what they are.

2666 minus 1981 is 685. On the other hand, 2666 plus 1981 is 4647. The Byzantine emperor Constantine IV was born in 685. We do not know, as of yet, what will happen in 4647.

+*+*+*

Anyway, it is true that space and time are mysterious. Specific dates are the craziest of all. They pick out a moment and make it concrete. But why one thing and not another? Why is anything in one spot of space or time and not another? That’s a variation on the biggest question of all, why is there something and not nothing?

Bolaño opens Antwerp, his first novel, with the following quote from Pascal:

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after—memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?

In the notes that were later collected together and published as Pascal’s Pensées, this quote appears on page 1981.

I’m just kidding….

Or am I?

*

Part I of Morgan Meis’ excursion into the novel Antwerp can be read here >>

Read the first post in Morgan’s Owls project “Doodlings from Antwerp” here >>

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Doodlings from Antwerp: Bolaño

20/07/2010


On the back of my copy of Robert Bolaño’s novel Antwerp is the following quotation from the man himself, “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” I assume he was speaking only of the novels he wrote, but maybe not. Maybe he meant all the novels, every single one.

+*+*+*

There is nothing sexier than a book you haven’t read yet. Especially if it has a nice cover and nice fonts. Especially if it is by someone with an aura. The volumes of Kierkegaard’s writings put out by Princeton University Press used to drive me crazy. The block of color on top and the pure black underneath. The line drawing of Kierkegaard’s profile in an oval in the middle of the book.

I had a few of those volumes for years. I never read a single word. I was scared that the content could never live up to the promise. In that way, books are tiny lessons in the disappointment of life. You’d think that we would never open a really important book again. Never do it. It hurts.

Maybe Bolaño was never embarrassed about Antwerp because it is a story that isn’t really a story in a book that isn’t really a book. It is literature that reveals so few of its secrets that it can never be less than its promise, never be dumb. That’s one thing I think Bolaño could never have accepted, that he be obvious, that he be dumb.

+*+*+*

Bolaño could have called his novel Antwerp for the same reason that I am in Antwerp. Because it is on the river Scheldt. Because the river Scheldt was silted up for years and years during the wars of reformation and counter reformation. Because Rubens roamed around the dead city of Antwerp for years and years, and then painted his massive Baroque canvasses. Because Antwerp looks good as a word, physically on the page, but it is a little bit hard to say. Because Antwerp isn’t the first city people think of.

+*+*+*

The go-to quote when it comes to Antwerp is what Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor once said. He called Antwerp the Big Bang, the tiny explosion from which the entire universe of Bolaño’s literature emerged.

That is an intriguing possibility. We want it to be right Plus, Antwerp is a book of clues, a detective story whose central crime is literature itself. When you follow the threads in Antwerp you make your way into the infernal realm, Bolaño’s mind.

I’m not reading Antwerp anymore as a text in itself, but as a clue-book. The next task, then, is to figure out what the riddle is to which the book is providing clues. Or maybe not. Maybe the riddle is just; What can literature be?, or What should literature be?

+*+*+*

Soon, then, we have to find out more about Sophie Podolski. She appears in Chapter 7 of Antwerp. “The hell to come … Sophie Podolski killed herself years ago … She would’ve been twenty-seven now, like me.”

We know this, she wrote poems in her own handwriting like William Blake. And, “She attempted suicide in Brussels on December 19, 1974 and died 10 days later as a result.” The wikipedia entry is two paragraphs long.

+*+*+*

And one more thing to look at before next we go exploring. Javier Moreno’s explanation, in The Quarterly Conversation, of the great triangle of Bolaño’s work.

*

Read Morgan Meis’ previous Doodling from Antwerp here >>

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Doodlings From Antwerp: Bad Translations, Boon

06/07/2010

The idea for Bad Translations came to me a number of years ago in Ecuador. My wife and I, the mysterious Shuffy©, were staying in a little pension outside of the old town in Quito and there was a ramshackle bookstore nearby we would duck into during violent confrontations between groups of young protesters and the police. People were pissed off about the dollarization of the currency. Gustavo Noboa had recently been elected president. But this is ancient history.

Jorge Carrera Andrade

I found an old volume of poetry by Jorge Carrera Andrade. The pages hadn’t even been split and it smelled of dirt. Andrade is more or less a big deal in Latin American literature though you don’t hear his name very often up north. Such is the way of things. The poems were in Spanish, since Andrade wrote them that way. My Spanish is terrible. But I decided to start translating them anyway.

Some years ago, before even the trip to Ecuador, the man who taught me to read Golden Age Latin, the hairy and intense Alan Fishbone, made a comment to me over a game of pool. “You know,” he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s all syntax, …. And syntax is magic.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant at the time, though it sounded cool. He was a cool guy, likely he still is, though his Juvenalian Foundation for a New Humanism located on Elizabeth Street in New York City only lasted about a year. Money did not pour in.

Fishbone’s comment stuck with me over the years. I came to realize that he was talking about how language manufactures meaning. He was saying that meaning happens in how the grammar of a sentence holds together. When you put a sentence together correctly, the meaning jumps right out. Boom, there it is. There are rules for this sort of thing but, on the other hand, the mechanical application of rules doesn’t always get you there. You can translate each word in a foreign sentence completely correctly and, still, the meaning eludes. Anyone who has read an instructional manual translated directly from the Chinese is aware of what I speak. That’s the part Fishbone was referring to when he spoke of magic. Syntax works via magic.

It is in the act of translation from language to language that the magic of syntax is most deeply experienced. You can struggle and struggle with a sentence, knowing its grammatical structure and the definition of all its words and the damn sentence still refuses to release its secrets. Then, suddenly, it pops into place. The magic of syntax.

When I started working on my bad translation of Andrade I realized that what I was getting down on paper was often that elusive little place between sense and nonsense where the magic of syntax does its work. Sometimes the line felt right, I was getting the real meaning of it. Other times I was just off. In some ways, I was using the slippery power of syntax to create a wholly new, and surely inferior, poetry out of the original poetry created by Andrade. But it held its own interest, this new monstrous stuff. It was compelling standing on its own.

Boon's little book

Now we are living in Antwerp and tooling around some of the bookshops here. There is no violence to flee, though recent tensions between the Flems and the Walloons could, well, who knows? I found a little volume that I fell in love with even before I came to really love it. It is by Louis Paul Boon, who is pictured on the cover wearing a funny hat. It’s called “Boon-Apartjes: aforismen, citaten en iutspraken van Louis Paul Boon verrameld door Gerd de Ley.” This translates roughly, badly, as: “Boon one-on-one: aphorisms, quotations, and pronouncements by Louis Paul Boon, loosely collected by Gerd de Ley.” I think the title is actually even funnier than that but, again, my Dutch (Flemish) is so bad that it is hard to say. Louis Paul Boon is, by the way, a wonderful character and brilliant writer but I’ll let you discover that, if you’re interested, on your own. The following Bad Translation is from the first three pages of his little book. These pages are found under the title, “De voorstad groeit” (The Suburb Expands). My comments on the bad translation are in the brackets, in italic.

De voorstad groeit

roman, 3e druk, Em. Querido’s Utig. N.V., Amsterdam 1963

You want someone. And as you are with two, it shows you were nevertheless happier, easier, and a divine, solitary thing, alone.

[I have no idea, really, how to translate this sentence. “Als ge met twee zijt blijkt” continues to elude me, syntactically. I feel pretty good about the comparative adjectives. Then it all falls apart again with the divine, solitary (goddelijk eenzamer waart, alleen). What is “waart”, by the way? A slightly archaic form of “zijn”(to be) probably? Who knows. Not even the internet seems to know]

To depart is nothing; as your head and heart are filled up with illusions. To come back, though, with empty hands and an empty soul, standing out on the corner of your street, the look-out, already past midnight, and not to dare to go in, not to dare, that is something else.

[Many problems here in the middle. I really like the way it sounds in my bad translation, though, what with the standing and the not daring.]

Just as a man who smokes encounters something, it’s the same whether it be joy, sorrow, or danger, the first thing he does is to grab that pack of cigarettes. And set him up for two hours without tobacco, he’ll creep under the door for a touch.

[“Creep under the door for a touch” (hij kruipt onder de reet van de deur om er aan te raken) is nonsense. Or is it?]

the little book near Flemish cheese with some flowers on it

Many people don’t open their mouth at all and you think: That is a man who really knows, that is someone who can’t be bothered to find another word to open his mouth for. Come on, it could just as well be that there’s such a prodigious emptiness in his skull that he simply has nothing to say.

That your knee hurts, that is something you’re allowed to trumpet forth about. Everyone would agree. That’s a true gentleman! But when your heart is in pain, must you hide it away like a crime?

[Alright, you tell me what “is het ochheren waar!” means, tough guy. I say it means “That’s a true gentleman!” I think this sentence is quite beautiful, though, even in the bad translation.]

Now, all at once you understand that the world, like him, rotates and whiffles. In the beginning, it all went well. The water, the mountains, the depths and the trees, all stood in their place. The flowers and the beasts were alone, in joy. But now.

[I decided on “rotates and whiffles” for “draait en waait”. I think “whiffles” should be a real verb.]

Someone who has fallen right away seeks someone else who is already down on the ground. All this just for you not to be alone, alone with a troubled conscience.

And whilst there is a pause in the war, all day healthy folk do their building and other folk in broken pieces return, and the master gives the same lesson as a thousand years ago. That you must be good and tender hearted, that you must give her the left cheek after she whacks the right. Of course, a lesson is a lesson and not the real world. We are big men, knowing that a story in a book is not the story of life. But children who still believe in everything they’ve made up are tossed hither and tither, between truth and trickery, lies, hatefulness, right and underhanded kerfuffles. Whilst there is but one thing that is the real kicker: Seeing that you got a nice sandwich, and are beloved in a fat place of approval.

[I believe I was doing pretty well, minus some of the nuance, up until the sandwich and the fat place of approval. But there is talk, in the Flemish, of a “boterham” and a “dikke plak bijval er tussen.” Anyway, I have become quite fond of the idea of a fat place of approval. I want to go there myself.]

A person who trusts in his work, is content. Labor is thus a sort of narcotic for his character.

When you are completely alone, you can easily persuade another, you shove another speech into the mix and everyone is bluffed. Every fanciful person around you all of a sudden simultaneously yields. But in the daytime when it is living faces you stand before with their obstinacy, with their apathy, and with their sneers, then, dejected, you search for the right word, you grope in a murky corner for your brains and find them not. You stand in an ever-rising tide of gruel, which always strangles your good intentions and pinches off your best thoughts.

[Mufffed on some details here, I’m sure, but I think I grasped the essentials. Haven’t we all groped in that murky corner for the brains and whatnot?]

the little book near my cat, Huck

Why must every man be convulsed and hurled here into the world, a world of sabulous clay and cement, blood, sinews, telephone poles and sin, men yet to be born and men who’ve died, and another world that haunts our mind without knowing whether it exists, subsists, or ever will come?

[I do not know what sabulous clay is either.]

What, really, is more enticing, more mysterious, more devilish than a forbidden book?

You know, people love the flap about the book more than the contents, from which copper can finally be teased out: that is now the by product of this book! And it mostly becomes something through which the writer of the book, in praising the book, praises himself…

[Whatever he is doing with the copper and the teasing was too sophisticated for me. Maybe there is some kind of alchemic reference. I don’t know. But I get the last part.]