Encyclopedia of Fictional Writers #5: Pierre Menard

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as depicted by Gustave Doré, 1863
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as depicted by Gustave Doré, 1863

MENARD, PIERRE. First made his appearance in a story entitled Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, written by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and published in the May 1939 issue of a literary magazine called Sur. Name possibly derived from the first Lieutenant Governor of Illinois or an obscure 17th-century French writer. Menard was both a writer and a translator. He composed nineteen works during his lifetime, ranging from “a symbolist sonnet that appeared twice (with variants) in the review La Conque” to “a handwritten list of lines of poetry that owe their excellence to punctuation”. Menard, however, was best-known for the work he left unfinished: Don Quixote. “His admirable ambition,” Borges writes, “was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” Continue reading Encyclopedia of Fictional Writers #5: Pierre Menard

That One Dutch Classic You Should Read #4: Out of Mind

Out of Mind“I seem to lose words like another person loses blood,” remarks the protagonist of Dutch writer J. Bernlef’s novel Out of Mind, originally published as Hersenschimmen in 1984. Out of Mind is Bernlef’s most famous novel, and is in particular acclaimed for its striking depiction of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The novel is set in  Gloucester, Massachusetts, where 71-year-old Maarten Klein has emigrated to. Gradually, Maarten loses his sense of time and language. The book was groundbreaking in the Netherlands, for it allowed the subject of Alzheimer’s disease to be discussed in society more widely.

“In his effective choice of Maarten’s first-person, present-tense perspective, Bernlef forces his readers to participate in Maarten’s terrifying journey through an unfamiliar landscape,” wrote the LA Times in 1989. The New York Times also praised the novel upon its first publication in English, writing that “Mr. Bernlef brings such intensity to the telling of this horribly fascinating tale that we have a sense of accompanying Maarten in his descent, not as observers but as participants in his tragedy.”

Bernlef, who died two years ago, was a prolific writer who published more than fifty books during his lifetime, ranging from poetry and plays to short stories and novels. He also translated poetry into Dutch; noteworthy are Bernlef’s translations of the work of Swedish Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer. Both his first collection of poetry and his first novel appeared in 1959. Out of Mind was Bernlef’s international breakthrough. It was made into a feature film in 1988.

On Siegfried: A Black Idyll

Siegfried coverWhat if Hitler had had a son? Last year I reread Siegfried: A Black Idyll – Dutch writer Harry Mulisch’s (1927-2010) last completed novel – which has exactly this question as its subject. I first read Siegfried when I was in secondary school, along with several other works of Mulisch, including his magnum opus The Discovery of Heaven. To reread Mulisch, who has always remained my favourite Dutch writer, is a tremendous experience. Born in 1927, as a son to an Austrian German father and a Jewish mother, Mulisch grew up during the Second World War, which would become one of the main themes in his oeuvre. (Mulisch once said that, because of his parents’ background, he himself was the Second World War.) Continue reading On Siegfried: A Black Idyll

Discovering the Life and Works of Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada
Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Ditzen), 1893-1947.

I came across a copy of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone [Jeder Mann stirbt fur sich allein] by chance when I was browsing a bookstore in Utrecht. Having read it in the meantime, I can say it’s one of the most impressive novels about the Second World War I’ve ever read. Every Man Dies Alone tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple, who devote themselves to writing postcards urging the German people to stand up against the Nazis. Fallada based his novel on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who were tried and executed during the war for writing such postcards. Fallada wrote the book within a month, shortly before his death in 1947, which is an impressive feat.

Continue reading Discovering the Life and Works of Hans Fallada

Art is Not Simply There

I think it is also true that the aesthetic as a category is, at a very profound level, to be distinguished from the quotidian experiences of existence that we all have. To read Tolstoy, Mahfouz or Melville, to listen to Bach, Duke Ellington, or Elliott Carter, is to do something different from reading the newspaper or listening to the taped music you get while the phone company or your doctor puts you on hold. This is not to say, however, that journalism or policy papers are to be read quickly and superficially: I advocate attentive reading in alle cases, as I shall be showing later. But in the main, I would agree with Adorno that there is a fundamental irreconcilability between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic that we must sustain in our work as humanists. Art is not simply there: it exists intensely in a state of unreconciled opposition to the depredations of daily life, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor. One can call this heightened status for art the result of performance, of protracted elaboration (as in the structures of a great novel or poem), of ingenious execution and insight: I myself cannot do without the final analysis, providing resistance not only to my own efforts to understand and clarify and elucidate as reader, but also as escaping the leveling pressures of everyday experience from which, however, art paradoxically derives.

— Edward. W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism