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A Poet’s Complaints Against Fiction

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation. 1892

First, a word about the traditional feud between poets and fiction writers. I wish to acknowledge, up front, that that feud does not exist. Not traditionally. Conditions in the wild are very unfavorable to it. To witness episodes of this feud, you have to visit a special kind of mismanaged zoo called an M.F.A. program.

Perhaps I needn’t add that it is not my object to prosecute any such feud here. Let me be explicit: I revere the great novelists as much as I revere the great poets. I do not see poetry as the higher form of writing. I do not think poets are better people. If anything, I’m sick to death of poets and poetry in a way I could never be sick of fiction and fiction writers. Poets are my family—with all the opprobrium that implies. Whereas, fiction writers strike me as delightfully removed from any familiar mode of being. They have houses and lifestyles. And they traffic in plots, an inherently good idea.

Still, I do “have somewhat against thee,” fiction writers. There are certain abuses, rare enough in poetry, that are commonplace in works of fiction. A person who reads and writes poetry all the time will perhaps see these abuses more clearly than the practitioner of fiction, who is naturally and understandably accustomed to them.

Take a moment to reflect on the memorable metaphor that Niccolò Machiavelli deploys on the dedication page (as it were) of Il principe. He says there that a painter, in order to paint the lowlands, must of course go up into the mountains, and in order to paint a mountain, must head to the valley. Analogously, in order to really understand the nature of common citizenship, one must be a prince, and in order to know the real deal regarding princes, one must be an ordinary person like Machiavelli himself. That’s why it’s okay for him to tell you how to rule your kingdom, O Prince. And perhaps it is the same, I am suggesting, with fiction writers and poets.

The theory’s a good one. Think of the many times nonpoets have laid down memorable and all-but-devastating criticisms of poetry. Think of the recently dead V. S. Naipaul on poetry:

I used to be very humble about poetry, I felt that because my background had been deficient there was something there that I didn’t, couldn’t, understand. Now I feel that most people called poets are tiny people, with tiny thoughts.

As a poet, one must set aside any impulse to indulge in the usual sass-back. We may sass all we like, that stuck-up son of a bitch had a point.

But at this juncture, perhaps you will say to me, “Niccolò, enough with these rites and mysteries. Tell us your objections to fiction.” (I confess I do feel like I am channeling the circumlocutory spirit of Sir Philip Sidney here.)

Very well, then, here is my objection. I have only one. I call it Harry Potterism. Probably the word for it at Iowa is author’s-darling-ism. It just means the protagonist has no real vices. Or if the protagonist is allowed a couple, they will not be the source of any real problems. Real problems come from without. It’s like I say in my poetry somewhere:

Protagonists never do anything wrong;

They can only ever be thwarted.

Protagonists can fail to overcome an obstacle, but they are not themselves an obstacle. And naturally they are never a source of legitimate grievance to anyone.

Obviously, not all fiction is like this. But a lot of it is. Jane Austen is this. Samuel Beckett’s novels are this. “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I wanna say nineteen out of every twenty movies.

It’s classic. It’s what everybody wants. It makes you feel good. And it corresponds to something deep in every child: “You, child, are magic. Everybody else—buncha muggles.” You, by definition, are James Bond. Whoever’s in your way is Goldfinger.

I know what you’re thinking. “How is any of this a fault specific to fiction? Aren’t poets every bit as—” Let me cut you off there. Yes, poets are every bit as. But there’s a difference. Poets (despite eighty years of cant about distinguishing the speaker from the writer) pretty much have no choice but to come right out and say “I am awesome, and you people are trash” when that’s what they mean. Poems that vindicate the self do so more or less directly. Whereas, Harry Potter vindicates all selves—without ever owning what it’s doing.

One can very easily cheer on Harry Potter without ever guessing one is masturbating the Self. Most never do guess it! Whereas, if one identifies with the speaker in, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” one knows damn well that it’s personal.

Fine! You can pelt me with exceptions all you want; the idea is fundamentally sound. It wouldn’t be, if all prose narrative were memoir and all poetry were personal monologues, like those of Robert Browning or whoever. But as long as the standard novel is about a relatable character’s adventures slaying some dragon or other, and as long as the standard poem is a weather report from the speaker’s soul, it’s going to be fiction that must bear most of the guilt for improving people’s native narcissism into the monstrosity one sees all around one.

It’s not that poetry isn’t sinister! It’s that it’s openly sinister.

Look, it’s like you’re on a diet. A slab of cake in a refrigerated display case is openly sinister. Most fiction on the other hand is more like a bottomless bag of nuts. Looks harmless! Looks natural! And worst of all, the very form of nuts, the structure of nut-eating, easily suckers you into sitting there eating them all afternoon. You can wind up with twenty times the calories as you would have gotten from the display-case Napoleon, with its exquisite zigzag chocolate-drizzle stripes.

The very fact that poetry cloys prevents the all-day, vindication-of-self binge. Your standard poem is the front side of a piece of paper; Harry Potter is like eighty books, each one of ’em thick as a quart of milk.

 

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Collage. Icy landscape photo: Harley D. Nygren, public domain. Ursula K. Le Guin photo: Marian Wood Kolisch.

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness, it struck me as a guidebook to a place I desperately wanted to visit but had never known how to reach. This novel showed me a reality where storytelling could help me question the ideas about gender and sexuality that had been handed down to all of us, take-it-or-leave-it style, from childhood. But also, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel felt like an invitation to a different kind of storytelling, one based on understanding the inner workings of societies as well as individual people.

Of course, The Left Hand of Darkness is literally a guidebook to the fictional world of Gethen, also known as Winter. The book takes the form of a travelogue, roaming around the nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn. And by the time you finish reading, you might actually feel like you’ve been to these places, to the point where you kind of know what their food tastes like and how the people act. But for me, and for a lot of other people, The Left Hand of Darkness also left us with a map that leads to another way of telling stories.

I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness a few times, and each time I come away with a new piece of that map. Le Guin’s writing still surprises me every time. In particular, I’m startled over and over by all the strange details and beautiful quirks she packs into descriptions of her made-up world. I’m also startled by the warmth and generosity of The Left Hand of Darkness, considering how bleak and brutal the actual story is. Somehow, in the midst of a horrifying ordeal, Le Guin finds an incredible sweetness. 

The book’s protagonist, Genly Ai, faces many challenges in his mission to the frigid world of Gethen, but the biggest is his struggle to understand a society of people who are gender-neutral most of the time, except for once a month when they go into kemmer and become either male or female. In the hands of an ordinary writer, this “ambisexual” approach to gender would be an interesting what-if. But Le Guin goes much further, building an entire world that feels so rich and undeniable that kemmer, and everything that goes with it, comes to seem like an actual feature of a society that exists. She does this with a million lovely details and a lively, chatty tone, but also by including lots of Gethenian folklore and sayings, which weave together into something that feels bigger than just one novel.

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. Genly Ai doesn’t trust his main ally on Gethen, a native named Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the two of them continually fail to communicate, even as things get worse and worse for both of them. Le Guin captures perfectly the pitfalls of communicating across cultures: the way people talk past each other and pick up on meanings that the other person didn’t intend.

Genly and Estraven’s shared journey is what gives this book its emotional arc, and also its brightness in spite of all the misery in the actual story. The novel’s title comes from a Gethenian proverb about light and dark existing together, which Genly relates back to the yin-yang symbol of Taoism. And it’s true that the darker the events in this book turn, the brighter its spark of hope and friendship becomes.

Even beyond the uplifting story of Genly and Estraven building a friendship, the book is suffused with an optimism that feels especially brave in 2019. We’re never given cause to doubt that the Ekumen is an enlightened society. Or that everyone can make the rough, messy journey from ignorance to awareness. Or that sharing knowledge among different cultures will lead to the advancement of science. Or that spirituality and scientific curiosity can go hand in hand.

While Genly Ai spends the novel learning to see past his own prejudices, Estraven’s story is all about just how far someone will go to create a better future for their people. All of Estraven’s sacrifices are driven by his determination to bring progress and enlightenment to Gethen.

But the highest praise I can give The Left Hand of Darkness is that Le Guin captures the texture of life. This book is full of little moments, bits of sensation and emotion, that show what it feels like to be alive, day after day. Something about the kindness and curiosity in her voice gives substance to all the breadapples and roast blackfish and hot showers and frozen trucks in this book: all the little pleasures and discomforts, the endless struggle and occasional relief of living.

And this is especially true during the long sequence where Genly and Estraven trek across the Gobrin Ice, the frozen waste to the north of Orgoreyn and Karhide. Every inch of their journey is beautifully described, with phrases like “mincing along like a cat on eggshells” and “cinders patter, falling with the snow.” These little moments of poetry go hand in hand with the unrelenting grind of hauling a sled, pitching a tent, eating gichy-michy.

Le Guin gets a lot of the vivid details of an ice journey from the firsthand accounts of Antarctic explorers that she studied. Two of her previous novels, Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions, also include lengthy sequences in which the hero travels across a frozen wasteland along with one companion—but in both those books, the trek feels somewhat sketched in. Here, she packs in so much indelible imagery that you feel like you’re risking frostbite right alongside Genly.

Le Guin never lets go of that connection to the low-level stuff, the tiny physical details and emotional shifts that make up so much of our awareness of the world. And that makes the book, in turn, feel brilliantly alive. I think that’s a big part of why this story feels so hopeful and heartfelt, even at its most dismal.

Becoming so immersed in a society without men and women can be a liberating experience for those of us who still live in a world of labels. The biggest lie that society tells us about gender is that the identities we’re assigned at birth are natural, and that anyone who flouts the boy-girl industrial complex is perverse. Which is the same thing that the Gethenians believe about their mostly gender-free existence—even down to calling people who have a fixed gender identity “perverts.”

A huge part of the value of a science-fiction story like The Left Hand of Darkness is that it allows you to imagine that things could be very different. And then, when you come back to the real world, you bring with you the sense that we can choose our own reality, and the world is ours to reshape. Gethen’s vastly different gender landscape feels real enough that it casts a reflection on all the fixed ideas in our own world. Maybe our rigid gender binary is just as made up as their neutral-except-once-a-month gender is. Maybe our government-issued pronouns and official stereotypes don’t have to define us always. Especially for my fellow trans and nonbinary people, a story that undermines the assumptions behind coercive labels feels magical.

When Le Guin wrote this novel, there were plenty of trans people around, but most people knew only about a handful of famous examples, like Christine Jorgensen or Michael Dillon. Nonbinary people didn’t have a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun (even though some people did use they colloquially for this purpose). There was a hugely popular and controversial musical called Hair, trading on the shock value of men having long hair!

The Left Hand of Darkness draws on a tradition in science fiction of questioning gender norms, the same way science fiction questions everything else. There have been many novels and stories about all-female or female-dominated societies, going back to 1905’s Sultana’s Dream, by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and 1915’s Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And in 1960, Theodore Sturgeon had published Venus Plus X, in which the descendants of humanity have become nongendered, with both male and female reproductive organs (and two uteruses per person).

But what makes Gethen’s ambisexual world so striking and memorable is the care Le Guin takes to show how the existence of kemmer changes every other part of the society. We read folktales about star-crossed kemmering, hear about the public kemmerhouses where people can mate freely, and also learn that people must live in big enough communities that there are enough possible pairings for people who are kemmering.

Unresolved sexual tension is a huge motif in The Left Hand of Darkness—it can be a source of power and human closeness, but it can also lead to despair. When we witness the foretellers of the Handdara answering Genly Ai’s question, in the book’s strangest and most delirious scene, a big part of the process turns out to involve a Pervert (someone who’s always male) and one foreteller who happens to be in kemmer. But elsewhere in the book, we witness attempted seductions and unrequited longing, torment and frustration.

In many ways, The Left Hand of Darkness disrupts gender as well as it ever did. But there are some issues, too. Le Guin chooses to use he as a gender-neutral pronoun for the Gethenians, which undercuts the idea that they’re supposed to be neither male nor female. Even when the book was brand new, many feminists complained about this pronoun choice, and Le Guin later wrote that she “couldn’t help but feel that justice was on their side.” In 1975, when Le Guin reprinted a short story that takes place on Gethen called “Winter’s King,” she changed all the pronouns from he to she. But she felt that they was too confusing as a gender-neutral pronoun.

At the same time, some feminists, including the author of The Female Man, Joanna Russ, complained about the fact that we never see child-rearing or other stereotypically female pursuits in this novel, even though every Gethenian is potentially a mother as well as a father. Le Guin made up for this, years later, by writing another short story about Gethenian domestic life, “Coming of Age in Karhide.”

Le Guin’s thought experiment about gender is still rooted in essentialism. Everything about the Gethenians’ gender identities is driven by their biology, and even the Perverts are different only because of a biological happenstance. Even as this book drives you to question all of our assumptions about male and female bodies, it never raises any questions about how gender shapes us independently of our biological sex (the way a lot of science fiction has, in the decades since.) If anything, The Left Hand of Darkness reaffirms the idea that biology determines your gender and sexuality.

But these weaknesses in the book’s approach to gender are also strengths, because they help us to understand what’s wrong with the book’s severely flawed narrator, Genly Ai. Genly Ai is a misogynist. This becomes more apparent to me every time I reread The Left Hand of Darkness, and it’s the main reason why Genly is bad at his job.

Le Guin makes this very apparent early on in the book, and keeps giving us little hints thereafter. Anytime Genly notices any traits that he considers feminine in the Gethenians, he’s disgusted. Especially when he talks to Estraven, who’s actually trying to open up to him, Genly sees these attempts to communicate as “womanly” and thus lacking in substance. The only person in the book who gets a female job title is Genly’s “landlady,” who’s mocked for her overly feminine “prying” and for having a fat ass. Even King Argaven, who comes across as high-strung and paranoid, is described as having a shrill laugh (shrill being one of those words that’s always used to describe women who speak up too much).

Much later in the novel, Genly informs Estraven that in the Ekumen, women seldom seem to become mathematicians, musical composers, inventors, or abstract thinkers. “But it isn’t that they’re stupid,” Genly adds, digging himself in deeper. (He doesn’t include “science-fiction writers” in that list, but in 1969, most people would have. That same year, Le Guin herself was forced to use the byline U. K. Le Guin for a story published in Playboy, so readers wouldn’t know that she was a woman.)

It’s not just that Genly Ai is incapable of seeing Estraven as both man and woman—it’s that any hint of femaleness revolts him, especially in people who are supposed to be powerful. Genly can’t respect anyone whom he sees as having female qualities, and thus he recoils from Estraven, the one person who tries to be honest with him. And Genly’s character arc is about getting over his hang-ups about women and his macho pride, every bit as much as learning to understand his friend.

It’s fascinating, and very realistic, that Genly Ai is an enlightened representative of an advanced, harmonious culture—while also being a deeply messed-up individual who cannot see past his own limited ideas about gender and sexuality. He’s curious and open-minded about everything, except for the huge areas where his mind has been long since closed. He doesn’t even glimpse all the things that his privilege has allowed him to avoid looking at.

In this context, the use of the male pronoun for the Gethenians feels like an extension of Genly Ai’s own issues. And his slow progress toward opening his mind is part of one of the main overarching preoccupations of The Left Hand of Darkness: the attainment of wisdom.

The Left Hand of Darkness is full of those beautiful observations of snow and food and daily life, as well as stories and sayings and little touches that illuminate the societies of Karhide and Orgoreyn. But another reason this novel shines so brilliantly is all of the philosophical and mystical dialogues that are embedded within it. So many of the discussions in this book are endlessly quotable, like the explanation of why “to oppose something is to maintain it.”

You can’t separate the politics of this novel from its spirituality. People are constantly grappling with big questions about what makes a group of people into a nation, and the meaning of patriotism, alongside discussions of the balance of light and darkness (borrowed liberally from Taoism) and Gethenian cultural concepts like shifgrethor.

Gethen is a world without war—which may be due to its harsh climate, or to its lack of men—but it’s also just beginning to develop the concept of the nation-state. Orgoreyn, with its oppressive bureaucracy and lethal secret police, is closer to nationhood than Karhide, but a territorial dispute is pushing both countries closer to patriotic fervor. (And we’re reminded, over and over, that patriotism is based on fear more than love.)

Part of what Genly Ai offers to the people of Gethen is the hope that they could leapfrog over this drive toward nationalism by joining the Ekumen and becoming one unified world among many. One of the most striking moments in the story comes early on, when Genly shows King Argaven his ansible (a device that can communicate instantaneously across the galaxy). For a moment this petty ruler of one kingdom is connected to a huge cosmic backdrop. And of course, their attempt to communicate is largely a failure. The Ekumen remains in the background, something we glimpse in the distance even as the story stays small and local. (And the story of a “more civilized” person visiting a less advanced society manages to be less problematic than it could have been, because Genly tries to learn from the Gethenians, and doesn’t bring more people or technology to them until they are ready to receive it.)

And the Ekumen are just one of the things in the book that we glimpse, which feel important but too big to see clearly. The nature of prophecy in this book is the same way—we visit the foretellers and see them at work, but we don’t really understand how it works, and the future remains huge and unknowable even after they speak. And of course, when prophecy falters, it’s always due to communication failure, because someone asked the wrong question or misunderstood the answer. Also tantalizing: the story of Meshe, who was a Weaver in a foretelling where someone asked for the meaning of life, and it all went horribly wrong. Afterward, Meshe became a mystical figure who could see all of time, who still has worshippers over two thousand years later.

The Gethenian concept of shifgrethor, too, feels huge and difficult to understand, even after we get an explanation. It’s got elements of status, or prestige, but it’s more than that, and our best hints about it come from some of those fables that are sprinkled throughout the text, including the story of Getheren of Shath. This, along with other linguistic concepts like the untranslatable nusuth, feels like a nod to the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language shapes the way we think. (Edward Sapir, who helped develop that theory, worked with Le Guin’s father, the anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, and also helped translate for Ishi, the lone survivor of the Yahi tribe whom Kroeber befriended and studied.)

So this book is full of contrasts between the intimate, human-size world and the unseeable hugeness in the distance. (Much like the enormity of the Gobrin Ice, with the Esherhoth Crags looming on the horizon.) In fact, you could almost say that the people in this novel are operating in the shadows of these massive background objects, in keeping with this book’s preoccupation with shadows.

The Left Hand of Darkness surprises me again every time I reread it. There are so many wonderful ideas and stark emotional moments, and Le Guin’s language always startles me with its sheer power and wonder. And every detail in the book has little stories embedded inside it, and these stories keep intersecting and building on each other every time I revisit them—until you start to realize that everything is made of stories. As Genly Ai says on the very first page, “Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

Gender, sex, romance, desire, power, nationalism, oppression—they’re all just stories we tell ourselves. And we can tell different stories if we choose.

 

Charlie Jane Anders’s latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won Nebula, Crawford, and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. She’s also published a novella called Rock Manning Goes for Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series and cohosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.

From Charlie Jane Anders’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness: 50th Anniversary Edition, by Ursula K. Le Guin, published this week by Ace, a division of Penguin Random House.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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How to Look at a Desert Sunset

Photo: Jessie Eastland (CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)), via Wikimedia Commons.

Too much has been made of desert sunsets, particularly in the captions of oversaturated magazine photos. Because desert skies tend to be clear, they can’t match the Midwest for cloud effects or smog-inflamed cities for sheer longevity. But they are inferior only to novices who look, naively, in the direction of the setting sun, for the real desert sunset occurs in that unlikely direction, the east. It is opposite the sun that the last rays, deflected through clear skies, fall on the long, minutely eroded mountain ranges and bathe our eyes with light of decreasing wavelengths and cooling colors—vermilion to salmon to plum—transporting the eastern horizon to islands of pure yearning. 

The desert rat, so in love with distance that he commonly carries binoculars to bring it up close, instinctively focuses on the dreamlike mountains to heighten the effect. Here an odd reversal takes place, for what is plum to the naked eye, when confined and enlarged, turns drab as cement, while the heaped knobs and extravagant spires turn out to be exfoliated granite. The observer knows how this stone weathers into rounded piles, how it crumbles underfoot, how it is colonized by black lichen. Fascinating as geology, it has been mastered by experience, turned to stone.

That is the revelation of desert sunsets: that the distance is so unmoored, so delicious, that you want to be there, to become that distance. And the closer you come—quickly, through binoculars, because it darkens even as you watch—the faster it burns into the ash of reality. Then you find out that where you want to be is precisely where you began, stripped to your bare eyes, watching as best you can, yearning.

 

Bruce Berger grew up in suburban Chicago. A poet and nonfiction writer, he is best known for a series of books exploring the intersections of nature and culture in desert settings. The first of these, The Telling Distance, won the 1990 Western States Book Award and the 1991 Colorado Book Award. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Sierra, Orion magazine, Gramophone, and numerous literary quarterlies; his poems have appeared in Poetry, Barron’s, Orion magazine, and various literary reviews in the United States, Scotland, and India, and have been collected in Facing the Music. His latest book is A Desert Harvest: New and Selected Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Excerpted from A Desert Harvest: New and Selected Essays, by Bruce Berger. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on March 12, 2019. Copyright © 1990, 1994, 2004, 2019 by Bruce Berger. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Colum McCann. All rights reserved.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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Ana Mendieta, Emotional Artist

Ana Mendieta, Creek, 1974 © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

I still have the small piece of green paper, with its dark-blue scrawl, that she handed to me across the table. It is creased now, and worn around the edges, from being turned over in my hands, folded and put in pockets of clothing, carried around, slipped in between the pages of books. It has moved house with me twice; it smells faintly of basil and grapefruit.

“I wanted to give you my notes,” she said, the writer who offered me the small, now talismanic piece of green paper. She was in London from New York to act as an examiner for my Ph.D. viva, a piece of work that considered the relationship between the literary-essay form and writing about works of art. “I’m not sure what else I can do, but I can give you my notes.” I thought she was probably a genius and I hung on her every word. The notes were enough. They were more.

Her note read:

“I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones,” says Mendieta. ** You could do more with this.

“You could do more with this,” she said, “the emotional and the sensual”; and, “I was at that trial, you know.” Mendieta is, of course, the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, and “that trial” is the trial of her husband, the famous Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused and eventually acquitted of murdering Mendieta, who—in his words—“went out the window” of his thirty-fourth-floor apartment early on the morning of September 8, 1985. A hazy and unconvincing verb: went. But this essay is not about that, though others are. This essay is about different kinds of language, and what convinces, what makes real, when trying to get to the heart—figurative and literal—of artworks that are frequently described as extralinguistic, as uncontainable, as emotional and sensual.

“You could do more with this,” the probably genius writer told me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. A proposal, a challenge, a possibility. 

Emotional.

That word comes up again and again in writing about Mendieta’s work. Her art took many forms between 1967, when she began her studies at the University of Iowa, and her death in New York at thirty-six. Best known, perhaps, are the artist’s siluetas, life-size figures that the she called “earth-body works,” made in various landscapes: the muddy creek beds of Iowa; the autumn woods of upstate New York; the ancient tombs of Oaxaca; the beaches of Florida, Cuba, Mexico. These siluetas—silhouettes—were based on the artist’s body and fashioned using both additive and subtractive processes. The form might be made of flowers, berries, ice, sand, mud, sticks, shells, cloth, rocks, blood, and placed on the ground, perched aloft in an abandoned alcove, set afloat, nestled in a cave or hollow, built in tidelands where it would wash away. Or it might be incised, carved, scorched into the earth, a wall, a rock face, the air, using hands, a chisel, gunpowder, fireworks, flame, smoke.

Can an image be carved into the air? “I wanted to send a smoke … An image made out of smoke into the atmosphere,” she once said. Mendieta’s art frequently made overt reference to ritual, mythology, and magic, particularly those of her native Cuba, from which she was evacuated in 1961 at age twelve, during Castro’s ascent to power in the years just following the revolution. “My earth-body sculptures are not the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature and conceptualizing religion and culture.” There it is again, emotional. Here its use is specific, I think. It means she—I, you, we—can gain access to something, somehow, somewhere that is not here. That is not here, as in this place, but also not here as in not visible. This is both cultural—“Having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence, I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (Nature)”—and cosmic—“My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe.” It is also formal: Mendieta’s silhouettes were primarily witnessed in the flesh, so to speak, only by the artist herself. She documented them extensively in photographs and film, then selected a single image that would stand in for the work. This is what the viewer sees, the photograph of the thing.

Emotional.

“In her subjective eloquence the artist is part of the emotive currents that have begun to manifest themselves in art as a vehement reaction to conceptualist intellectualism.” (Gerardo Mosquera)

“Her use of elemental substances (earth, air, water, fire and flesh), her deployment of the figure and the ground, move through the emotive paradoxes of mortal existence.” (Adrian Heathfield)

“Too often we think of artworks as posterior to ideas and emotions, as a kind of illustration of intentions. For Mendieta, the terms were reversed.” (John Perrault)

“It’s about kind of capturing moments through various forms of documentation. And she takes all of these things to the world at large that might not be considered fine arts. She turns them into something intelligent, harrowing and emotional.” (Catherine Morris)

Emotional.

Emotional.

Emotional.

Yes, I am nearing the nth degree of semantic satiation.

Mendieta’s close friend Carolee Schneeman said, speaking of the coincidence and correspondence between their work, “The body moves and is sustained by saturation.”

I still want to know:

What do they mean by:

EMOTIONAL?

 

Ana Mendieta, Imágen de Yágul, 1973/2018 © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

What do I mean by emotional? Something that tugs at the gut and the heart, with a sense of recognition—tinged with dread and irritation: as a woman, no matter the profundity of the feeling involved, one is accustomed to being dismissed as emotional.

In her April 1980 Art in America review of Mendieta’s first solo exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery in New York, Gylbert Coker writes, “We want very much to be part of Mendieta’s world, with its hidden secrets and private dreams … Yet to really appreciate Mendieta’s explosively sensual drama, one has to see her documentary films.” Other reviews of the exhibition, which was titled “Silueta Series, 1979,” do not mention the films that were shown. They focus instead on the photographic works of a series of siluetas made primarily in Iowa, a landscape to which Mendieta returned throughout her life. Coker mentions at least two films, one in which a mound of earth bursts into flames, out of which spill fireworks that snake and coil, smoke and smolder; and another, an earlier work in which a figure with arms outstretched is ablaze against the night sky. “The viewer is encouraged to become emotionally consumed in the exhilaration of the flames,” writes Coker. “Works like this generate an emotional energy similar to that found in a religious ceremony or carnival.”

“A photograph is a trace of the death of the moment held forever more. Cinema is unstoppable real time, reeled over and over, as if caught in an endless quest forward,” writes Carol Mavor in Black and Blue. Or more simply, as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1963 debut novel, The Benefactor, “Life is a movie. Death is a photograph.” Of course it’s not that simple; no idea ever is. But there is something powerful to the assertion of the filmic as fundamentally live, vital, energetic, timeless, and unstoppable as compared to its more static correspondent, photography. In Mendieta’s case, it allows us to think more expansively about what might be considered the “emotional and sensual” qualities of her work.

The films Coker mentions—Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Firework Piece) (1967) and Untitled: Silueta Series (1979)—are two among twenty that were included in a recent exhibition, “Ana Mendieta: Covered in Time and History,” which originated at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota and then toured to NSU Art Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; the Gropius Bau, in Berlin; and finally to the Jeu de Paume, in Paris. Since Mendieta’s death thirty years ago, the artist’s estate—presided over by her sister, Raquelin Mendieta, and represented by Galerie Lelong—has spent decades restoring the films she left behind (her niece, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, also a filmmaker, has been invaluable to this project), many of them untitled and without clear provenance or intention on the artist’s part. Until relatively recently, the moving-image works have been characterized by curators and scholars as documentary, records of live activity or performance, rather than complete works in themselves. “Covered in Time and History,” curated by Lynn Lukkas and Howard Oransky, and the largest exhibition of Mendieta’s films to date, counters and expands this notion, tracing the conscious evolution of the artist’s films between 1971 and 1981. The results are striking.

It begins with Mendieta as a student in the intermedia arts program at the University of Iowa, where she made her first films. She stands naked against a white wall and is handed a decapitated white chicken, which spatters blood on her skin, on the blank space behind, as it flaps and flails, dies. She faces the camera, a close-cropped shot of her head, spotlit in darkness, as her scalp begins to glisten with blood that slowly and then quickly drips down her face. She writes on walls, indoors and out, using her hands that have been dipped in trays of blood: “There is a Devil inside Me, and SHE GOT LOVE.” She stands nude at the edge of a creek in Iowa and slathers herself in blood; she lies still in a creek in Oaxaca, a gentle odalisque, as the water runs and runs over her body, and a small red flower growing from the nearby brush hovers above her, swaying back and forth in the breeze; she kneels in the woods and looks at her reflection in a mirror propped against the greenery, leans forward, slits open her stomach and pulls out handfuls of feathers. She is covered in grass or rocks, head to toe, she breathes and heaves, and the earth moves with her. I have seen another film, not included in this exhibition, in which she wrote “BESAM” across her chest, “KISSM” in English. The final e falls off the edge of the body, as if the personal pronoun cannot be contained by one person alone.

In the later films, Mendieta as Mendieta disappears, replaced by a silhouette that grows more and more abstracted. This silhouette washes in low waves, bursts into flame, smokes, explodes in a contour of fireworks against the sky. In some films, hand-shaped marks are scorched into the ground around the figure; in many others, the figure’s heart blazes brightest and longest. These are strange, seductive, unsettling things full of fluid, hands, hearts, blood, fire, present and absent, spools of time that are at once still, devotional, and bursting with energy. Everywhere I look, I see red, red, red. Mendieta described her work as having “evolved dialectically in response to diverse landscapes as an emotional, sexual, biological affirmation of being.” She also said, “My art comes out of rage and displacement. Although the image may not be a very rageful image, I think all art comes out of sublimated rage.” Hearts burn for many reasons.

 

Ana Mendieta, Sweating Blood, 1973. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Red, red, red. I think of Anne Carson, with her autobiography and her doc of red, and her prose that strains against its seams, seems, to me, to emote and to sense in all directions at once. “Language is what eases the pain of living with other people, language is what makes the wounds come open again,” she writes in “The Anthropology of Water”:

I have heard that anthropologists prize those moments when a word or a bit of language opens like a keyhole into another person, a whole alien world roars past in some unarranged phrase … Well every person has a wall to go to, every person has heart valves to cure in the cold night air. But you know none of us is pure. You know the anger that language shelters, that love obeys. Those three things. Why obey.

“The turning point in my art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey,” said Mendieta. “By real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.” What makes something real enough? Where does the magic come from? In her diary, in 1984, Mendieta wrote, “Form is only an extension of content”—quoting, I assume, a version of Robert Creeley’s famous dictum “Form is never more than an extension of content.” I agree; but I also wonder whether we can ever divorce the two, or whether—as John Perrault wrote of Mendieta’s work—they sometimes work in opposite directions at the same time. Whether, as Mendieta seems to suggest, it is possible for the formal qualities of artworks to generate a kind of emotional content, something impalpable that takes hold of, perhaps even possesses, its viewers.

“I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones.”

Is it possible to assign subjective properties—emotional, for example, or sensual—to aesthetic materials without abstracting or essentializing them on personal terms? For instance, I find the work of Carolee Schneeman, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, and Paul Thek to be emotional and sensual, moving, intimate, personal—but you may not. I know that there is no universal romance to a body suspended in space, to neon words that sear the mind, or to so much blue. It’s personal, we might say. But does it matter, if we can meet halfway? If language and desire—if Mendieta’s incendiary, emotional forms—want to imagine a space in which the subjective and the critical, the emotional and the formal are not mutually exclusive?

This is, I think, what the visiting writer meant by You could do more with this. The emotional and the sensual are as real as the concrete and the rational. One of Mendieta’s questions—one of the big, eternal questions—was how to give these emotions form.

Words hold the same potential to give shape.

As Wittgenstein wrote in his Remarks on Colour, “When dealing with logic, ‘One cannot imagine that’ means: one doesn’t know what one should imagine here.”

“You could do more with this.” The note, for me, conjured the awful—as in magnificent—sense that language, too, might burn, bleed, smoke, explode, disappear. In Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “Why Art Is Always Emotional,” he describes art as “a free ride to ecstasy, if you surrender to it, if you perform the requisite symbolic transpositions. (X equals Y. Thick paint equals transvalued shame. Radiant color equals conquered malaise. Deft line equals forgotten clumsiness.)” Is the emotional that which transgresses— genre, border, soma—literally spilling from within to without, in the form of blood, sweat, tears? This is too simple, and yet. I picture the words swelling, each letter ready to split at its joints. EMO spills its ink down the page, TIO smudges, NAL bursts into flame. This is too literal, and yet.

At the heart of Mendieta’s work is a sense of boundlessness. There is a desire to share an experience even in solitude. “The viewer of my work may or may not have had the same experience as myself,” she once said. “But perhaps it will lead to their own idea, their own version of the experience, of what they might feel I have experienced. Their minds can then be convinced that the images I present contain some of the quality of the actual experience.” Mendieta’s sense of the emotional and the sensual as at once individual and universal echoes Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic.” In the essay Lorde describes the erotic as a true sense of self, as the capacity for feeling to the fullest extent, as the connective sharing of joy: “When released from its intense and constrained pellet, [the erotic] flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”

Emotion has its roots in the latin e (out) + movere (move) — to move out, move away, remove, stir up, agitate. From emovere, to the French émouvoir (excite) and then émotion — originally used, in the sixteenth century, to denote a public disturbance. Imagine: a collective emotion! We are, collectively, emotional! These days, it’s not difficult. What might happen if we embrace the potential?

Why obey. You could do more with this.

 

Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer based in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art. 

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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James Tate’s Last, Last Poems

JAMES TATE, CA. 1965. PHOTOGRAPH BY ELSA DORFMAN

When James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019. One of those poems, “Elvis Has Left the House,” appears in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue.

Over the course of his career, Tate won every imaginable award available to American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He was revered by poets of virtually every aesthetic persuasion, from stern formalists to wild experimentalists. He had a legion of poor imitators, whom my friends and I called “lost pilots” after the legendary, eponymous poem of Tate’s first book, which won the most prestigious prize for young poets of its time, the 1967 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. When he wrote that book, he was only twenty-two, a kid from a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Kansas City, who somehow found his way to poetry and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The legend goes that he just showed up, showed them his poems, and was admitted on the spot by the director of the program, Donald Justice. If that story’s not true, I don’t want to know.

I was never a lost pilot, but I was a student of Jim’s in the nineties at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught from 1971 until his death. As a teacher, Jim was pleasurably, respectfully distant yet astoundingly perceptive. He had great patience. He would wait and wait, for weeks and weeks, in vaguely kind ambivalence until a student finally did something truly magical, at which point he would come alive and praise that moment in the poem so precisely and with such great generosity that we all understood this was bigger than personality or ego. These moments were powerful, and not only the poet but everyone in the class learned something about what it meant to go beyond the ordinary. He somehow managed to avoid the pitfall of making us feel we were writing for him, probably because he so caustically discouraged any poetry that seemed like a bad imitation of his own. After I graduated, we became friendly, in the way two people from different generations can be when they love and have committed their lives to the same thing. He was kind and funny, and I never had any desire to forget that he was a master and I was privileged to be in his presence. He and his wife, the poet Dara Wier, also my teacher and mentor, always treated me with immense kindness. Privately, I considered them my poetry parents, or maybe (given the not-quite-parental age gap) my very cool poetry older brother and sister.

If you are completely unfamiliar with contemporary American poetry, you could do worse than to start with Tate’s two volumes of selected poems, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Selected Poems of 1991, and The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990–2010. This would be both edifying and incredibly pleasurable. Tate is a great gateway drug, but unlike a lot of poets one might love in one’s youth, the effect doesn’t wear off. It just gets stronger and weirder.

*

The middle of Tate’s career was marked by the publication of several great books, beginning with the aforementioned Selected Poems, followed by Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won the National Book Award, and the equally remarkable Shroud of the Gnome. The poems in those books were hilarious, clever, scary, and immensely appealing. Poems like “How the Pope Is Chosen” and “Never Again the Same” became instant classics. He was at the peak of his poetic powers, and it would have been natural for him to settle into this mode. But, for whatever reason, he changed his style. In his next five books, Tate settled into a fully narrative mode, somewhere between a short story willing to abandon its plot at any moment and a prose poem. Occasionally there are tighter lyrics, and sometimes long, shaggy-dog stories. There are pets and wild animals (both often gifted with the capacity for human speech), the vagaries of domestic life, humdrum small-town encounters that quickly turn surreal, hamburgers and malteds, baseball games and asteroids and plane crashes and religious revivals and see-through babies. The poems veer and swerve and enchant, crack you up and then sadden you, and so much more.

My personal theory (which I wisely never ran by him since I’m sure he would have denied it, as he did virtually any attempt to schematize his creative imagination) is that he was stripping away any of the accepted signifiers of free-verse poetry—things like line breaks, imagery, metaphor, wild comparisons and leaps, conceptual rhyme, virtuosic sonic play, and so on—to see what was left. He was looking for the pure poetry after all the things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone. He had already shown he could write every sort of poem he wanted, and now it was time to look for the core: what makes something a poem and nothing else? In these particular poems, that core is a casual yet headlong, absolute willingness to follow the mind wherever it goes. It’s a freedom that cannot be found even in the best of prose.

The poems in Tate’s final book continue this interrogation. Someone new to his work, or unaccustomed to reading poetry, might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the absence of all the usual things we expect, and perhaps dread, about contemporary American poetry. These poems are completely clear, comically matter-of-fact, and incredibly easy to read, while also rewarding to reread. Some of the poems end with a real chortle. On closer reading, the charm of the poems doesn’t fade, but a subtle sense of dread, a disintegration of the usual conventions of human behavior and relations, begins to disturb.

There’s something relaxed and unobtrusive about Tate’s sentences. They seem like ones anyone could have written, only slightly weirder. The narrators of the poem remind me of Twain’s characters. They also have the bumbling, revealing naivete of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Will Rogers, the innocent American man who keeps discovering he’s not so innocent after all. That may be, at least partially, the source of these poems’ subtle dread: they are, in their own quiet way, an allegory for the self-deluded, so-called normal American life.

Many of the poems begin with a simple yet weirdly compelling first line that sets the scene:

“Sister Bodie walked out of the church.”

“I walked out of the bank just as I realized it was being held up.”

“I visited my friend Rod who was in jail, I didn’t really know what for.”

“The raccoon got up on the roof and wouldn’t come down.”

“Betsy fell out of an airplane one day and floated down into the trees.”

“I sat on the steps for a very long time.”

In every poem, there is a moment when reality shimmers, and the poem moves out of a purely narrative space and into something more like a waking dream. Some of the poems are wrenchingly sad; the sadness sneaks up on you because of the lack of sentimental manipulation that comes before it.

In “Eternity,” for instance, the feathers of wild poultry start to come down through the chimney of the narrator’s house. Note how relaxed the language is, how little it needs to prove itself poetic: “Feathers started drifting down our chimney. / They covered the kitchen after a while. They got in our food. Mildred / complained of a stomachache, and after a few days she laid an egg.”

I laughed out loud when I read that. And then laughed again as the poem continued: “We were / quite astonished and didn’t know what to do. She sat on it for a few days / and then it hatched. It was a cute little chick, and it resembled Mildred / in certain ways.” The mordant hilarity of the line breaks belies the notion that these poems have no form.
Many more chicks are hatched, but by the end of the poem, a fox has gotten into the house and all the chicks have been eaten. Something that was merely funny and sweet becomes full of pathos. And then it is deepened beyond pathos into epistemological mystery:

… Mildred said,
“What are we going to do? There’s nothing for us to do now.” “We’ll go
on as we did before, when there were no chicks,” I said. “But I can’t
imagine that. Without chicks there was nothing,” she said. “Without
chicks we had one another. We loved each other, remember that,” I said.
“It seems like so very long ago,” she said. “To me, it seems like it
was only a few days,” I said. “To the chicks it was an eternity,” she said.

Time is, unsurprisingly, one of the recurring concerns of this volume. A Pea in a Pod” is about two brothers separated after their parents die in an accident. The narrator grows up in a rich household, his brother in one where his adoptive father beats him until he runs away. The poem ends with a conversation between the two of them:

“Two peas in a pod,” the narrator says. “What?” replies the less fortunate brother, understandably.

“Nothing. I feel we’re all the same, it’s just that the ticking’s
different,” I said. “What’s the ticking?” he said. “That’s the mystery,”
I said.

More people die in this book than in Tate’s previous work. There is a willingness to imagine bodily decay, disappearance, and death, without a speck of sentimentality or self-pity. A slightly silly poem about going on vacation for a week to a place where there’s no food anywhere ends:

I walked around in the daylight
when I had the strength. I never did find anything to eat.
I slept when it got dark. But this is the hard part to explain,
I got to like it. The weaker my hunger made me, the more I
thrived. I woke the seventh day and I wanted to hide out
here forever. There was a knock on the door and a man said,
“It’s time to leave.” I said, “No, please let me stay.” “You
can’t break the rules, you must leave,” he said. I raised my
hand up as though to pray, and that’s when it happened. I
slowly disappeared into the darkness of the cabin, never to be
seen again.

Mundane actions and objects become symbolic, full of mysterious resonance. That has always been the strength of Tate’s work, from his very first book until his last: the ability to reveal the ordinary as strange, funny, dangerous, and full of meaning. In that way, the poems are existentially encouraging. Something interesting is always waiting around a corner. At the end of a poem titled (for most of the poem, obscurely) “The Argonaut,” a man sits down and finds himself in conversation:

I sat down in a garden. A woman came along and sat
down beside me. She said, “Nice day, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, very,
I like it.” “What do you do for a living?” she said. “I’m an accountant
in the government,” I said. “That must be nice,” she said. “But most
people I know think I’m a Communist,” I said. “That’s a joke, right?”
she said. “To me it is,” I said. “To me, you look more like an
Argonaut,” she said. “What’s an Argonaut?” I said. “It’s somebody
who swims in the deep waters of the ocean in search of treasure,” she
said. “I found a penny in my bathtub once when I was a kid,” I said.
“Then you’re an Argonaut,” she said.

I’m going to say something sacrilegious, at least to the lost pilots of the world: The Government Lake might be the best introduction to James Tate. It is sad and exhilarating to realize that, with these poems, Tate has completely mastered yet another form he invented. I read the poems and thought, This one is a classic, now this one is a classic, and now this one is a classic … until I realized the whole book was. In some ways, this is my favorite of all of his books. It’s funny and sad and troubling and weird and singular. Only someone with a great mind, who had devoted his whole life to poetry, could write so casually, while also conjuring such a quiet, wild, mysterious force, to the very end.

 

Read our “Art of Poetry” interview with James Tate in our Summer 2006 issue.

Matthew Zapruder is the author most recently of Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017), and Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, forthcoming in fall 2019). He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, and is editor at large at Wave Books.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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When Mario Vargas Llosa Punched Gabriel García Márquez

In 1976, Mario Vargas Llosa hit Gabriel García Márquez with a right hook and promptly ended their friendship. Below, Gabo’s friends recall the incident and its aftermath.

Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa photo: Arild Vågen.

RODRIGO MOYA

It was about eleven or twelve in the morning and I was in my house in Colonia Nápoles, where I had an office, a big house with an editorial office in one part, and in the other part I lived with my girlfriend and my two children. There’s a knock at the door and it’s Gabo and Mercedes. I was very happy and very surprised to see him. Gabo was already a friend of mine, but there are hierarchies in friendships. It was a friendship of guarded proportions. I was a newspaper photographer and he was what he is. Back then I didn’t presume to call him Gabo. Calling him Gabito was for me like calling Cervantes “Miguelito.” For me, he’s Gabriel García Márquez. They came for the photographs. He told me, “I want you to take some pictures of my black eye.” They came to my house because they trust me.

He wore a jacket. It wasn’t the plaid one. It was another one. And she was in black with large sunglasses. And I said to him, “What happened?” He made a joke, like, “I was boxing and I lost.” The one who spoke up was Mercedes. She said that Vargas Llosa had sucker punched him. “And why was that?” “I don’t know. I went up to him with my arms wide open to greet him. We hadn’t seen each other for some time.” I already knew they had been very good friends in Barcelona and everything, and the two couples got along because he had talked about that with our mutual friend Guillermo Angulo. I mean, it was something everybody knew; when I found out it was Mario Vargas Llosa who had hit him, I was very surprised. They sat down in the living room and began to talk to me. 

GUILLERMO ANGULO

I know the truth about that fight. I’ll tell you. Look, Mario has been a great womanizer and he’s a very good-looking man. Women die for Mario. So Mario, on a trip he made by ship from Barcelona to El Callao, met a very beautiful woman. They fell in love. He left his wife and went off with her. And the marriage was over and all that. His wife went back to pack up the house and, of course, she began to see friends. Then they got back together and his wife told Vargas Llosa, “Don’t think I’m not attractive. Friends of yours like Gabo were after me … ” One day they met in a theater in Mexico City, and Gabo went toward him with open arms. Vargas Llosa made a fist and said, “For what you tried to do to my wife,” and knocked him to the ground. Then Ms. Gaba said, “What you’re saying can’t be true because my husband likes women, but only very good-looking women.”

RODRIGO MOYA

It had happened two days earlier. The day before he was sick. The punch happened at night. You know the story, don’t you? It was at a film preview, the one about the survivors in the Andes. So Gabo arrived and said “Mario” and Mario turned and wham!, he hit him with a right and knocked him to the floor. He was bleeding when he fell because the lens in his glasses broke right on the bridge of his nose and the bruise was pretty bad. First aid helped alleviate that, which is what they talk about, I don’t know whether it was China Mendoza or Elena Poniatowska who went to buy meat to put on his eye. And that’s really true. I boxed a little since I was a kid, and you put steak on a black eye. I don’t know how, but it takes away the bruise. Now they use arnica.

GUILLERMO ANGULO

Well, my secret is this: Gabo told me what had happened before the fight. I mean, if he had told me afterward it would be worthless. He said, “No, look, she’s coming on to me but I’m so fond of Mario that, even though they’re separated … ” So imagine, I couldn’t tell Mario that, I’m a friend of his, too, but I’d destroy the marriage. That was one of her tricks to tell him, “I have my own public,” right? And she knows he lied. Besides, afterward I was finding out how things had been between the two friends. If they saw each other it was with all their friends, they were always together. There were always two or three friends with them. See? They were never alone when they saw each other.

RODRIGO MOYA

What I do remember very well is that Mercedes interrupted twice and said, “The fact is that Mario is a jealous fool. He’s a jealous fool.”

GREGORY RABASSA

The story I heard is that Mario was seeing someone else and Patricia went to Gabo, a good friend, and he told her, “Leave him.” And Mario found out and hit Gabo.

RODRIGO MOYA

Everybody sees a sexual or erotic issue, and that may or may not have been true. But the three of them are the only ones who know that. More than a political dispute they had a separation. Vargas Llosa had already moved surprisingly to the right. I think the clash must have been because there was that separation, and certainly there must have been other things as well that made Vargas Llosa explode. The punch was certainly violent. I know about punches. It was a right. He was in the row in front of him. It seems he came from the side and Vargas Llosa stood up and hit him. I don’t know from what angle, but it was a hard punch.

PLINIO APULEYO MENDOZA

Patricia was on the ship with Mario when he falls in love. When they get to Chile, Patricia has to go back to Barcelona and pack up the house. Gabo and Mercedes were with her the whole time. They were very close. I know this because Gabo told me about it. When Patricia has to go back to Santiago, Gabo takes her to the airport, but they were running late, and Gabo told her in an offhand way, “If the plane takes off without you, great, we’ll have a party.” Gabo’s Caribbean and it was in that spirit that he said it, and she misunderstood.

RODRIGO MOYA

But what worried me was that he was pretending to be in good humor, but the photos tell you that he was depressed. I took half a roll. When he arrived, I didn’t have any film in my house. I was doing a piece for an international magazine on fishing. So I ran to the office that I had in my house. It was quick. There was a small garden. I ran out and said to the technician, “Chino, don’t you have any film?” And he said, “No, I don’t have any, but there’s a little tail end in the camera.” So I said to him, “Make me a roll right away.”

I was concerned about his melodramatic face, and I thought about it very quickly. It would satisfy Vargas Llosa to see his victim wounded, destroyed. What I wanted was to make him laugh, and he wouldn’t give me a damn laugh, even at a joke. He wasn’t laughing at all, and I played the fool and said to him, “Listen, that was some kick he gave you. How does it feel?” And he answered, but very dry. Then suddenly something happened, I said something and he laughed and I took two photographs. One is the one I circulate because, since I really love him, I didn’t want to pass that photo off as tragic. Now, whenever they ask me for that photograph, I send the one where he’s laughing so that the reaction is, He hit me but it’s nothing. I don’t give a damn, as we say in Mexico, right?

GUILLERMO ANGULO

“History of a Deicide” [Vargas Llosa’s doctoral thesis on One Hundred Years of Solitude] is not available because Mario doesn’t want it printed. My copy of the book was signed by Mario, and with thanks, besides, because I helped him with the research. Then, yes, the idea of the book is that the writer is a god because he gives life to the characters, kills them, and everything. That’s “History of a Deicide.” The writer ends up killing God and taking his place. That’s the real story.

GREGORY RABASSA

I have it in Spanish. Mario didn’t allow it to be translated. Cass Canfield had already talked to the two of them. Harper was publishing both of them but he said no.

RODRIGO MOYA

That photo wasn’t circulated because he said to me … and I’ve been very loyal about that. He said to me, “Send me a set and keep the negatives.” So I made him a set and sent it to him and in a few days, I don’t know whether with Angulo or somebody else, he returned it to me with his notes. Not this one. This one. Two copies of this. And then I sent him the printed photos, all of them eight-by-ten. A select set, fifteen or sixteen photos, whatever was on the roll. He must have sent me some money, I don’t remember. I sent him the photographs and the curious thing is that I kept them in the file and no one saw them. He told me it was for documentation and Mercedes agreed and told me, “Gabo has his file of everything important that happens to him.” And at bottom there’s a touch of vanity in liking the photo. I have it, I have something fairly complicated that’s called the “ego-brary.”

I always had a small photo from that shoot tacked up in my lab because he really revolutionized my concept of literature and of America when One Hundred Years came out, and I’ve read it four times. And I lived with that tiny photo that I had. Every time I sat at my desk to work I saw it. Then a friend of mine saw it about the time Gabo was going to turn eighty, and he said to me, “Listen, I want that photograph. I’ll buy it from you.” I said, “No, I can’t sell that photo or anything.” And I told him the story of how that photo came about. Gabo said to send him a set and to keep them. That was in ’76, but when Gabo turned eighty my friend who knew the story told a reporter, “Listen, Rodrigo Moya has an incredible photograph of Gabo with a black eye.” And so the magazines wanted to talk to me. So I thought, They’re publishing photos of Gabo, who’s going to turn eighty. I can break the promise that really wasn’t a promise. It was an assignment to keep them. I kept them and now I’m going to bring them out. I’ve never made so much money from a photograph.

JAIME ABELLO BANFI

He’s always been very loyal, but at the same time implacable when he breaks with you. There are people he’s broken with and never spoken to again. Obviously, that was the case with Vargas Llosa.

—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

 

Prize-winning journalist Silvana Paternostro grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia, home to García Márquez’s fabled literary group, La Cueva. In 1999, she was selected by Time/CNN as one of “Fifty Latin American Leaders for the Millennium,” and is the author of In the Land of God and Man, nominated for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and My Colombian War. A frequent contributor to English and Spanish publications including the New York Times, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, Vogue, El Malpensante, and Gatopardo, she lives between New York City and Colombia.

Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

This essay appears as “Knockout” in Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls, by Silvana Paternostro, just published by Seven Stories Press.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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How I Began to Write

Gabriel García Márquez delivered the following speech at the Athenaeum of Caracas, in Venezuela, on May 3, 1970.

Gabriel García Márquez. Photo: Patrick Curry.

First of all, forgive me for speaking to you seated, but the truth is that if I stand, I run the risk of collapsing with fear. Really. I always thought I was fated to spend the most terrible five minutes of my life on a plane, before twenty or thirty people, and not like this, before two hundred friends. Fortunately, what is happening to me right now allows me to begin to speak about my literature, since I was thinking that I began to be a writer in the same way I climbed up on this platform: I was coerced. I confess I did all I could not to attend this assembly: I tried to get sick, I attempted to catch pneumonia, I went to the barber, hoping he’d slit my throat, and, finally, it occurred to me to come here without a jacket and tie so they wouldn’t let me into a meeting as serious as this one, but I forgot I was in Venezuela, where you can go anywhere in shirtsleeves. The result: here I am, and I don’t know where to start. But I can tell you, for example, how I began to write.

It had never occurred to me that I could be a writer, but in my student days Eduardo Zalamea Borda, editor of the literary supplement of El Espectador, in Bogotá, published a note in which he said that the younger generation of writers had nothing to offer, that a new short-story writer, a new novelist, could not be seen anywhere. And he concluded by declaring that he was often reproached because his paper published only the very well-known names of old writers and nothing by the young, whereas the truth, he said, was that no young people were writing.

Then a feeling of solidarity with my generational companions arose in me, and I resolved to write a story simply to shut the mouth of Eduardo Zalamea Borda, who was my great friend or, at least, became my great friend later. I sat down, wrote the story, and sent it to El Espectador. I had my second shock the following Sunday when I opened the paper and
there was my full-page story with a note in which Eduardo Zalamea Borda acknowledged that he had been wrong, because obviously with “that story the genius of Colombian literature had emerged,” or something along those lines. 

This time I really did get sick, and I said to myself: “What a mess I’ve got myself into! What do I do now so Eduardo Zalamea Borda won’t look bad?” Keep on writing was the answer. I always had to face the problem of subjects: I was obliged to find the story before I could write it.

And this allows me to tell you something that I can verify now, after having published five books: the job of writer is perhaps the only one that becomes more difficult the more you do it. The ease with which I sat down one afternoon to write that story can’t be compared to the work it costs me now to write a page. As for my method of working, it’s fairly consistent with what I’m telling you now. I never know how much I’ll be able to write or what I’m going to write about. I hope I’ll think of something, and when I do come up with an idea that I consider good enough to write down, I begin to go over it in my mind and let it keep maturing. When it’s finished (and sometimes many years go by, as in the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I thought over for nineteen years)—I repeat, when it’s finished—then I sit down to write it, and that’s when the most difficult part begins, and the part that bores me most. Because the most delicious part of a story is thinking about it, rounding it out, turning it over and over, so that when the time comes to sit down and write it, it doesn’t interest you very much, or at least it doesn’t interest me very much, the idea that’s been turned over and over.

I’m going to tell you, for example, about the idea that has been turning over and over in my mind for several years, and I suspect I have it pretty rounded out by now. I’ll tell it to you because there’s no doubt that when I write it, I don’t know when, you’ll find it completely changed and be able to observe how it evolved. Imagine a very small village where there’s an old woman who has two children, a boy seventeen and a girl not yet fourteen. She’s serving her children breakfast with a very worried look on her face. Her children ask what’s wrong and she replies: “I don’t know, but I woke up thinking that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

They laugh at her and say those are an old woman’s misgivings, just something that will pass. The boy goes out to play billiards, and as he’s about to shoot a very simple cannon, his opponent says: “I’ll bet you a peso you can’t make the shot.” Everybody laughs, he laughs, takes his shot, and doesn’t make it. He gives a peso to his opponent, who asks: “But what happened? It was a really simple cannon.” He says: “It was, but I’m worried about something my mother said this morning about something serious that’s going to happen in this village.” Everybody laughs at him, and the one who won the peso goes home, where he finds his mother and a cousin or a niece, or some female relative. Happy about his peso, he says: “I won this peso from Dámaso in the simplest way because he’s a fool.” “And why is he a fool?” He says: “Oh man, he couldn’t make a really simple cannon shot because he was worried about his mother waking up today with the idea that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

Then his mother says: “Don’t make fun of old people’s misgivings, because sometimes they come true.” The relative hears this and goes out to buy meat. She says to the butcher: “Give me a pound of meat,” and just as he’s cutting it, she adds: “Better make it two, because people are saying that something serious is going to happen and it’s best to be prepared.” The butcher hands her the meat and, when another woman comes in to buy a pound of meat, he says: “Take two, because people are coming in and saying that something very serious is going to happen and they’re preparing for it, buying things.”

Then the old woman replies: “I have several children; look, better give me four pounds.” She takes her four pounds and, to make a long story short, I’ll say that in half an hour the butcher sells all his meat, slaughters another cow, sells all of that, and the rumor spreads. The moment arrives when everybody in the village is waiting for something to happen. Activities grind to a halt and, suddenly, at two in the afternoon, it’s as hot as it always is. Someone says: “Have you noticed how hot it is?” “But in this village it’s always hot.” So hot that it’s a village where all the musicians had instruments repaired with tar and always played in the shade, because if they played in the sun the instruments fell apart. “Still,” one person says, “it’s never been so hot at this time of day.” “Yes, but not as hot as it is now.” And, without warning, a little bird flies down into the deserted village, the deserted square, and the news spreads: “There’s a little bird in the square.” Everybody goes to the square and is frightened when they see the little bird.

“But, my friends, there have always been little birds that fly down.” “Yes, but never at this time of day.” It is a moment of such tension for the inhabitants of the village that they are all desperate to leave but lack the courage to go. “Well, I’m a real man,” one of them shouts, “and I’m leaving.” He gets his furniture, his children, his animals, puts them in a cart, and crosses the main street, where the poor villagers are watching him. Until the moment when they say: “If he has the courage to leave, well, we’re leaving too,” and begin literally to dismantle the village. They take away things, animals, everything. And one of the last to abandon the village says: “Let no misfortune fall on what remains of our house,” and then he burns his house and others burn other houses. They flee in a real and terrible panic, like an exodus in wartime, and among them is the woman who had the misgiving, crying out: “I said something very serious was going to happen, and you told me I was crazy.”

—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

 

Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch, The General in His Labyrinth, and News of a Kidnapping. He died in 2014. Read his Art of Fiction interview.

Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

From I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, by Gabriel García Márquez. Copyright © 2010 by Gabriel García Márquez. Translation copyright © 2014 by Edith Grossman. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review