This coming November is my PhD comprehensive exam, the most foreboding part of which is the massive reading list. The list is composed of 2 parts: 1) 70-100 books of novels, poems, plays, and scholarship on a specific historical period--in my case, Irish and Latin-American 20th century literature; and 2) 30-odd books on another "special topic"--in my case, the "canonization" of Transatlantic Anglo-Modernism. I am attempting to read all of the novels and at least some of the major criticism over the course of this summer, before Fall semester begins. My goal is to average at least 4 books a week. To keep myself accountable, I will publicly record what I've read each week here, along with my brief, general, grammatically-erratic impressions of each. Here's what I've completed since the summer began:
El general en su laberinto [The General in His Labyrinth], Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is a surprisingly robust sub-genre of Latin-American novels about famous Latin-American dictators; it's debatable as to how Marquez's 1989 novel fits into that sub-genre. Engaging in free indirect discourse, the novel's sympathies seem at first blush to be primarily with Simon Bolivar, the legendary "liberator" of South America from Spanish rule, now old and sick and on his death bed, as he goes on one last river ride after being forced from office, his dream of a United "Grand Columbia" of South America collapsing and fragmenting into its current political matrix. The intent of this novel would appear to be provide a humanizing, pathos-ridden portrait of a great man in his final defeats.
Yet I also remember how Marquez warned of his earlier novel Love in the Time of Cholera that "you have got to beware of my trap," as his tale of long-deferred love causes you to sympathize with a character who is, by all textual evidence, a sexual predator. Marquez clearly enjoys manipulating his readers into identifying with the monsters, and I suspect El general continues that game; for Marquez makes no bones about the fact that Bolivar sought to set himself up as dictator-for-life of Grand Columbia, believing that the form of representative government recently established in North America was unreproducible in the South. Bolivar's life may be a tragedy of epic proportions, Marquez seems to imply, but part of that tragedy was self-inflicted--as was the mess of Caudillos who followed in his wake, following his example. (Man, what I wouldn't give for someone to write a similar sobering portrait of George Washington...) The novel also features 2 Irishmen who were close confidants of Bolivar, part of my larger project of analyzing the intersections and overlaps between both literary traditions.
The King of Ireland's Son, Padraic Colum.
Book of Kells of sorts, one that interweaves many old Irish myths and folk-tales for the benefit of the youth of Ireland, in the same manner as the illuminated manuscripts of old. (As you can probably tell, the theme of the labyrinth in both Irish and Latin-American literature will be a predominant theme in this project).
El sueño del celta [The Dream of the Celt], Mario Vargas Llosa
The novel's structure involves a trade-off between chapters of Casement sitting in an English prison, anxiously awaiting to find out if his numerous friends can commute his sentence (spoiler: they can't), and longer chapters recounting his anti-colonial activities and adventures. Over the course of the novel, Casement begins to slowly befriend the prison guard who hates Casement in part because his own son was recently killed by Germans in the war. Although Vargas' own epilogue acknowledges that the debate continues to this day as to whether the journals that revealed Casement's homosexuality and possibly pederasty were faked by the British in a nefarious plot to discredit him, the actual novel's text plays it straight, as though the journals were true.
The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner.
The Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism, ed. Joe Cleary.
La casa verde [The Green House], Mario Vargas Llosa.
La fiesta del chivo [The Feast of the Goat], Mario Vargas Llosa.
The Dublin Trilogy ["The Shadow of the Gunman," "Juno and the Paycock," "The Plough and the Stars"], Sean O'Casey
"The Shadow of the Gunman" is a sort of bottle play, concerning a pair of roommates in a Dublin slum in 1920. Donal is a young poet often mistaken for an IRA gunman on the run, which he does not refute, as it helps with his popularity and romantic prospects with a certain Minnie Powell. Of course, this cannot last, as someone hides a bunch of bombs in his apt. just as the diabolical Auxies raid the place. Minnie makes off with the bombs herself, and is tragically killed trying to escape. In Donal and his roommate Seamus we get a sort of contrast between theory and praxus, idealism and pragmatism, in a manner reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre's Dirty Hands decades later.
"Juno and the Paycock" likewise concerns poor Irish tenants during the Irish Civil War, in this case the Boyle family. The patriarch Jack is an old sailor, a character as colorful as he is ultimately insufferable. He never works anymore, and the family suffers because of it; that is, till they learn a relative has left them a substantial inheritance, prompting them to go on a spending spree on credit. Of course, it turns out this is an empty promise, as the will only specified the "my first and second cousin," of whom there are many competing claimants.
The inheritance is eaten up by legal fees; the neighbors who had sold to them on credit come with a vengeance to reclaim their goods; a son who had lost his arm in the civil war but had also betrayed one of his comrades is caught by the IRA and executed; the daughter is seduced, impregnated, and disgraced by the English lawyer who had drawn up the fraudulent will--the latter presented himself as an enlightened figure, but (like all the English) shows his vile true stripes. Believing in false promises--both Irish and English--is a recurring theme in these plays.
"The Plough and the Stars" is the largest of the 3 plays--both in length and in staging. Long, patriotic quotations of Patrick Pearse are utilized ironically as civilians are caught in the crossfire of the Easter Uprising. Unionists, Republicans, and Communists are each in turn bitterly mocked in equal measure. All the wrong people are killed.
Friday, June 5, 2015
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