José Bianco, Ficción y Reflexión (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988)
This book is an anthology of texts by Argentine editor, translator, literary critic and novelist José “Pepe” Bianco (1908-1986), secretary of the renowned magazine Sur for 23 years. Borges, a close friend, wrote that “I have known few men of letters with the good judgement of José Bianco. He has honoured me with his friendship for many years, in which I have been able to confirm his literary curiosity, both broad and deep, extending to the most diverse and disparate periods of history and geography.” An ingenious translator, Bianco infamously rendered Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw into Spanish as Otra vuelta de tuerca [Another turn of the screw].
There’s something unquestionably Jamesian in the subtlety and psychological ambiguity of Bianco’s novels, such as The Loss of the Kingdom, about a writer’s attempt to complete a book, and The Rats, in which a fourteen-year old boy named Delfín describes with seeming detachment the events leading to the suicide of his brother Julio, who works with rats in a laboratory. Delfín does so through minute observation of the activities of those in the house – Julio, his mother, his aunt Isabel, his father, a woman named Cecilia, himself – as well as through beautiful descriptions of piano lessons learning Lizst and Prokofiev sonatas. A certain uneasiness underlies events, however, and the ending provides another possible meaning for Julio’s death via the deadly toxin aconitine, such that the entire text can be read two ways. Crystalline as each paragraph is individually, the reader’s immediate impulse is to return to the beginning and start again to decipher hidden meanings. Borges, a great admirer, noted the “perfect architecture” of the novel.
It’s as a literary critic, though, that Bianco truly stands out. Great pleasure comes from reading his thoughts on various authors, which are less critical commentary than (as per the title) “reflections” composed of a tissue of biographical information and quotes. Particularly good are Bianco’s essays on Proust, Groussac and Julien Benda. But even when writing on the exploits of Casanova – this essay in particular is a marvel – he always preferred a conversational tone, concrete description and a low profile. For Bianco the best style was one that didn’t call attention to itself; he liked to quote Gide: “Finally I have rid my style of emphasis and prophecy.” The true function of words, he said, was to “erase themselves in the presence of the idea they are attempting to formulate, transforming into imperceptible vehicles of meaning.” Bianco was always impeccably reserved and elegant, in his prose and in his life. Perhaps the only scandal is that this man of letters, who modestly referred to himself as a translator, has himself not been translated into English.
Juan José Saer, Glosa (Emecé, 2006; Seix Barral 2013)
Juan José Saer (1937-2005), a classic of Argentine literature, was born in the city of Santa Fe, and his novels largely take place there, though he spent the majority of his life in France as a literature professor in Rennes. This novel is a wandering description of a walk by two acquaintances, Leto and The Mathematician, along twenty-one blocks as they discuss a birthday party neither attended. The text is dense, made up of long, winding sentences, but also occasionally very funny. While attempting to cross a street with heavy traffic without muddying his white hems and European moccasins, The Mathematician suffers “the humiliation of having been, for a brief time, hostage to his trousers”. Another friend’s political formation is described as “rather precarious – in truth, nonexistent, apart from a general coincidence with the ‘popular’ due to an inclination for creole literature”. But there are also more philosophical passages, such as this one, in which The Mathematician reflects on:
the fact of being there, in the present and not the swamp of memory, though he’s aware that the obsolete survives in current material, in the bones and blood; being there, in the light of morning, makes him tremble with pleasure and produces within him a shock of liberation.
The strange interplay between friendship and the solitude of one’s thoughts plays a great role in Saer’s work, and so it seems fitting that part of my holiday reading is Saer’s last, unfinished novel La Grande, which I’m working through in parallel with a friend in the United States. (This friend, with whom I’ve kept up a long-running game of correspondence chess, is among the few North Americans I know likely to appreciate Saer’s odd sense of humour.) La Grande was recently published in English by Open Letter Press, in a translation by Steve Dolph, and it is in many ways a return to characters in previous novels such as Glosa. Perhaps it’s not the most intuitive place to begin, but then again, Saer’s entire work is a kind of digression without an obviously rational start, end or objective – a kind of parallel to life.
Like La Grande, Glosa is available in English, though it has been inexplicably retitled The Sixty-Five Years of Washington – perhaps following the same market logic giving La Grande a James Bond-style cover, when, as in all Saer’s work, the book is in reality about loneliness, dictatorship and the search for meaning.
Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, Obra completa (Ediciones del Dock, 2014)
The contemporary Buenos Aires poetry scene has its own particular fervour, featuring live readings accompanied by music. But here I will unapologetically recommend a classic, Joaquín Giannuzzi (1924-2004). This book, the ideal holiday gift, consists of 671 pages of Giannuzzi’s collected work, including collections such as Nuestros días mortales, Contemporáneo del mundo, Señales de una causa personal, Violín obligado and ¿Hay alguién ahí?
Comparing poets can often be more confusing than helpful—especially when those poets come from different cultures and time periods—but there’s something about Giannuzzi’s objectivist poetry of ideas that finds kinship with poems by Eugenio Montale, W.H. Auden, Edgar Lee Masters, Césare Pavese and T.S. Eliot. A musical rhythm also runs through his collections, and it’s unsurprising to learn that Giannuzzi venerated Bach, Handel and Beethoven, as well as Chopin’s Preludes and Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Giannuzzi worked as a journalist, lived out a bourgeois life coloured by historical events at the side of his wife Libertad Demitrópulos (a talented novelist in her own right) and died in the province of Salta, in the north of Argentina.
Readers of English have the option of Richard Gwyn’s A Complicated Mammal: Selected Poems (CB Editions, 2010), while readers of Spanish are recommended to seek out the excellent collection of secondary sources compiled by Jorge Fondebrider, Giannuzzi: Reseñas, artículos y trabajos académicos sobre su obra (Ediciones del Dock, 2010). That volume features essays by writers such as Daniel Freidemberg (“each poem is an unfolded thought, generally jumping off from a concrete image”), Fabián Casas (who notes the “Borgean importance of adjectives” in Giannuzzi’s work and explains his attention to objects is natural as “these are constructed by men and contain at their centre a reason and use”) and Fondebrider (whom Giannuzzi told, in an interview, that “objects are one of my obsessions. They are like secret substances, one of many enigmas… metaphorical language is the only one capable of revealing the world’s meaning”).
All this background information is helpful, but the best way to get to know Giannuzzi is simply by reading him. Here is his 1977 poem “Café y manzanas”, in my translation:
COFFEE AND APPLES
Coffee and apples on a June afternoon.
In a warm civilized corner
my senses take in a slightly abstract situation.
The world has become welcoming once again,
like a truce in the midst of history.
The apples give off a yellow gleam,
the coffee lets off its steam just for me.
For a failed contemporary individual
all this seems enough,
the inner cold of the apples,
the momentary heat of the coffee,
two natural phenomena that escape my control.
And so here I am, rear settled
in a bedroom suitable to my social class.
Lovely things in a safe place,
doors closed to the general disturbance.
But occasionally a bomb explodes on the floor below
and the police arrive to see who’s who in this world.