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June 07, 2008

Reading Update

I'm currently reading The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez. Why had I never heard of this writer before I stumbled on this paperback translation in a used bookstore? He was apparently one of Borges' cronies (Borges wrote a brief foreword in this book), and a real devotee of both medieval romance and the Borgesian meta-encyclopedic view of the world.

He's also a kickass writer. Observe this passage, which describes the viewpoint character, an immortal fairy, watching over an unusual medieval family at rest. The fairy is the knight Ozil's ancestor. The family are a stonemason (Pons), his minstrel brother (Ithier), his wife, a former camp follower (Berthe), her son with Ozil (Aiol), her daughter (Azelais), etc.:

By moonlight and candlelight I saw the soft contours of the sleepers, pale as ghosts. Only the toil-worn Pons had a night-cap on. Beside him Berthe was a curving mound of generous hips and full breasts, voluptuous from her years of erotic exercise. Every immature line of Azelais, even in sleep, was wary and defensive. Her skin was marble-white, translucent, and her beauty almost too perfect, with something frightening, feline, and ambiguous about it. The servants were stocky peasant-girls with fetching dimples and dusky armpits, veins knotted in their legs by drudgery. Then the three tall forms of the boy, the knight, and the minstrel. The skin, taut across the bones, revealed the muscles beneath the matted grey hair on Ozil's chest; showed Ithier skeleton-thin from his courtly employments; showed Aiol, fifteen years old, like a statue in bronze. The soft glow on the brown skin, the relaxed sprawl, the absolute grace and proportion, belonged to the art of a later age than the twelfth century with its stern, compact creations of craftsmen such as Pon.

I loitered above them until it was late, partly from love of Aiol and partly to savour the knowledge that I was not alone. Instead of vegetating in the tower at Lusignan I was here, sharing their joys, doubts, and despairs; here with their breathing, their murmurings, snores and snuffles and broken words, the grinding of teeth and the smell of humanity in an overheated room. As I had felt that Aiol, sitting by the window, saw into the future, I felt that here, with these sleeping, vulnerable mortals, I was close to the deep, strange roots of the world; that the entire essential world was here, growing like a splendid plant with separate leaves and flowers in the fertile shelter of an inn at Poitiers.

Now that's what fantasy should be. The usual youth-and-beauty-worship is there, the romantic virgin/whore suspicion of women, the artisan/knight dichotomy alive and well here too, and the strange feminization of male beauty in the eyes of the emasculate witch/fairy. But Láinez writes all of this in supreme consciousness of what he's doing. He makes the archetypes complex, comments upon them, and connects the whole with the sublime purpose of fairytale and, by extension, literature. Well, the above is more fairy tale, and the below more literature:

These unpredictable human beings! Observing them in public, you would never suspect, unless you were unusually astute or cynical, the things they do in private. Much of the famous tension of today arises from anxiety as to whether some door which should be shut may have been left open. Admittedly, inadvertent revelations, shattering though they may be, add their spice to life---they provide new vistas, energize it enormously ... But enough of that. The reader will have gathered, I am certain, what was happening in the cowshed.

Indeed.

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Comments

Such breath taking writing - something I fear I'll only ever be able to aspire to.

Do you ever get that sense of readerly inferiority when you're making your way through a book too?

no, i get writerly inferiority ;)

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