Thursday, January 5, 2017

the eye fixed on the fisherman

I failed to use excerpts from books as far apart in style and intent as Scott G.F. Bailey's murder mystery The Transcendental Detective, 2014 (which I could call "a page-turner" if I were writing blurbs, since I had a sincere desire to know who had murdered whom and why, and kept reading because of it), and the 1964 Italian book L'oblò or The Porthole by Adriano Spatola, (tr. Beppe Cavatorta and Polly Geller) "a singular novel that evades any kind of categorisation and remains even more important today for its remarkable achievement in that fertile period of Italian literature," according to the tripartite publisher. The same "fertile period" included Nanni Balestrini's Tristiano, 1966, another book I didn't quote. There are similarities between Balestrini's book and The Porthole but only superficial ones, I think, Spatola proceeding humanistically (you can imagine a person at a desk, planning striking contrasts), and Tristiano arranged by a machine (I believe you would know this even if they didn't tell you since there seems to be a willingness toward accidental repetition and no effort to create contrasts, the computer taking on the personality of chance. Compare this to the Porthole chapter called A Love Novel in which the questions deliberately escalate).

The mechanics of Balestrini's plan were so advanced that the book couldn't be published as he wanted it until 2014. Every copy is different. I read no. #11246.

My preference for Tristiano over Porthole resembles my preference I think for Clarissa over Tom Jones.

One of Porthole's techniques is to state an apparent fact the way that normal stories do and then write another fact cancelling it out, in a succeeding paragraph and in the same tone, without acknowledging the earlier assertion. The book opens directly into scene-setting with realismistic details, Guglielmo's mother "sitting on a chair, her right elbow propped up on the table (pencil in her hair)," tallying up the grocery bill, when "they" come through the door and kill her. "And he hadn't been born yet." Later, says the author, they killed his father. "But he hadn't been born yet." His mother is not human but a cow. She is a Samoyed or a Belgian sheepdog, she is an ant reformed as an earthworm; and her son is born in an attic, next to a freeway, on an island in the Dead Sea, and on the Adriatic Riviera. His father is a stable-keeper, his father is a demon, his father gave birth to him by laying an egg, his father is a truck moving at 100 miles per hour.

One consistent element is a hole that Guglielmo sees through: somehow throughout the book, no matter what he is doing, he (or something) is also in some sealed location looking through a hole. The sealed location seems degraded (this is not the metaphor of the lighthouse-human looking through the erected windows of the eye); his mother's anthill is mentioned; he is trapped inside a building, and his detached eye is brought up as well, wandering around.

In the river, the eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. The fixed eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. And when it was on the shore, the eye fixed on the fisherman and recognised him.

Spatola later suggested that the title-eye-hole-porthole "indicates a particular method of 'viewing' the world" which "passes before the writer much like it would in front of a camera," and the translator Beppe Cavatorta quotes this in order to make an argument about "the Spatolian eye [that] simultaneously records the things and actions of the world that surrounds it, as well as 'non-things, ' non-actions'."

But when I see that Spatola's method is explained with a reference to assemblage art while the author for the rest of his life (1941 – 1988) made concrete-collage poems that look like large single shapes then I say, "What if I thought of it as a stand-in for the eye of the single viewer ever-present throughout the viewing of a two-dimensional artwork, which, here, has to be placed inside the text, looking at it all at once, because no reader's eye is able to do what the eye of a viewer looking at a visual collage can do, which is to be all over the work with a single glance?"


  1. I would like to write a book about a detective, where the narrative is assembled randomly rather than with the intent to create deliberate contrast, irony, suspense, etc. Someone told me that Alice Munro actually reads novels out of order, poking around at random here and there until she gets enough of a sense of the book that she feels good abandoning it. It's a different sort of artifice but possibly closer to the experience of how we think about reality, maybe, than is the carefully-structured novel. Admittedly, the causality of the detective novel bores me. The sequel to The Transcendental Detective ends not with the solution of the crime, but with various contradictory suggestions as to the solution.

    I'm reading Percy Lubbock's book of essays on fiction, and he goes on about how Thackeray created pictures, more or less tapestries to be viewed by standing still, rather than dramatized stories. I see that Porthole is short enough that it could be read in a day or two; I may have to borrow it from the university library.

  2. It would make an interesting contrast to Tolstoy, and even to Proust, considering that time in Spatola is merged and recurring in its own way and for completely different reasons.

    If you're tired of causality then there's less of it in the Balestrini random assemblage technique than any other writing method I can think of. It made his book seem unusually calm. Once you accustomed yourself to the idea that nothing you read was ever going to add up to more than the particular isolated action going on in whatever sentence was currently in front of you then it became a matter of waiting patiently for familiar landmarks to come by again. You watch, you wait, and here's another sentence from the riverbank part of the story, now he's in the cave, now she's at the sink brushing her hair, which I remember from another two sentences on the same subject five pages back. Wondering where the cave came from or how he got to it is irrelevant because the He and She never really go to anything, not even in the sentences that tell you "they went to the town of C". They don't "be" in C afterwards.