Tagged: Jorge Luis Borges

Different loops: On ‘Vain Art of the Fugue’

Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Future (translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller and published by Dalkey Archive) does something so simple with its prose, yet so groundbreaking, that I can’t believe it’s not been done before. If it has, please let me know.

Here’s a longish extract, that shows what I mean. (The man has just run to catch a bus, and caught it just in time.)

The driver is wearing a leather jacket and seems very robust. Between us is a kind of glass pane held in place by aluminium bars, and between the glass and the bar on the far right is a space where my voice can get through to him.

“Please go faster, I don’t want to miss my train. You see, I took my bags there earlier in a friend’s car—he left this morning heading in a different direction. So, I’ve still got to pick my bags up from the luggage office. I didn’t leave this morning because I still had a few things to do: I had to visit someone (there was no point mentioning Maria’s name, as he wouldn’t have known who I meant, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know Magda either)—anyway, to visit a woman.” The driver didn’t say a word, as if he were deaf and dumb. At some point a woman with an incredibly large stomach got on the bus; maybe she had a pillow under her dress . . .

It was warm and he felt good. He adjusted the pillow and turned over again, feeling himself begin to fall back asleep. He didn’t try to resist, although he knew that in the end he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed.

“Get up, you mustn’t be late,” Maria said, but he kept quiet and turned again to watch her dressing. Then they both went out onto the veranda, where she placed herself right in front of him. With a maternal gesture she adjusted the knot of his tie, smoothed the lapels of his jacket and kissed him on the cheeks. He wanted to kiss her too, but she darted away and descended the few steps to the garden. The gravel crunched beneath her feet. He took the bunch of flowers from the table on the veranda and said, you’re right, I should get going. Maria walked with him to the green-painted door: go then, and he left without looking back. A dog with the mouth of a fox stood in his way. In a courtyard a fat man was killing a pig, watched by several women in pink silk dresses, and blood was gushing onto the stone slabs; strangely, the pig made no sound. He didn’t stop. He walked on faster and faster, even though he could feel Maria watching him with her fingers still tight on the bars. He didn’t look back. He turned the corner onto a street where a cyclist in a top hat and striped jersey was pedalling furiously but not making any progress. A string bag with some fish was behind the cyclist on the saddle rack; he’d probably just been fishing.

Now he saw the stop and broke into a run. He managed to catch the bus right at the last moment.

After giving up one of my tickets, I went to sit behind the driver. “I’m in a real hurry,” I said.

This is quite near the beginning of the book. The central character has already caught for the bus once before it, slipped back to the house once before, too. He will go on to catch the bus again another, what – dozen, twenty times? (She will warn him not to be late another dozen times, too, although sometimes she’ll be Magda, not Maria, sometimes just M.) Continue reading


Two lost scenes: the stationery shop, the rotating prison

Two scenes from books I’ve read and now can’t place, and which niggle me for that reason. I write them down in the hope that someone can identify them for me – or that, if no one does, I can claim them for myself.

1. A scene in a stationery shop. We are in Europe, early or mid 20th Century, or perhaps that part of Midwest or northeastern America which once was Europe. The narrator, or protagonist, is on a return visit to the small town he has otherwise left behind. He is a young man now, or perhaps still just about a boy, in the last years of his teens. But probably a young man. The shop is old-fashioned, with a counter and shelves behind it. I don’t know what he is after: ink, or printer ribbons, but the girl, or young woman, behind the counter has to go up a ladder to reach it down for him. A step ladder. Shelves packed tight with the materials of writing – the protagonist must be a writer – that must be the point of the story. But, in truth, it is the girl or woman he has come to see. She was either his girlfriend, when he lived in the town, or his friend, or the object of his desire. She is what he might have aspired to, had he stayed – had he not left town to ‘become a writer’. Her father owns the shop. I don’t know if he is physically present in the scene, or only in spirit. I don’t know if the young woman, recognises the young man. I get the sense that he has come back half-hoping she will recognise him, that he can ‘take her away from here’, but also half-fearing the sight of what might have been, had he stayed – that his own doppelganger will be stood alongside her behind the counter. Will lay his hand on her arm, stare him out. I think I might be going beyond the bounds of the scene into my own concerns. In any case, it is an old story – the boy writing himself out of the ghetto, the woman as symbol of domestication. Here’s what you could have won. When what you have won is the endless loss of ‘being an artist’. I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.

2. This isn’t so much a scene as the whole premise or conceit of the story. A man is sent to prison. The prison is circular, like a wheel. It is built of stone, with stone walls radiating from the centre like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Each cell a segment, capped at its far end by the exterior wall. The spokes, however, turn, rotating clockwise above the stone floor. They turn slowly, moving millimetre by millimetre as they are pushed by the inmates. Soon after entering, they have moved enough that daylight is lost. This is their punishment, that their jail term is fixed by their communal efforts to push the walls until the wheel has come full circle and they can leave the way they came in. They never see another inmate, but can hear them. It sounds like bad Kafka, or Borges, but I can’t find it in them, and I don’t want to Google it, for fear of what I might find.