Hans Lebert – Die Wolfshaut

Hans Lebert

The Wolfskin is one of those books that defies hyperbole. Rarely are so many strains of literature combined so subtly. In the opening pages, it reads like Wuthering Heights rewritten by Céline: dim, dank exteriors, looming darkness and fog, but peopled by a despicable band of hypocritical reprobates from the Austrian backwoods. The plot unfurls with an imperative: “Let us dig up a corpse!” leading to the tale of a reckless young man, Hans Höller, who tears off one night on his motorcycle only to be found dead hours later, leaning against the window of an abandoned brick factory with his eyes wide open in horror. Johannes Unfreund, “the Sailor,” as he is known contemptuously in the town, finds the body. This is the first in a series of mysterious deaths that will lead the town on a witch hunt, persecuting such outsiders as the Zebra, an escaped prisoner who is beaten, then shot, the photographer, Maletta, who is nearly drowned in a cesspit, and the Sailor himself, the lone resident with an apparently intact conscience. All the while, rumor spreads that a wolf is terrorizing the village. As the Sailor comes closer to the unifying thread of these deaths, the novel’s perversity, bombast, and tension take on shades of Dostoevsky. In the end, it transpires that the murdered villagers, as well as Unfreund’s father, the suicide, were members of a local militia that executed a group of forced laborers from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in the spring of 1945, when the Axis was on the verge of capitulation. Habergeier, the local dignitary who ordered the executions, is immune from punishment due to his position in the local government. At the novel’s end, a stray dog is shot in the village, and when the Sailor goes to confront Habergeier, he sees its skin stretched out to dry. The people have gone on, in spite of evidence to the contrary, believing the story of the wolf, and Habergeier is preserving the pathetic creature’s pelt as a memento of his own bravery.

Lebert was an opera singer, nephew to Alban Berg, and unlike many Germans and Austrians who conveniently found their ideological redemption after the war, Lebert opposed Nazism from the beginning. He ignored his summons to the Wehrmacht, which under the laws against Wehrkraftersetzung was a crime punishable by execution, and only eluded death by feigning schizophrenia. His position is echoed by the Sailor in Wolfskin, who responds to an ex-soldier’s plea that he only used his weapon when he had to with the words: “Listen here! No one has to do anything. No one even has to live. That’s the starting point.” But The Wolfskin is far from an arid reckoning of accounts; it is at once lyrical and grotesquely funny. On one page, reminiscent of Adalbert Stifter, the coachman of the wind whips the clouds across the sky; on another, a stoic Jew’s account of waiting for the Messiah, which he says is a good thing, because man needs something to wait for in life, ends with the punch line, “Then he died of lung cancer.”

There are scholars who consider The Wolfskin the capstone of postwar Austrian literature. Doderer and Canetti praised it; there are passages describing the haunted Austrian landscape in Thomas Bernhard’s debut novel Frost that seem lifted almost verbatim from Lebert, as does the perspectival technique, based in hearsay, of such books as The Lime Works. Elfriede Jelinek has been a great champion of The Wolfskin, calling it “one of the masterpieces of world literature” and “the most thrilling experience of my life as a reader.” In a 2010 article on the book, she declared: “If the bitter rage and obsessive imprecations of Bernhard do little more than grate, if they barely blemish the outer walls (like throwing a cushion against a cement barrier), what appears in the work of Lebert is the great myth of a world that is now forever guilty… This country of serene amnesiacs doesn’t deserve a poet like Hans Lebert. And that is why it has hastened to forget him.”

I have been working on a translation of the book and have carried on a fairly extensive correspondence with German and English publishers in my efforts to get the book reprinted in its original language and published in English. Unfortunately, the rightsholder has no interest in seeing the book reprinted, and has not replied to me, the aforementioned publishers, or even entreaties from the Austrian Cultural Forum. It fucking sucks, I’ll keep trying, but even Lebert’s archives are currently kept off-limits from scholars, and Jürgen Egyptien, one of the major experts on Lebert’s work, has told me I can forget about it until the rights situation somehow changes. Whatever. Here’s ten pages of it, maybe I’ll post more another time.


If we look closer, the mysterious events that so shook us this past winter began not on the ninth of November, but on the eighth, in all probability, with that strange noise the sailor purported to have heard.

Indeed. But first, let’s take a look at the map.

This here is Schweigen; here, to the south lies Kahldorf. This is the Kahldorf-Schweigen station, and this the one-track spur that ends three stations further down. To the west is a ridge, the Eberbirge, that trails off toward Schweigen; the road from Kahldorf to Schweigen leads around the mountain. Here, on this curve to Schweigen’s south, is the suspect brickworks. And what else…? These here are fields, and that’s a forest; the points there represent individual farms, and the lines are paths that run off into the woods.

It’s a part of the country God’s left behind, a part of the country with nothing to offer, which is therefore barely known. Far from the big freeways, it lives out its bedimmed life, and whoever claims to know it – myself, for example – can say nothing more in the end than that it exists and that the foxes around here utter their goodnights in a language hard to understand (it sounds like someone mumbling into his beard). In the morning they slip off in the thickets, sniff around the farms, where smoke rises from the chimneys and smells of burnt feathers. Then they prick up their ears, and sweep the surroundings with their luminescent eyes: desolation. The treetops trapped in clouds; the rain drumming softly over harvested fields.

And now, back to the story!

On the eighth of November, around three in the morning, a malaise, a repugnant, frosty feeling, “like if the front door was left open,” awakened the sailor. So he stood up and made sure it was closed. He lay back down, but couldn’t fall asleep. Irritable, he got back up, lit his pipe, and looked out the window. Outside was a milky half-light. The moon, veiled behind clouds to the east, left a blanched spot on the snow, a puddle of tubercular pale brilliance that made the bare branches of the fruit trees stand out like shadows. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and everything seemed as it should be. But all at once, the sailor had a feeling, as if he were waiting for something to happen; and as he stood there and considered what kind of something that might be, he heard that strange noise no one has managed to explain to this day. It came, he said, from the direction of the brickworks, and little by little filled the vault of the sky. It sounded like a “ringing in the ears” or an Aeolian harp, as if the air was quivering in the heights like a tautened string.

The noise then died out, trickled vaguely into the vastness of the night, strayed into the woods, sank in the swampy lowlands where fog grew thicker toward morning and the hoarfrost glimmered on the grass. At last, it merged with the muted hum of the telephone wires (to which it bore a certain resemblance) until it could no longer be distinguished from it.

In those days we were back to sleeping well. We didn’t have any reason not to. We’d made it through the war and its assorted consequences, or so we thought; all through the country, things were looking up, prosperity was waiting in the wings; and if something did trouble us, most likely it was the return of boredom, which is endemic to the region in peacetime and wanders among the houses and the barbed wire fences like a gray, intangible phantom.

That day began with it (the boredom), just like any other day of the month. It sent forth a tear-streaked red (red like inflamed conjunctiva, though it faded after a few minutes) and then crept reluctantly over the crests of the hills. Even if it was a Saturday, and there was even a dance on at the Traube, there was no reason to reckon on anything unusual shattering the crippling circle of monotony, the noose of farming and husbandry, bare forests and brown swells of earth, which draws taut around our village as the year comes to an end.

Everything was like always. Trucks and motorcycles took to rumbling. The steam engine at the sawmill started panting like a man with a fever, and in the surrounding forests being felled, the lumberjacks’ axes awoke with a bellow. As on every morning in Schweigen, the stores opened up, the bakery, the general store, the butcher’s (which belonged to the Traube); and as on every morning, the children ran off to school, with silver clouds of breath before their faces.

And yet! Something was different (just had to be different) that sleepy Saturday, which we only found suspicious weeks later. Strange as it may seem, no one took note of it but the sailor, and even for him it was something vague, like a tension fraying the most delicate fibers of his nerves, and had he wanted to, he still couldn’t have said what it was, or even if it was anything at all.

He walked out of his house (the potter’s hut, which cowered squat over the village on the forest’s edge), looked up to the clouds, and grimaced. It wasn’t the air. It wasn’t the light, either. What was it then? Nothing. He listened hard, but heard only the rustling of the grass, the dry crackle of the branches in the forest, and the wheeze of the sawmill on the other side of the valley. He filled a pitcher with water at the well and went back in the house to brew coffee.

Let us dig up a corpse! Not one of the nameless that the sailor tried to dig up, but one we all knew well (and who, at that very moment, was getting spruced up for the Sunday he wouldn’t live to see), namely Hans Höller, son of the farmsteader Höller (the local big shot who owned the Lindenhof farm, which lay along the road to Kahldorf).

Around ten, he reached the village on his motorcycle, entered Ferdinand Zitter’s barbershop, and threw himself splay-legged into a chair. He was a handsome, strong kid, dressed head-to-toe in gleaming leather, and he and his machine made a perfect pair. He too looked freshly painted, he too gleamed as if he’d just rolled out of the factory, and when he sprawled there, pleased as punch, stretching out feet clad in Canadian boots, you had the feeling (if you were watching him, I mean) that he too, concealed a powerful motor, his heart must have been in tip-top shape.

“Shave!” he growled.

Ferdinand Zitter (an old, frail little man with white hair and tortoiseshell glasses that sat so low on his nose, they were constantly threatening to slide off) took a bow and rubbed his hands together.

“Right away,” he said, “Irma’s coming now. You want to take a look at the paper in the meanwhile?”

“Is it today’s?”

“No, yesterday’s.”

“Done read it,” the kid grumbled. He looked at himself in the mirror and whistled a snatch from a chart-topper.

Ferdinand Zitter told us later, after the calamity had occurred:

“Irma made him wait, like always. Probably she was eating her midmorning snack and had her fingers all covered in cheese or jam. So I decided to go ahead and soap Mr. Holler up, at least, in the meanwhile, even though I knew he wouldn’t care much for it, as he really was there because of Irma. I grabbed a clean towel and stuck it down in his collar. And I ran a hand over his cheek to see how stiff his beard was. Then I got scared. I got right scared indeed. His face felt like it was dead, it was cold and doughy – like the face of a corpse. After that, Irma showed up and took over the work for me. Thank God! My hands were twitching, and anyway, I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore.”

Hans Höller invited the barber’s apprentice to the dance at the Traube. She agreed (after long hesitation, though she was already planning on going), but he had to promise to pick her up at home, because – as she explained – she wasn’t about to trudge through the muck in the dark in her dancing shoes and show up there looking like a pig.

He nodded. Fine by him, they’d ride around a while before, she could check out his new machine. As she shaved him, she bent over, soft and warm, and afraid she’d cut him, he spoke in a deep voice, without moving his lips, like a ventriloquist, about the endless joys of riding a motorcycle. She listened with half-closed eyelids, credulous and slightly drowsy, occasionally suppressing a yawn. Now and then she smiled, let her teeth show between her lips, and said (it sounded like crickets chirping):

“Oh yeah? Really? How nice!”

Then she wiped the rest of the lather from his face, dried him off gently, splashed him with cologne, and tidied his hay-blond hair with a brush and comb.

The day lit up the frosted glass window with a gray, unappetizing light. Ferdinand Zitter sat next to the stove, which crackled and purred, and saw the whole thing.

“I had the feeling then,” he told us later, “that there was someone else in the shop besides the three of us, a fourth person, an invisible one, pointing a finger at Mr. Höller.”

“What was it?” we asked him. “What kind of feeling was it?”

He said: “A thing like that is hard to describe. It was like a great coldness. I thought I would freeze in there, even though I was sitting next to the stove (a combustion stove, no less, burns like you wouldn’t believe!).”

Directly across from the barbershop is the Suppan family’s house. It’s an old, sturdy dwelling, from the seventeenth century probably, and it has an attic with a mansard window that looks out on the street like a face. When Hans Höller left the establishment, mounted his machine, and cranked up the motor with an earsplitting roar, so every pane of glass in the surrounding area began to quiver, the following things occurred in that house: the curtain adorning the window (a white one with a lace border) was pushed slightly to the side, opening a dark gap wide enough for a single eye to peek through. It stayed that way for some time, and the lowering eye, which was certainly there, but which couldn’t be identified, watched the damned rascal till he took off with a hellish rattle, smoke streaming from the exhaust pipes, and turned onto the next corner.

Admitted! This is nothing to write home about. In Schweigen, if someone walks down the street, he can see an eye in every window following him more or less warily. Still, we’ll make an exception and mention it this time, since behind the aforementioned mansard window, as we all know, lived Karl Maletta, along with our photographs.

Let’s ponder things further:

A half an hour later (could be around ten-thirty), Konstantin Ukrutnik blessed us with his company, as usual. Ukrutnik is a cattleman, twenty-eight years old, six-foot-two, a monument of a man. He looks like a wrestler! His torso’s like a kettledrum; you want to knock on it to see if it echoes (like a cavity, like an empty barrel). But which of us clodhoppers would dare knock on that big cattleman’s chest? To hear him tell it, he’s strong as an ox and – this is far more dangerous – he reckons himself a classy gent because he’s got piles of cash and as many girlfriends as he does fingers.

Back then, he used to come down every Saturday (no one really knew why) and stay through the weekend. He’d go to the Traube, where he had a standing reservation, and talk with Franz Binder, innkeeper, farmer, and master butcher, about assorted, often dubious dealings they had with each other. He already had a thing for Herta Binder, the innkeeper’s daughter. He’d bring little gifts, usually a pair of nylon stockings, which she especially liked, though the supple fabric, stretched to bursting (Miss Binder, being a gymnast, had unusually formidable calves), generally broke out in runs the first time she tried them on.

This time she got a present, too, not stockings, but perfume, as though he’d divined her deepest concerns, because a body like that, you know, it has its needs. Beaming with joy (they do say that, don’t they?), beaming with joy, she stood in the doorway between the inn and the butcher’s stall. Her short, stubby fingers, greasy with fatback, tenderly clutched the phial, which even unopened gave off a distinguished aroma. Just then, Ukrutnik was driving his car (a former Wehrmacht vehicle) behind the house to the so-called garage.

There, in that windowless shed that stooped like a blind man next to the dung heap, useless knickknacks, the remnants from old hay carts, and other farm tools lay thrown one over the other in an unfathomable confusion, coated in dust and veiled with gray cobwebs. A cat crouched in the corner and wouldn’t take its eye off the big cattleman. It followed his movements with autumnal eyes, colorless eyes, as though harboring a strange, potent hatred. He had parked the car and was on his way out of the shed when he saw the cat and stopped. It was black.

They stared at each other motionless, as if poised to jump. The cat’s autumnal eyes lit up the shack, like a doubled moon in a mirage gilding the twilight. Ukrutnik’s eyes gleamed too, but very differently from those of the beast. They were dark and dull, the shade of rotting olives, glinting greenish like grease. He narrowed them into two thin slits, clenched his teeth, stuck out his chin, and tensed the muscles in his face. He hunched down next to the door, where the light of day shone in, and the cat stayed cowering in the rear of the shack, a motionless sphere of shadow. They scowled at each other, both holding their breath, and in the air between them, which seemed to scowl as well, something crackled, like electric sparks.

But the cattleman had no notion of all that. (Notions weren’t his forte.) All he felt was a blow on his back, the blow of an enigmatic fist, and he stumbled forward, still slouching, gliding toward the cat with soundless, predatory steps. He made a brusque movement, as if he wished to snatch it by the tail, and just then, the cat leapt and rushed past him like a black burst of wind.

All he saw was it scuttling out the door, hair on end and ears bent strangely backward, into the gray luminosity toward an outbuilding of the inn, where it vanished through a cellar window.

(This happened around eleven, and the smoke from the fireplaces already smelled of food; but instead of rising into the sky, it spread like suffocating ground fog over the landscape).

Now let’s talk about Maletta!

In the third year after the defeat (or liberation), on a May morning cold and damp as a dog’s nose, he showed up at the Suppans place. He introduced himself to the two old people, who up to then knew nothing of his existence, first as a kinsman and then as a victim of the war. “What do you mean, kin?” they asked him. He could only explain it vaguely. And what sort of victim, they wanted to know. About that, too, he offered little clarity. He rented one of the two attic rooms in their house (the other belonged to Miss Jakobi, the new schoolteacher), had his suitcases brought over from the train station by a team of oxen, unpacked his things, set up his camera, and attached a sign to the garden fence that he had evidently painted himself. MALETTA PHOTOS SECOND FLOOR LEFT, it read.

And since we’re all so handsome and since, naturally, we were curious as well, almost all of us went there and had ourselves photographed. Soon enough, he had papered the walls of his room with our pictures. It must have been dreadful, for everything that smacks of the multitude is dreadful.

Let us hear from an impartial witness, a coachman from elsewhere who had his photo snapped by Maletta, but had no connection to our matter:

He says: “Anyhow, it was around twelve, but when I went into his room, he was still in bed, the rotten bum. So me being salty, I roust him right up. Has he got to think it over, or what, I ask him. ‘Absolutely,’ he says, ‘absolutely.’ Then he stands up, pulls on the pants he had hanging over a chair, and squeezes his way into his shirt. ‘Indeed, I must reflect, and there is no better way to reflect than in bed.’ While he fiddles with his contraption, I take a look around the room. Some state it’s in! A wreck! And the walls all covered in photos! The big names from Schweigen and Kahldorf, one next to the other, and you could barely tell them all apart! ‘Good lord, now!’ I said. ‘Some group you got there! Don’t you ever get sick of them all gawking at you? ‘Just a question of habit,’ he says and smiles (with that face of his that looks like soft cheese), ‘Just a simple question of habit. Shall we?’ I sit myself down on a stool that was already set out and he vanishes behind his box. ‘These photos,’ I say, ‘they could give a guy the creeps. They look you straight in the face like they wanted to hypnotize you.’ He laughs, hidden under his black cloth. ‘Because they’re all staring so stubbornly into the lens, he says, ‘so the picture will better convey their character,’ he says. ‘Look at my finger, please!’ (A finger that looks like a cheese curd.) He holds it up high, like he wanted to explain something. ‘Attention…! Thanks,’ he says.

“ ‘But it is true,’ he says later, while I’m paying, ‘it’s hard to stand it in here sometimes; sometimes being here, you feel like a violet pressed into an album of mug shots.’




Translating Hermann Burger

Hermann Burger smoking a cigar behind the wheel of his Ferrari

I first heard of Hermann Burger on an episode of Das Literarische Quartett. Reich-Ranicki was a great supporter of his. He sounded absolutely mad – and proved to be so when I read the few stories of his I could find online. I am now translating his last novel, the first volume of an unfinished tetralogy, Brenner, the purported memoirs of a tobacco heir on the verge of suicide. It is beautiful, sad, and incredibly intricate. I generally work fast and with this book, a page often takes me hours: I have looked up model cars, toy trains, railroad terminology, types of tobacco and the methods of curing them, bobsledding courses, maps… It is tiring, but unusually, I have ample time to do it in. I may post a page or two from time to time just to give a sense of the richness and strangeness of this project. Here, Burger is talking about a Schuco-Examico toy convertible, a “time-annihilation machine” his father gave him to help him pass the hours in a hotel while he was there talking over insurance matters, and the Ferrari he replaced it with as a grown man.

The Schuco-Examico “time annihilation machine”

… Now there are, as is well known in the science of parenting, two methods of making unruly children compliant, either you punish or reward them, and my father astounded me by pulling something wonderful, enchanting, dazzling, exceptional, rapturous, pyramidal, deathly elegant out of his suitcase. Packed in pink wax paper, a toy car, or, quite simply, the toy, the car, a superbrandspankingnew glimmering Schuco Examico Cabriolet chosen from among the assortment at my Uncle Herbert’s store in Burg. So runs the entry on my model in Fritz Ferschl’s and Peter Kapfhammer’s comprehensive Schuco book, The Fascinating World of Technical Toys: “What must a proper car have? A clutch, four forward gears, plus neutral and reverse. What model car has had these features since 1936?” The Schuco Examico. It was fire engine red, with red ribbed upholstery, pinion steering, a painted dashboard, the classic gear shifter with reverse located down and diagonal to the left, a hand brake, a horn, a miniature music box for a radio, a lever by the passenger door, a grille that recalled the BMW it was modeled on, two strips of chrome trim, a windshield wiper, and, where the gas cap would go, a tiny hole for the key to wind it up; the wheels were half-hidden beneath curved fenders, as on a Fleetwood, silt-brown and running the length of the body; the doors were embossed and shaped like saddle bags – Satteltasche, nowadays in Leonzburg there is a restaurant with that name – two soldered grommets represented the headlights, a black license plate reading Schuco graced the trunk, the three-spoke steering wheel had a finger grip rim, the tires modeled on Perellis…

… And now, as my life has a maximum duration of two to three years, and any parsimony, restraint, or squirrelling away would be absurd, I have consummated that childhood dream begotten of the Schuco Examico and acquired a rossa corsa Ferrari 328 GTS, with a removable hardtop and maximum speed of 166 mph, and may state unequivocally that no make of sports car, however legendary or pedigreed, not even one blessed by the Pope himself, can approach the Schuco put into service at Hotel Haller, the one I christened Schuco Malaga because my father’s clients took up so much of my time, and whilst the insurance inspector, Hermann Brenner Junior, and the then-owner of Malaga Cellars on Niederlenzer Straße talked over the arcana of life, retirement, and disability insurance, premiums, supplementary risks, and double payout in case of death, I wheeled my red convertible over the parquet floor of Hotel Haller, whose herringbone slats marked out the patchwork of streets, and soon discovered the greater charms of steering by hand than letting the mainspring wind down, because that way, you could speed up indefinitely; and on I drove, as yet unaware of the castle town’s topography, down Bleicherain and Aavorstadt, the Rathausgasse and the Postgasse, shot up Malagarai to Freiämterplatz, then pulled the handbrake to let the opposing traffic through, scant though it was, so soon after the war…

Baudelaire, Correspondences

I don’t like the English translations of Baudelaire much. Is this one any better? I don’t know, but it was a way to amuse myself for a half-hour.

In nature’s shrine, where pillars quick
Perchance let mingled words emerge,
Man wends through symbol-forests thick,
Whose knowing gazes him observe.

Like echoes mingled from afar
In deep and tenebrous unity,
As vast as night, as clarity,
The perfumes, sounds, and colors hark.

Those perfumes cool like children’s skin,
Some oboe-sweet and prairie green
–– and others, rich, and rank with sin

Expansive as infinities
Of amber, resin, musk, incense,
Intone the bliss of soul and sense.

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.


From Josef Winkler, Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?

Graveyard of Bitter Oranges is available from Contra Mundum Press

Jürgen Shmidhuber on Consciousness as Problem-Solving

Karl Popper famously said: “All life is problem solving.” No theory of consciousness is necessary to define the objectives of a general problem solver. From an AGI point of view, consciousness is at best a by-product of a general problem solving procedure.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Tononi’s theory. The following may represent a simpler and more general view of consciousness. Where do the symbols and self-symbols underlying consciousness and sentience come from? I think they come from data compression during problem solving. Let me plagiarize what I wrote earlier:

While a problem solver is interacting with the world, it should store the entire raw history of actions and sensory observations including reward signals. The data is ‘holy’ as it is the only basis of all that can be known about the world. If you can store the data, do not throw it away! Brains may have enough storage capacity to store 100 years of lifetime at reasonable resolution.

As we interact with the world to achieve goals, we are constructing internal models of the world, predicting and thus partially compressing the data history we are observing. If the predictor/compressor is a biological or artificial recurrent neural network (RNN), it will automatically create feature hierarchies, lower level neurons corresponding to simple feature detectors similar to those found in human brains, higher layer neurons typically corresponding to more abstract features, but fine-grained where necessary. Like any good compressor, the RNN will learn to identify shared regularities among different already existing internal data structures, and generate prototype encodings (across neuron populations) or symbols for frequently occurring observation sub-sequences, to shrink the storage space needed for the whole (we see this in our artificial RNNs all the time). Self-symbols may be viewed as a by-product of this, since there is one thing that is involved in all actions and sensory inputs of the agent, namely, the agent itself. To efficiently encode the entire data history through predictive coding, it will profit from creating some sort of internal prototype symbol or code (e. g. a neural activity pattern) representing itself [1,2]. Whenever this representation becomes activated above a certain threshold, say, by activating the corresponding neurons through new incoming sensory inputs or an internal ‘search light’ or otherwise, the agent could be called self-aware. No need to see this as a mysterious process — it is just a natural by-product of partially compressing the observation history by efficiently encoding frequent observations.


from Schmidhuber’s Reddit AMA

Juan Benet on James Joyce

For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.

Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.


A map of a route taken in Ulysses by Valdimir Nabokov


Juan Benet’s map of Región

Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.

A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual  – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.

What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…

If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.

What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.

… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.

A Visual Key to Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny

The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.

Chapter One: The Man in the Turban

Chapter 1 Fortuny Man with Turban.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Man With the Turban

Fortuny - The Battle of Tétouan.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Battle of Tétouan

Fortuny - Contino.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Contino

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – Self Portrait

Chapter Two: The Outsiders

Chapter 2 Henry James by John Singer Sargent.jpg

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens

Chapter 3 Fortuny Flower Maidens.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – The Flower Maidens

Chapter Four: The Tragedienne

Chapter 4 Eleonora Duse by Corcos.jpg

Eleonora Duse by Vittorio Corcos

Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo

Chapter 5 Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo.jpg

Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo by Luis de Madrazo

Chapter Six: Villa Pisani

Chapter 6 Amores in Villa Pisani.jpg

The Amores statues in Villa Pisani

Chapter Seven: Interlude

Chapter 7 Emilienne d'Alencon.jpg

Émilienne d’Alençon

Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror

Chapter 8 John Singer Sargent Study of a Nude.jpg

Study of a Nude by John Singer Sargent

Chapter Nine: A Visit

Chapter 9 Proust.jpg

Marcel Proust as a Young Man

Chapter Ten: Latitudes

Chapter 10 Condé Nast in a Fortuny gown.jpg

Condé Nast in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Eleven: Ornithology

Chapter 11 Carpaccio Two Venetian Ladies.jpg

Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies

Chapter Twelve: The Traveler

Chapter 12 Hugo von Hofmannsthal.jpg

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment

Chapter 13 sketch of Fortuny Dome.jpg

Sketch for a Fortuny Retractable Dome

Chapter Fourteen: Visions

Chapter 14 Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini and L. Casati in the Palazzo Leoni by Mariano Fortuny.jpg

Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini, and L. Casati at the Palazzo Fortuny, by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Fifteen: Henriette

Chapter 15 alt. Portrait of Henriette Fortuny.jpg

Portrait of Henriette Fortuny by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne

Chapter 16 Liane de Pougy.jpg

Liane de Pougy

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani

Villa Pisani

Chapter Eighteen: Theaters

Chapter 18 Martine_de_Béhague Comtesse de Bearn.jpg

Portrait of the Comtesse de Béarn

Chapter Nineteen: Intermission

Chapter 19 Enrico Caruso.jpg

Enrico Caruso

Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures

Chapter 20 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-One: Instants

Chapter 21 Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy, in aviator costume.jpg

Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers

Chapter 22 Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny.jpg

Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx

Chapter 23 Dolores del Rio from Journey Into Fear.jpg

Dolores del Rio, from Journey Into Fear

Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters

Chapter 24 Charles and Oona Chaplin.jpg

Charles and Oona Chaplin

Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode

Chapter 25 Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino.jpg

Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino

Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly

Chapter 26 Lilian Gish in a Fortuny Gown.jpg

Lillian Gish in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk

Chapter 27 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal Window Granada.jpg

A window in Granada, by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait

Chapter 28 portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

A portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business

Chapter 29 Fortuny logo.jpg

The Fortuny Venise Logo

Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling

Chapter 30 Fortuny pattern modify.jpg

A Fortuny Pattern

Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution


Mary McCarthy as a young woman. Kay wears a Fortuny gown in her novel The Group.

Chapter 31 Julie Christie in Fortuny need permission

Julie Christie in Fortuny tunic and leggings.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions

Chapter 32 Orson Welles Othello needs permission.jpg

Orson Welles in Othello

Chapter 32 Orson Welles NYT.jpg

Orson Welles in the New York Times

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May

Chapter 33 Goya el 2 de mayo 1808 or the Charge of the Mamelukes.jpg

Goya: The Second of May, or the Charge of the Mamelukes


Goya, The Second of May, 1808

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell

Chapter 34 Fortuny inidrect light needs permission.jpg

Fortuny’s system of indirect lighting

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon

Chapter 35 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal The Artists Children in the Japanese Salon.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: The Artist’s Children in the Japanese Salon

Ausiàs March


That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.


Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.


Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports