Diary 2020-2022, part VIII

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Two in the afternoon and I’m just now waking up after my last night shift. Days and days lost and I never rest. I am sick, sick of keeping this frustration, this anger, to myself, of directing it only at myself or at this notebook. Perhaps it is a clear signal that I should submit the «Xolotl» short story to the contest. It is, above all, an honest story and that is what matters. It matters at the deepest level because literature, whatever its form and name may be, must first of all be true. It may use deceit, inventions and lies, it may even be written by a false person, but if it is literature it will tell the truth, sometimes even in spite of the author.

On another level, the general level, it must be honest because what is the use of winning prizes or being published if it is with postured texts, where the mind or the hand has been forced by interest or vanity.

This is the lesson that every damn contest teaches me again and again, and that I refuse to learn: be honest, be spontaneous, learn to work, create a discipline for myself, cultivate the craft, yes, but always from some internal impulse that not necessarily has to be the proverbial inspiration – so rare – but a need, a hunger, a doubt, amazement, pain, suffering, gratitude, love… And also, to understand that this is not always – and in fact almost never – fruitful. And that’s fine.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Yesterday I finished reading Huckleberry Finn for the first time. Some quick impressions and observations:

Mark Twain’s opening statements are honest and not just a joke:

«PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.»

It is true that there is no plot, or at least not in the classical sense. There is no other plot than the one provided by the river’s flow. It is also true that there are no morals. There is a huge ethical dilemma at the center of the novel, following Huck and Jim through the Mississippi from the start, but there are no admonitions or easy parables that one can take home in a pocket, satisfied with oneself.

It is not a coming of age novel. Huck doesn’t grow, he doesn’t change. He lives many traumatic experiences, sometimes of tremendous violence, and yet none of them is «transforming» because already when we meet him at the beginning Huck has lived through lots of events that in a traditional narrative could each be the central trauma around which the story revolves. When we say goodbye to Huck, the boy is ready to go on another adventure without thinking twice.

The best moment of the novel and what actually seems like its conclusion is undoubtedly the moment when Huck decides to condemn himself to hell in order to save Jim. His decision is based on a very clear logic (the correct thing according to the scriptures would be to denounce Jim since he is stolen property and must be returned to its owners, but Huck is a friend of Jim and puts loyalty above what «is right») and with marvelous lightness this denounces the horrible logic of slavery. After that, however, the book falls flat. I even remember that Borges, who famously loved Twain, felt the same way: after that pivotal decision by Huck, we went into a minor comedy with Tom Sawyer in charge.

My friend Kristin said, «Twain lets the reader off the hook» when comparing the portrayal of race in Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. At the time it seemed unfair to me, but she is absolutely right.

The question is, though, is it wrong? No. Because Huckleberry Finn is something else. Moby Dick is adult life, Huckleberry Finn is childhood, pure childhood. Roberto Bolaño is right in his own take of the matter.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

I just finished reading Great Expectations.

A quick note on Dickens:

Thomas Mann said that the grotesque style is the most anti-bourgeois thing there is. Dickens revels in the grotesque. Now we can read him as a bastion and model of the traditional and the sentimental, but let us think that he was writing in the era of Thackeray and George Eliot, who wrote more about the aristocracy, while Dickens stuck his nose in the grimy alleys and rat infested factories to portray its inhabitants and he always did it with grace, but also (surely remembering his difficult childhood) with compassion. This, in his time, it seems to me, was radical and, well read, in ours too.

Sunday March 28, 2021

I just finished reading A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. Excellent. One of the most exciting reads I’ve had in a long time and two of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. O’Connor has an iron grip on her world. Like the god she adored so much and – like all Catholics, I imagine – feared, she draws the fateful demises of her unfortunate characters with a steady hand.

There are so many great cosmopolitan writers who were born here, lived there and died over there. There are so many others with huge worlds, whose characters are in different latitudes, cross borders, speak many languages. But here we have Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus at age 39 and who barely left the state of Georgia in her lifetime; she, whose horizons were limited to farms, her mother, her chickens and peacocks; she wrote a very small world, tiny and monotonous. Always men and women from the countryside, always in the South, always explicit or tacit religious themes, always brutal punishment. And yet her world is as complete or more than those of those writers who exhaust the globe. Its elements are few and the variations are limited, but like the most terrible passages of the Old Testament, they haunt the conscience and endure. What texture, what visions.

I’ve been thinking that maybe my real literary training is only now beginning. Perhaps until now I had pushed ahead on the sheer false impulse of early praised, the supposed promise, the precocious talent. But that fuel has run out and now I finally face something that I have suspected for a long time although I had not had the strength to accept it: everything is false, it is a façade. There is a genuine talent, that is true, and a vocation, that too, but there is not enough foundation or solid scaffolding. There are no shortcuts or tricks, just work, dedication and discipline.

And preserving spaces, cracks, errors through which imagination and instinct can breathe.

What a difficult balance!

J.L.F.

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