Sunday, December 29, 2013


“Céline is my Proust!” Philip Roth once said. “Even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books… . Céline is a great liberator.” Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born on this day in 1894. He was a French writer largely remembered for his first novel “Journey to the End of the Night,” a loosely biographical work teeming with disease, misanthropy, and dark comedy. He was decorated for bravery in the First World War, and wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to the Second, after which he was declared a national disgrace and imprisoned for collaborationist sympathies. Céline, in short, is one of the great problems in twentieth-century literature: you find yourself irresistibly drawn in by the fearless singularity of his vision, even while aware of the appalling place to which it led him. What’s striking is how absent his grievous opinions are from his great novels where one can occasionally glimpse a gentle humanist buried beneath a bitterly stung idealism.
Everything that Céline became was an act of will. From a modest background, he was taken out of school early to work in trade, but he seemed unable to hold down jobs. The First World War—in which he was wounded while voluntarily undertaking a dangerous mission—freed him from this humdrum future; he educated himself relentlessly and came out of the war determined to be a doctor. He worked as an obstetrician and later in a public dispensary for the poor. The mind that emerged from this background is defiant, obscene, unsparing, willfully provocative, but it is also entirely without vanity.
Céline does not attempt a novel of ideas. His work has little in common with that of his contemporaries Sartre and Camus. And he defies the expectations of more traditional fiction—any impulse towards heroism, transcendence, escapism are absent. One is forced to read Céline in a different way—to not only share his perceptions but to somehow feel them. With his speech rhythms, his slang, his heavy use of ellipsis, he embroils you in the writing. But this is much more than a trick of style; it is the work of a wildly original imagination. His writing is intensely physical: a New York subway train is “a cannonball filled with quivering flesh”; he describes the “long, oozing house fronts” of the poor Paris suburbs and the “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.” His experience as a soldier and doctor perhaps account for a biological fixation in his imagery and a perspective of pitiless objectivity. Here he is describing the act of speech:
When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth which screws itself up to a whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of fetid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment … Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state—that’s the unconscionable torture. (“Journey to the End of the Night”)
While using language to persuasively undermine itself, this passage captures the essence of Céline’s deepest comedy: the energy of the writing versus the sense of utter futility he conveys. The sheer stylistic exuberance with which he puts forward character is often in devastating contrast to the pointless, calamitous schemes in which they are caught up. The best example of this is the editor, writer, and inventor whose insane and increasingly manic moneymaking schemes make up a third of “Death on the Installment Plan”:
Courtial des Pereires himself never stopped producing, imagining, conceiving, resolving, making claims … his genius tugged at his brains from morning to night…And even at night it didn’t rest…He had to hold tight to resist the torrent of ideas…And be on his guard…It was incomparable torture … Instead of dozing off like other people, he was pursued by chimeras, new crazes, fresh hobbies…
The artistic energy Céline puts into creating this character, crafting one episode after another of virtuosic absurdity, seems of a piece with his own description of the novel’s paradox: “For me, you only had the right to die when you had a good tale to tell. To enter in, you tell your story and pass on. That’s what “Death on the Installment Plan” is, symbolically, the reward of life being death.” Céline draws his vitality, his linguistic life from a joy in describing human action that comes to nothing.
There is no room for pathos in Céline’s vision. He seems almost to fear it—as if it might be a mere literary indulgence. Although he describes the most wretched, pitiful scenes, he is always quick to undermine our sympathy. In “Death on the Installment Plan,” waiting for a train at Gard du Nord, Ferdinand is embraced by his mother’s “misshapen carcass”:
“I was terribly ashamed […] She hugged me so hard, with such a storm of emotion, that I reeled…On those occasions the tenderness that welled up from her misshapen carcass had the strength of a horse…The idea of parting drenched her in advance. A howling tornado turned her inside out, as if her soul were coming out her behind, her eyes, her belly, her bosom…it hit me in all directions, it lit up the whole station… […] I didn’t dare admit it, but in a way I was curious…I’d have liked to know how far she could go in her effusions…From what nauseating depths was she digging up all this slop?“
Running through this scene is the shame the family feels in an unfamiliar public space so far removed from their usual poverty-stricken surrounds. They cling to one another at the station, feeling miserably exposed, “timid, furtive.” But having set this up, Céline undercuts it with his curiosity about his mother’s emotions, her “slop.”
Céline’s autobiographical self is largely good-natured, sensitive to the discomfort of others, but unable to offer solace. One feels that he would consider it somehow dishonest, and that this is not a grand principle or a pose, but an instinct. Pulling against the bog of misanthropy in Céline’s work is a modesty, a naivety even. In “Journey to the End of Night,” Bardamu (his alter-ego) is at a trading post, deep in the African jungle, with an army officer who confides in him about his orphaned niece whose education he is paying for with money from various illicit trades with the natives. Céline writes how the officer tells the story in a “strange bumbling voice” and “blushed crimson, as if her had done something absolutely indecent.” Bardamu feels his distress and instinctively knows he “ought to help him tell his story,” but he is at a loss at how to respond to it: “I didn’t know what to say, I had no experience, but his heart was so superior to mine that I went red in the face.”
In Céline’s world, human suffering is on the same footing as human pleasure; there is no system of abstract truth to which one can appeal. “A time comes when you are all alone,” he writes in “Journey to the End of the Night,” “when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore, and you have to retrace your steps, to go back among people, it makes no difference who.” There is something touching about this insight from one of literature’s most infamous misanthropes: the only place where, finally, we might find shelter from our suffering is in company—among people.
Céline returned to France in 1951, having been granted amnesty. He never renounced his former views and seemed to remain largely unrepentant, but in an interview in 1957 when asked about his anti-Semitism, he said, “My great sin in this was pride and, I’ll admit it, vanity, and stupidity.” In this utterance, he cites the very qualities that never mar his fiction. During another interview on TV that same year, he appears like a corpse, completely ravaged, sucked dry from the inside. The interviewer asks what message he hopes to impart about people before he dies: “Ils sont lourds,” (“they are heavy”), he says over again.
De THE NEW YORKER, 27/05/2013

El mujik de la santa paciencia


El sol decembrino se desplomó sobre el valle como una bomba de fuego. Las acelgas sucumbieron cual medusas envenenadas. Dos corderos cimarrones huyeron por un callejón en busca de pasto verde. Fui tras sus pasos saltando alambradas de púas y arañándome los tobillos con la zarzamora seca. Incontables saltamontes brincaban en todas direcciones y las lagartijas cruzaban muy apuradas hacia inescrutables destinos entre el follaje. El callejón de la huida estaba fuertemente aromatizado por las flores de unos castañales cercanos. En el camino recolecté albaricoques y guindas comunes, intensamente rojas y muy agrias para espabilar la mente hacia reflexiones lúcidas. Al encontrar los corderos los reprendí severamente, y hasta los traté de huevones desconsiderados, pero a ellos no pareció importarles y regresaron muy orondos sin siquiera apurarse como si yo fuese el mujik de la santa paciencia. 

Al volver bebí un refrescante mote con huesillo y me senté bajo el parrón a leer fragmentos de losCuentos de Odessa, de Isaak Bábel. Avanzaba entusiasmado, como palpando las espigas de un trigal maduro levemente mecido por la brisa. Cuánta precisión narrativa, cuánta claridad. Bábel parece estar más allá de todo estilo, de toda teoría literaria, él es la forma perfecta. Han sido días de buenas lecturas. Ayer, poco antes que oscureciera, leímos con Tatiana el cuento “El árbol” de María Luisa Bombal, que me dejó estremecido por la potencia de algunas imágenes. Luego seguimos leyendo la Correspondencia entre Stefan Zweig y Hermann Hesse, muy valiosas para escudriñar la intimidad del lobo estepario alemán. Data de comienzos del siglo XX. Ambos eran muy jóvenes y tenían apenas un par de libros cada uno, aunque ya habían sido publicados por Fischer y gozaban de un enorme prestigio. Sin embargo, Hesse se moría del hambre, no lograba vender libros ni sabía cómo ganarse la vida. Carecía de talento e interés en socializar. Detestaba los convencionalismos, aunque estaba enamorado y quería casarse, pero no sabía de qué vivirían junto a su futura esposa. Mientras tanto, recolectaba piñas de pino para calentarse durante el duro invierno que se avecinaba.

De CUADERNOS DE LA IRA, blog del autor, 28/12/2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

El marketing y el romanticismo de la Revolución


Una de las características más importantes de las historias oficiales difundidas tras la Revolución de octubre fue que produjeron dos distorsiones simétricas: una se relaciona con la dramática violencia de la Revolución, y la otra, con la paz que la sucedió.
Como ahora sabemos, la Revolución no fue tan dramática como sugieren las reconstrucciones históricas y teatrales posteriores. Ciertamente, gran parte de la violencia provocada en el famoso asalto al Palacio de Invierno fue consecuencia de un estado de confusión generalizado, de saqueos (particularmente de tiendas de bebidas alcohólicas) y de los resultados predecibles de combinar alcohol, bravuconería y armas cargadas. 
Al mismo tiempo, mientras los historiadores no se ponen de acuerdo en el recuento de las decenas de millones de víctimas, queda claro que la URSS no era el paraíso que sus encargados de relaciones públicas pretendían hacer creer.
Sin embargo, a medida que la banalidad de la revolución y la brutalidad de sus consecuencias desaparecen de la memoria colectiva, nuestra capacidad para idealizar ambas se hace cada vez más pronunciada. Y esta no es solamente una tendencia rusa. 
Las cafeterías de moda  en occidente se han convertido en vallas publicitarias para todo tipo de iconografía revolucionaria. El caleidoscopio de imágenes a la vista (un bolso con una estrella roja, una llamativa remera con la cara del Che Guevara, una gorra con la hoz y el martillo) sugieren una reunión de miembros locales de una recién creada Quinta Internacional. Evidentemente no lo es. Se trata de jóvenes banqueros, desarrolladores de software y estudiantes universitarios que revisan Facebook, hojean periódicos y trabajan en red. 
Independientemente de cómo juzguemos esta extraña exhibición revolucionaria, no se trata de algo especialmente sorprendente; solo es una faceta más de una tendencia general en la cultura contemporánea. Como muchas de las baratijas culturales del pasado, la iconografía revolucionaria se ha convertido en un mero conjunto de símbolos que las personas utilizan para obtener ganancias y construir su identidad. 
El Che Guevara fue un marxista argentino, pero también es una gorra, una remera, una taza, un cartel, un sabor de helado (Cherry Guevara) y la base para el diseño de ropa de alta costura de estilo militar. 
Podríamos considerar que este tipo de gestos son burdas, e incluso cínicas, explotaciones capitalistas de símbolos y personajes políticos genuinos. Asociar la hoz y el martillo con una marca es el peor tipo de distorsión. 
Por supuesto, no hay nada intrínsecamente malo con tener un arrebato emocional, vestirse de rojo y vitorear consignas, esas afirmaciones que exigen nuestro asentimiento en el preciso momento en que comenzamos a dudar sobre qué es lo que estamos gritando. A fines de la década de 1960 la izquierda francesa se hizo experta en este tipo de lemas. “¡Sé realista, exige lo imposible!” o “¡Prohibido, prohibir” eran algunas de las consignas que se escuchaban en mayo del 68 en París. Son ejemplos muy adecuados de la retórica revolucionaria. 
Sin embargo, es necesario observar que también podrían ser títulos de libros de Dr. Phil o eslóganes para anunciar la última versión del sistema operativo Windows. En muchos aspectos, la revolución representa una de las campañas de marketing más exitosas de los últimos doscientos años. 
No todos los países se sienten cómodos con los matices revolucionarios de la moda actual, ni siquiera en sus aspectos irónicos. Aunque en Moscú sigue estando la fábrica de chocolate Octubre Rojo y los uniformes de la línea aérea Aeroflot aún llevan la hoz y el martillo, en otras partes de Europa oriental está prohibido utilizar ciertos símbolos comunistas ya que están asociados con una historia de horror totalitario. Esto, al menos, es comprensible. 
Pero para la mayor parte del mundo, la revolución se ha convertido, simplemente, en un símbolo de lo “cool”: brazos llenos de tatuajes se alzan contra enemigos imaginarios por razones imposibles de discernir; esos mismo brazos enseguida  se bajan y los puños rápidamente se relajan cuando llegan los sandwiches de pan integral. 
Ciertamente, las cafeterías contemporáneas à la mode y el puñado de mítines comunistas no hacen mucho para desafiar la sensación de que, para la mayor parte del mundo, la revolución se ha hecho tan pura y tan metafísica que no termina nunca o, por el contrario, que no tiene lugar en absoluto. 
Chris Fleming, es doctor en la Facultad de Humanidades y Comunicación de la Universidad de West Sidney. 
De RUSIA HOY, 10/11/2013
Dibujo de Niyaz Karim

Thursday, December 26, 2013

El descrédito, la monstruosidad del genio

Cerca de treinta de los mejores autores españoles de la vanguardia literaria de nuestro país habitan estos viajes narrativos en torno a Louis Ferdinand Céline. Una antología imprescindible tanto por su valentía como por su calidad literaria.
celine (1)Javier Vayá Albert

En los tiempos que corren se hace necesario aplaudir y admirar la valentía y el tesón de Vicente Muñoz Álvarez y Julio César Álvarez, antólogos de este libro y de la editorial Lupercalia, por apostar y sacar adelante un libro tan difícil como imprescindible y necesario. Valentía, tesón y amor por la literatura desprovista de artificios y farándula, de la escritura de trinchera manchada de fango capaz de descender a lo más miserable de la condición humana para mostrarla en toda su crudeza: son las señas de identidad de Louis Ferdinand Céline, uno de los mejores escritores del siglo XX que fue condenado a la cárcel y el ostracismo por sus panfletos antisemitas y supuesta colaboración con los nazis. Con la excusa de indagar en la dicotomía que supone la figura de Céline, autor de innegable calidad artística y más que dudosa catadura moral, El descrédito nos brinda 28 textos, uno por autor, a cual más brillante y sublime.
Bajo la disyuntiva de separar al autor de su obra, esta antología cumple varias funciones; por un lado reivindica la obra de Céline sirviendo como complemento, tan erudito como delicioso, para quien lo haya leído, por otro invita a todo aquel que no haya leído al autor francés y con una pizca de curiosidad a interesarse por el firmante de Viaje al fin de la noche o Muerte a Crédito toda vez que reúne a varios, contando también los sendos maravillosos prólogos de los antólogos, de los mejores escritores del panorama patrio actual, la mayoría de ellos alejados de los grandes focos que prefieren posarse en semianalfabetas mujeres de toreros autoras de bestsellers. En este sentido no es casual que los autores más conocidos a priori, Miguel Sánchez Ostiz y Enrique Vila-Matas, abran y cierren respectivamente la antología. Sin duda el mayor acierto de El descrédito reside en otorgar plena libertad a cada autor que elige el viaje narrativo que desea y ofrece su visión personal sobre el escritor, en muchos casos totalmente distintas unas de otras: mientras Sánchez Ostiz nos sitúa en el contexto histórico de los últimos años de Céline, sin disculparlo jamás, Vila-Matas se ceba con la obra y vida del médico convertido a escritor sin negar cierta atracción hacia ambas facetas.
De hecho El descrédito es otra gran muestra de los encontrados sentimientos que Céline provoca con su literatura y su actitud ante la vida donde caben desde el desprecio absoluto a la más profunda admiración en un solo intento de describirlo. Mario Crespo relata en un excelente ejercicio de metaliteratura el viaje que sirvió como cesión del testigo por parte de Céline  a Allen Ginsberg y William Burroughs, miembros de la generación Beat que junto a Bukowski serían sus mayores discípulos literarios. Celia Novis narra de manera magistral la malsana travesía en barco de Céline hacia África que pone de manifiesto su carácter y su posterior misantropía. José Ángel Barrueco, en un texto fascinante que reúne erudición y amor por la literatura, se pregunta si acaso Céline no sufrió demasiado castigo sobre todo en comparación a otros escritores de semejante calaña y apuesta firmemente por separar al escritor del hombre. Óscar Esquivias nos sitúa en primera persona en la vida de Céline en África en un relato tan logrado que pide ser novela. Bruno Marcos, en una excelente y sorprendente comparación de Céline con Charles Chaplin, desmitifica la ferocidad del autor. Pepe Pereza nos brinda uno de los más desgarradores y hermosos relatos de desamor que se pueden leer en el que un libro del autor francés jugará un papel importante.
Isabel García Mellado trenza un bello cuento parisino con aparición casi fantasmal de Céline. Álex Portero Ortigosa da fe de su maestría en un emocionante y reivindicativo texto que debería ser de obligada lectura en las escuelas. Vanity Dust resucita a Céline con su hilarante y genial prosa mientras Juanjo Ramírez hace lo propio de una manera un tanto más escatológica e igual de brillante. Hilarante, brillante y sin tapujos es el genial relato de Patxi Irurzun. Juan Carlos Vicente se pone de manera sublime en la piel del ministro francés que no paró de recibir presiones para que no se homenajeara a Céline en las celebraciones nacionales de 2011. Velpister se muestra excelentemente lúcido plasmando un futuro distópico demasiado reconocible. Esteban Gutiérrez Gómez pone de manifiesto lo muy presente que sigue todavía el espíritu y la obra Céliniana en cualquier espíritu adolescente mínimamente rebelde y curioso. Pablo Cerezal utiliza la magia que su exquisita prosa atesora para poner de manifiesto lo hipócrita del políticamente correcto mundo occidental con su odisea para encontrar un volumen de Muerte a crédito.  Miguel Baquero no es capaz de separar al escritor de su obra cerrando su texto con una frase tan certera como hermosa y contundente. Adriana Bañares prefiere poner su maravillosa y poética prosa al servicio de la historia de amor de Céline. Por resumir, el resto de textos de Javier Esteban, José M.Alejandro (Choche), Carlos Salcedo Odklas, Joaquín Piqueras, Gsús Bonilla, Alfonso Xen Rabanal y Daniel Ruiz García contienen una calidad literaria tan demoledora que convierten El descrédito en más que una antología, un artefacto vital de más que necesaria y obligada presencia en todas las estanterías.
De, 26/12/2013

La imagen del mundo/BAUL DE MAGO


La experiencia, honrosa y fecunda, de haber sido jurado del Festival de Cine de Cartagena de Indias cuando lo presidió el director checo Jirí Menzel, me permitió desde la sabiduría artística de ese hombre comprender mejor al cine que está surgiendo y parece una re-visión de América Latina. No en balde don Jirí fue el amigo entrañable  del escritor espléndido que se llama Bohumil Hrabal en cuyas novelas la vida insurgente reventaba moldes y ortodoxias inútiles. Esa vez se premió una película de Carlos Gaviria. Relataba el viaje de dos jóvenes en un Renault 4 a un territorio de violencia y fantasmas.
Después de los años difíciles, que fueron soportables por cintas como las de Glauber Rocha, Solanas, Sanjinés, Lombardi, Littin, Gutiérrez Alea, Silva y Rodríguez, Benacerraf, entre otros, se vino una especie de revancha del mundo vaciado y pueril donde nos reíamos por nada como robots de baterías agotadas. Sin utopías y sin deseos, entre cenizas y naufragios, la vida buscaba o quería rescatar preguntas, proponer sentidos.
De la tierra baldía que se abrió como horizonte se ha ido saliendo. Y muchos hemos tenido la fortuna de sobrevivir a episodios fundamentales de una época intensa, trágica, interesante,  depresiva, esperanzada.
La ola anterior me envolvió al ver el filme Aquí y Allá, opera prima de Antonio Méndez Esparza. Y articuló miradas que estaban dispersas en este abrupto despertar del mundo del largo insomnio o la adormilada impotencia.
Se trata, palabras respetuosas de quienes cuentan las películas sin contarlas, hay que verlas, de un paisaje que nos pertenece de origen. Con la misma fuerza de interiorización que ese Nueva York de Woody Allen que lo llevó a decir que él sería recordado por el paisaje. El de Méndez Esparza es un territorio fronterizo, cerca al muro de Estados Unidos, de esas poblaciones sin otra tradición que las urgencias de la necesidad y que van creciendo sin ningún proyecto urbano distinto al amontonamiento y a la aceptación de echar raíces en la única tierra que se tiene y donde las vías, senderos, trochas, son abiertas por los pasos de la gente, por sus querencias, y basta.
Allí los jóvenes tocados por la música y la danza vislumbran su futuro en el vecino del Norte. Quienes se quedan resienten y viven la incertidumbre de la aventura de cruzar clandestinos como una traición. Quienes se quedan resisten. Y el espectador descubrirá una forma nueva de resistencia: Estar sin aceptación y sin sueños, enfrentados al día a día que se conquista con la vida, con no dejarse derrotar por, paradoja, la ilusión.
Este es otra vez el nuevo mundo, los seres distintos, que vamos surgiendo y que tenemos ya una expresión, sin cronistas de Indias, sin curas, sin delegados del rey. Seres que encuentran en si una forma y una fortaleza. En ese umbral estamos.

De El Universal (Cartagena de Indias), 12/2013

Fotografía: Escena de Aquí y Allá, de Antonio Méndez Esparza

Monday, December 23, 2013

lujosa pobreza


De joven siempre insistía en no precisar más que llevar una existencia humilde, ausente de materiales que escondiesen lo defectuoso de mis días por entre la eficacia inerte de su tecnología punta. Derramaba, en conversaciones y pensamientos, el vino agrio de mi desencanto ante el consumismo feroz que hoy ya nos muerde sin dolor provocándonos éxtasis de lujuria azul, como los vampiros esos de las novelas y filmes de éxito. Me empeñaba en desbaratar el orgullo monetario del primer amigo que llegaba a la reunión haciendo alarde de su última y flamante compra. Lo hacía siempre con el sarcasmo acariciándome los labios y la insensibilidad hacia la felicidad ajena embarrándome el alma.

Hoy, ahora, cuando la edad muestra su dentadura de rabia caníbal, habito una ciudad que parece un recortable de miedo y hambre. Vivo rodeado de niños que tienen menos noticia de su infancia que los televidentes occidentales de la realidad que les rodea. Paseo entre escombros de vida y lodazales de polvo. Una vida humilde, lo que imaginaba cuando joven. Y, en los momentos en que el optimismo fornica con mi percepción del mundo, me digo que, al fin y al cabo, es un lujo poder ensuciarme los pies en el barro fragante de la pobreza, conocer esos otros mundos que habitan en este.
Tengo noticia, gracias a mis estúpidos brujuleos por "la red", del visionario negocio que han puesto en pie, en mitad de la nada africana, un puñado de personas de esas que gustamos de llamar emprendedoras. Resulta que en Sudáfrica, celebrando que elapartheid simuló migrar a otros latitudes, las cabezas pensantes de la mercadotecnia de una lujosa cadena hotelera han decidido ampliar su negocio con un nuevo establecimiento que recuerde que aún hay pobres negritos que, como los de la canción de Glutamato Ye-Yé, tienen hambre y frío. Y a la vista del éxito que, aseguran, está teniendo el novedoso alojamiento, pareciera que a los adinerados les agrada saberse tales a costa de otros. Me enredo y no explico: han inaugurado en Sudáfrica un complejo hotelero que simula ser una de esas barriadas en que se amanceban moscas, personas y animales que han pasado a ser de compañía a fuerza de cohabitar con la basura, el hambre, la miseria y las aguas fecales que no van a dar a la mar.

A la vista de las imágenes, los apartamentos de dicho hotel parecen estar puestos en pie con la ayuda de calaminas, pedazos de cartón, maderas mordidas por el húmedo paso del tiempo y ladrillos mutilados. Pero, advierten los dueños del tinglado, sólo es apariencia: en el interior de cada uno de estos apartamentos se acumulan con el desconcierto propio del exceso todas las comodidades físicas y tecnológicas que alguien acaudalado pudiese desear: pantallas de plasma, bañeras con hidromasaje, conexión 
wi-fi ilimitada, camas king-sizealmohadilladas por el sueño perenne de las plumas de oca, y en este plan. O sea, como que han escondido la yema fragante y nutritiva de un huevo delicioso tras el cascarón de gallina de corral recién defecada y recién parida. Un hotel de lujo disfrazado de miserable suburbio.

Hay quien se escandaliza, e incluso se piensa si abrir una campaña en, o cosas de esas, para pedir el cierre definitivo de tan humillante establecimiento. Yo les digo que no se hagan drama y miren a su alrededor: jóvenes hembras recalculando los límites de su cuerpo entre despedazados pedazos de ropa que simulan haber vestido a 15 mendigos antes de acariciar la piel lúbrica y necia de aquellas que pretenden estar a la última (ropa de marca, claro); bares de extrarradio y aroma a nociva fritanga aderezando vinos servidos en cristal de bohemia; restaurantes caros en que los comensales pagan sólo por el placer de ser servidos platos vacíos y copas sin víscera (no invento, ocurre en un acaudalado país: los clientes se sientan a la mesa, hacen su pedido, y el camarero simula que les sirve lo solicitado, aunque nada deposite en los platos, pero lo hace con estilo, of course); onerosos perfumes que recuerdan los aromas más bravos de la vida campestre: olor a barro, cochiquera, desperdicio; pintura que redecora tu vehículo todo terreno como si hubiese transitado lodazales de bosque y miseria...

No pasa nada, al fin y al cabo, a la última está todo aquel que tenga capacidad para transformar la pobreza en un anuncio productor de suculentos réditos monetarios. Y sí, con sinceridad, les recomiendo con más empeño de lo que lo hacía el maestro 
Lou Reed, que se den un paseo por el lado salvaje de la vida, aquel en que los pobres son de verdad y te miran desde el hueco vacío de sus ojos asustados. Pueden comenzar alojándose en ese hotel de Sudáfrica, o perdiendo su empleo en una moderna España que mucho se precia de tirar la casa por la ventana en estas fiestas navideñas, o lanzándose ustedes mismos por la ventana de la casa de la que el banco propietario les reclama pago o inmediato deshaucio por haber perdido ese empleo que les permitía alimentar la hipoteca... al fin y al cabo, como en el amar, como en el comer, en el perder y empobrecerse todo es empezar.

Felices Fiestas y, recordando al maestro 
Berlanga, no estaría de más que las aprovecharan para sentar un pobre en su mesa... no hace falta viajar a Sudáfrica para deleitarse con el exótico aroma a sardina famélica y mosca insurrecta de la escasez, España ya no es tan different

De postales desde el Hafa, blog del autor, 23/12/2013

Commanding Madonnas


The tendency to describe old masters, from Giotto to Rembrandt, as the “first of the moderns” is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. Almost. If any artist deserves the appellation it is Antonello da Messina. Born in Sicily in the early 15th century, the painter’s psychological acuity renders his subjects as complex as any 20th-century study.
Bravo then to Mart, the modern and contemporary art museum in Rovereto, in the northern Italian region of Trento, for choosing to devote an exhibition to the Sicilian. (They make his presence more relevant by mounting a show of contemporary paintings, The Other Portrait, in nearby galleries.)
With just 40 works, and only 17 by Antonello, the gathering distils the artist to a nucleus that spans his career. Though monumental altarpieces are present, its core is the clutch of portraits, both secular and sacred, that highlight his gift for capturing his subjects’ human essence.
Meanwhile, a constellation of paintings by his forerunners and peers shines a welcome light on the painterly ferment in southern Italy, too often overlooked in favour of Tuscany and Venice.
Born in Messina between 1425 and 1430 to a stonecutter father, Antonello was well-placed to soak up all his world had to offer. A thriving seaport, Messina not only had strong links with Catalonia and Naples but also welcomed galleys from Constantinople and Venice.
Much of the painter’s life is shrouded in mystery. We know he was one of the earliest Italian painters to adopt oil; his gift for layering its lustrous glazes is responsible for much of his sophistication.
Clearly his art emerged from a nexus of influences, in particular the ecstatic realism of Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck and the geometric perspective and Platonic forms of Tuscan colossus Piero della Fran­cesca. Yet art historians are still quarrelling as to when and where he first encountered these inspirations.
Certainly by the mid-1440s, he was in Naples apprenticed to the city’s leading master, Colantonio. Thanks to the rule of the French king René d’Anjou and his successor, King Alfonso V of Aragón, a cultivated humanist, the city had become a magnet for art from Spain, Provence and the Netherlands.
A lavish assembly illuminates this moment. On loan from the Brukenthal Museum in Romania, the titan is “Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon” (c1430-33) by Flemish master Jan van Eyck, whose works Antonello would have seen at Alfonso’s court.  

Usually, Van Eyck’s rapport with Antonello is viewed through the prism of the former’s influence as an early oil painter yet this show makes little allusion to the mutually shared medium.
Instead, we can simply marvel at the bristling vitality of this solemn gentleman, his head wrapped in a scarf of piercing lapis. From the three-quarter profile that bestows an air of cool yet human detachment, to the light that bounces off his collar and the shadows that articulate his fingers, he could be the father of the wary, pensive youth in Antonello’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (1474).
It’s also a joy to witness the pairing of two “Crucifixions”. One is attributed here to Colantonio, although its permanent host, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, gives it to an anonymous Spaniard. The other, by Antonello, is also on loan from Bucharest and illustrates how the young Sicilian updated his predecessors’ styles.
The earlier painting touches us with its archaic aura: the thieves’ bodies arch awkwardly against their tree trunks, the landscape is made droll by its stumpy towers and spiky mountains. But Antonello propels the identical scene into the avant-garde. His tortured torsos curve like violin bows; his sense of perspective unleashes an exultant blue sea to the horizon; the mourning women lurch and keen in garments blessed with sculptural volume. Such draperies, a leitmotif in Spanish and Flemish painting, were an occasion for the young painter to flaunt his fascination with spatial depth.
Most spectacular is the headdress that frames the extraordinary face of “Sant’Eulalia”, on loan from a private Venetian collection. The attribution of this painting is insecure, although here it is given to Antonello. So crisp they could be carved from marble, the pleats accentuate the blue-tinged pallor of a woman whose dispassionate stillness and hooded, off-centre gaze contrasts with the colourful explosion of her jewel-encrusted crown, lapis robe and claret-red, gold-studded Bible.
By 1457, Antonello was back in Messina presiding over a busy workshop. Although the archival evidence is scarce, the evolution in his work makes many critics believe that at this date he travelled to mainland Italy and saw the work of Piero della Francesca. (The Mart curators hazard a guess that he saw Piero’s work in Naples, although there is no proof that either the Tuscan or his art ever arrived so far south.)
Though there are hints of a new maturity in his grand altarpieces, their golden grounds and patterned fabrics anchor them in the gothic. Instead, it is in his smaller devotional panels and secular portraits that Antonello takes flight. With her flawless, oval face, and babe plunging his fingers into her bodice, his lovely “Benson Madonna” (1465-1470), on loan from Washington, is the daughter of Piero’s neo-Platonic Virgins. Eyes cast down and away, she is not devoid of emotion but beyond it, moulded from the same abstract space as the empty blue sky and the bold leaf-green mound of pillow that lies on the balcony before her.
‘Madonna with Child’©Mart
‘Madonna with Child’ (c1470-75)
By late 1475, Antonello is in Venice. There, he would have discovered the work of Giovanni Bellini, another painter probably inspired both by Piero and by Flemish art. Did Bellini, who adopted oil around this time, steal the Sicilian's expertise with the medium? Scholars are still speculating.
What is certain is that both artists blossomed from the rivalry. Between them, they pioneered the genre of the sacred conversation – where saints are placed in a unified space – and pushed the expressiveness of their suffering Christs to agonised limits.
A year later, Antonello, having rejected an offer from the Duke of Milan to become his court painter, returned to Messina. No one is sure whether or not he had already painted his greatest masterpiece, the “Virgin Annunciate” (c1476), on loan from Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.
On show here, it portrays the Madonna alone at her lectern, her head cloaked in a lapis veil whose colour possesses a matt, puritan grandeur rather than its familiar opulent gloss. There is no angel. No dove. Instead, we, the spectators, are her messenger. Her hand is raised, palm angled towards the table beneath. (Antonello has painstakingly painted in the shadows beneath her fingers.) They do not beckon; they block. Her eyes neither meet the Angel’s gaze nor does she glance down in submission. Instead, she looks to one side as if determined to evade all expectations.
And yet no Virgin before or since has occupied her space with such assurance. Behind her, there is a vault of blackness. In front, a lectern whose keyhole-shaped recesses bore into darkness. The edge of the lifted page accentuates the distance articulated by those stretched fingers.
If ever there were a case for Sant’Eulalia being the Sicilian’s work, this latter painting makes it. Gone are the fancy details and the lapidary colour. Instead, Antonello has condensed his realist sensibility into a precise evocation of abstract space, light, shade and tone. He has kept Eulalia’s touch-me-not expression but boosted his Madonna’s power through unimpeachable geometry. Frail and unstable in her shallow gothic space, Sant’Eulalia shrank away from our gaze. But this Madonna is a commanding, three-dimensional presence who chooses not to see us.
Did he recognise his Virgin’s ambiguity? That is just one of the many mysteries that surround one of the Renaissance’s most exceptional yet elusive talents.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

FOUR LEGS GOOD/The life of Jack London

Jack London never felt that he got enough meat. When he was seven, he stole a piece from a girl's basket—an incident that he called “an epitome of my whole life.” Although his mother claimed that “he didn't go hungry in our house!” and a childhood friend recalled being served steak during a visit,London insisted that he had been deprived. “It has been hunger, nothing but hunger!” he wrote to a girlfriend at the age of twenty-two. “You cannot understand, nor never will.”
He spent his short life—he died at forty—trying to make people understand. In his writing, which ranged from realist novels to memoirs and science fiction, he became a psychologist and economist of extremity. He was particularly fascinated by the idea of freezing and starving to death. He chose settings where life is hard to sustain—the Arctic, the urban ghetto, the sea, a plague-razed future—and where heroes must defy the odds. Gold prospectors fight against winter, writers against poverty, and dogs against hungry dogs. The focus of his best prose narrows to essential need. A man lost in snow can no longer feel or move his fingers, but can he light his matches if he holds them between the heels of his hands? If an aging boxer were able to afford steak for lunch, would he have the strength to deliver a knockout punch?
There is another question, too: In the absence of money, food, heat, or other necessities, can there be love? The hero of London's best-seller “The Call of the Wild” (1903), who happens to be a dog, does find love, and he expresses it by closing his mouth around one of his master's hands “so fiercely that the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for some time afterwards.” The master recognizes “this feigned bite for a caress,” but, in London's short story “Love of Life” (1905), a similar bite has a darker meaning. A famished man and a sick wolf lie down together, exhausted, after days of mutual stalking. As the man drifts in and out of consciousness, he feels the wolf lick his hand: “The fangs pressed softly; the pressure increased; the wolf was exerting its last strength in an effort to sink teeth in the food for which it had waited so long.”
There are hints in London's writing, however, that love is more likely to flourish amid need. “The very poor can always be depended upon,” he wrote. “They never turn away the hungry.” He was an avowed socialist for most of his life, an allegiance that he struggled to reconcile with his belief that the survival of the fittest shaped human affairs. As Earle Labor relates in his lively and authoritative biography “Jack London: An American Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), London's writing returned again and again to the poverty from which his success as a writer freed him. One of his characters, a right-wing sociology professor, adopts a working-class alias in order to do fieldwork, only to discover that the alias, who brawls and drinks, is so much looser, warmer, and sexually richer that he abandons himself to the identity forever.
The schism in London himself wasn't as crude. It played out over time. He began as a manual laborer and became a landowner and celebrity who lived by his wits. He was a natural who became an artist. Here are the plots of his four best novels, in the order in which he wrote them: a tame dog turns wild; an acclaimed writer becomes a sailor; a wild dog is tamed; a sailor becomes an acclaimed writer. His true self, the variations suggest, was to be found in the transitions.
London was born in 1876, into crisis. His mother was a San Francisco seamstress, piano teacher, and medium, who uttered war whoops when possessed by her spirit control, an Indian chief named Plume. When she told the man she was living with, an astrologer, that she was pregnant, he denied that the child was his. She tried suicide, first by overdose and then by pistol, or at any rate she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she did. The astrologer left town.
The infant Jack was given for nursing to a former slave, Daphne Virginia Prentiss, known as Jennie, who became his lifelong friend. His mother married an acquaintance of the Prentisses named JohnLondon, a carpenter and a Civil War veteran, who provided a new surname. As a boy, Jack Londonhad no toys to play with. He was eight before he had a store-bought item of clothing (an undershirt, which he cherished). But Jennie and one of his stepsisters cared for him, and his salvation was the Oakland Free Library, where, in order to multiply the number of books he could check out, he signed up everyone in his family for library cards. He didn't use a toothbrush until he was nineteen.
His mother and the man he thought was his father failed at running a grocery store, failed at raising chickens, and failed at keeping a boarding house. At the age of ten, Jack was put to work delivering newspapers and setting up pins in a bowling alley, and at fourteen he joined the assembly line of a cannery in West Oakland, handing his wages over to his parents. “I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked,” he later wrote. Rebelling, he turned to stealing oysters, which fetched high prices because a monopoly controlled the private oyster beds of San Francisco Bay. To purchase a sloop, he borrowed three hundred dollars from Jennie, who had a steady salary as a nurse. “What she had was mine,” he wrote, recalling her generosity.
The fifteen-year-old London sailed, stole, fought, and drank. “I knew that I was at last a man,” he wrote in “John Barleycorn,” his 1913 memoir of alcoholism, a condition whose early stages he traced to this period. Ashamed of the frugality that poverty had drilled into him, he took to buying rounds for fellow “oyster pirates” as freely as they did for him. “I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance.” For the rest of his life, even though he became, by Labor's estimate, “the highest-paid author in America,” he had trouble spending within his means.
After a few months, he abruptly switched sides, joining the marine police. They drank as heavily as the pirates did, and one night, while intoxicated, London stumbled overboard. The water was fine; the prospect of drowning struck him as romantic. “I wept tears of sweet sadness over my glorious youth going out with the tide,” he recalled. Shedding his clothes, he swam and let himself drift out to sea until, four hours later, cold, tired, sober, and afraid, he realized that he did want to live after all. A Greek fisherman rescued him.
What he was going to live for, however, was not clear. In “Martin Eden” (1908), London's most autobiographical novel, vocation alights on the sailor hero in the South Seas, where—with a grammar, a dictionary, and a set of Shakespeare—he has been training himself to be worthy of a girl he fell for back in San Francisco: “In splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write!” In real lifeLondon arrived by a zigzag of gruelling labor, near-criminal idleness, and desperate efforts at self-education. He went hoboing. He sailed to Japan and back on a ship that hunted seals. He took a job in a jute mill for ten cents an hour. He wrote an essay about a typhoon in the Pacific which won a prize from a San Francisco newspaper. He shovelled coal for the electric company, exhausting himself and damaging his wrists, and was outraged to discover that he had been hired to do the work of two men. He concluded that “manual labour was undignified, and that it didn't pay,” and went hoboing again. He joined a labor protest, from which he stole some of the donations offered by sympathetic locals. In June, 1894, at the age of eighteen, he was arrested for vagrancy outside the town of Niagara Falls and sentenced to thirty days in prison.
He survived because, he wrote, “I am a fluid sort of an organism, with sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in 'most anywhere.” On the train to the penitentiary, still in handcuffs, he split his tobacco with a muscle-bound con in his late thirties, who took London under his wing. He smuggled London's possessions past the guards, saw to it that he was spared hard labor, and cut him in on a racket that embezzled prisoners' bread and sold it back to them. “Certainly there should be some reward for initiative and enterprise,” London deadpanned.
London wrote that he witnessed “unprintable” and even “unthinkable” things while in prison. Were any of them sexual? How platonic, for that matter, were his friendships with other sailors, pirates, and hoboes? Labor is noticeably less interested in the question than earlier biographers have been, but the historian George Chauncey has classified sailors, prisoners, and hoboes at the turn of the twentieth century as belonging to a distinctive “erotic system” of underground homosexuality, andLondon seems to have been aware of it. He dedicated “The Road” (1907), his memoir of this time, to Josiah Flynt, the author of the essay “Homosexuality Among Tramps.” “Every tenth man practices it,” Flynt wrote. A young hobo who offered his sexual favors was known as a “prushun,” a “kid,” or a “lamb”; an older hobo who took advantage was a “wolf” or a “jocker.” Though London was called Sailor Kid and 'Frisco Kid when he first started riding the rails, he insisted that “I was never a prushun, for I did not take kindly to possession”; in 1911, when a bisexual sent him a hint-filled letter,London replied that he was “prosaically normal.” Still, he had an eye for male beauty (“I have never seen one who stripped to better advantage,” he wrote of an illiterate coal shoveller whose bunk he shared in England), and he is reported to have said that sex between men isolated from women is “a perfectly natural result of a natural cause.”
At the age of nineteen, he began high school, taking a janitorial job in the school at the same time. In a burst of reading, he realized that he was a socialist. “Awake!” he wrote, for the high-school paper. “Seize the reins of a corrupted government and educate your masses!” The San Francisco Examinerprinted a speech of his, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled him as a “boy socialist,” and he joined the Party. Later, he even wrote a science-fiction novel, “The Iron Heel,” about socialists who overthrow a plutocracy, which they define as the wealthiest 0.9 per cent of America's population.
London crammed years of high school into months, in part by limiting sleep to five hours a night. In the fall of 1896, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. A classmate recalled that a boxer on the varsity team was appalled by London's street-fighting ways. Money was tight, and he withdrew during his second semester. For a few weeks, he wrote poems, political essays, and fiction for as many as fifteen hours a day, as if on a self-imposed factory schedule. He then took a job in a school laundry, where, as the hero of “Martin Eden” says of a similar job, “all that was god-like in him was blotted out.”
It was his last stint of conventional employment. In July, 1897, news spread that gold had been discovered in the Klondike, a region in northwestern Canada. Prospecting was finders keepers, like oyster piracy—but legal. It involved a long, dangerous journey with rough men, like hoboing—but with a chance of fabulous wealth. Luckily for London, gold fever struck not only him but also his stepsister's sixty-year-old husband, who purchased ship fare, clothes, and equipment for both men. To prevent foolhardy prospectors from starving, the Mounties were refusing to let travellers cross the border unless they had a year's supply of food, and the brother-in-law was also willing to pay for their “grubstakes.” London contributed reading matter, including Milton and Darwin, for the cabin-bound winter.
“I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” London declared. He netted just four dollars and fifty cents' worth of gold dust, but he also brought back the raw material for a fictional world. Returning to California in the summer of 1898, London now read and wrote for nearly nineteen hours a day. He made a study of literary form, from Shakespeare to newspaper fiction, though in the end it was his experience of panhandling as a hobo that determined his style. “Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub,” he wrote. In a ledger, he recorded where he sent his stories and essays, as well as the copious rejections. By the next year, he had sold a Klondike story for five dollars and a tale about a mad scientist for forty. Six months later, The Atlantic bought a story, and he was off.
In the Klondike, as London reimagined it, nature and capitalism keep strict accounts. Prospectors measure out the days of life remaining to them in cups of flour; an Indian reckons his dwindling hours by the number of sticks he has left to burn; “shirks and chronic grumblers” are punished by being left to one another's company, which dooms them. The injuries that life inflicted on Londonhad left him with contrary urges: he wanted political justice, in the name of all underdogs, but he also admired the invulnerability of overpowering strength. This sometimes led him to idealizations of brute force and fantasies about race that make a modern reader wince. He was drawn to the writings of Herbert Spencer, whose theory of social Darwinism maintained that capitalism was cruel in the same way that nature was. By telling stories about animals and near-bestial men struggling for survival in a brutal environment, London made a new range of cruelties and sorrows available to fiction.
The economics of nature and capitalism in London's Klondike don't always align. After all, prospectors hunted for the medium of exchange (gold) often at the expense of something for which there is no substitute (food). In one of his stories, an entrepreneur sees that eggs are selling for fifteen cents a dozen in San Francisco and a dollar-fifty apiece in the Klondike and attempts arbitrage; nature sabotages his scheme, and takes two of his toes. London hints that property needn't, and maybe even shouldn't, be respected. When Buck, the canine hero of “The Call of the Wild,” steals bacon, the narrator comments that the theft shows him as “fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment.”
The prose of some novelists takes on erotic intensity in passages of romance; the prose of others, during moments of self-discovery. In London's case, that kind of intensity comes with descriptions of hardship, labor, and survival. In the opening chapters of “White Fang,” two men ferrying the corpse of a third through the Klondike are shadowed by wolves, which are reminiscent of “children gathered about a spread table and awaiting permission to begin to eat.” After one of the men falls, the survivor becomes fascinated by the “cunning delicacy” of his own fingers—by the subtlety of the mechanism that, for the wolves, would be merely so much protein. It's an ingenious and suspenseful psychological touch, but a few chapters later London insinuates the reader just as deftly into the mind of a predator. When White Fang, who is part puppy and part wolf cub, crouches in the mouth of the cave where he was born and faces the unknown beyond it, he snarls. “Out of his puniness and fright he challenged and menaced the whole wide world.” White Fang soon learns “the law of meat”: “Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten.” London's genius is to make such generalities vivid and sensuous. It's the excitement of blood, as well as its savor, that Londonconveys when, for the first time, White Fang eats a ptarmigan chick: “There was a crunching of fragile bones, and warm blood ran in his mouth. The taste of it was good.”
London's ability to describe nature richly but plainly foreshadows Hemingway. He is at his best in the dog novels “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” perhaps because an animal's survival is more elemental, perhaps because a dog's love of the master he works for is free of the embarrassment of gender. But some of London's work manages to bring the life-or-death stakes of the animal world to human affairs, such as “To Build a Fire,” the story of a man trying to stave off death by freezing. In “Love of Life,” a starving man enjoys a meal like White Fang's, and with similar gusto: “There were four newly hatched chicks, a day old—little specks of pulsating life no more than a mouthful; and he ate them ravenously, thrusting them alive into his mouth and crunching them like eggshells between his teeth.” Even “Martin Eden,” which takes place in the relatively civilized setting of San Francisco, vibrates with animal spirits. When the sailor Martin Eden first sees an oil painting, he dismisses it as a “trick picture,” because the image seems to dissolve when he moves close enough to see the brushstrokes; there is an echo of White Fang's puppy snarl at the unfamiliar.
Though nature may undermine capitalism in the Klondike tales, it doesn't quite overthrow it. White Fang learns “to obey the strong and to oppress the weak”—hardly an ideal of socialism—and, while Buck does join a wolf pack by the end of the book, he also learns how to acclimate himself to work. “A dog could break its heart through being denied the work that killed it,” Buck comes to realize. The paradox, as the critic Jonathan Auerbach has suggested, may represent London's experience of his vocation. When he left manual labor behind to become a writer, he went wild, in the sense that he began to live by an expression of the impulses inside him—a sense that colors his description of Buck's chase of a snowshoe rabbit: “This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.” But London also developed a fondness for the harness. He imposed a relentless work schedule on himself, and often seemed more concerned with the quantity than with the quality of the writing he produced.
With success came romantic opportunities. In the fall of 1899, London went steady with Elizabeth May Maddern, the fiancée of a late friend, but he was soon bicycling to the house of a Russian-born Stanford student and socialist named Anna Strunsky. “It was as if I were meeting in their youth La Salle, Karl Marx, or Byron,” Strunsky recalled. In the spring of 1900, London intended to propose to Strunsky, but, mysteriously, he proposed instead to the less exciting Maddern, who bore him two daughters. Days before the wedding, he received an invitation to meet Charmian Kittredge—a free-spirited typist who became his mistress a few years later and, eventually, his second wife.
Further complicating the ménage was a bohemian poet named George Sterling, whom London met in the spring of 1901. Sterling introduced London to hashish, and London introduced him to brothels. In the idiom of their friendship, Sterling went by the name Greek, perhaps on account of his classic profile, and London was Wolf. The two boxed, wrestled, and swam together, and one ofLondon's daughters later wrote that she suspected “latent homosexuality.” Labor doesn't mention such speculation, though he acknowledges that London used the word “love.” “I speculate & speculate, trying to make you out, trying to lay hands on the inner side of you,” London wrote to Sterling in 1903. Two years later, the bromance had cooled—“The dream was too bright to last,”London commented—though they remained friends.
London suffered in these years a depression so severe that he took the precaution of giving away his revolver. Perhaps he was upset by his romantic misfortunes: his fumbling of his love for Strunsky, and the necessity of going through a divorce in order to secure Charmian. Or perhaps he was unbalanced by success. In “Martin Eden,” the delay between the act of writing and the reward of social recognition brings alienation, and Martin Eden the person becomes fixated on the idea that “Martin Eden, the famous writer, did not exist.” There may have been a physical component as well, Labor writes—an ailment that London worried “might be cancer or venereal disease.” London's own explanation was that he “had read too much positive science.” He knew too much about “the merciless and infinite waste of natural selection.” If, at root, everything is biology, are altruism and sympathy merely signs of weakness?
In 1905, London relinquished city life, moving with Charmian to the countryside north of San Francisco. Though they had some good times together, something went badly wrong with the last decade of London's life. He wrote steadily and earned prodigiously—by 1913, he was making more than ten thousand dollars a month, nearly a quarter of a million in today's money—but he spent at an even higher rate. A custom-made boat, the Snark, cost more than five times its estimate, and, even so, it leaked. Jack and Charmian intended to sail around the world, but by the time they reached Australia Jack was suffering from a cold, two rectal fistulas, diarrhea, malaria, yaws, and a mysterious illness that swelled his hands and monstrously thickened his fingernails and toenails. They gave up. London also poured money into a ranch in Sonoma County, never profitable in his lifetime, and a mansion, which burned down before it was completed.
And he drank, no doubt a factor in his poor financial judgment. “The uncertainty of the alcohol future depresses me unspeakably,” Charmian wrote in her diary in 1912. Jack in his cups was capable of berating her for not giving him a child. (She had a daughter who died soon after birth and a second pregnancy, which miscarried.) He told one of his daughters that “if I were dying I should not care to have you at my bedside”; she was then thirteen. Even Sterling found him “violent and irritable and unreasonable.”
In his last years, London suffered from gout, pyorrhea, and kidney disease, and, heedless of his doctor's warnings against a high-protein diet, insisted on meals of raw fish and near-raw duck. “Don't forget I'm naturally a meat-eater!” he told Charmian when she remonstrated. A doctor prescribed opiates on account of the pain he suffered from kidney stones, and in November, 1916, he slipped into a coma and died. His last words—said to Charmian the night before—were “Thank God you're not afraid of anything!” The death certificate blamed uremia, and Labor dismisses earlier biographers' speculations of suicide, which he sees as an attempt to “sensationalize.” He draws on reviews of the medical evidence by a doctor and a pharmacist. Neither account rules out an accidental overdose of opiates, however, so there's no medical ground for ruling out an intentional overdose, either.
In one of his last and creepiest stories, “The Red One,” London imagines that an enormous, bright-red metal sphere, a missive from extraterrestrial intelligences, has fallen in the Solomon Islands. Although the natives consider the sphere too holy for outsiders, a scientist sneaks a glimpse. He falls too ill with fever to return to it, though, and, as he languishes in a medicine man's hut, he wonders what the aliens were trying to say. “Had they won Brotherhood? Or had they learned that the law of love imposed the penalty of weakness and decay? Was strife, life? Was the rule of all the universe the pitiless rule of natural selection?” He realizes with regret—or is it relief?—that he's going to die without knowing the answer.
De THE NEW YORKER, 28/10/2013
Fotografía: Jack London en 1903