August 2008

The Lost Valentine

Yesterday’s post on Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project mentioned a surprise that came with the book. It’s not that unusual to find odd things in used books – old bookmarks, inscriptions of past owner’s names, slips of paper – but this was truly odd.

The surprise is that this book was once given by a man to a woman as a Valentine’s Day present.

Well, I’m not sure of the wisdom of giving a woman a heavy, scholarly tome for Valentine’s Day. Might not even an intellectual feminist prefer chocolates, flowers, or jewelry? I don’t know.

The guy who sent this was risky but thoughtful in some respects. It’s hard to say without knowing the girl but there’s this chance that she might have tossed him and this book onto the used pile.

There are various reasons why a book ends up on the used market…usually the owner sells the book, but sometimes other things just happen, leaving a mystery as to why and how this book and its forgotten contents ended up being discarded.

Anyway, the letter that comprised the Valentine which I found between the pages of the book was quite touching. And it does provide a great description of the book. I’m including it below, but am omitting the names of the recipient and the sender.

Dear **** – I thought you would like this book as much as I do. It’s fun to just flip through and read things at random, but the individual sections also point to pieces of a coherent vision regarding the growth of a dominant bourgeois sensibility and the development of Paris in the nineteenth century. It tends to assume an elaborate working knowledge of the history of Paris. Not having such background knowledge, I end up reading it as simultaneously history and critical history. I think you’ll be most interested in the sections on Hugo and Baron Haussman – but all the sections are interconnected. The other fun game to play with the individual notes is to try and determine whether Benjamin was on hashish when he wrote them. All in all, this is my favorite book in a long time, and I thought you would enjoy it as well. Let me know what you think.

Happy Valentine’s Day.



The last book I will ever read

For weeks I’ve been waiting for a shipment of books from the U.S. Finally, today, a notice arrived and that meant a trip down to Retiro and the international post office.

The most anticipated volume in this shipment, what I look forward to soaking in day after day, is the one thousand plus pages of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

The entire book is simply snippets of Benjamin’s readings and his thoughts, an almost blog-like composition that Benjamin crafted while sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The work is a curious intersection of philosophy, urban planning, architecture, sociology, and literature.

Benjamin was fascinated by the arcades, passageways, of Paris and the ways those structures transformed Parisian society in the mid-1800s.

The Arcades Project – just like any blog – is an unfinished work. Begun in 1927, Benjamin still hadn’t completed the work by his death in 1940, a suicide at the French-Spanish border as he attempted to flee Nazi-occupied France. It’s not clear what Benjamin’s intended behind the many pages of notes that editors later comprised together to form The Arcades Project, possibly notes for another work or simply his own occupation with a variety of thoughts. Originally written in German and French, the English translation was not published until 1999.

Walter Benjamin was a great observer of urban culture. And in my own walks around Buenos Aires, I’m going to be lugging this volume (my edition is a 5 lb hardcover!) along some of my jaunts. It should make for fascinating reading and reflection while sipping coffee. I’m sure that it will not be the last book I will ever read. But, I probably could spend the remainder of my days perusing this volume.

Besides, my book shipment also included W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

An additional surprise

I bought this book used at a good price, the hardcover was no more expensive than a new paperback. But what I particularly like about buying used books is that they often come with an added surprise. And this one certainly did. I’ll blog tomorrow about that.

The blank pages of Aira

…this post continues yesterday’s odd encounters in the bookstores along Florida street…

Argentine writer César Aira never seems to struggle with the writer’s block, facing the blank page. After all, he has written more than 50 books. Despite his prolific output, I’m having a difficult time finding a wide range of his works in Spanish here in Buenos Aires. (I’m reminded of my long, desperate search last year for a particular set of books by the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano).

When I go to search for Aira I’m finding only 2 or 3 titles on the bookstore shelves. In one of the four hundred El Ateneo stores on Florida street, I pulled down a copy of Aira’s novel Embalse. I almost purchased it but as I was flipping through the pages I noticed that several pages were blank…page 62 had no ink on the page. Further examination revealed even more pages in the book that were blank…The book was published by Emecé, a fairly large publisher in Argentina. I would think that their quality control would be a lot better.

Then again, I partly wondered, considering Aira’s often eccentric style, if the blank pages were intentional. But I decided it was just a printing error. Yet, I couldn’t help to think of Italo Calvino’s wonderful story that plays with the concept of a reader buying a book with a printing error, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Nazis in Bariloche & other odd encounters

I had some time to kill this afternoon on Florida street so I wandered into a few bookstores. One of the most bizarre guidebooks to Argentina that caught my eye was titled Bariloche Nazi. Perhaps the highlight of the book is that it reveals the purported location of the Bariloche home of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun after they escaped from post-World War II Germany….. Uh, yeah.

That’s not really the kind of thing I want to spend my money on…but on the topic of Nazis in Argentina, I do recommend The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina

Okay, I’m trying to keep my posts to a fairly low word count…saving you, dear reader, precious reading time. So, my next odd encounter will be posted tomorrow.

How much do you want to know?

This afternoon at the café I read a book review which proceeded to tell me way more than I wanted to know about the book prior to reading it. I immediately remembered why I seldom read reviews of books that I want to read. And long ago I’ve learned never to read movie reviews. I rather approach things like this without much prior knowledge, just arming myself with only a vague notion of the story.

The amount you know about something beforehand certainly impacts your experience. But does it enhance or hinder your experience?

Likewise, what about the ways we experience a place, a city such as Buenos Aires?

Obviously the parallels are not the same. But I’m curious as to what type of reading, what type of learning experience, enhances our travels? And what type of reading actually hinders our experience?

Things to think about when walking

I’ve spent the last few weeks working with fellow Buenos Aires resident Peter Robertson to produce the latest issue of The International Literary Quarterly. I think the highlight of this issue is an interview with Gao Xingjian, whose novel Soul Mountain I’ve also been slowly reading this year.

As I’m walking around Buenos Aires, thinking about the city’s history and my own writing, these words by Gao Xingjian stay with me:

… when artists die what is left behind, literature, is the history of human beings, is the interaction between the individual and the condition of history, that trace of history left behind, that is literature. It is the witness, it is the evidence of the individual’s interaction, connection, with history, and that is the trace, that is much more important and significant than the official discourse, the official history.

That is the meaning of literature, the meaning of the writer. That is, the writer, in spite of his or her insignificance, has left that trace that reflects the relationship between the individual and the condition of being alive. That trace itself is timeless, that is the meaning of literature. And that is far more important than the official history of political discourse. That is the real meaning of literature.

Loft for Sale in San Telmo

There’s a nice loft apartment for sale in my building on Av Caseros. It’s a nice, quiet place to live.

Priced at $160,000.

I can’t write anymore

…at the computer. Actually, I’ve never been much to write at the keyboard (even though I’m an excellent typist). Anything thoughtful always meant pen to paper. I don’t mind. I prefer the slow way of writing.

But it’s a style that doesn’t make for very good blogging…that tat tat tat of fingers against keys that signals the processor to emit pixels forming one shape or another on the monitor while concurrently encoding data strings for manipulation by scripts on a server. Where’s my spontaneity?

When I’m at the PC I rather be working than blogging. There’s something about freelance work that keeps you more focused than a salaried position. Besides, my best thoughts about Buenos Aires come while I’m out in the city. For those moments, which seemed to have been rare lately, I carry a small notebook and pen for scribbling thoughts, fragments that later form posts on this blog about Buenos Aires.

…more posts to follow…I’m not stopping yet…

…for now, a photo for you…from the mercado in San Telmo…