Monday, August 03, 2009

Context, Then Content

The only thing I can add to Gavin's account of our gift-giving above is that for years, it was a double-blind gift; we would give each other books that NEITHER of us had read before, and then proceed to NOT read them, together.

It was an aspirational thing; if there was a book that you wanted to read, you would buy it for your friend, in the hopes that he might read it for you, and then entice you to read it.

I think Gavin gave me CADS/OHYoS in 1999, but it may have been as late as 2001. In any event, I didn't read it until the summer of 2003, when I read it out loud to my then-girlfriend, now-wife. If you can find a spouse who WANTS you to read highly literary Latin American fiction to them out loud, marry them.

Since I'm coming from the POV of a re-reader, I'm going to hold off on plot/theme analysis in the first post and just focus on Garcia Marquez's sentences.

Especially in these early chapters, the story, the plot, the characters, the world, are really constructed from sentence to sentence, and sometimes from clause to clause. GGM's sentences are elastic, but never distended; none of those Proustian contortions or Faulknerian agrammaticality. It's usually just one or two clauses, the first giving the content, and the second delivering the payload. Seriously, check the rhythm - every sentence ends with a satisfying solid phrase, usually joined to a concrete image.

But there's always something hidden - a stray reference, an ellipsis, a digression, a temporal retread - either in mid-sentence or in the transition from one sentence to the next. One good example of this is the observation that José Arcadio was born in the mountains, on the way to Macondo, and his parents were relieved that he didn't have animal features. The narrator moves quickly to describe Aureliano's birth - and Aureliano is the son we're supposed to care about, kind of, maybe, since it's his firing squad that opens the book, so we move on, thinking "well, maybe there's a theory that a child born in the wilderness might look like an animal, or something" - and then in the next chapter, we find out that José Arcadio and Úrsula are cousins, and they've had another cousin who looked like a pig. Each clause provides an image, but it also seeds the backstory.

The rhythm of these sentences is hypnotic, almost enough to make you drowsy! It's only the vocabulary that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's also pretty flexible - in fact, I teach my students to write expository prose using a similar construction style to what's adopted here.

I also don't know how much of the syntax is the translator's attempt to preserve Marquez's Spanish, whether the original text reads the same way, or if it's got a slightly different connotation in Spanish. In short, I don't know the Spanish text or Spanish well enough to say.

Let me also add that I love, absolutely love, José Arcadio Buendía. I feel like I AM him, or a version of him - his schemes, his energy, his fits of pique, his oscillation between apathy towards and intense devotion to his children. There's something almost Homer Simpson-esque about him - that oddly intelligent, "Father, give me legs!" Homer, who knows a surprising amount about Supreme Court Justices, whose half-assed overparenting is almost as bad as his half-assed underparenting, who still repeatedly falls down the same set of basement steps.


Gavin said...

For comparison—first sentences:

CADS: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (In the original, Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.)

In Search of Lost Time: For a long time, I went to bed early. (Seriously? That's it? Almost un-Proustian. In the original, Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.)

Ulysses: Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Especially as a standalone, CADS clearly wins. Proust and Joyce need their second sentences badly, but the first line of CADS is a novel in itself.

Theresa said...

I have found similar sentence rhythm and elasticity with other magical realist writers.