Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The piano was still making sea noises

Last week I read Piano Stories, a collection of short fictions by Felisberto Hernandez. I first heard about the book via this post on Richard's swell Caravana de Recuerdos blog. I picked up the book a couple of months ago at Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company. End of acknowledgements.

Felisberto Hernandez (1902-1964) was a professional pianist, an Uruguayan, and a short story writer who influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, among others. He's been compared to Proust and Kafka. He had four wives, wrote seven books and died penniless. End of biography.

Piano Stories is an uneven collection; I liked about half of it and the other half, frankly, tried very hard to put me to sleep. Hernandez' Proustian writing about the nature of memory just runs on and on without actually providing any memories, merely a lot of "memory is like a riderless horse that chews on bitter grass growing along the edge of a dry stream bed that sometimes is full of crystal water in which more memories float past which are ignored by the horse, who is blind yet seeks his rider" and stuff like that. That blind horse I just made up; it's not one of Hernandez' images. Though there is a great story in this collection called "The Woman Who Looked Like Me" about a man who remembers that he's actually a horse. All of the good stories here are really good; it's just that half of the book is full of stories that are not good.

I'll ignore that not-good half, though. The good stuff is a nice big handful of slightly surreal stories about estrangement from oneself and others, about the oddness just behind the veneer of everyday life. In many of the stories, an itinerant pianist is invited into the house of strangers, where he sees how strange people are behind closed doors. A woman is in love with a balcony, for instance. Another woman lives in a house which has been deliberately flooded, as if it's the city of Venice, and she hires men to row her around the house while she makes a confession; when the confession is complete, the rower is dismissed and a new one is found. This is all interesting stuff and Hernandez frequently brings the inanimate world to life around his characters. Tables and chairs have moods and opinions, that sort of thing. He also does interesting things with the idea of the human eye: the eye collects and carries around images within it, or light pours out from the eye rather than the other way around, etc. Have I mentioned the similarity to Borges yet?

The centerpiece to this collection is "The Daisy Dolls," a really brilliant story. In it, a wealthy industrialist has begun collecting dolls that look like women, but are slightly larger than life. He hires designers and artists to create scenes--dioramas in glass cases--using the dolls in all sorts of costumes, which he investigates after dinner while a pianist plays for him. It's all very selfish of the man, and highly sexually charged and strange. The strangest doll is Daisy, who was built to look like the industrialist's wife. Over time, the doll and the wife merge in the man's imagination, and possibly hers as well. The doll collector begins to believe that his wife is dying, and he makes a plan to live out his years as a widower taking Daisy to wife, more or less, which involves having the doll altered to be, shall we say, anatomically correct. The wife does not die, havoc is cried, the dogs of connubial war are loosed, etc. Things become stranger than they already are. Which is maybe a good way of summing up this collection: things become stranger than they already are.
"This doll has found her true story." Then he got up, opened the glass door, and slowly went over her things. He felt he was defiling something as solemn as death. He decided to concentrate on the doll and tried to find an angle from which their eyes could meet. After a moment he bent over the unhappy girl, and as he kissed her on the forehead it gave him the same cool, pleasant sensation as Mary's face. He had hardly taken his lips off her forehead when he saw her move. He was paralyzed. She started to slip to one side, losing her balance, until she fell off the edge of the chair, dragging a spoon and a fork with her. The piano was still making sea noises, and the windows were still flashing and the machines rumbling. He did not want to pick her up and he blundered out of the case and the room, through the little parlor, into the courtyard.
This post is my contribution to Spanish Literature Month. Next week I'll read some Portuguese literature, from Jose Saramago.

7 comments:

  1. I'm good with uneven but interesting. Shall pop it on my list.

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    1. If you're anything like me, your list is taller than your house.

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    2. Not that my list is taller than your house. I mean, it might be, but I don't know how tall your house is. My house is pretty tall.

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    3. Two-story center-hall federal with a giant I-beam holding it up. It's tall unless it falls into the cellar. Which it might.

      I doubt we shall finish our list in this life. But it gives us something to look forward to.

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  2. Scott, thrilled you gave Felisberto a try for Spanish Lit Month and in particular that you too enjoyed Las Hortensias/The Daisy Dolls so much: I have a feeling I'll be rereading that piece a lot over the years; even just reading your description of it made me laugh and brought back fond memories from earlier in the year. The author's seeming Proustian proclivities continue to baffle me, though; some of it seems quite legit as a possible/probable influence, but some of what I've read about Felisberto's bio leads me to think that he was so eccentric as a man that the similarities were just accidental. Of course, I need to go back and read some more of his stories before I could take a strong stand either way. Anyway, thanks for the delightful post.

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    1. "Daisy Dolls" is great stuff. Have you read Lands of Memory? My curiosity is piqued; I'll have to see if any of my local shops has it, or check it out from the library (if one of the libraries has it). I think there are only two collections available in English. Damn my very poor Spanish.

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    2. Apologies for the belated reply. I think I've read a couple of pieces from Lands of Memory in Spanish but haven't looked at the English translation of late to see which titles match up (it's another one of those anthology jobs where they mix and match pieces from different collections).

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