Roberto Bazlen, Notes Without a Text and Other Writings, Trans. by Alex Andriesse, Dalkey Archive Press, 2019.
An advisor to Italian publishing houses, a translator of Freud and Jung, a friend of Montale and Calvino, Roberto Bazlen was nothing if not a literary man, but kept his writings to himself. Here, translated into English for the first time, the reader will discover Bazlen’s private oeuvre: an unfinished novel, The Sea Captain, which bears comparison with the fiction of Kafka and Beckett; a selection of entries from his notebooks dealing with topics as various as whether or not there is an “animal Jahweh” and the aesthetic limitations of the cinema; a trio of essays on his native city of Trieste; and a sampling of his editorial letters. Notes Without a Text is an introduction to the work of one of the unknown masters of twentieth-century European literature.
Omnibus edition of works by an Italian writer who might have been a modernist master had he not been more intent on sowing literary confusion.
Calasso, who introduces this collection of texts by Trieste-born translator and editor Bazlen (1902-1965), gives a rather murky account of the centrifugal tendencies of a writer who wrote but did not publish: “Preparing for emptiness…is an abnormal occurrence—it always has been—and not only that: the modes of existence most prevalent at present teach us to forget even the possibility of emptiness.” Accepting Calasso’s contention that Bazlen made himself right at home in the void, the texts brought together here vary in intent and quality. The lead work is an odd novel centering on a sea captain who is never at home in the world and especially not in his own home, where he feels untoward urges toward his wife: “I really have to hit her.“ In the company of strange players with names like Peg-Leg and the One-Eyed Man, he sails from harbor to harbor, meeting other stock characters like "an Oriental,” "the Gypsy Woman,” and “the negress,” who do pretty much as they would in an old Popeye cartoon, allowing for extra helpings of surrealism and non sequitur (“the Captain was close to death, but he was awfully cultured"). Included are sketches of characters like The Cabin Boy, who says to the Captain, “It would be unfair not to take you adequately into account—and besides I’m indebted to you for a couple of pesos (and a flask of wine too).” The hallucinatory mode prevails. Bazlen’s essays and notes on writers such as Italo Svevo and Habsburg-era Triestine culture are more straightforward ("it was a musical city…where everyone sang”), and his witty editorial reports come as a relief after the unrelenting peculiarity of the more “literary” writing. All in all, though, it’s a slog.
A puzzling, incomplete set of notes toward a text; of some interest to students of postwar European literature. - Kirkus Reviews
FROM THE SEA CAPTAIN (a novel)
The sea captain’s house was old and comfortable. There were hydrangeas in the windows, a canary was singing in its cage, the captain’s wife was sitting at her sewing machine, a dog was playing with a bone by the door.
The captain didn’t spend much time at home. He was almost always at sea, and at sea he sat alone in his big cabin, he studied nautical charts, he fumbled with his precision instruments, he read little-known books whose trails he followed from port to port―otherwise, he stood on the deck and scanned the horizon, for hours on end, with his telescope. If he arrived in a port where he’d never been before―but there were so few!―he immediately began wandering aimlessly about, on the steps he chatted up the fishwives, he tasted unfamiliar wines in tucked-away taverns, he went nosing about, through dark and twisting alleys, in the dusty shops of the junk dealers. By the time he went back aboard, he had seen everything, he had taken note of everything, he had formed an idea of everything, and in his cabin he opened the packages full of plants, stones, books, bottles of wine, and wooden statuettes. But, for one reason or another, these things were never the right things, and this made him more and more restless. He was sometimes overwhelmed by a sudden nostalgia for his wife and his life at home; when he returned, he would kiss his wife, he would pet his dog, and he would listen patiently to all the things that had happened in his absence; but his eyes wandered impatiently out the window, and his mouth hardened whenever ships, in the distance, passed by on the sea. And always he went back to his table by the globe, and set it slowly spinning.
p>Once, he had stayed at sea for longer than usual. When he came back home, his wife gave him a kiss and her breath was sweet. With a smile, she said:
“I’ve had to wait for you such a long time. While I was waiting, I sewed you a pair of red trousers. Let me show them to you.”
And her voice was clear.
The captain was always very courteous. He thanked his wife and glanced at the trousers. But to himself he said: “My wife doesn’t understand me. I’m a sea captain, the trunks in my cabin are crammed full of perfectly ironed uniforms―white for summer, blue for winter―and here, in the wardrobe, hangs my black suit, the one I wear to weddings and funerals. What am I supposed to do with red trousers?” He locked up the trousers in the black chest, but he sensed that something was wrong, and he began slowly spinning the globe. The next day he spoke a few ritual words to his wife, gave her a quick kiss goodbye, then fled. And he stayed at sea for even longer than he had the last time.
But this time his wife did not sit at the sewing machine.
“Why should I sew?” she asked herself. “He didn’t even bother to look at the trousers; he just locked them up in the black chest, after I’d taken so much trouble with them. He doesn’t understand me anymore.”
She opened the chest, ran her hands over the trousers, and felt very sad. The day was empty, she began rummaging through the chest and found a box of cigars. And she thought disdainfully:
“If he doesn’t want to wear my trousers, then I’ll smoke his cigars.”
And she lit a cigar, stared out the window, and blew reeking black smoke out toward the sea, which smelled of salt.
In those days, the One-Eyed Man had come to live in the city. Passing by the Captain’s house, he looked up with his single eye at the woman in the window and said:
“Women who smoke cigars play cards too!”
“Certainly,” the woman answered. “Come up then and we’ll play together.”
And soon they were sitting down to play every day. The woman won and smoked her cigar, the One-Eyed Man lost and wore a look of contentment.
When, after a long absence, the Captain returned, he gave his wife a kiss, but her breath was no longer sweet, and her voice had grown hoarse. “My wife has become a stranger,” the Captain thought, but he said nothing and continued to act as courteously as ever. Except he fled even sooner and stayed at sea even longer than he had the last time.
One day, in the harbor tavern, the One-Eyed Man told the Craterface what he was doing with the Captain’s wife.
“You ought to bring her down here one of these days,” said the Craterface. “Women who smoke cigars and play cards drink grappa too.”
And soon the woman found herself sitting in the tavern every day, smoking cigars and playing cards. She went home late in the evenings, staggering drunkenly, and in the morning she lazed in bed.
When the Captain finally returned, the hydrangeas had withered in the windows. Nevertheless, he gave his wife a kiss, but her breath stank of tobacco and grappa and her voice had gone gravelly. He said to himself: “This time, not even for form’s sake, there’s no way I’m giving her a kiss goodbye.” And he went away again at once, and he stayed at sea even longer than he had the last time.
Roberto Bazlen was very much part of Italian literary circles but, while numerous translations -- notably of Freud and Jung -- by him appeared, none of his own writings were published during his lifetime -- and in his Introduction editor and translator Roberto Calasso even goes so far as to explain that it is: "a part -- and a decisive part -- of Bazlen's work not to have produced any work".
In one of his notebooks here Bazlen suggests:
I think it's no longer possible to write books.Elsewhere, he suggests: "At best we play at being Novalis" -- the author of two never completed novels --, and while Bazlen does seem to have long played at trying to shape a larger work of fiction (consisting of more than footnotes ...) it remains fragmentary. This volume includes the pieces -- ranging from fairly extensively worked-out chapters to small fragments -- of that work, the would-be novel 'The Sea Captain', as well as other notebook-fragments -- including the 'Notes without a Text' from which this volume takes its name, as well as some forty-odd 'Editorial Letters', brief book evaluations on behalf of publishers, suggesting whether or not these works were worth publishing.
That's why I don't write books —
Almost all books are footnotes, inflated into volumes (volumina).
I write only footnotes.
Bazlen was born in Trieste -- then (in 1902), as he notes in a piece 'On Trieste', still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so that his formative years comprised: "sixteen years of Austria, then emancipation, and then, until 1934, sixteen years of Italy". The city was, he argues, not: "a source of any great creative value", but it was: "an excellent sounding board, a city of uncommon seismographicity", and he certainly is a product of that culture -- reflected also in his bilingual writing, in both German and Italian.
The fragmentary novel and the 'Notes without a Text' were largely written in German, and later translated into Italian by Calasso; Alex Andriesse, translating from Calasso's versions, explains in his Afterword that:
The state of Bazlen's notebooks and papers, which were found in a suitcase after his death and have never been published in a definitive German edition, makes this double translation necessary.(I don't quite see the logic here, but .....)
Though I sympathize with those readers educated to distrust translations of translations, I'd also say that Bazlen is peculiarly well-suited to a two-leg journey into English. His writings, especially the novel and the notes, gesture beyond language. He was no cultist of the mot juste. As a reader, he cared much more for literature that handled what he called "the great themes" than for "Bovaryist" fetishists of style. Bazlen's language is rather pure energy, and as such designed for travel.In the (ultimate if never final) form it has been left, Bazlen made a strong start to 'The Sea Captain', which begins fairly straightforwardly: it looks like the beginning of a novel. The story begins (and remains) a bit vague -- a Captain keeps going out to sea, he disappoints his wife by not appreciating the red trousers she sewed him, his left-behind wife begins going her own way while he's away -- and he remains long away, on trips of sameness, for all their variety. At one point, Bazlen writes: "It was absolutely impossible to go on this way, something had to happen !" -- which goes for both the novel and the Captain.
Eventually, the novel doesn't so much unfold as fragment. Bazlen tries variations on some themes: seduction by a Siren, the experience of being swallowed by a whale, or the Captain finding himself on an island. The drunk Captain tells his tales of Sirens and whales but complains of his audience: "You've all lost your imagination, you stopped believing in voyages in the bellies of whales a long time ago"; when they say he should describe it to them words essentially fail him too:
"How was it ?" he winced. "How was it ? How was it ? It was dark ... dark ... dark ..."The story spins apart, and Bazlen tries to pull in the pieces, repeating variations, fragments that eventually are not much more than lists, the building blocks, de- and re-structured without him able to put them anywhere near together. He offers the tantalizing outlines of what he means and wants to do, but can't get past mere outline:
A passage whereHe spells out some of his scenes and meanings -- blueprints that he means to build on, but barely gets to:
the Burgomaster's Daughter
the Helmsman's wife
the Gypsy Woman
(in advance) the Innkeeper's wife
are a single figure
Advertisements for Coca-Cola (as surrogate for pornographic photos) (Peg-leg no longer takes out the photographs, but stares at women in bathing suits) (the decadence of the Sirens)There are wonderful, promising bits here:
"Ah-ha ! I was helmless, I was the widow of the Helmsman — now I have another helmsman ..."
When the Captain sees the advertisements, he recognized in them the Sirens degenerated and trivialized
Men are small, where in the world today is there an Alexander whom you can ask not to stand in the way of your sun — how are you supposed to overcompensate for your inferiority ? Hence the mass, he grows furious with the mass, and suddenly discovers that he is alone —But it is, ultimately quite a scatter, a fiction he can't bring to cohere.
The 'Notes without a Text' lack even that would-be foundation of a novel to them -- but that's hardly a drawback. While not just a random assemblage -- there is some order to some of the pieces, many grouped together by some of his subjects and interests ('Buddha', 'Noise', etc.), and there are some slightly longer pieces, on Italo Svevo and on Trieste, for example -- they are a multitude of building blocks, pieces suggesting more that he never got around (or found himself able) to expand on.
In some cases it is distillation, in others just a (for now) shorthand -- as when, under 'Literature' he offers:
Shakespeare — world — drama — unlimited power — the pariah.There are some inspired formulations -- "The Greek gods, atomized like so many gnocchi" -- and a few headscratchers:
Balzac — society — novel — unlimited wealth — the poor.
The Hitlerjugend as necessary counterweight to:And there's already some of the literary assessment that then dominates the final collection, of 'Editorial Letters', as when he considers the Trieste of his childhood, between (Germanic but here also Slovenian flavored) Austria-Hungary and Italy:
I see the particular tension between two different cultural configurations particularly in a Triestine poet called Teodoro [Theodor] Däubler, whose name you must know. A cosmic cultural outpouring of visions from a shoreless river, and, on the other hand, a need for narrow, angular forms, which produced a quite peculiar screeching, which condemns to failure the work of this man who was one of the greatest visionaries, almost (almost) on a level with Blake and Lautréamont.(Däubler is best-known for his monumental (1200-page) verse-epic Das Nordlicht; Arno Schmidt was a great admirer.)
The final third of this volume is taken up by the 'Editorial Letters', one- or two-page reports on books Italian publishers were (or should be ...) considering. These are very much personal opinion-pieces, Bazlen taking into account their commercial prospects but on the whole more interested in literary quality and significance -- and acknowledging throughout that these are very much his feelings on the works.
There are close to four dozen books that he covers. They include works by quite a few American authors -- including Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine -- and an interesting selection of non-fiction, including Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years (approvingly), Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy (a book "by a small-scale maniac" that, though he found it "confused and mediocre", does offer enough that he (very) grudgingly recommended it), and Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which he hated: they should pick any page at random and then: "tell me if Adelphi can publish such a cup of swill ! (A bucket is more like it -- the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a metallic screeching)"; they didn't, by the way, the first Italian translation only coming out sixteen years later, from Einaudi -- a rare really bad call by Bazlen: think what you will of the Kuhn, it is an essential work of recent times).
The longest report is the first, from 1951, on Musil's The Man without Qualities; Bazlen appreciates its qualities but feels obligated to warn the publisher, too; playing devil's advocate, he has four main arguments (that he then expounds on) that speak against publishing it:
The novel is:Still, he's much more enthusiastic about it than one of the other (too-)long novels he tackles, William Gaddis' The Recognitions, which strikes him as: "a very good fake made by an exceptionally vicious forger". It's not for him -- but he's willing to grant: "the possibility that it's a book to do, and one with a fairly good financial prognosis".
1) too long
2) too fragmentary
3) too slow (or tedious, or difficult, or whatever you want to call it)
4) too Austrian
The books he considers are almost all European and (North) American; an exception is Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, featured in two of the letters and a work about which he says: "for many years, this is the only book that really shook me up".
Bazlen was no fan of the nouveau roman, not knowing what to do with something like Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur:
Robbe-Grillet is one of the many (almost everyone) who are paving the way for the Third World War; and from a culture reduced to this state, there's nothing left to do but emigrate.The rare exception is Franz Tumler's Der Mantel -- surprising even Bazlen ("This seems to be a contradiction: it's a very recent German novel and yet it's readable"). He does emphasize that it is: "a modest book (in the best sense of the word "modest")" but does consider it "the only decent nouveau roman" -- and finds one chapter: "that is stupendous"; he urges the Einaudi editor to: "Definitely do it, even with the risk it won't catch on". (They didn't; the book wasn't published in Italian until almost three decades later, in 1990.)
Bazlen can be enthusiastic, when the work warrants it -- "I would say absolutely YES!!!" to Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke (a good call) -- and only occasionally does his judgment seem a bit rushed or perhaps premature, such as finding Christopher Burney's Solitary Confinement: "the only defining book of the Second World War I've come across, and the only one I've responded to with my whole being".
Occasionally he'll push for a work he recognizes as flawed, if there's enough to it: six pages of Blanchot's The Space of Literature are enough for him to sign on, and: "perhaps it's a bad book, but it's the bad book of a REAL writer" he says in judging William March's The Looking-Glass: "it's just a hair away from being a masterpiece. Do it and launch it". (Oh to have a reader's report of March's The Bad Seed from Bazlen .....)
If he dates himself at times in his reading (and preferences), there's also great depth to it: in praise of Sologub's The Petty Demon Bazlen points out:
Think how unreadable probably the greatest fiction writer of that era has become: PontoppidanDespite a recent revival of that Nobel laureate's Lucky Per, Pontoppidan is so little read nowadays it would hardly occur to any contemporary critic to even consider him in the mix of the (now-)significant writers of that era .....
So also Bazlen considers Hamsun: "one of the last great European novelists (one of the writers of novel-novels -- coming before the dissolvers)", and makes the case for Jeremias Gotthelf (!) -- of The Black Spider-fame -- being: "the (at least in some respects) GREATEST European novelist of the last century".
Bazlen doesn't do reader's reports in the more conventional way, with plot summaries and the like. He gives his impressions, and rarely points to specifics from the books themselves. There's an often almost conversational tone here -- they are presented as 'Editorial Letters', and much of this is indeed like correspondence of the old school (albeit a one-sided conversation). Occasionally, he'll get more creative in trying to make his case, as in taking a cinematic approach to evaluating Kasimir Edschmid's Der Marshall und die Gnade, eventually summing up:
Storyline: very skillful. Dialogue: conventional and never indecorous. Direction: excellent work. Actors: well schooled though showing no special talent. Costumes: plausible. Makeup: the fake beards are not immediately noticeable. Photography (cinerama): perfect (at the edges of the frame, the objects are just as in focus as they are at the center). Color technician: good (Agfacolor). Sound technician: not bad. Smell technician: excessive. Period consultant: first-rate. Distinguishing characteristics: none.A translation of Bazlen's limited but quite fascinating work seems long overdue, and the appearance of Notes Without a Text, covering most all of it, is very much welcome, another small but significant piece of European literature (in every sense) finally available. An interesting and well-read literary figure, Bazlen has quite a bit to offer, even now, more than half a century after his death. - M.A.Orthofer
Roberto Bazlen published nothing in his lifetime. An advisor to Italian publishing houses, a translator of Freud and Jung, a friend of Montale and Calvino, he was nothing if not a literary man, but he was deeply suspicious of the enterprising spirit of the “literary world” and kept his writings to himself. Notes Without a Text is an introduction to the work of one of the unknown masters of twentieth-century European literature.