The GoodShortNovels.com Review--One Recent Release and One Classic
Dirty Old Men?
MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES and DEATH IN VENICE
Reviewer: Stedman Mays
MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES by Gabriel García Márquez. Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. Knopf, 2005 (originally published in Spain as MEMORIA DE MIS PUTAS TRISTES by Mondadori, and in hardcover in Spanish in the United States by Knopf in 2004). Hardcover. 115 pages of very sparsely laid-out text. Estimated length of the novel: about 25,000 words.
What happens to the sex drive in people who live beyond the average life span--into their nineties or even older? I think we're all a little curious (at least secretly curious, if we're afraid to ask). But the media usually portrays extremely elderly people as nonsexual beings who have traded in physical prowess for greater mental clarity and wisdom. Popular culture seems to be saying, "Old people have sown their wild oats and moved on to a more elevated life of the mind."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his irreverent and illicit novel MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES, will have none of that stereotype. With the very first line of the book, we are invited into an erotic situation that is alien to the vast majority of us:
"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."
While we may be impressed by the sexual gumption of the spry geezer who tells us the story, it's hard to know how to respond to an unsettling first line such as that. The suggestion of pedophilia is disturbing. Why is the narrator fixated on a young virgin? The desexualized-old-person stereotype might have been done away with, but another stereotype of our youth-obsessed culture--that of aging men only wanting younger women--is in full force. And yet Marquez is an author of nuance and unexpected alchemy in the telling of most of his tales. The opening--an old man's erotic compulsion to bed an underage virgin--is so in-your-face and blunt that you have to wonder how such inflammatory material will be toyed with in the rest of the novel.
The bad news is that the unnamed narrator--a journalist who writes a column of personal essays as well as reviews for the newspaper El Diario de La Paz--never really grapples with or meditates upon any of his problematic desires. "Introspective" is not one of the first words that would come to mind to describe him. He's a mild-mannered guy who lives primarily off a dwindling inheritance and a small pension from a former teaching job, in addition to the piddling honorariums he receives for the columns he writes. He says outright that he's ugly, shy, and mediocre, but these disclaimers seem more like courteous self-deprecation than his true view of himself (most people who engage in self-deprecation seem to have pretty healthy egos, oddly enough). His commodious colonial home, which was passed down to him after the death of his parents, has seen better days, but he has a maid and enough money to do as he pleases. The Latin American locale where the story takes place seems to resemble an area in Colombia, Marquez's birthplace.
Marquez is pushing eighty now, his unnamed narrator is ninetyish. It's tempting to try to read the book as Marquez's thinly disguised treatment of his own old age and sexuality, but the unnamed narrator is nowhere near as intriguing as Marquez himself is. In fact, the aged narrator of MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES is one of the least engaging first-person narrators I've ever encountered. He's insipid and silly and has spent much of his life, as well as his modest nest egg, frequenting prostitutes. What are we to make of this lifelong bachelor who's never been in love and who actually likes to pay for sex? He comes off as a typical dirty old man and leering pedophile who now wants to call his friendly madam to request a young virgin over whom he can exert complete mastery. Of course, almost any type of person can be made interesting in a work of fiction, no matter how weird or banal or repellent he might seem at first glance, if the book in which the character appears seems committed to grappling with and exploring the character's world (Nabokov, Camus, and Beckett come to mind as novelists who have met this kind of challenge). But Marquez seems to let his old-codger narrator traipse lethargically through his cosmos in a way that belies the ardor of which he speaks.
There is a series of bizarre scenes throughout the book in which the ninety-year-old journalist goes to a brothel for appointments with the same adolescent girl--a fourteen-year-old virgin whom he names "Delgadina" (he doesn't want to know her real name, I suppose that would break the romantic spell--perhaps there's some vague analogy to the delusional Don Quixote's "Dulcinea"). "Delgadina" doesn't speak a word in the book, or hardly a word, and the few comments she does make are presented in indirect speech, reported by someone else. She seems comatose. She's been drugged by the madam for the first encounter, and she seems sleep-deprived and overworked from her day job sewing buttons in a shirt factory to support her impoverished family. She's breathing but her nude body almost appears to be dead, all dolled up with garish makeup, her eyes closed as she lies on the bed for hire.
She's a kind of sleeping beauty--well, make that a bordello-sponsored sleeping beauty. The love scenes between the elderly man and the girl (if you can call them love scenes) consist mostly of his looking at and smelling her. Occasionally he kisses and caresses her tired-out body as she snoozes. It's as if he's found a life-size doll that he can play with to his heart's content. There's only a vague sense of physical interaction between the elderly man and the girl, just as there's almost no verbal interaction between them. Actual sexual intercourse is contemplated but methodically avoided.
Nonetheless, he falls in love with her and she with him (the narrator hears secondhand about the young girl's love for him from the madam, not from the girl herself, who is characteristically voiceless). For him, it's a revelatory moment, falling in love truly for the first time after a lifetime of sleeping with prostitutes, about whom he apparently felt rather indifferent except for the physical aspect of having sex. As a reader, however, I didn't feel anything when he described his revelatory passion for the adolescent virgin. I wasn't engaged by the story or the way it was told. It left me cold.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a bastion of literary respectability. He's been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He's loved by readers around the world. He's created a body of work that deserves praise, and his books sell in large quantities. All of this puts pressure on any reviewer, myself included, to try to like anything he writes, especially since MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES is his first novel in ten years. I think there's a collective feeling of wanting to worship at the shrine of someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who's created an impressive body of work. I have to admit that I feel queasy about negatively criticizing MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES because of the respect I have for some of Marquez's other books. I feel as if I'm betraying a literary icon.
Although Marquez probably worked hard on the book, it reads as if it were an early draft that he needed to revise drastically in order to make the desires of the elderly narrator and his young lover more compelling. The choice to render the young girl "Delgadina" virtually voiceless might be interesting as a concept, but in execution it seems gimmicky and unsatisfying. I don't care what kind of symbolic statement Marquez might be trying to make with her silence, it just doesn't work. They're in the bedroom together on repeated occasions; even if she's groggy, something would come out of her mouth at some point. I wanted--needed--to hear from her. It was a poor choice to turn the young girl into a lump of flesh on a bed. Having her say almost nothing is coy and ridiculous. I don't believe for a minute that the aged narrator, who seems to enjoy talking with people and interacting with them, would be attracted to someone who doesn't utter a word. And the lack of erotic interaction, like the lack of verbal interaction, seems coy, false, and evasive.
Of course, there may be other readers who disagree with my assessment. For example, they might claim that MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES is a masterpiece of absurdity, meant to be read with tons of irony. The ironic reading might go something like this--an aging journalist writes warm personal columns that elicit profound emotional responses from newspaper readers (he is called "the maestro of love"), but his own memoirs in book form are largely devoid of warmth, emotion, and a sense of true human connectedness. It's also ironic that the narrator vigorously asserts the claim of a grand passion for a girl with whom he barely communicates (even though they're together for trysts in a bedroom), making him seem senile and deluded.
But I think that this kind of reading of MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES is more an apology for the book's defects than a reason for praising it. Whatever the author may have intended, these ironic contradictions ultimately seem to be glaring weaknesses in the text. We have only to look at Marquez's last short novel from 1995, the brilliant OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS, to see the author at the height of his powers--richly symbolic and mythically sensual, convincingly distilling the volatile essences of human relationships, and artfully combining themes of sex, disease, passion, race, and demonic possession in a satisfying aesthetic whole. MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES is flat by comparison. It seems to take a provocative situation and abandon it, whereas OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS seems to embrace and explore the subject of how adults perceive an adolescent girl's body, both erotically and spiritually, and how she attempts to create a way of being on her own terms.
But let me end with a couple of positive thoughts about MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES. The best parts of the book were the brief passages having to do with the madam, Rosa Cabarcas, who procures the young girl for the elderly journalist. She's snappy and lively and occasionally funny. All the passages with her in them have the best dialogue. Likewise, there's Casilda Armenta, a retired whore whom the elderly man happens to run into near the end of the book. She's settled into a marriage that is more of a compromise than an idealized romance. World-weary and philosophical about taking happiness wherever you can find it, she is nicely drawn. Even the cliched sentiments that flow out of her mouth are right for her character and give the narrative a bit of much needed warmth and earthiness. If only the cloying January-May romance at the center of the book and its fairy-tale resolution rang as true. I hope that the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez will return to form in his future fiction.
DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann. Translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim. With an Introduction by Michael Cunningham. Ecco, 2004 (originally published in German as DER TOD IN VENEDIG in 1912). Paperback. 142 pages of very sparsely laid-out text. Estimated length of the novel: about 27,500 words.
Secret obsession and unrequited love are intertwined themes in novels in every culture, in every time and place. And for good reason--we've all longed for someone we'll never have, or perversely longed for someone with whom we might not want to have an actual relationship if given the chance. Fantasy fans the flames of desire, even when we inadvertently happen to lock gazes with someone we find attractive but never speak to.
Thomas Mann, in his superb DEATH IN VENICE, has created one of the most compelling treatments of the subject of unrequited love and its multilayered meanings in the history of the novel. DEATH IN VENICE tells the fictional story of the well-respected Munich-based writer Gustav von Aschenbach. He's fifty-something and suffering from burnout. Looking to recharge his creative batteries, Aschenbach goes by himself for a vacation on the Lido di Venezia, a fashionable beach resort that is on a separate island not too far from downtown Venice (it's just a short boat ride away).
At his hotel he spies a long-haired Polish boy, "about fourteen" years of age, named Tadzio, who seems to symbolize all the freshness, vigor, and formal perfection that Aschenbach's work has lost. "Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was of a consummate beauty: his face--pale and charmingly reticent, ringed by honey-colored hair, with a straight nose, lovely mouth, and an expression of gravity sweet and divine--recalled Greek statuary...whoever might gaze upon it would believe he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it in nature or in art." The aging author is smitten at first sight; he thinks that by simply observing the sensual boy that he might get his creative juices flowing again, that his writing, which has become didactic and sterile, might recapture its former glory. The awakening of Aschenbach's homoerotic yearning--his intense physical responsiveness and emotion for the boy--seems to promise an artistic revitalization. (We are told that Aschenbach was married when he was a young man, but that his marriage was "cut short, following a brief period of bliss" by his wife's death, and we hear nothing more about his wife or his only child, a daughter who has married, after they are tersely mentioned early in the book. It's also mentioned pointedly early on that Aschenbach "had had no son.")
Tadzio is at the beach resort with his mother and sisters and a governess. There is no father present. Tadzio apparently has no brothers and we don't know where his father is or if his father is even still living--it's left ambiguous. Aschenbach's enigmatic craving seems to include a kind of paternal protectiveness for the boy, creepy as this might sound in light of the fact that Aschenbach desires him as a love object as well. But Aschenbach's mix of feelings and the range of his feelings for Tadzio almost seem to know no bounds (how many couples have we all known in our everyday lives who seem to take on a paternal or maternal role in the relationship?). Mann unflinchingly explores an expansive, swelling interplay of thoughts and associations rather than honing in on one thing exclusively. Perhaps Aschenbach never seems like a sexual predator because of his confusingly many-sided idealizations of the boy as well as his profound repression and the chivalrous decorum of his outward behavior (not once does he speak directly to Tadzio). Aschenbach even questions himself and searches his mind in an effort to discover exactly what's going on inside himself, seemingly beyond his control. And it's just this sense of searchfulness that makes the book the great work of art that it is.
In the end, a growing epidemic of cholera in Venice seems to weave an inexorable web of death and doom around the characters and their picturesque setting. Aschenbach is morbidly drawn to his own degeneration--he starts to flee the pestilence in Venice but turns back fully aware of what will probably happen to him--and he even finds a strange sense of consolation in his impression that Tadzio appears to exhibit the signs of a susceptibility to terminal illness that will keep the young boy from growing old.
The proceedings may sound tragic, and indeed they are. But there are moments of humor, albeit grimly acidic humor. We meet some outlandish characters along the way--an older man desperately trying to look younger who's trying to fit in with a group of young men and being kidded by them, a comic singer full of brash and lascivious gestures who seems to take advantage of the tourists stupid enough to stay in Venice as the plague threatens, an unctuous hotel manager who lies to calm the fears of guests concerned with falling ill, a barber who "rejuvenates" Aschenbach grotesquely with hair dye and cosmetics to make him look younger so he'll appeal to his beloved Tadzio. These are all wonderful touches that enliven the narrative and provide a foil for the high-flown philosophical asides that Aschenbach occasionally indulges in.
The movie version of DEATH IN VENICE by Luchino Visconti is lavishly produced, with stunning photography and a momentum-building score taken from the works of Mahler. In the movie, Aschenbach is a composer rather than a writer. There is much to recommend the movie, especially it's languid pacing, which seems appropriate to capture the unending fascination Aschenbach has when he's discreetly hovering in the vicinity of Tadzio. The flaws of the movie are the sometimes poor lip-synching and, worse, a series of flashbacks in which Aschenbach and a buddy have debates about the arts. Some of these scenes are excruciating. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that these heavy-handed scenes are not in the book--in the novel, Aschenbach meditates internally about how Tadzio might inspire him, and I wish Visconti had given in to voice-overs rather than presenting pretentious debates in flashbacks. And yet the film succeeds brilliantly in Dirk Bogarde's unforgettable portrayal of Aschenbach. It's a delicate performance that moves between gossamer permutations of feeling, now rapt with the ecstasy of unrequited desire, now frustrated with the distance between himself and Tadzio, now irritated, now vulnerable, now chuckling and bemused, finally falling to pieces as he tries to hold himself together, as helpless as we all will be someday as the end draws near. DEATH IN VENICE, in Mann's exquisite book and Visconti's memorable movie version, asks us to look at our own repressions and silences and fears, and see them as potentially both self-destructive and grandly inspiring.
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