Ivan Schneider is a writer, critic (you may have read him on this very site), and theorist on animals in historic literature. As he mentions below, he is appearing next Saturday at The Academy of Reason & Wonder in a face-off titled "CATS vs. DOGS". The physical experience, at The Grocery has sold out, but you can always tune in on the Facebook livestream.
What are you reading now?
In preparation for a “CATS vs. DOGS” talk that I’m co-hosting next Saturday at The Academy of Reason & Wonder (sold out, watch the livestream here), I’m re-reading a few of the talking-dog stories that most inspired me: “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol, “Investigations of a Dog” by Franz Kafka, and “The Dogs’ Colloquy” by Cervantes.
Questions about real dogs may also come up, and so I’m reading The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben (author of The Hidden Life of Trees), and the bookstore pet-shelf perennial Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.
I am also finding other talking-dog stories by following the trail within Nisi Shawl’s recent column about dogs in SFFH. I read with glee her remarkable short story “Black Betty,” which to my knowledge is the first talking-dog story that brings to the forefront the racially-coded aspects of the dog’s spoken dialect (rather than the fact that it speaks at all).
Caroline didn’t like the way Betty talked. “Where’d you get her voice box, anyway, Dad?” she asked Greg. “Did you buy it off some homie on the corner?”
It took a while till Betty understood the problem. Race had never been an issue before. She had heard the Fraziers discussing white people, of course, but like any other dog, talking or non, her sense of color just wasn’t that strong.
Gradually she came to realize that what she was dealing with were sort of like super-packs. Though there were several of them, her dilemma involved only two. The Fraziers belonged to the one which called itself black; it was small and not all that powerful compared to some others. The Dunnetts were what was known as white. And apparently — because of her markings? — they’d accepted Betty as part of their super-pack, believing she was a white as well.
Until she talked.
What did you read last?
Canaima by Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969). This 1935 novel is an adventure story about a young man who seeks his fortune in the Venezuelan jungles. Along the way we learn about the workings of the merchant class, the corrupt politicians and police, blood feuds, the exploitation of gold miners and rubber-gum extractors, and the destruction of the native peoples.
For four months in 1948, Gallegos was president of Venezuela. A military coup sent him into a decade of exile, after which he returned to Venezuela where he was named Senator for Life. His legacy includes the biannual Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, which comes with a €100,000 cash prize. Last year’s award was postponed due to Venezuela’s continuing economic crisis; and it may or may not be held again in August 2018.
This reading is part of a larger project, as I’m not just randomly pulling books off the shelf.
By way of background: I’m learning Spanish, as is the patriotic duty of every American. Or if that’s too much for you, it’s the basic civility of a good neighbor.
As I’m probably a few years away from being able to comfortably read a novel in Spanish, I’m working through a list of translated works by Gallegos, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and others referenced in the essay collection The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.
I already consider this project to be a tremendous success, as Fuentes has led me to Epitaph of a Small Winner (1881) by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908), who shares with Gogol a deep fascination with the nose:
Did you ever ponder the function of the nose, beloved reader? The explanation proffered by Dr. Pangloss is that noses were created to support spectacles, and I confess that for a time I found this theory satisfactory; but one day, while I was meditating this and other obscure points of philosophy, I hit upon the true, authentic explanation.
Indeed, I had merely to remember the custom of the fakirs. The reader doubtless knows that a fakir will spend long hours looking at the tip of his nose, with the sole purpose of seeing the divine light. When he fixes his eyes on the tip of his nose, he loses the sense of external things, creates within his mind a beautiful image of himself, grasps the intangible, shakes off his earthly shackles, dissolves himself, and becomes etherealized. This sublimation of one’s being, via the tip of the nose, is one of the most lofty phenomena of the spirit, and the faculty of achieving it is by no means confined to fakirs; it is universal. Every man has the need and the ability to contemplate his own nose, in order to see the divine light, and such contemplation, resulting in the subordination of the universe to one nose, establishes social equilibrium. If noses contemplated only each other, the human race would not last two centuries; indeed, it would not have survived the most primitive tribes.
The conclusion, therefore, is that there are two major forces in society: love, which multiplies the species, and the nose, which subordinates it to the individual. Procreation, equilibrium.
(translation by William L. Grossman, Noonday Press, New York 1952)
Because I will now have to read everything ever written by Machado de Assis, I will soon have to abandon my studies in Spanish so that I may take up Portuguese. In that sense, my current project is already a tremendous failure.
What are you reading next?
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
I first read Vásquez when reviewing Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets for the Seattle Review of Books. I’ve kept up with a few of the authors in that collection, such as with Valeria Luiselli’s unforgettable Tell Me How It Ends and Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.
I was intrigued by the podcast of Mlodinow’s talk at Town Hall on his new book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change. Then I found his earlier book, Subliminal, at Mercer Street Used Books, and bought it for the cover alone. Mlodinow has been added to my science reading list, but that’s a story for another time.