Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Houses Smell

     I don’t mean any consecrated odor, steam from the washing or even the stink of the kids’ diapers. I live in a young neighborhood which is growing with the ringing of hammers, the clatter of scaffolding and the strokes of the carpenter’s axes, and if you bound my eyes and led me through the city I would know my way by smells: there is an old street, those are new buildings, still partly uninhabited, there is an unsold house, while the foundation on that house is caving in. For the building smells of the man, gives our the odor of the matter from which it has arisen, and it takes decades before odors settle, and the dry, dusty stink of accidents hang in the air.

     At first it reeks of barren earth; the cold, damp, sepulchral breath of the bedrock below wafts up from the dug foundations. But there are already piles of bricks set up around, and well-baked bricks have an odor almost like that of bread; the dry oven sighs out of them, and the hot, mealy dust drifts off of them. Then the slaked lime blows in, which stings the eyes and sticks in the throat, and there is also the cold, raw smell of the mortar, which hangs coarse and close. The smell of new construction is cold and raw like the air in a cave, and campfires and good lamps will be needed to make this into a dwelling.

     Then the boards go up and the scaffolding rises, to let the wall-builders up and to change the smell, for the odor of wood is solid and good; wood smells of home, of ripeness, and its pitchy, sunny exhalations cover the lime reek of the plaster and the muddy smell of concrete. And let us not forget the sourish stench of iron, girders, pipes, and wires, together with the oily fetor of lacquer; or even the smoky reek of charcoal smoke used to cure the walls. And here we have the rank and file of carpenters and joiners as they raise the timbers, lay the floors and install the windows and doors; wood prevails and its resinous, balsamic odor drifts out of the clangorous construction. To that are added the smells of turpentine, varnish and oils, the stink of coats of wallpaper pastes and paint. And finally the well-scrubbed building sighs lightly and smells of soap like a boy fresh out of the bath on Sunday; the cool emptiness and strange hollowness of new construction exhales out the open windows.

     And a new building does not lose its own odor right away; just as new clothes smell of the textile factory and new shoes of the tannery, the house smells for a long while of the building site. Sir, it is a lng time before people feel at home in it; the building yet hems them in like some temporary enclosure, not yet grown around them like the shell on a small, it comes out strongly here and overpowers over there like new clothes. It must be extinguished somewhat to render it fit for people; you could say it must ripen for a few years. It only becomes a full, real house when it stops being a new building; then it becomes not just the work of the builders, but also of the people who live in it. From the laundry in the cellar to the smoking chimney it sings of humanity and warmth, until one day when men come with picks and shovels, and it smells, for one last time, of the grist mill, the meal, ripeness and its own special desiccation, reminiscent of the scent of hay and rotting wood.



Friday, April 24, 2009

It bears repeating, but the Čapek I'm posting? I'm pretty sure you're the first people to read it in English. Ever. Same as last year.

So too, with this Fuks I've just started the second draft of.


     "It was long ago, very long ago, when I sent a letter from Prague to Daniel Potocky, lover of food and drink, to make time on Saturday and Sunday and come out to see me at my cottage. I wrote the letter with deliberate ambiguity, and yet urgently, closing with the remark that he certainly would not regret coming. And I sketched out a little map of how to get there once he got off the highway at Benešov.

     I imagined he would brag about it to Jána, who was his intellectual superior many times over, and he did. She called me at the neighbors’ cabin, for they had a telephone. I didn’t even have electricity there, relying on flashlights and oil lamps for light.

     “He was excited,” Jána divulged to me, “to see what I would make of it. Why he was invited. I told him it seemed like you were preparing a feast—you know how he likes to eat—and that you wanted him there for mysterious reasons.”

     Jána had never studied psychology; she was a chemist at the medical examiner’s office, but she had always had interesting insights into people’s personalities. What she had told Potocky about my letter seemed wise.
That memorable June Saturday was unusually hot and humid, as were the days preceding it. People complained of the humidity and torpor, the swimming pool was full of people, and they had even started to run out of beer and soft drinks. “If only it would rain a little,” people said, looking longingly at the sky whenever it started to cloud over. But no rain came. I had no beer or soft drinks at the cabin, just ordinary water, ten bottles of wine, two bottles of Greek cognac, a bottle of middling whisky and an exceptional banana schnapps. I also had three bottles of vodka, four tins of tomato juice and plenty of pepper. “If I mix him drinks,” I thought that Saturday, “he’ll be done. Sooner than I want, and I can’t have that today. He’ll just drink wine, which he can easily stand.” Before his arrival I looked over the glassware and the things for dinner. Then I went into the attic of the cottage, where I had a sort of study, which contained a low round table and a comfortable armchair, and I readied the pistol.


There's your hook. Unfortunately ninety-eight percent of it still only exists in my handwriting. If you liked it, ask me where I am with it round the summer solstice.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Painting of Martin Blaskowitz has a first draft. I first put pen to paper on June 4, 2008, almost eleven months ago.

It took longer than the first book I did, which is probably as it should be.

"And I don't know what I'm feeling right now, but it's intense. I just walked around the block without really registering it. My hands were shaking, and an eye was twitching a few pages from the finish. It's...man. I won't be at all surprised if no one has the same experience reading it, thinks it's ho-hum or predictable or whatever...but still. I took that text word by word, and performed some act on each of those components, and then wrote it all down. I owned it...but it's doing a good job of owning me."

I wrote that three and a half years ago and five or six projects ago.

I owned this one too, and they all do a good job of owning me. I need a nap.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I've been translating a set amount (40-42 lines) of the most recent Fuks novel I've been working on daily, with only five days off, since the third week of March.

I have two more days worth of work to do and I'm done with that, and am really at a stage (well, I was at this stage before I started this book, if not before) where first-draft translating, though excellent mental practice, is not what I need to be doing.

I must confront the fear that that is really all that I am capable of, that the neatly-defined first-draft step is all I have the patience for, that I will do nothing but swim in paralysis at the massively branching possibilities of editing. Writing this post is hopefully a decent start.

[EDIT: Not _much_ life-spanning melodrama is intended here, merely an articulation of something I've been dealing with for years--that I have more fun writing a first draft than subsequent drafts, but first drafts aren't exactly disseminable. Or even legible.]

Spring Storms

     There are two kinds of spring storms: the first kind are those that occur in nature with rumblings, sheets of waters, hail, rainbows, and other ancillary phenomena through to the victorious birdsong at the end. The second kind of spring storm is that which has already begun to take hold in the winter, when the heads of the household begin to notice that they need to paint and knock a hole in the wall here and fix this up and make sure the stove is in order and plane this, hammer that, add a little more mortar to this, seal, lacquer, upholster and the like. There is an astonishing array of professions who wait to come into your home with stepladders and scrub-brushes and screwdrivers and mallets and putty knives and tubs and a bunch of other implements, with whose help they will turn all the wood in your domicile upside-down. Vast and elemental is the destructive power of human ingenuity.

     As far as I can tell, this storm of work is most often unleashed in human accommodations in the spring. I have no conception what all of these professionals do in the winter; perhaps they give themselves over to their victorious invasions and strategies of the year before. It starts out very innocently as a rule; one man comes to your house to have a look around and tells you they will begin work in a week or after the first of the month. Well, nothing can wait a week’s time or until after the first; two or three days later you start to grumble that that darned man should just come and start already. In this manner you are adroitly brought into a state of impatience, and you await an invasion of unfriendly forces as though it were a divine blessing. When you are well and truly worked over, your bell rings at seven o’clock in the morning and some skinny guy at the door proclaims that he is there to work. And he starts to work up a storm with the help of some hammers, chisels, and other tools.

     All of the other professionals have been waiting for this moment, and the varnishers and joiners and glaziers and painters and paperhangers and installers all rush in and begin to quarrel about who is in the way of whom. Don’t get involved, keep your hat on and let them sort it out amongst themselves; from this moment on you have become an insignificant, even unnecessary creature in your own house who isn’t even worth the energy to be told off. The already-named specialists suddenly each to each demolish something else; you have to recognize that they have the matter in hand. A half a day later your apartment is leveled to the ground, and when lunch-time comes they sit victoriously amongst the ruins, eating head cheese and talking about things in Unhošť or Strančice.1 In spite of your dismay at this man-made swath of destruction you are a little excited that it has gone so quickly. “So,” you say ebulliently to these resting men, “you’ll have it all back together by tomorrow, then?”

     But to your surprise: the day after tomorrow instead of this terrible invasion there’s only one man there fiddling with something in the middle of the ruins. The day after that is a Sunday or a holiday and you are resigned to stew in peace on the rubbish heap which once was your place of residence. Them comes a strange and protracted stage when it is a “work in progress,” though this is not at all visible, the dust and filth waxes, the scraps of wood and the splinters, bread crumbs and other sorts of chaos, out of which a new reality does not appear. The following stage is one of mute despair: you come to the realization that the items in the world will never again be put back in order, the situation is clearly helpless and that you cannot expect better days.

     And one day quiet surrounds you, the stepladders and buckets and hammers are gone, and you come out into your reborn living room somewhat cautiously, like a farmer surveying his fields after a storm, to determine the damages after the elements have been unleashed. Well, the farmer says, a man has to find some good in this; this is broken, and that’s a little knocked-down over there… and finally he says to himself, with the indestructible optimism of the human race: “Well, it could have been a lot worse.”


1 [Central Bohemian towns well outside of the Prague metro area now, let alone eighty years ago.]

Saturday, April 18, 2009


     When I was a little boy playing in the fields and wiping my nose on my sleeve, every year I experienced one moment of ceremonial excitement, and that was resurrection. We1 had a deacon, may God grant him eternal praise, and he was supernaturally fat: spiritually, officially, exaltedly fat; his rotundity had none of the vulgarity of the lay people, but there was some special divine love visible in it—in short, he had an immaculate deacon's corpulence. And when our town square glowed forth in the mild spring evening with rows of candles in the windows, and a flow of white-dressed ministrants flowed out the cathedral doors with burning candles, and the large white figure of the catechist behind them, and then the deacon himself in golden vestments with the shining monstrance under the silken baldachin2, that being carried by Mr. Kut’ak and Mr. Blahouš and two other municipal leaders, and everyone dressed in black with glittering furs, with Mr. Temín and the town choir trumpeted the sacred, ever-so-sacred intrada, and four ministrants ringing little bells, and two little boys swinging censers, and Nyklíček the sacristan ringing the giant bell, ding dong, ding dong, and lo, hallelujah, hosanna, hooray! The deacon sailed along like a fantastic, glowing cloud, redolent of incense, there it was, God, so beautiful, so unusually beautiful, that I (a low and godless boy) cast myself on my sinful knee, unable to tear my eyes from those slowly-moving lights, candles, tongues of flames, banners and gonfalons3, torches and the monstrance and the baldachin and all that glory, and my stomach rose in envious, wretched bitterness: why was my father, my big, strong, and dignified father not carrying the baldachin behind the deacon, or at least a banner or the littlest light; and that was the yearly pain of a godless boy.

     Since then I have not witnessed a resurrection, because I do not want to spoil that one great and sacred impression, but every year around White Saturday a certain Catholic nostalgia befalls me. And now tell me that it is aestheticism! Well, of course I was quite the aesthete at age eight, the same sort as the natives in the Congo or New Caledonia who watch their own processions and dancing magicians and torches and other such wonders; the same aesthete as the citizen of Prague or Madrid or I don’t know which man on the street staring at his famous funerals, parades, processions, and celebrations. This aestheticism is as old as the world and sophisticated as an Indian; it somehow doesn’t suit this age, but…

     “Yesterday at twelve o’clock noon the mayor Dr. Baxa welcomed Spring in the Kinský garden in the name of the municipal committee of Greater Prague and the the population of the capital city. Accompanied by representatives of the town councils, the chairs of municipal offices, representatives of the guilds, firefighters, municipal organizations, the uniformed clubs etc. etc., he visited the First-Blossoming Crocus and assured it in a lengthy speech of the overjoyed feelings with which the capital city welcomed Spring into its ancient and celebrated walls. Thereupon the police band struck up music and the chrous Hlahol sang the moving choral “Lo, Spring Arises.” Simultaneously all the bells in Prague rang out, ten cannons were fired from the Mariánská fortress, and squadrons of airplanes crossed over the Vltava River. Innumerable throngs of the citizenry voyaged to the First Crocus, guarded by honorable patrols of the Sokol, security forces, municipal clubs and the Worker’s Gymnastic Union…”4

     “Our president welcomed Spring at an intimate celebration in the Castle garden. Nuncio Micara5 expressed tremendous feelings of joy in the name of the diplomatic council, and they along with the government and its representatives welcomed spring in general and especially into the territory of a state as flourishing and wisely governed as is Czechoslovakia…”

     “All political parties took part in the arrival of Spring with meetings and camps of people, after which they departed in streams for general merriment in Stromovka park…”

     “The general inspector of the Czechoslovak army saluted Spring at a formal parade undertaken at the training-ground near Invalidovna. The sun extended its blessed rays from early that morning…”

     Why go on like this? Democracy is beautiful, fine, but it doesn’t know how to celebrate at all. Mayor Baxa did welcome the participants of the trade fair, but he did not welcome the First Crocus, nor will he, although the first crocus is something better and more sacred than the whole trade fair. And our mayor is not leading the ceremonial Procession Over The Frozen Vltava, nor is he celebrating the fantastic and exciting Departure of The Ice to the peals of the cathedral bells. We still accept Christmas and Easter and All Saints from the fading hand of the church; old Catholicism still maintains the sacred division of the year, but we the godless have found nothing, nothing at all, to replace it. I do not know what contemporary democracy is lacking more: a little poetry or a little positive thought.



1 i.e, in [the author's hometown of] Upice, [which we've seen before]
2 [Wikipedia was again very helpful with some of the specialized religious terminology.]
3 [Sure, I could just call it a pennant, but I remember the word from a translation of the Song Of Roland I have back in Vermont, and if it can be used in a baseball context, I consider myself justified enough.]
4 [The Sokols (Falcons) were a patriotic Czechoslovak national organization. The DTJ (Workers' Gymnastic Union) was an phys. ed organization founded by tailors(!) in 1897. Both still exist, at least with American successors. Also, say hello to Mayor Baxa again!]
5. The [main] papal diplomat.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pretty Tired Too

Hi, Nick!

Yes, I'm so lazy these days about posting that I'm piggybacking someone else's meta-post about not posting.

It was fascinating to look at the wikipedia page for lomography, for what I assume is the correct derivation for the unfamiliar-to-me appellation of "some lomo douchebag."

There's more Čapek in the pipeline. That's the good thing about a series of short pieces set throughout the course of the calendar year; it gives the merest hint of actual structure while enabling me to take vast swaths of time off.

Monday, April 06, 2009

On The Magic of Easter

     This then is the truth: Easter has always been as richly embroidered with folk customs and superstitions as Christmas; it is as magical and pagan a holiday as the winter solstice. But there is one great difference: the mysteries of Christmas is to a large extent prophetic, whereas the mysteries of Easter are more akin to conjuring. At Easter no one pours lead or halves apples or cracks walnuts or lights candles or looks into the depths of the water so that the future might appear. No dog barks at Easter to indicate the direction the bridegroom will come from. All of these prophesies belong to Christmas.1 At Easter magic is performed so that we will be happy, so the harvest will be good, and what have you. At Easter you do not pose questions of what will be with magic rituals, but you instead look to effect an enchanting influence on that future. Wash in the brook at dawn, girl, and you will be healthy all year.2 Do this and that, fulfill this magical law or that, and everything will be in order; your future will be in your hands. It is not in your power at Christmas to determine what shape the poured lead will form; you have no influence on whether the core of the apple will be shaped like a cross or a star; you cannot cause your little candle to burn out faster than all the others. But at Easter you are sort of master of your own fate; you do this and you’re be healthy and happy as a clam. So run along and do it.

     It might be because Christmas is ruled by the night and Easter by the divine day. Nature sleeps at Christmas and nothing can be done about it, man together with nature sits, hands in his lap, until the winter passes. He cannot reach into the current of events in any way, it’s only a matter of somehow survived until spring. And so he, dreaming and waiting, gets in a mood for fortunetelling. A man with a plow in his hand doesn’t powerlessly ask how the harvest will be, because to a certain level he’s making it happen himself; hail can still come, our drought, but a man does what he can to get his field to grow. He performs magic so that evil powers do now ruin his work and his health; so he sets up candles against storms and says old sayings to ward off disease. At the winter solstice he sits in the gloom with his hands in his lap and longs for omens and signs; show me what will happen to me and mine, for there is no way for me to do this myself. At the vernal equinox he has too much to do already; God be praised, he is again the architect and shaper of his own fate, to a certain extent. And around him everything is moving, nature gives itself to its own grand progress; there is no more of this hibernal fixation and paralysis. And that is why springtime enchantment is entirely different from that of the wintertime; no more of this metaphysical impotence and helplessness, which can only ask fate what will happen, but some action at least, a little force to have a noticeable influence on one’s fortunes.

     And I think that we all can have enough of this wintry prophesy. The whole of Europe is given over to it; always these anxious questions about what will happen and how it will turn out. Perhaps it’s time for people everywhere to throw themselves into a springtime enchantment and do something so that things turn out well. If we do this and this, if we fulfill this prerequisite or that, we will be happy and healthy. And every one of us can help with this enchantment--whoever is doing something does not have to ask helplessly what fate has in store. Do not think that we cannot have even the slightest influence on what will be; even the smallest influence is better than mere prophesy. That is the whole secret of spring magic: what is going to happen is under our control.



1 [Most if not all of these are outlined many places on the web, say here, for instance.]
2 [People love discussing the pomlázka tradition (myself included) but there are other Easter traditions as well, some noted here.]