The Island of Second Sight

Dates get rather complicated this time of year as the twelve days between Christmas and the Christian festival of Epiphany are about the same as the difference between the old Julian and the current Gregorian calendar. Accordingly, 6 January has also been referred to as Old Christmas Day; it is still celebrated as such by some religious groups (Anabaptists, including the Amish, according to Wiki).

6 January is a public holiday in Sweden making the Christmas season long; during the bridge days between Christmas and New Year and New Year and Epiphany, retail goes at full blast but it won’t be business as usual for other sectors until the coming Monday, 10 January.

I’ve found it hard to settle down to serious work after the holiday but am now feeling elated about finishing all 816 pages of Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s “The Island of Second Sight”, based on the author’s experiences in Mallorca in the 1930s. I’m glad I persisted and didn’t let myself be overwhelmed. As in previous struggles with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, I asked myself whether I was enjoying myself and what was the point of ploughing through page after page that I didn’t fully understand. A similar feeling of elation afterwards but also an awareness that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the result if I tried to write a few pages on why the book I’d read was a great novel. I could probably spray words around to fool a few readers but not my sternest in-house critic DK.

After a few such experiences, I have concluded that while it’s human to retreat from situations or worlds that we can’t fully make sense of, it’s better for our development to persist, to learn to tolerate uncertainty and contradiction. We can still enjoy baroque music, the paintings of Constable or the Victorian novel but it’s better for our development not to shy away from more complex (often modernist) works.

Thelen’s novel can be read as a picaresque account of life in Mallorca in the 1930s against the darkening background, becoming foreground, of the rise of Nazism and Franco, not exactly fiction and not exactly autobiography but entertaining. But I feel that these amusing experiences are not just haphazard. Thelen often refers to the Portuguese poet and philosopher Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose ideas enthuse Thelen’s own personal philosophy (he went on to translate Pascoaes).

According to www.poetryinternational.org, Pascoaes became the chief apostle and theoretician of saudosismo, which was a movement that promulgated saudade as a national, spiritual value that could have reformative value. It means “longing, nostalgia, yearning” for something absent”. Pascoaes was editor of A Aguia, an Oporto-based magazine that became the mouthpiece of the Portuguese renaissance. The national renaissance was supposed to take place by cultivating saudade, considered to be “the defining characteristic of the Portuguese soul”, not a simple return to the past but a return to the original wellsprings of life in order to create a new life.

Thelen’s descriptions of the significance and meaning of small everyday events can be viewed against this background. This strikes a chord with me as I feel a need to dig in my heels, to pay attention, to resist the deadening trivialisation of our emotional and intellectual lives in late capitalist society.

I’m also sympathetic to Thelen’s anti-fascism and irreverent attitude to traditional religion. However, I feel his spirituality leads him in directions that I don’t sympathise with. I wonder about Pascoaes relationship with the Salazar dictatorship. His mysticism and references to the national renaissance feel as if they could serve as cultural support for this kind of authoritarian regime. I wonder how Thelen perceived this man, how did he square this with his scathing attitude to the steamier mumbo jumbo produced in Germany, Italy and Spain at this time.

I haven’t read Pascoaes but I am perhaps unfair to him but I would like to know more about this.

My lack of knowledge of Portuguese culture also made me think of the shallowness of my identity as a European. After 50 years, I have some grasp of Swedish culture and from secondary school onwards, I have retained an interest in French literature and German (with considerable gaps). But the rest, even Spain, is shrouded. But this weak performance is probably more cosmopolitan than most of my original and adopted countryfolk.

The history of publication of Thelen’s book also made me think of the relationship of the publishing industry to the literary canon. Thelen wrote his book in 1953 but it was first published in English in 2010 apparently through the persistence of Isabelle Weiss (after many rejections) who had access to Donald White’s hitherto unpublished translation. Publishers presumably regarded it as too much of a risk, long, hard to translate and difficult to categorise.

I never saw any mention of the book on my two visits to Mallorca (Palma). I was amused then by the attention given to George Sand’s “A Winter in Mallorca” about her stay with Chopin in Valldemossa, despite Sand being very critical of the island and its people; they didn’t do their homework before moving to the island and chose a location that was picturesque but cold and damp, which was not ideal for Chopin’s health. But I saw no mention of Thelen, despite his warm feelings for the island and descriptions of many prominent and interesting personalities from his time there. Robert Graves, who lived in Deja is better treated – his house is at least open to the public and perhaps I Claudius is available at the island’s bookshops, although still swamped by the masochistic focus on George Sand.

Finishing Thelen has already shaken the foundations of my plan for 2022, despite the year only being six days old. I had carefully divided my time into more serious projects like the state of the UK and learning Bengali and eccentric diversions like exploring the life of Jerome, patron saint of translators and Dorset. I envisaged devoting four days a week to serious projects and three to diversions (doffing my hat in recognition of my being a quasi-pensioner), my time neatly parcelled between projects, with some things that I did every day (Bengali) and others in long chunks of time on particular days. And now I am again thinking of whether it mightn’t be better just to alternate books so that after Thelen, I will read something more socially oriented and political.

But I have to postpone thoughts about my plan for a while as my Christmas visiting family have not all departed yet and the soft sector beckons today.

2 thoughts on “The Island of Second Sight”

  1. We are the co-publishers of the book along with Isabelle Weiss (Galileo Publishers). Delighted you have discovered Thelen’s masterpiece. You rightly point out the local obsession with George Sand, and the lack of visibility of The Island of Second Sight. Maybe if the book had been a quarter of the length and had the word “Mallorca” in the title, then we might have had more success!
    We did at one point have a banner in the best bookshop in Palma, Akzent, describing it as ” The Great Mallorcan Novel” ;-). Anyhow, new edition coming out soon, and let’s see if we can bring a few more locals on board.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’ve heard that the Mallorcan authorities have been keen to encourage other types of tourism than sun and sea seekers and I would have thought that Thelen would have fitted in well with that perspective. Perhaps seminars/lectures over a weekend on Mallorca in European literature taking up Sand, Robert Graves, Carme Riera’s “L’Arxiduc dins l’Imaginari Illenc” and, of course, Thelen. And possibly arranged at a time of year when Northern Europeans would gladly travel to Mallorca (but preferably not in wintry Valldemossa).
    It is, as you write, a long novel, perhaps daunting on first acquaintance but there have been other works of great literature in this category (Proust, Joyce) that have been commercially successful despite many readers only coping with a fraction of the text. I wish you every success with the new edition.
    Kind regards
    David Kendall

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