telling stories about the book of j

The recent death of Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar provides a point of departure for examining writing that is outside the ken of the north American context and is deeply inflected with Scliar’s central influences such as Kafka, Isaac Babel, Schlem Aleichem, and Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. As such, it seems the clue to unraveling Scliar’s form of writing, which could be termed magic realism which means occurrences bordering on the absurd colliding with some historical verities create a scenario where the reader is batted between reality and fiction; it would seem to point to Walter Benjamin’s short essay called The Story Teller.

Scliar. ---The reader of a novel looks for human beings from whom he derives the "meaning of life." Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death - the end of the novel - but preferably their actual one. The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.--- Read More: image:


Although published in 1936, Benjamin’s essay expounds on new form of communication that first arose with the rise of the press. Mass media was a new form of information and information is antithetical to the story. We have news but no stories. News and information are explanation. information is a commodity. Stories are more complex and nuanced. Part of the art of storytelling to keep explanation away from sucking the tension out of the process:

This connection with the practical is a natural one for a story-teller. A story always has its own practical use; the story-teller is someone who has counsel for his listeners. If “having counsel” sounds old-fashioned, this is because the communicability of experience is dwindling. We have no counsel, either for ourselves or for others .Counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To catch up with this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. Counsel, woven into the fabric of a lived life, is wisdom….

---“Max and the Cats,” about a Jewish youth who flees Nazi Germany on a ship carrying wild animals to a Brazilian zoo and, after a shipwreck, ends up sharing a lifeboat with a jaguar, achieved fame twice over. Critically praised on its publication in 1981, it touched off a literary storm in 2002 when the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for “Life of Pi,” about an Indian youth trapped on a boat with a tiger.--- Read More:


…Story-telling is dying out because wisdom, the epic side of truth, is dying out. …The decline of the story is the rise of the novel. Where the story-teller takes his stories from lived experience, either his or that of others, to change it into experience for his listeners; there the novelist is the lonely individual, no longer able to speak exemplarily about his most important concerns, unable to give or receive counsel. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound despair/perplexity  of the living. Read More:

So, Benjamin’s thesis, sometimes debatable, is a lamentation on our inability to exchange experience brought on social and structural issues contributing to an alienation and isolation; the Baudelaire model of shock and trauma distorting the prism of the shared, resulting in the impulse to flee and extricate. What is compelling about Scliar is a sort of anachronistic approach, a throwback to the pre-written word, where like the Bedouin story tellers, the same story could be repeated from generation to generation intact and whole.

---Yahweh, for Bloom, is a very complex character, and there is no allegorical signified for which he stands. Yahweh, is a life-force, Yahweh is reality itself, especially in its relation to man, Yahweh represents limitations (in regard to man) and the breaking of limitations. Hence his Blessing, which the patriarchs covet and wrangle for, is very much a Mixed Blessing. Jacob spends much of life trying to secure it, from clutching Esau's heel at birth, to trading Esau a pot of porridge for it, to wresting one of the Elohim (or Yahweh himself) for it in a nighttime wrestling match. And once he gets it, he still suffers. The Blessing gets passed down to Judah, the fourth son, because of the inadequacy of the elder brothers; but it seems to be Joseph, who really has the blessing, whose character it would be most accurate to say of, that Yahweh was with him. The power of Yahweh is charisma, vitality, and even good fortune, rather than righteousness, a quality that never concerns J or her Yahweh--- Read More:

This is best seen in Scliar’s take on Harold’s Bloo

217;s work, the Book of J, which evokes a pre-revisionist Bible of which significant sections were written by a woman in King David’s court; its a more personal, shambling and chaotic account of a sometimes provocative and antagonistic relationship in documenting the almighty. She had an apparently irreverent and humorous attitude toward god, the claim being that the patriarchs, those defenders of the faith, would have been moved to priestly censorship.

Through the guise of fabulism, Scliar can snipe at the “normative tradition” of Christianity and Judaism. the Yahweh depicted in the Book of J Bloom asserts, does not provide the basis for the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Instead what we get  is a writer of  irony; who shares similarities with  Shakespeare or Kafka. Since this mysterious J was not a religious writer the depiction of god would be considered blasphemous by believers in the normative tradition. Her Yahweh suggests reality itself;  the ironic place of man in a universe that places limitations on his actions, rather than any ethereal being shorn of  Nietzschean human-all-too-human characteristics. So, perhaps original storytelling was based on un-tying these seeming contradictions of a Yahweh who could portend to shit disturbing and self-contradiction. To curry favor was a mixed blessing. Damned if you do and damned if you…

Another take Scliar did was on Van Gogh’s ear which related to a fascination with money and our relation to it. Briefly, its the most famous ear in art history, or at least the lower earlobe  which he cut off on December 28, 1888, wrapped in newspaper and gave to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” Originally, Conan Doyle in 1893 published his  The Adventure of a Cardboard Box, in which  Holmes investigates a mysterious package delivered to an old lady and containing two severed human ears – one male, one female.


---One can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way. Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel - not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller, in Leskov as in Hauff, in Poe as in Stevenson. The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.--- Read More: image:


In Scliar’s  story “Van Gogh’s Ear” (1989 ), he  writes about loser businessman who attempts to bribe a creditor by pawning him what is claimed to be Van Gogh’s ear…. The last sentence of the story seems fitting here: “If you examine an ear carefully – any ear, whether Van Gogh’s or not – you’ll see that it is designed much like a labyrinth. In that labyrinth I got lost. And I was never to find my way out again.” Read More:

In another Scliar novel,  Jesus furiously drives the merchants from the Temple which provides the subtext  for a study into the relation between religion and the commercial set in three different eras. Again, the notion of a storyteller from a bygone era is evoked as the narrator looks back to tell the present through the past while limiting the shock of what we perceive as current reality.  Money is again explored in The Hidden Diamond with the obvious metaphor that seems to evoke the fantastical notion of wealth one would find in an Aleichem short story where the poor  often named Rothschild are as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Scliar always said to me that four writers defined his outlook: Sholem Aleichem, from whom he learned to write about Jewish types with affection, without condescension, in language that was plain yet rich in biblical and talmudic references; Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel, the first reviving Hasidic storytelling through allegory, the second depicting the marginal Jewish types of his age; and, closer to his own condition, Clarice Lispector, the acclaimed Brazilian novelist whose conflicted Jewish identity influenced Scliar to be more open about his own.Read More:

…Dale Peck:”Semiotically, syntactically, at the level of the sign and the level of the sentence, from which all narrative proceeds, language waters the seeds of its own failure. Not just its inability to be what it names, but the immense difficulty of measuring the gap between. Of distance? Of closeness? It depends whether you see the cup as half full or half empty. But only after a work of literature has accepted its own failure – has, as it were, elegized its stillborn self – can it begin the complex series of contextual manipulations by which meaning is created and we locate ourselves as surely as the ancient navigators fixed their positions between stars. […] Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism.” Read More:

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As a shock experience, however, the narrative processing will never end because the experience itself is traumatic. Therefore, it can never enter language directly. It can only be approached again and again from different directions, but never cracked open. Each person tells their own story, but they can’t get anyone else to believe it because we’ve lost our ability to share experiences and incorporate them into our memories. “Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory,” Benjamin writes, “can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other.” Read More:


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