Thursday, October 23, 2008

Julián Ayesta: Helena, or the Sea in Summer

Benjamim Lytal reviews Julián Ayesta's Helena, or the Sea in Summer.
Books are often about the same things: the beach, a fire, a memory of sound and light. "The cherry jam shone bright red amongst the black and yellow wasps, and the wind stirred the branches of the oak trees, and spots of sunlight raced over the moss." This sentence, written by Julián Ayesta (1919-96), a Spanish diplomat and sometime author, could stand in for any number of literary memories.

There are some books that we talk about with each other. What did Isabella Archer have in mind, at the end of "The Portrait of a Lady," when James reported that she now finally knew where to turn, that now, to her, "there was a very straight path"? More than one reader is prepared to discuss the question. But only a few of the very most famous novels stay out in the open like this. Most remain private affairs, bottled, stored away.

The cherry jam shone bright red ... The coffee shone too, black amongst the cigar ash in the saucer. And the men all wore lopsided grins because they had a cigar in their mouth and talked and laughed like toothless old crocks, poking out tongues bright with spit as they blew out clouds of blue smoke.

Julián Ayesta's one published novel has only part of what we want from fiction; it is short on conflict and long on atmosphere. Originally published in 1952, and titled "Helena, or the Sea in Summer" (Dedalus, 124 pages, $12.99), this short book sets an idyllic series of early adolescent scenes against the tense backdrop of pre-revolutionary Spain. It reads like repeated sips from Keats's ideal cup of inspiration: "O for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene." It is slight, but intoxicating.
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