Monday, January 10, 2011

More Than Able

Summer is my time for occasionally dipping into the collection of puzzle magazines. My father used to go through all of the main crosswords and the bridge and chess problems of La Settimana Enigmistica every week, mostly I believe while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. He never had a radio in his car, but did find ways to pass the time during the hours he spent in traffic every working day.

(Another popular pastime of his, which doubled as our version of 'I spy' during the holidays, was to spot car registration numbers that could be divided by nine, which you do by adding the digits together and seeing if the result is itself divisible by nine. This was spoilt over time by the gradual replacement of numbers with letters, although the new system gave way to the rather more challenging search for cars registered MI (for Milan) zero-D-one-zero, or MI0D10, that is to say ‘Oh My God’, of which – on account of the two further trailing digits – he knew that as many as 99 would be eventually matriculated throughout the province. He was very pleased to find one in the end.)

In the jargon of La Settimana Enigmistica, my father was a solutore più che abile, a 'more than able solver'. I am not nearly as assiduous or clever as he was, but I do have a precious boxful of those magazines, to which I subscribed for a year or so after leaving Italy thanks to a very kind friend who didn’t mind the trips to the post office. The vintage of those early and still largely unsolved issues is as old as my time in New Zealand, which would provide a sort of time-capsule experience of the trivia knowledge required to solve the puzzles back then, except I’ve since added to the collection the occasional magazine bought during subsequent visits and it’s hard to spot the difference. The model reader of La Settimana Enigmistica hasn’t in fact changed very much at all since I was a kid, and still appears to be as much into nineteenth century opera and early-to-mid-twentieth century cinema, theatre and popular music as ever. I don’t really have to keep up with the culture in order to be able to play.

So I dipped into the box earlier this week and chanced upon an unfinished Bertezzaghi Jr., by which I mean a crossword puzzle by Alessandro Bartezzaghi, son of the late Piero, who was a mainstay of page 41 of the magazine and made his way into the language itself (as in the expression, which frankly I had never heard but is documented by Wikipedia, ‘being as difficult as a Bartezzaghi’).

One thing I like about Italian crosswords – as compared to ones in English that I have seen – is that the words actually cross. You can tell from the picture above that my abandoned Bartezzaghi Jr. was just about to get interesting, as I had emerged from the top left corner into the classic central open space, all words a-crossing and few if any black squares. I had however gone as far as to venture that the ‘famous novel by Leonardo Sciascia’ beginning with IL would be Il giorno della civetta, and that would no doubt have helped a lot with the proceedings, had I persisted. Indeed, I make short work of it this year - voilà.

Much as it pleases me that ‘protest’ (37 below) ends in ‘upheaval’ (71 across), you wouldn’t bother to look for semantic connections between the words, just enjoy their contiguity, the near-miracle of their fitting together so densely. For pure aesthetic pleasure, I turn to the exquisite elegance of the ‘concentric frames’, where the words are not to be read across and below, but rather across and then clockwise within each frame (so for instance the last two letters of MOREAU at the end of the first line across become the first two letters of AUREOLA in the outer frame, while the first four letters of MARTEDI in the bottom line across become the first four of the word TRAMARE going the opposite way):

Occasionally, I’ll try my hand at the fiendish ‘forced crossings’, where you are given the definitions for across and below in no particular order, and are told how many black squares will need to be inserted (seventeen), with the mercy of a couple of black squares and a letter to get you started. Then you have to piece the whole thing together somehow.

My batting average with these puzzles is maybe one in two, if I'm lucky. In this instance the foreign Y supplied was the obvious fit for ‘the whale hunted by captain Ahab’ across and ‘The US state with Philadelphia’ below, so I muddle my way through.

Besides some even harder puzzles, La Settimana Enigmistica includes several elementary ones that are ideal for cutting one's teeth, and that's how I got to familiarise myself with the magazine before I could even read. There is the classic game where you have to join the numbered dots, and the one where you must spot the differences between two near-identical pictures. I've always liked the key at the back of the magazine for this one, consisting of details orphaned of the overall picture.

Then there's the shade-in picture puzzle that allows for very little guessing in advance.

Here's one from the issue I picked out of the box that appears to have been partly completed by my eldest son, also in his pre-literate years.

I apply the finishing touches, but still the picture remains somewhat hermetic.

Who is this wayfarer, and what is he up to? If I think really hard I can almost remember what it was like as a child to look at a picture like this not as a solution, as an adult most likely would, but rather as another problem. Rebuses too – of which La Settimana Enigmistica offers a delightfully illustrated bonanza (and that I already discussed here) – were just that for me for many years: cryptic vignettes to be interpreted, that is to say fantasised upon, outside of the rules of the game. I don't know what is going on here, but it wouldn't seem to have anything to do with the unique and no doubt correct solution that would satisfy an adult (namely, 'Paris gave the apple to Venus'):

Solution explained here

If you have conjured by now an image of yours truly as an impossibly nerdy child, consider that it wasn't always sunny outside, and that boredom still existed back then. I will however happily reinforce the perception that I may be the kind of grown-up for whom everything is an occasion to comment on new media, and wonder about the habits of mind that I might have formed on magazines like La Settimana Enigmistica, and how they might inform my reading and writing practices today. The perils of self-reporting notwithstanding, I don't find myself skimming essays and articles on the Net half as much as the likes of Nicholas Carr suggest that I must, but I wonder if it has something to do with having been conditioned from a young age to strive to exhaust the meaning potential of texts, ultimately futile an endeavour as that is. And perhaps what I'm trying to do with this blog, too, runs counter to the bias of the medium, which favours the readily accessible and the instantly enjoyable, or the encyclopaedic, but rarely the slow, the ruminative and the meandering – or at least so we are generally told.

I am in fact hardly alone in pushing back against those biases, as I've had occasion to note. I have also written about excessive focus on detail at the expense of the big picture as a native if marginal feature of electronic media, which would seem to contradict the above except insofar as I'm more interested in teasing out these aspects than making definitive statements about them. Time, detail, attention are elements that I intend to continue exploring in the coming months, for they are all crucial to how we apprehend and remember. But to illustrate the extent in which I may still think in puzzles, I'll admit to having written the Bruegel post linked to above half in the hope that somebody would 'solve' it by making the connection with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup. Here's again the magnification of the 'corpse in the bushes' in the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus once attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from the aforementioned post.

And here is the shooter in the bushes from Blowup,

as well as the corpse at the foot of the trees.

As Sarah Miles' character observes, 'it's like in one of Bill's paintings,' of which Bill himself had said this:
They don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story.

When Blowup was released, a few months shy of forty-five years ago, the New York Times reviewer (paywalled here) spoke of its commentary on a frantic, 'jazzed-up, media-hooked-in world… cluttered with synthetic simulations', and perhaps Bruegel's contemporaries did too, for all I know, see in that densely symbolic imagery the manifestation of a society in flux, drained of its conventional signifiers, for these arguments have a remarkable tendency to recur. But the image that instead of revealing itself remains elusive, ambiguous, has arguably never ceased to unsettle us, and to pose difficult questions about the extent in which we ought to trust our perceptions, or the easy explanations, or the Real that shows itself on the surface of things, at first glance, purporting to be the key to the puzzle. And if it's true that images are the alphabet of memory – as Chris Marker might have said, but hasn't – then you can see how the idea of images in question is something I may want to return to from time to time.

However there is a post-scriptum to this, and it has to do with readers' commentary. I'm always deferring a conversation with a friend and colleague on the subject of what online comments in general and blog comments in particular are good for, amidst increasing calls for an overhaul of the whole thing since meaningful commenting is dead. That the news of this death appear not to have reached this space is likely due in equal parts to good fortune, some tending, the wonderful Megan and the fact that many of this blog’s early readers/writers hail from the Public Address community, where a positive culture of debate has been carefully established and remains strong. My occasional wish for narcissistic validation, or for the dutiful, school pupil-like discovery of the odd hidden reference, quite misses the point of all this, and I seldom have to wait long to be reminded of the fact. But then whenever a post is transformed by its commentary another issue crops up, and it is how to foreground those contributions, when the design and the conventions of blogging and feed readers either relegate them to a separate, ancillary space or ignore them altogether. While I continue to think of ways around this, and to more correctly frame authorship in this space, allow me to point you to the three poems by Megan, Keri and Marco that followed last year's final post, each illuminating the topic like I never could. Keri's wonderfully poignant lines about the 'uncanny undying which nourishes a wayward future hope' might be the epigrammatic solution of the post-as-puzzle, had I been clever enough to plant them in the text. They remain instead – like so many other comments, in poetry and prose – a reward for the more than able reader.