Monday, July 24, 2017

To surrender to the crucible

To be human the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity: to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible — to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into. Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train. It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos.

When I came out of the theater, I said to my mother, "It's like we're stars in space. It's like space is the theater and we are the bits of stardust and everything everywhere is the story."
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The film is not named, but surely it is Doctor Zhivago that is described. I can't say I feel the same way about this film as Yuknavitch's narrator does, but I remember having a similar epiphany (for me the film was Wings of Desire).

This book is not even a little bit what I expected it to be.

Messianic time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Today I read the saddest poem

Today I read the saddest poem, flipping through journals at the magazine shop. It brought tears to my eyes. I stopped breathing, and my heart stopped for an instant too.

It was so sad, I had to buy this summer reading issue of Tin House. You can't read something that sad and just put it back on the rack. Plus, there's an octopus on the cover.

The poem is "Dusk" by Tracy K Smith, just recently named US Poet Laureate. Justly so.

"Dusk" starts like this:
What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I'd watch her
Sit at the table — well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn't lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she'd need to make her escape.
I came home and told my daughter I'd read the saddest poem, about having a teenage daughter, and she asked me if I needed a hug and I said yes.
I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

She can talk back to me, though not too much

My vacation reading went off the rails pretty early on. The book I was reading in Edinburgh was set in Edinburgh, but as soon as we settled into the train ride south, a restlessness overcame me. The books I'd brought with me were laid aside, and I picked up other reading material along the way. My London stay was defined by Tim Parks's Calm. On the last day in London I came across Tove Jansson's Letters from Klara, which seemed would make for perfect seaside reading.

(The cover image and the French flaps made this book irresistible to me.)

Letters from Klara is a volume of short stories originally published in 1991, appearing now in English translation for the first time.

Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin books (did you know there's a Moomin Shop at Covent Garden?), but NYRB has been steadily reissuing her adult fiction over the last several years.

The thirteen stories in this volume transcend time; one barely notices the absence of modern technology and the reliance on post or telegram. But they feel shrouded in nostalgia. I read these stories between naps, on the beach and on a plane, allowing each story to breathe, but one could easily devour this volume in one sitting.

These stories are mostly character portraits. They might be interpreted as reflections on a life lived; more than one story alludes to switching careers, how difficult it would be to start over. I feel scolded for both taking matters too seriously and not seriously enough.

On several occasions I found myself talking back at the book and exclaiming in disbelief ("What a bitch!"). People do some nasty things in these stories.

Other people are not we expect or remember them to be.

Above all these stories demonstrate how impossible it is to understand each other and how inscrutable our motivations are. Everyone operates by their own unique internal logic.

But they are sweet and bittersweet.
I think when I have a daughter, I'll teach her to whistle. It could be useful to whistle to each other in case we lost track of each other in the woods. If she doesn't answer, then I'll know she wants to be left alone. If she goes out in The Dinghy, I won't row after her and bring her home if it starts to blow. I won't make her pick blueberries, but she can pick mushrooms because that's fun. My daughter can wear any old trousers she wants to, and she can talk back to me, though not too much. She will look like me but prettier. Autumn is coming, so I won't write any more today.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

An abstract music of galactic desolation

Electronic music had just begun to appear at that time — Pierre Schaeffer, Klaus Schulze — an abstract music of galactic desolation that enraptured me. I wanted Karin to hear it too, but I should never have played that record. I explained that this was a new thing they were experimenting with. "Now just listen to this," I said. "It's like the pulsing of the spheres in space. Don't you think?"

"Quiet," said Karin. "I'm listening."

We listened together. The room seemed to throb electronically. Karin had gone pale and sat utterly motionless.

I jumped up to turn off the music but Karin yelled, "Don't! This is important to me!"

I should have remembered this was the moment when Dante descended into the Underworld and was met by the cries of the lost souls.

"I know," Karin said. "This is it. Now comes the voice of God."

And it came. How could she have known!? A deep, sorrowful bass that cut through the music with incomprehensible words and vanished into the galaxy amidst vibrations that finally lost themselves in silence.

"Forgive me..." I said. "You understand, this is a new kind of music they've just invented."

"No," said Karin calmly, "it has always existed. The lost souls are with us always, I know them. It's like a grey wave — any time, any place, on the street, on the train — obliterating everything. They cry for help and we sink in sin, theirs and our own. Can you play it again?"

But I didn't want to.
— from "My Friend Karin" in Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson.



Sometime in the 80s, my brother discovered Klaus Schulze, and it was much like the times he discovered Kraftwerk and Beethoven. He rushed into the house, headed straight for the stereo, repositioned the speakers so the sound would roll over the dining table. Late for supper, again.

This was before trance music, before rave culture. This is how he would share with us his newest, his latest, religion. "Listen to this. Can you hear that? You can hear... Don't you get it?!"

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Still life

One aspect of Vipassana still bothered him, indeed had come to bother him more and more, to the point where he was now ready to stop meditating. "What does it mean, " he asked, "when they say the thoughts are not my thoughts? What can that mean? How can the thoughts not be my thoughts?"
I don't like Tim Parks.

I attended an event several years ago where he was reading, and I overheard him saying things — not publicly, but to an individual — that rubbed me the wrong way. He struck me as a man of tremendous ego. On this basis, I have refused to read his novels, and I read his columns in the New York Review of Books aggressively and antagonistically — I love to hate them and find fault with them wherever I can.

All of which makes it particularly puzzling that I should be drawn to pick up Calm, and that I should find it so satisfying.

There I was, restless and wandering the gift shops of the Tate Modern, and there were lined up all the pretty Vintage Minis, and I suddenly had to have one, I had to have a pretty little book as a souvenir, a book that was Art, and Modern, and Summer, and Britain.

And I picked them up, one by one, to see what they were about. These are slim volumes that excerpt previously published work.

But this vacation was not about love, desire, or drinking, not even motherhood or summer. I almost left with that itch to buy a book unscratched, when Calm caught my eye. Striped shades of purple. Calm. An antidote to my restlessness. By an author I dislike. A paradox like a zen koan. My own little book of calm.

(Weirdly, Calm is the book repeatedly recommended to me by the "which Vintage Mini do you need in your life?" quiz, even when I switch up my responses.)

Calm is an extract from Teach Us to Sit Still, in which the sceptical Parks attends a Buddhist meditation retreat.

Why did I think I could learn something about calm, achieve some kind of calm, via the reflections of an aging white male academic? His pains are not my pains, physical or emotional. His teachings cannot be my lessons.
Attachment with aversion was a new idea to me. But I sensed at once what he meant. It was like when I read an author I despised because I despised him, because I enjoyed thinking what a scandal it was that this man was a celebrity. Or when I kept complaining about a colleague at the university because my identity was intensified by my opposition to him. Or when I listened to the radio outside Ruggero's study in order to loathe it. Did I attach to pain in the same way? Scratching sores. Was it possible that this grand showdown with myself that I had planned and been denied actually had to do with the pain I was now experiencing? The showdown was taking place without my realising it was the showdown.
I may not have learned anything, but I found a calm satisfaction in this book. Something about the relationship between the ineffable and the tangible, inner and outer, stillness and life. Thematically in keeping with what had brought me to this book, the Giacometti exhibition I'd viewed at the Tate Modern — the problem of achieving maximal expression through a minimum of means.

Calm lends itself well to introspection, examining how we think about thought and how we transform wordlessness into words. Parks's reflections only confirm how vast his ego is, but I admire his honesty. And as much as I enjoyed this read, I confess I don't intend to read any more Parks ever.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Book space

Spotted underground:


I suppose storage services have been around for some time, but this ad brings a fresh perspective. My daughter is convinced I am in need of such services.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The power of place

Skulk turned right onto the Mile, up for a couple of hundred metres and then left, onto the George IV Bridge above the dark chasm of the Cowgate. At this time tomorrow it would be crowded, rain or no rain, but tonight it was almost empty, Thursday's revellers mostly behind the doors of the clubs. The machine stalked between the two big libraries to the top of Candlemaker Row, into the alley of Greyfriars and up and over the gate into Greyfriars Kirkyard. It paced past the church towards the Flodden Wall, and paused at the corner where the path turned towards the Covenanters' Prison.

Somewhere at the back of the roofless mausoleum of Thomas Potter (Nuper Mercator Edinburgis) a pebble shifted. A long shape lifted itself from the ground.
— from The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

This may not strike you as a particularly powerful passage, but it chilled me to the bone.

Not hours beforehand I'd walked the same route, stopped for some takeaway, then turned down Candlemaker Row to loop round to my hotel on Cowgate. I lay there in that chasm, recalling the stories our ghoulish tour guide told us of the ghosts in the graveyard.

I am grateful, too, for the history lesson, as Covenanters are deeply relevant to MacLeod's novel.

This turned out to be a most fortuitous choice of reading material while visiting Edinburgh.