Sunday, October 16, 2016

Too much shit is monotonous

The theatre class at the correctional facility has a rule about swearing: the prisoners must "limit" themselves to the curses used in the play at hand, in this case Shakespeare's Tempest.
Bent Pencil takes the floor and reads out, gravely and impressively, in his best board-meeting voice: "Born to be hanged, A pox o'your throat. Bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog. Whoreson. Insolent noisemaker. Wide-chapp'd rascal. Malignant thing. Blue-eyed hag. Freckled whelp hag-born. Thou earth. Thou tortoise. Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself. As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed, With raven's feather from unwholesome fen, Drop on you both. A south-west blow on ye, And blister you all o'er. Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr'ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up, From bogs, fens, flats, fall on — add name here — and make him, By inch-meal a disease. Most scurvy monster. Most perfidious and drunken monster. Moon-calf. Pied ninny. Scurvy patch. A murrain on you. The devil take your fingers. The dropsy drown this fool. Demi-devil. Thing of darkness."

"Well done," says Felix. "That sounds fairly complete. I can't think of anything you've missed. Any questions or comments?"

"I been called worse," says PPod.


"I got one," says Shiv. "One question. Is 'shit' a curse word? Can we use it, or what?"

It's a fine point, think Felix. Technically, "shit" might not be considered a curse word as such, only a scatological expression, but he doesn't want to hear it all the time. Shit this, shitty that, you shit. He could let them vote on it, but what's the point of being in charge of this motley assemblage if he refuses to take charge? "'Shit' is offbounds," he says. "Adjust your cursing accordingly."

"'Shit' was okay last year," says Leggs. "So how come?"

"I changed my mind," says Felix. "I got tired of it. Too much shit is monotonous, and monotony is anti-Shakespeare."
—from Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood.

And I am cursing my family (most lovingly) for having descended on me this past week, leaving me no time to read.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

There was a kind of greatness in choosing to be ordinary

I didn't think that The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall, would be my kind of book. I'm still not sure.

I received a review copy some time ago and flipped it over in my hands often. "Domestic drama" — not really my thing. "Sexual assault" — a bit serious. But then one day I just started reading it, and I literally couldn't stop — it's that kind of book.

So, small-town America, perennial teacher of the year is charged with sexual assault of some girls at the school. His daughter's a student there too. So that pretty much tears the family apart, and the whole community.

Weirdly, pretty much everyone in the community at large sees the situation in fairly black-and-white terms, whether from the viewpoint of his accusers to the men's rights advocates; it's the family that suffers all the grey areas in between, all the not knowing. And this novel, refreshingly, is their story, not that of the accused. It is a clash between the public and the private.

The novel ends somewhat ambiguously; guilt or innocence is never firmly established. This may be frustrating for some readers, but I can appreciate that this ending makes writer's sense — the best way to be least offensive and still satisfyingly resolve most of the issues.

I found The Best Kind of People to be compelling, entertaining, and thought provoking, which is maybe all a novel ought to be. I talked about it much more than I usually talk about my reading. That must be significant.

However, I'm not convinced it deserves unqualified praise, so I was surprised to learn it was shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize. While it navigates this thematically difficult territory assuredly, it does verge on didactic in a few scenes. But what niggles at me is the sense that this feels like a young adult novel — though, I can't figure out why, apart from it featuring a 17-year-old girl, which I know in itself does not a YA novel make. Something too simple in the tone? Too ordinary?
Jonathan was understood to be a kind of genius, socially isolated but seemingly uninterested in high school in that way anyway. If he'd had any proficiency in art, drama, or English, he would've matched Sadie's grade point average. George considered him exceptional, which was saying a lot considering he never spoke that way about his students. In public he would claim, "You can do anything you want to do!" and the students would smile bright, beaming tooth-filled symbols of their inner confidence. He considered it part of his job description to instill the anchors of self-esteem. At home he was more disparaging, admitting most kids weren't bound for greatness but conceding there was a kind of greatness in choosing to be ordinary as well.
Here's what's being said around the web...

Bound by Words:
The Best Kind of People is a massively important book. It's aim was not to focus on a grand revelation, or drive home the rights you have as a human being, but instead it offered a rare look inside the mental and emotional states of the people who usually suffer silently.
Buried in Print:
The most unsettling bit of all – how ordinary it is. How often is there a gap between what we expected and what transpired: it happens all the time. [...]So many questions are raised in the narrative, about sexuality, agency, independence, identity, responsibility, compassion, respect, authenticity, and, of course, justice. Very ordinary questions. Very hard questions.
Consumed by Ink:
This book is timely, insightful, and a page-turner. This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted was charged with the worst of crimes?
The Globe and Mail:
While Whittall has been working on this novel for six years, discussion of rape culture and the rise of men's-rights activists in the media, the handling of rape culture on college campuses, the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election and the passing, for instance, of a new rape bill in California following Brock Turner’s lenient sentence, while not central to Whittall's novel, feel opportune, though never cunning.
National Post:
It is impossible to know the full-spectrum of truth – motivations, feelings, regrets — behind another person’s actions without access to their interior life. Even then, the things we do (both good and bad) often remain as much a mystery to ourselves as they do to the people we are closest with.
Quill & Quire:
This is a book about those caught in the ripples after the stone is thrown. What Whittall gives is a deftly realized exploration of the human heart: the ways in which it breaks and opens and seals shut after our central truths are shattered.

Zoe Whittall in Maclean's, on writing:
You need to be able to stare out a window; to scribble notes about the girl on the subway who is peeling a raw beet and talking about meeting Tracy Chapman in a Safeway. For a novelist, it's good to have the kind of qualities that make you a weird person to hang around with: a daydreamer, an observer, a spy, a sponge for the interesting, devastating, ironic moments in life.

CBC: The Next Chapter

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nobel thoughts

The 2016 Nobel prize in literature will be announced Thursday, October 13.

New Republic gives a rundown of who's in the running, in full awareness that there are more factors at play than merely the quality of the work.

I've been rooting for Adam Zagajewski for several years. Because Polish poets rock. But his rank has been slipping, and another Eastern European after Alexievich is unlikely.

Adonis has been favoured by the odds for about a decade now. This choice would not surprise me. I'm not very familiar with his work; it doesn't really speak to me. Poetry's like that.

Haruki Murakami would be disappointing. Entertaining as his books can be, I think he lacks depth.

Margaret Atwood is deserving. I'm surprised she didn't win years ago, but as a Canadian she may have several more years to wait.

Ursula K. Le Guin would be awesome. It may be America's turn, but perhaps she's too genre.

Elena Ferrante would be an inspired choice, an opportunity for the committee to send a message about privacy rights, women's rights, or the intersection of truth and fiction. No odds listed just a few days ago, but now she does.

Currently leading Ladbrokes at 4/1: Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o — completely unknown to me, but he has the right geography to be a winner this year.

But the odds are changing daily. The Guardian covers some of the movement.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

I am Elena Ferrante

"Each of us narrates our life as it suits us."
I am Elena Ferrante.

To be clear, I am not actually Elena Ferrante. I mean, I am Elena Ferrante, but symbolically, in the way people say Je suis Charlie or how one says We are the Borg. We women, we all are Elena Ferrante.

I had started to formulate this post after I finished the third book of the quartet, but then life happened and suddenly I found myself reading the fourth, and I couldn't break away.

(How Hillary Clinton is able to ration herself, I can't fathom. I would love nothing more than to hear her speak frankly about this series, and it could be very telling of policy: poverty, corruption, small business, communism, education, women's rights. And on and on.)

I've finished them all now, am still processing them. Wondering what else of Ferrante's to read. Bought a copy of My Brilliant Friend for a brilliant friend.

Then this weekend, it seems the speculation about Ferrante's identity may have been put to rest, an individual having been pinpointed on the basis of publishing revenues and real estate transactions (cherchez la femme, follow the money). I think I don't care. What does it matter? So long as she writes more...

I could keep reading and reading. Very cleverly, the first three books end on cliff-hangers. But more than that, they are shape-shifting. Each book is different from its predecessor, but the reading of it also changes your understanding of everything that came before.

The first book is a fairy tale. Ogres and princes, prisons and palaces, communists and poets. A coming-of-age story, with folkloric colour.

The second book is a romance. Love and marriage. Childhood crushes and secret affairs.

The third book is political. A feminist awakening. It was less enjoyable to read; reading it became a compulsion, driven by all that came before, and then an obligation: the adage that the personal is political made manifest. I had to read it, for my own good, for everyone's.

The fourth book is a reconciliation. A synthesis, a Neapolitan golden notebook. A deconstruction and reconstruction. It is how we live with the hypocrisy of adulthood.

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lenu discovers feminism.
First, intrigued by the title, I read an essay entitled We Spit on Hegel. I read it while Elsa slept in her carriage and Dede, in coat, scarf, and woolen hat, talked to her doll in a low voice. Every sentence struck me, every word, and above all the bold freedom of thought. I forcefully underlined many of the sentences, I made exclamation points, vertical strokes. Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. And on historical materialism. And on Freud. And on psychoanalysis and penis envy. And on marriage, on family. And on Nazism, on Stalinism, on terrorism. And on war. And on the class struggle. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat. And on socialism. And on Communism. And on the trap of equality. And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. Deculturate. Disacculturate, starting with maternity, don't give children to anyone. Get rid of the master-slave dialectic. Rip inferiority from our brains. Restore women to themselves. Don't create antitheses. Move on another plane in the name of one's own difference. The university doesn't free women but completes their repression. Against wisdom. While men devote themselves to undertakings in space, life for women on this planet has yet to begin. Woman is the other face of the earth. Woman is the Unpredictable Subject. Free oneself from subjection here, now, in this present. The author of those pages was called Carla Lonzi. How is it possible, I wondered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against.
And as I read, I'm thinking yes! Yes! I must read Carla Lonzi. I know this all already, I know it instinctively, but here it is articulated so plainly.

And soon I'm reliving my relationships and shaking my head at men.
Maybe there's something mistaken in this desire men have to instruct us; I was young at the time, and I didn't realize that in his wish to transform me was the proof that he didn't like me as I was, he wanted me to be different, or, rather, he didn't want just a woman, he wanted the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman. For Franco, I said, I was an opportunity for him to expand into the feminine, to take possession of it: I constituted the proof of his omnipotence, the demonstration that he knew how to be not only a man in the right way but also a woman. And today when he no longer senses me as part of himself, he feels betrayed.
Reading the third of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels should have put to rest any speculations that the writer of these novels might be a man. For it to be written by a man would be an insult. But this also speaks to the problem of being unmasked — somehow caught out — by a man.

This feminist education is continued in The Story of the Lost Child.
I talked about my difficult relationship with the feminist groups in Florence and Milan, and, as I did, and experience that I had underestimated suddenly became important: I discovered n public what I had learned by watching that painful effort of excavation. I talked about how, to assert myself, I had always sought to be male in intelligence — I started off every evening saying I felt that I had been invented by men, colonized by their imagination.
So much to relate to: "it seemed to me evident how restrictive, at thirty-two, being a wife and mother might be."

The Story of the Lost Child gets a bit meta. Maybe even metaphysical:
She cited the experience of the earthquake, for more than two years, she had done nothing except complain of how the city had deteriorated. She said that since then she had been careful never to forget that we are very crowded beings, full of physics, astrophysics, biology, religion, soul, bourgeoisie, proletariat, capital, work, profit, politics, many harmonious phrases, many unharmonious, the chaos inside and the chaos outside. So calm down.
Elena is ready to blame the critics, "as if the reviewers hadn't read the book that was in the bookstores but, rather, each had evoked a fantasy book fabricated from his own biases."

This tetralogy is, to put it simplistically, the story of a life-long friendship. But quite apart from how their individual lives are intertwined, apart from the Drama of the Neighbourhood, it's a story of the idea of friendship. It's about how we reflect each other, how we see ourselves, gauging our ambitions and achievements, wins and losses.
We had become for each other abstract entities, so that now I could invent her for myself both as an expert in in computers and as a determined and implacable urban guerrilla, while she, in all likelihood, could see me both as the stereotype of the successful intellectual and as a cultured and well-off woman, all children, books, and highbrow conversation with an academic husband. We both needed new depth, body, and yet were distant and couldn't give it to each other.
The dissolving margins of the first book in the later volumes are translated as dissolving boundaries. This is the blurring between self and other. Elena and Lila are completely dissolved in each other. "[Lila] perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself." This is both the beauty and the tragedy of the friendship.

I love the slipperiness of the ending. I'd like to believe that the book in my hands is in fact Lila's manuscript, all her research of Naples synthesized and poured into the voice of the Elena she imagines to be trying to define herself in terms of her experience of Lila. We are each others' authors.

I love the ambiguity of the titles of the volumes; they could quite readily apply to either Elena or Lila. Clearly it is Lila who remains in Naples and Elena who has travelled the country, yet Lenu fears that she would stay behind.
Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
The Story of the Lost Child was somewhat mysterious because for 350 pages there was no obviously lost child. Till that point, the title might've metaphorically been referencing either Elena or Lila, or any one of their children, or all of them, the children of the Neighbourhood, of Naples, of all Italy, lost.

I had a brilliant friend once. Several really, but one in particular, from the age of 11 or so. I kept her letters, from high school and university days. We made very different life choices. In this way I was Elena doing what I was supposed to do but somehow still falling short, and she was Lila doing what she wanted, despite violating societal norms with some catastrophic results, and nobody saw anything but the rightness of her life, the strength of her character. Does everyone have a Lila?
Every night I improvised successfully, starting from my own experience. I talked about the world I came from, about the poverty and squalor, male and also female rages, about Carmen and her bond with her brother, her justifications for violent actions that she would sure never commit. I talked about how, since I was a girl, I had observed in my mother and other women the most humiliating aspects of family life, of motherhood, of subjection to males. I talked about how, for love of a man, one could be driven to be guilty of every possible infamy toward other women, toward children. I talked about my difficult relationship with the feminist groups in Florence and Milan, and, as I did, an experience that I had underestimated suddenly became important: I discovered in public what I had learned by watching that painful effort of excavation. I talked about how, to assert myself, I had always sought to be male in intelligence — I started off every evening saying I felt that I had been invented by men, colonized by their imagination.
Look, I said to myself, the couple collapses, the family collapses, every cultural cage collapses, every possible social-democratic accommodation collapses, and meanwhile everything tries violently to assume another form that up to now would have been unthinkable: Nino and me, the sum of my children and his, the hegemony of the working class, socialism and Communism, and above all the unforeseen subject, the woman, I. Night after night, I went around recognizing myself in an idea that suggested general disintegration and, at the same time, new composition.
I am Elena Ferrante.

Take note, Senor Gatti, "Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity."

See also You Want a Piece of Me, by Julianne Ross.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project

"To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don't even have the desires to live, I've never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, while we're speaking, I'd be more than happy. Imagine if I'm going to start writing."

She had often expressed that idea of eliminating herself, but, starting in the late nineties — and especially from 2000 on — it became a sort of teasing chorus. It was a metaphor, of course. She liked it, she had resorted to it in the most diverse circumstances, and it never occurred to me, in the many years of our friendship — not even in the most terrible moments following Tina's disappearance — that she would think of suicide. Eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project. One can't go on anymore, she said, electronics seems so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave traces of yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.
— from The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante.

The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228:
Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It's not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.

n+1, Bluebeard:
Even the stones know that Ferrante is Ferrante, and that's the way her readers want it. More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity — and her autonomy — as she is. It is a compact: she won't tell us, we won't ask, and she won't change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she'll write books and we'll read them. The feminist defense of Ferrante's privacy was especially swift. It's difficult to read a man's attempt to "out" a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.

New Republic, Leave Elena Ferrante Alone:
No one tells Banksy he has to reveal himself or we’ll all assume he’s a women’s collective.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Do not think about sin

It is silly not to hope, he thought. Besides I believe it is a sin. Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.

I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.

But he liked to think about all things that he was involved in and since there was nothing to read and he did not have a radio, he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin. You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. It you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

"You think too much, old man," he said aloud.
— from The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway.

I've been meaning to read The Old Man and the Sea for years — it's been packed with me on two trips to Cuba and several fishing excursions, but this week I finally read it. I'm not sure yet if I enjoyed this novella.

I almost didn't read it, because the beginning was so boring. I'm not sure what the point of all that preamble is. I would've started the story at sea, on the morning of his 85th fishless day, but what do I know, I'm no Max Perkins. And then Hemingway would've had to work the lions in another way.

Unsurprisingly, it reminded me of fishing. My ex took the bass boat when he left. Time changes on the water, and you become very attuned to the water, the birds, and all manner of things that indicate fish behaviour, but also to things that have nothing to do with fish. Sometimes I miss fishing.

Also, I was surprised by how graphic it was. I flinched often.

But ultimately it was very suspenseful and, of course, tragic. Is it ambition and pride that is the man's undoing? But he is not undone, he has proved himself to himself, no matter how meaningless the measure. It's an old man's coming of age story.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?

Those words had an unpleasant effect on me. As if she were giving dispassionate advice, she was suggesting that I separate also from my third child. She seemed to be saying: Imma would be better off and so would you. I replied: If Imma leaves me, too, my life will no longer have meaning. But she smiled: Where is it written that lives should have a meaning? So she began to disparage all that struggle of mine to write. She said mockingly: Is the meaning that line of black markings that look like insect shit? She invited me to take a rest, she exclaimed: What need is there to work so hard. Enough.
—from The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante.

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?