Thursday, November 16, 2017

Multiple and contradictory ways of being faithful

My breathing had grown regular again. But it was not nothing. I didn't know that it would ever be nothing — what person contemplates the details of her betrayal without feeling some combination of regret and humiliation, however far in the past?
I first heard about A Separation, by Katie Kitamura, during the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge (mostly weeks one and two). I learned that there was very little story to it, it was told by an unreliable narrator who's also cold and distant, it transpires in Greece, and it's a meditative look at the dissolution of a marriage and its minutiae. Kind of. Opinion was very divided. Sounded right up my alley.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, worried about Christopher. She obviously doesn't know they've been separated for six months, and rather than tell her so, the narrator agrees to go to Greece to check up on him.

So the narrator's a little passive, possibly emotionless — I'd say she's slow and careful about how she processes things. I think she's very relatable, in a "my god, how did I get here?!" kind of way. I mean, who hasn't been married for five years to a guy you may or may not love and felt intimidated by a mother-in-law you don't like, and you spend so much time with them, do you even really know these people, and one day you wake up and you're separated and you're not sure you even care?! Totally relatable. You do your work, you live your life, death is an inconvenience.

I hesitate to say the narrator is unreliable, because nothing she surmises is ever proven false, I don't feel she lied to me, I never felt she was hiding anything from me. On the contrary, she's very forthcoming in her opinions of others and theories of their goings-on. What stands out about her as a narrator is that we know next to nothing about her; we spend time in her head, processing her world, but without access to her history. Quite possibly she doesn't know herself very well.

In my reading, it's key to note that she works as a translator. She has occasion to be reminded of her work on Balzac's Colonel Chabert.
Although the story favors the colonel — the countess is the villain of the story, insofar as there is one, she is portrayed as callow, manipulative and superficial — as I worked on the translation, I found myself increasingly sympathetic to the countess, to the extent that I began to wonder if this feeling showed in the translation, if I had weighted the words without realizing it. Of course, this sympathy might not have been so errant, it might have been Balzac's intention, the very effect he wished to cause in the reader: after all, what a terrible fate, to be faithless, to commit bigamy without being aware of it, it was all in the text itself.

Perhaps because of this concern — one that is in the end a question of fidelity, translators are always worried about being faithful to the original, an impossible task because there are multiple and often contradictory ways of being faithful, there is literal fidelity and there is in the spirit of,a phrase without concrete meaning — I thought about Chabert now.
Clearly she doesn't just work as a translator, she lives as one: filtering everything, distilling it to its essence, weighing it and weighting it, considering its intention and its effect. She translates the whole world for us.

Also in many ways she remains faithful to the original — her first marriage.

There are some great "pieces" in this book: on the expression "he's dead to me"; on modern technology facilitating a different kind of pornography; on the personal ads in the London Review of Books; on professional mourners.
You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you in order to mourn for other people, and not only yourself.
The mood of A Separation is quite meditative, on several subjects: how we never really know anyone else, what we choose to believe about others, how we maintain appearances, the disconnect between what we say and do and feel, how we lie about stupid things, for stupid reasons.

Not much happens. I found a stillness in this novel that suited my state of mind well.

Excerpt.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

It stripped them of everything

He wondered what made people so attached to their new lives of spinning in orbit around the queue, unable to venture beyond it. People hadn't been idiots before they came to the Gate with their paperwork. There were women and men, young and old people, professionals and the working class. No section of society was missing, even the poorest of the poor were there, not separated from the rich by any means. Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way.

He had expected there to be exceptions, that someone among them would come out in support of the Riffraff, or even sympathize with their call to resist this absurd and ceaseless situation — but no one did. The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them. He, too, had been affected — he knew it in his heart. Otherwise, he would have still had his rebellious streak, and would have told everyone in the queue to advance, promising them that if everyone took just a single step, that single step alone could destroy the Gate's walls and shake off this stagnation. But the queue's magnet held him captive. Maybe he'd convinced himself that he was helping Yehya by staying in the queue, but the truth was he couldn't leave it; his body came and went, but his will was trapped here.
— from The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz.

What makes people idiots? What traps people's souls?

For Reading Across Borders Book Club, Wednesday, November 22, at 7, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading

What sold me on Salki, by Wojciech Nowicki, was a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the comparisons it draws to other writers I admire.
Nowicki travels like Svetlana Alexievich. He wants to understand the emotional history of his family, and how memories are formed. Like Georges Perec, whom he admires and cites, he accumulates impressions, images. "Another moment of beauty in Perec," he writes, "is his endless calculations, lists of objects, people, facts, and occurrences […] like smoke over a meadow."
So it's no wonder my impressions both of Alexievich and Perec hover over my reading of Salki, and I'm attuned to the similarities.

Nowicki also writes in lists. It's at times almost trance-like, a way to access memory, whereas with Perec, perhaps it's a way to order the chaotic external world.

But it's striking also to see this edition of Salki side by side with Perec's classic, Life: A User's Manual, how they both show cross-sections of a living space — the intersection of individual lives and the attics of the mind. The archeological, and psychological, layers of identity.

The cover of the original Polish edition features an elephant on the roof of a nondescript building. I was so struck by the review I linked to above, that not only did I promptly order myself a copy, I convinced my sister to attend in my stead a reading and discussion with the author, Wojciech Nowicki, and the translator, Jan Pytalski (there was an event near her, but not one in my town). There was some discussion of the different tone in covers for the different language editions, but both are appropriate to the content; ultimately, cover art is a marketing decision.

One other element on the English cover: the endorsement from Andrzej Stasiuk. "Your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading." Which is just a little bit weird and sets me a-tingle.

This book is not fiction. These are essays and anecdotes. Salki is a memoir, a travelogue, an inquiry, a meditation. I am reading it slowly, for that skin-crawling pleasure.

Excerpt.


Monday, October 30, 2017

A sentence about cats

I read this great sentence the other day, about cats, but I can't find it. And I don't even know if I read it yesterday or if it was days ago, it can't be that hard to track down, I haven't read that much in the last few days. I've been reviewing sections of The Passion According to G.H., but I can be fairly confident that's not where the sentence is from, there are no cats in it, just the cockroach, and the drawing of the dog on the wall, it was a dog, wasn't it? So maybe the new book I started, Salki, fortunately I'm not very far along, I can just skim back to the beginning, but no cats, just that fabulous description of Krakow — they might've been Polish cats — and I already don't recognize so much of this book, how can I say I'm reading it if I can't even remember five pages ago?, but the tone, the listiness of it, feels a little like my cat sentence, maybe it comes from a part of the book I haven't read yet, so I check the review that spurred me to acquire this book, but the sentence isn't there either. The review notes a similarity to Perec, and I recall having looked at some of my notes on Life: A User's Manual, and though I don't recall any cats in the text — no, I don't think they were French cats — just that great picture of Perec with a cat on his shoulder — I check my notes again to be sure, but no cat sentence. The only other things I've read in recent days are a few articles, some reviews, nothing noteworthy, nothing I saved or bookmarked, how could I have let such a great sentence pass me by, unmarked, I fear it may be lost forever.

The sentence went something like this, about the change of season transpiring over their alley world, and how the outdoor cats were noting the changes and somehow plotting, and the indoor/outdoor cats feel unprepared, caught between two worlds, while the indoor cats watch the outdoor cats and can afford to feel smug but are also a little bit jealous, or wistful, all the cats in their alley, I can picture it, definitely they feel like Montreal cats.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Addicted to the condiment of the word

Ah, speaking to me and to you is being mute. Speaking to the God is the mutest that exists. Speaking to things, is mute. I know this sounds sad to you, and to me too, since I am still addicted to the condiment of the word. And that is why muteness hurts me like a dismissal.
I adore this book. I want to read it again. The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector, is a mystical, and sometimes mystifying, marvel.

But this book is not for everybody.

This is the story of woman who finds a cockroach. They stare into each other's being. This novel is about those minutes that turn into hours.

My love for this book is more about the reading experience it gave me than about the book itself. I can imagine failing miserably with this book at another time in my life.

While it is short enough to read in a weekend, it plunges to existential depths in liquid time. It did me good to read it over months, chapter by chapter, often rereading pages. It took me deep into myself, but also brought me out of myself. This book was a tool for introspection.

After a couple days of (mostly) sober reflection, I realize that the ending is a little disappointing, as a novel. What's astounding is that this should be considered a novel at all; it's a philosophical treatise, more Kierkegaard than Kafka. But amazingly, for most of the book, I turned pages based on that novelistic framework: what's going to happen next? how will it end?

As the novel closes there are some loose threads: Does the cockroach die*? (Can we consider G.H. to be a death-eater, a sin-eater?)

*[A few reviews summarize the ending — SPOILER ALERT — thusly: G.H. eats the dead cockroach. My reading tells me this: she eats the white matter that spurted from its body (this is a sexual passion before it is a religious one). She eats "of the roach," the paste of the roach, the roach's matter. G.H.'s initial slam did not kill the roach instantaneously; all G.H. learns she learns from the living roach, she describes the roach as dying (are we not all dying?), but there is no dead body. Fellow readers, what say you? And does it matter in terms of G.H.'s experience (I think it might)?]

How did G.H. get from yesterday to today? How did she leave the room? Presumably she is at a desk, writing about her experience. And now that's done, will she go dancing?
(I know one thing: if I reach the end of this story, I shall go, not tomorrow, but this very day, out to eat and dance at the "Top-Bambino," I furiously need to have some fun and diverge myself. Yes, I'll definitely war my new blue dress that flatters me and gives me color, I'll call Carlos, Josefina, Antonio, I don' really remember which of the two of them I notices wanted me or if both of them wanted me, I'll eat crevettes à la whatever, and I know because I'll eat crevettes, tonight, tonight will be my normal life resumed, the life of my common joy, for the rest of my days I'll need my light, sweet and good-humoured vulgarity, I need to forget, like everyone.)
This paragraph is so out of step with the rest of the book. (Later she decides against the blue dress in favour of the black and white one [p183].) Is this the old G.H.? Or the new G.H.? Do we all so desperately need to forget? (Yes!)

The first sentence of each chapter repeats the last sentence of the preceding chapter, which effectively pulls the reader along. While there's no secret message here, this list of first sentences provides an interesting summation of the novel's contents.
— — — — — — I'm searching, I'm searching.
Because a world fully alive has the power of a Hell.
Only I will know if that was the failure I needed.
Then I headed into the dark hallway behind the service area.
Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray.
That was when the cockroach began to emerge.
Each eye reproduced the entire cockroach.
I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.
Forgiveness is an attribute of living matter.
I had committed the forbidden act of touching the unclean.
Then, once again, another thick millimeter of white matter spurted out.
Finally, my love, I gave in, and it became a now.
Since what I was seeing predated humanity.
Neutral crafting of life.
No longer even fear, no longer even fright.
Give me your hand:
Prehuman divine life is of a presentness that burns.
I was seeking an expanse.
I suddenly turned to the interior of this room which, in its burning, at least was not populated.
But there is something that must be said, it must be said.
Because inside myself I saw what hell is like.
Hell is my maximum.
I was eating myself, I am who am also living matter of the Sabbath.
She would feel like the lack of something that should have been hers.
Because the naked thing is so tedious.
I must not fear seeing humanization from the inside.
Infinitely increasing the plea that is born of neediness.
The taste of the living.
Our hands that are coarse and full of words.
Because I haven't told everything.
The divine for me is whatever is real.
All that is missing is the coup de grâce — which is called passion.
Giving up is a revelation.
The last sentence is:
And so I adore it. — — — — — —
The dashes bring us full circle to the start of the novel, suggesting there might be something cyclical thematically as well.

G.H. starts the book claiming to have lost something. Her humanity? Her inhumanity? What has she become?

The convoluted sentence structure (not to be mistaken for convoluted thought; in fact, Lispector (and her translator, Idra Novey) wields a precision of language in verbing and positioning subject and object in relation to each other) brings to mind Kierkegaard or Kant. Some of the concepts Lispector dances with: transcendence, consubstantiation, immanence. Being and nothingness. Divinity and humanness.

In addition: notions of time and history, and indirectly the cultural trappings of art and sexuality. Beauty.

It made me lose my bearings and helped me find them again.

Previous Passion posts
This book is like any other book
I lost my human form for several hours
Everything there was sliced-up nerves
I, whatever that was
A belly entirely new and made for the ground
The simple moistness of the thing
Feeling with hellish voracity

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Feeling with hellish voracity

Because inside myself I saw what hell is like.

Hell is the mouth that bites and eats the living flesh with its blood, and the one being eaten howls with delight in his eye: hell is pain as delight of the matter, and with the laughter of delight, the tears run in pain. And the tear that comes from the laughter of pain is the opposite of redemption. I was seeing the inexorability of the roach with its ritual mask. I was seeing that that was hell: the cruel acceptance of pain, the solemn lack of pity for one's own destiny, loving the ritual of life more than one's own self — that was hell, where the one eating the other's living face was indulging in the joy of pain.

For the first time I was feeling with hellish voracity the desire to have had the children I never had: I wanted to have reproduced, not in three or four children, but in twenty thousand my organic hellishness full of pleasure.
— from The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Two humiliating negatives

The door no longer creaked as it had done in her father's time; it opened quietly, but she was immediately and simultaneously aware of both past and present, of the smooth movement of the door and the creak that was no longer there. She shivered under the eiderdown. Two humiliating negatives.
Iza's Ballad, by Magda Szabó, is an achingly beautifully sad novel.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading. It's about the people that surround Iza, and while this helps create a picture of the life she moves through, we never get to know her intimately. Which is, perhaps, the point.

Translator George Szirtes explains in his introduction (I've learned to save these for after I read the novel — if they don't contain outright spoilers, they can very much colour your perception of the work) that the Hungarian title is Pilátus, the reasons for which I won't go into here. The English title sets a different expectation, and I'm not sure it's much better.

I picked up Iza's Ballad expecting to learn something about myself. After all, my name is Iza too, at least in some circles. For the most part, it's the story of how Iza, a successful doctor, divorced, brings her aging mother to live with her in the big city after her father dies. I have an aging mother too.

Iza is good person. She always does the right thing. Textbook. The world is her problem to solve. She views her mother as a patient more than as a person.

Her mother, Ettie, referred to mostly as "the old woman," loves her daughter dearly, doesn't want to hurt her feelings, respects her judgement, and, above all, trusts her (whom else can she trust?) — Iza always knows what to do, she's so clever.

It's heartbreaking to see these two women working at cross-purposes, both well-intentioned, both trying to do the best for the other, and failing miserably. It's a massive failure of communication, as well as a failure of courage on Ettie's part and a failure of understanding on Iza's.

We're treated also to portraits of Iza's father Vince, a former judge whose career fell victim to censure; her ex-husband Antal, an orphan, now a doctor in her small hometown; Lidia, his new love interest, a nurse who sat by Vince's deathbed; Domokos, a writer, Iza's would-be suitor; and other minor characters who flit through their lives, both in Budapest and in the villages. These people are so fully and compassionately drawn.

The eponymous ballad is not simply a poetic rendering to tell us this is Iza's story; there is an actual folksong at the heart of her character, one so sad, she could not bear to hear how it ended.

[I could find no trace of this particular song, words by Bajza József, but I imagine it is something like this one.]
"Good Lord," thought Lidia, "how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins! The poor woman believes that old people's pasts are the enemy. She has failed notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present."
Beyond that, Iza's Ballad is about our idea of home — is it our stuff? the people? And what when our belongings and our loved ones are gone? Sometimes it really is a place, but it's a half-remembered, half-imagined place. It may be a seemingly random, inconsequential place imbued with only half-real memories and meaning.

The original Hungarian title would appear to be a harsh condemnation of Iza. I prefer to take pity on her. She is after all, her mother's daughter.

I read Szabó's The Door last year and thought it was brilliant. I was delighted to learn that Iza's Ballad was available in English. I was devastated to realize that Szabó died ten years ago, and thus only a finite number of her works will ever be available to me. I'll be looking up the recently released Katalin Street shortly.

Reviews Worth Reading
The Globe and Mail: In Iza’s Ballad, Magda Szabo delivers a compelling parable of mid-20th century progress:
But Iza's Ballad relies on contrasts; Ettie exists fundamentally in relation, and opposition, to her daughter. [...] It is more of a study of the spaces between people, and what those represent.
New York Times: In Magda Szabo's Novel, a Widow Is Uprooted From What She Loves (Lauren Groff):
Szabo excels at summoning the delicate and wordless spaces between people who love each other; as the book goes on, the emotional layers build quietly and almost unbearably. You feel tragedy amassing, somehow, out of ineffable wisps of feeling.
Anomaly: Stumbling Toward Affection: On Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad:
Absent antagonists and filled with loving, goodhearted characters, Szabó’s novel might be confused for that of an idealist, were it not for its characters’ muted and pervasive despair. Without evil men to blame, we must study the protagonists’ frustrations, see in them our own, and consider how one can look at others and perceive them as more than manifestations of vitals and symptoms.