Monday, December 20, 2010

"Because you didn't have any"

My first Icelandic thriller turned out to be fairly thrilling. Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason, was also published as Jar City. It's well-paced and has some thought-provoking aspects, not least being Iceland's nature as a closed community and how invaluable it therefore is in terms of things like genetic research, when traits and diseases can be readily mapped to geneological trees.

Detective Erlunder, the main investigator, is a fairly well-drawn character, with a complicated personal side, blah, blah, blah. His coworkers are more enigmatic, or more thin (at least in this first of the detective series).

It turned out that they were well suited, had similar interests and both wanted to make a beautiful home for themselves with exclusive furniture and objets d'art, yuppies at heart. They always kissed when they met after a long day at work. Gave each other little presents. Even opened a bottle of wine. Sometimes they went straight to bed when they got home from work, but there's been considerably less of that recently.

That was after she had given him a pair of very ordinary Finnish Wellington boots for his birthday. He tried to beam with delight but the expression of disbelief stayed on his face for too long and she saw there was something wrong. When he finally smiled it was false.

"Because you didn't have any," she said.

"I haven't had a pair of Wellington boots since I was . . . 10," he said.

"Aren't you pleased?"

"I think they're great," Sigurdur Óli said, knowing that he hadn't answered the question. She knew it too. "No, seriously," he added and could tell he was digging himself a cold grave. "It's fantastic."

"You're not pleased with them," she said morosely.

"Sure I am," he said, still at a total loss because he couldn't stop thinking about the 30,000-króna wristwatch he'd given her for her birthday, bought after a week of explorations all over town and discussions with watchmakers abut brand, gold plating, mechanisms, straps, water-tightness, Switzerland and cuckoo clocks. He'd applied all his detective skills to find the right watch, found it in the end and she was ecstatic, her joy and delight were genuine.

There he was sitting in front of her with his smile frozen on his face and tried to pretend to be overjoyed, but he simply couldn't do it for all his life was worth.

— from Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason.

This passage is nothing much special — it's certainly not representative, nor is it particularly witty. I think it's quite weird, actually; it sticks out of this book like a sore thumb. And it is about all the insight we're going to get into the private life of Sigurdur Óli, Erlunder's partner.

But it made me kind of sad. And it made me think a little harder about what I would do for J-F for his birthday this year. Happy birthday, J-F!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The miraculous Matilda

Why didn't anybody tell me? Have you read Matilda? Have you read Roald Dahl? Are his other books any good?

The only other Dahl that I've read is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. And the title story in that collection — what a wonderful story it was! I know squat about its narrative structure, blah, blah, blah, but what a great frickin' story! And when I read it, when I was 11, or maybe 15, it blew my mind.

So here's this Matilda, which I read earlier this week, charming for all sorts of reasons, the well-read eponymous heroine, her criminally thoughtless parents, the weirdly nasty headmistress, et cetera — it's all so sweet (I mean that in a Dickensian way) and funny. But then! [Spoiler alert!] Matilda develops paranormal telekinetic powers! Which is what put me in mind of Henry Sugar.

I know Dahl by reputation (oh, and that terrific Mr Fox movie). Henry Sugar was special, special to me, and I assumed it was unique among his writing. But this paranormal angle fascinates me. Henry Sugar had it, and so does Matilda. Is there more? Do the other books also feature similar uncanny abilities? Are they all this good?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Burnt-out

Has anyone ever seen a man smile at a woman as a woman smiles at the man she loves, fortuitously, at a bus-stop, in a railway carriage, at some chain-store in the middle of buying groceries, a smile so naturally joyful, without premeditation and without caution? The converse, of course, is probably true also. A man can never smile quite so falsely as the girl in a brothel parlour. But the girl in the brothel, Querry thought, is imitating something true. The man has nothing to imitate.

Not sure what possessed me to read Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case at this time. An examination of one man’s faith — in a leper colony — didn’t strike me as the cheeriest of reads. But perhaps I’m a bit like our hero Querry in this respect, fingering a sore.

Definitely in the mode of the Catholic novels, though not considered a major one, it’s somewhat lacking in subtlety. It’s a little too intensely moral (and in sharp contrast to Simenon’s indifferent amorality, which I’ve been gobbling up these last weeks) for my taste. However, it’s still quite worthwhile — it’s relatively short (also, available as an ebook), events take a very surprising turn toward the end, and Greene demonstrates some wonderful turns of phrase.

***********

(The Superior)
...suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.

(Querry)
Sometime he read, sometimes he simply watched the steady khaki flow of the stream, which carried little islands of grass and water jacinth endlessly down at the pace of crawling taxis, out of the heart of Africa, towards the far-off sea.

...and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano.

The Governor was a very small man with a short-sight which gave him an appearance of moral intensity.

(Rycker)
...he had passed from excessive amiability to dissatisfaction, the kind of cosmic dissatisfaction which, after probing faults in others’ characters, went on to the examination of his own.

(Father Thomas)
...fetching up a smile like a liquorice-stick, dark ands sweet and prehensile.

(Querry)
Boredom is worse in comfort.

(Doctor Colin)
“You’re too troubled by your lack of faith, Querry. You keep fingering it like a sore you want to get rid of. I am content with the myth; you are not — you have to believe or disbelieve.”

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The snow was dirty

I finished reading Dirty Snow this weekend, and for a couple hours I walked around in a daze, like I'd been punched in the gut.

Can't put my finger on what it is that makes this book, and all of Simenon's romans durs, so ngaah (that's the sound I make when I'm punched in the gut).

The prose is spare — all the fat is trimmed. But it's not just the tap-tap rhythm, like heels clicking on the crusted snow, that's so evocative. It's all so empty feeling. Not exactly emotionless, there's plenty of hate and fear and wistfulness and sometimes love, even if Simenon doesn't tell you about it. How do I explain this? It's the emptiness of the abyss staring back at you.

I'm still reeling. I still have no idea what happened. Frank kills this man, a noncommissioned officer of the Occupation forces, pretty much on page 1, and you see him getting reckless and then it just gets worse and worse, and poor Sissy! It's unforgivable what Frank does to her. And then Frank's arrested and the book takes a weird turn.

Was he arrested for this murder? Or the other one? Or his crime against Sissy? Or the thing with the stolen watches? To do with his mother's business (she runs a brothel)? For consorting with the wrong people? Someone getting back at him? Who? Sissy's father? One of his mother's girls? One of Kromer's men? Kromer himself? The violinist on the second floor? Where does Monsieur Hamling, the inspector, fit into all this?

We spend the second half of the book detained, inside Frank's head, undergoing months of interrogation (by the Occupation forces), without getting anything straight. There's this faint glimmer of insight, maybe signifying love and redemption, but no, it's gone.

Dirty Snow championed by James Hynes as a better book The Stranger (Camus), with excerpt.
Afterword, by William T Vollmann, in which comparisons are drawn with Middlemarch.

This is my fourth roman dur by Simenon in just over 2 months. I'm bloody addicted. They are very frustrating — if you're the type of reader who likes everything tied up, if you need closure, then Simenon is probably not for you. The appeal for me, I think, lies in how lifelike it all is — not that life is so harrowing and bleak, but in the sense that we can't ever really know anyone, their motivations, what makes them tick. There is no omniscient third-person narrator to explain life to us.

I regret, a little bit, that I'm starting to learn a little bit about Simenon. Art and artist should remain separate, and I feel most strongly about this when I disapprove of the artist. While I'm about to order another batch of romans durs to feed my addiction, it turns out that I don't much like Simenon the man.

Simenon was accused of being a Nazi collaborator, presumably on the grounds of several of his works having been produced as films under the Nazi administration, and this is the reason for which he fled France in 1945, for America. (His younger brother was also accused of being a collaborator; he joined the Foreign Legion and was killed in Indochina.) Though he claims to have no ideology whatsoever, this casts a dark light on how he unfavorably portrayed Jews in his novels.

In the 1982 Radio Canada interview (link below), Simenon comes off as someone quite full of himself — he doth protest too much against the riches and the glory to be taken at his sincere word. Also, his account of his relationship with is daughter, not to mention with his wives and women in general, is somewhat disturbed. He claims to have slept with far more women than Casanova; that most of them were quite probably whores is a trivial point in his view. He's a bit of a jerk, really; and also creepy. Like M Hire, only more sexed.

Interviews
Radio Canada, Gérard Pelletier, 1960.
Radio Canada, Denise Bombardier, 1982.
The Paris Review: Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No. 9.

Simenon in Canada
La bonne quebecoise.
Simenon's cottage at Lac Masson.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

You would never forgive yourself

It was lucky he hadn't finished his sentence. He had to get out of the habit of speaking pointless words.

He didn't know yet that everything he saw had its importance, and became a little more important with each day. You think "school." And you have a ready-made image of it in your mind. But in some cases, the tiniest detail might one day become so precious that you would never forgive yourself for not having looked at it more carefully.

— from Dirty Snow, by Georges Simenon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions."

I give up.

I haven't been able to connect with Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis. Despite really wanting to. This failure, on the book's part, to click with me, is making me angry. I'm trying to understand my reaction to this book; it's like I'm determined not to like it now.

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions (p145)."

As of this writing, I'm on page 191 of 485. I feel like I need to write about this book, but how can I, fairly, if I haven't read the whole thing? I thought, I'll finish part 1 at least, that'd be a fair sample. But I can't do it. It's a tough slog. And it's colouring my life. It's making me cranky. I owe it to myself to read something I enjoy, don't I?

I have no idea what Vilnius Poker is about.

In most descriptions of the book, much seems to be made of the fact that Vytautas Vargalis, the narrator of the first section, works in a library, cataloguing stuff to which no one will have ever access. It adds a level of absurdity to his circumstances, to life under Soviet rule, to his worldview, but only a few paragraphs here and there deal with the library. As far as I can make out, it's a nonessential layer.

Just a little bit of research makes some of the symbolism in the book quite obvious.

Gediminas (Gedis for short) Riauba, friend of Vytautas, and murder victim (I think), I sometimes confused with a location, a street. Gediminas Avenue is named for the 14th century Grand Duke, a pagan who resisted Christianization and cultural assimilation. Quite clearly he is brought back to life by Gavelis as Gedis, symbol of all that is true and right. ("They even call our Gedis 'The Grand Duke of Lithuania' (p150).")

The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania (situated on Gediminas Avenue) is named for the author and the editor of the first printed book in the Lithuanian language (16th century). It can't be a coincidence that the keeper of this library's secrets (I mean, the one in Vilnius Poker — is it ever clearly identified by name or by geography as being the national library? No, I think it's the city library.) is named Martynas (also a writer).

As for the Matrix-like workings of reality, all under the tight control of Them, well, that's just the great Soviet metaphor.

I came here looking for something: a thing, and animal, or a person. A thing, an animal, or a person? It's trivial, it's all nothing. A mysterious object that means something to me couldn't turn up here. The only life her is the cockroaches, dazed by the light, crawling out of the cracks. The gray ruler of Old Town's streets, the short, neckless spiderman, will surely not show up her. So why should I find an answer in this universe of boiled cabbage, vodka, and deformed faces? However, something tells me to wait just precisely here. The memory of the neckless spiderman won't give me peace. I sit and look at everyone in turn, not putting my hopes on anything until my glance stumbles upon an unusual, unexpected figure of a man who doesn't fit in here. I could swear he wasn't here a second ago. He sprang from the earth every wrinkle in his face every fold in his clothes, screams and shouts that he didn't get here the way everyone else did. He has some sort of secret purpose. And his purpose can only be me. I feel a sharp pang in my chest; my hand pours the rest of the tumbler into my mouth of its own accord. The man looks straight at me. His eyes are brimming with quiet and . . . wait, wait . . . yes, a sweetish smell of rot. I have already seen his beautiful, elegant hands, so out of place next to the dirty shirt and frayed remains of a jacket. I already know he's come for me, but I have no idea what he could want from me (I don't want anything from him).

Don't tell me he'll simply take me out to the street and push me under a passing truck? I'm not Gedis, after all. Gedis knew something, and I'm just barely beginning to speculate. Perhaps he came to intimidate me, to break me, to take away my will? The man stands up, rises to his full, gigantic height, and approaches. I look only at him, at his glassy eyes with narrow pupils, and I know him, I know him well.

"Hello, Vytie."

It seems a hundred thunderclaps should roar; it seems the entire Narutis should sink straight into the ground. The man pats my hand. I don't pull it away because across from me sits my father.

There are some interesting aspects. There is beautiful conspiracy-minded paranoia. There are surreal dream sequences. There are some lovely, crazy passages, regarding the meaning of life, as well as both sense of self and sense of national identity. But I read Vilnius Poker as an immature mess, and I don't understand all the praise it has garnered.

Some readability problems. For example, the use of "pathologic" as a noun. It took me 100 pages of repeated stumbling to realize this was meant as a play, on a type of logic. As much as I disdain the senseless use of hyphens after prefixes, and in my work I attempt to eradicate them everywhere, here's a case where a hyphen might've proved useful. I get a lot more sense out of "patho-logic." Or how about a translator's note? The one note so far, regarding Stalin/Sralin, seems like a translator's cop-out, and a missed opportunity to create something clever. Typos also, like "a release value" (for "a release valve"). And why not translate "Tuteiša" (the title of part 3)? (If that's the same as what it sounds like in Polish, it's local, or native, or one from around these parts (feminine).)

So, I'm hating this book. For trying to be enigmatic without being subtle. For the angry-young-man posturing. For the disturbing sexual images, to which I hesitate to ascribe any misogyny per se — for me the tone is merely juvenile, it has the tone of a 14-year-old boy's masturbatory fantasy, like the cover art of genre paperbacks — although, it seems the treatment of women is much more offensive later in the book.

For using the excuse of a Lithuanian soul to pass off unformed ideas as high poetry, as grand literature.

To me it has all the immaturity of the newly realized Slavic and Baltic states. The sense of entitlement, of being overlooked, of demanding some acknowledgement, of demanding to be treated like a grown-up while needing your hand held. This feels like literature that has yet to grow up, though it does seem to capture rather neatly a certain zeitgeist throughout an affected area at the tail end of the Soviet era.

Vilnius Poker reminds me of something Polish I read in the last decade (oh, what was it?), something overflowing with anger and directionlessness, almost like it's outside of the author's control, like it really is a symptom of diseased times.

It reminds me also a little of Victor Pelevin, the chaotic mood of Homo Zapiens, completely out of control. But, while I appreciated the frenzy of that book, I think (if I may say so, based on my having read a grand total of two of his books) Pelevin evolved, matured, to show a more measured control (in Helmet of Horror, anyway).

There's a hint of China Miéville here too, although in The City & the City Miéville puts the paranoia and the politics and the philosophizing to the service of great storytelling. Gavelis meanwhile piles it all up with shit and just dumps it on you.

Perhaps it is because I have a faint family connection to Polish Lithuania, to Wilno, that I am unable to see the real Lithuania. I connect to Vilnius only through the eyes of its oppressors.

"Vilnius, the city of Polish poets: the city of both Mickiewicz and Miłosz (p28)." I suppose these names are called up rather disparagingly, but they are strong names, claimed by Poland, and somewhat ironic emblems of (Polish) national identity. "Now Gedis is playing solitude, a sodden, slow Vilnius solitude, he plays so sadly, softly, sadly, almost Chopin, but the others don't want to allow it (p154)." Chopin, Polish. A couple references also to Roman Polanski, Polish, as creative genius. Granted, genius transcends the boundaries of nationality, but why then does it matter at all that this is Lithuania, that this is Vilnius?

Excerpt.

I give up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today she is 8

and sweet and smart and funny and thoughtful and sensitive and daring and clever and kind.

We had pizza and cake and fun and games and a restful bit of movie-watching. Some running around, indoors and out, plenty of singing, and lots of giggling.

(I like your friends, Helena — they're about as sweet and lovely as your are.)

Happy birthday, Kid!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inertia and continued employment cease to be mutually tenable

Arthur's cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.

He arrives at work, flops into his rolling chair, and remains still. This persists until inertia and continued employment cease to be mutually tenable, at which point he wriggles off his overcoat, flicks on the computer, and checks the news reports.

No one has died. Or, rather, 107 people have in the previous minute, 154,000 in the past day, and 1,078,000 in the past week. But no one who matters. That's good — it has been nine days since his last obit, and he hopes to extend the streak. His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.

— from The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.

I'm barely a quarter of the way into this book, but I'm loving it. It's funny and poignant, and a whole lot of other things besides.

At this point it seems more like a series of connected stories than a novel per se, but we'll see how it unfolds. The stories, the people, all circle round an English-language newspaper in Rome.

It feels right to be reading this just as I'm starting a new job in an editorial environment completely different from what I'm used to. It's not a newspaper, but the publication cycle for a good deal of the work is close to every-other-day-ly, so there's a buzz and a busy-ness that make going to work kind of exciting.

Editorial is just a small part of this business in a sector that I know rather little about. I am relying on osmosis to get up to speed, but that shouldn't be such a feat when the people around me spend their days talking, hashing out ideas and problems and other ways of thinking about things in a fairly passionate way. They are not imperfectionists. We have several watercoolers.

Overheard the other day: "The granularity of the content is one." I don't know what that means, but I can't wait to find out.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bergkristall

Rock Crystal, by Adalbert Stifter, reads like a fairy tale. Once upon a time, two children set out across the mountain to visit their grandmother. On their way home, it snows, and they get lost.

Simple, right? Well, it's Christmas Eve, and combined with the whiteness of the snow and the blueness of the ice and the innocence of the children, the story takes a near mystical turn.

The fairy tale setup had me in a state of high suspense for the appearance of some great lurking evil. But I won't tell you what happens.

Eventually, the sun comes up:

A gigantic blood-red disc climbed the heavens above the sky-line and at the same instant the snow all around flushed as though bestrewn with thousands of roses.

There's so much more to Rock Crystal than beautiful landscapes. There's more to the quaint histories of the picturesque villages — so near each other yet worlds apart — that nestle there. Nature is both enemy and saviour. The children are victims and also agents.

I look forward to that part of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain (an ongoing read) — Hans lost in a snowstorm — which pays homage to this work.

Review: New York Sun.

This book has secured a place on my (very short) list of fine Christmas stories without sentimental treacle.

I almost wish I'd saved this slim novella for one of those snow-blanketed evenings I'm sure aren't too far off. I suspect I'll be reading it again when those still days are upon us.

NYRB Reading Week continues at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Un roman dur


The Engagement, by Georges Simenon, is a compelling, obliquely told story about a creepy little man.

Mr Hire lives on the outskirts of Paris in an apartment complex currently under watch by detectives. Just a couple weeks previously a prostitute had been found murdered in a nearby vacant lot.

We don't know much about the course of the police investigation, what led them to suspect Mr Hire, what other leads might've been exhausted. But it seems Mr Hire is the victim of a slow-motion lynching. Nobody likes him; nobody really knows him either. He's a very convenient scapegoat.

He's not very likable. He's pasty and flabby. He's a creature of habit. He earns his living running a barely legal mail-order scam. His daily routine finishes with him sitting in his chair in his room in the dark, watching a girl undress in the apartment across the courtyard.

None of the other characters — the girl, the concierge, the detectives — are much likable either, so it's curious that everyone should have it in for Mr Hire. There's just something about him...

We do learn a very little bit about Mr Hire's past, but he remains more pathetic than sympathetic. His only success is at the local bowling club, but even there, the respect he's given is devoid of any real human connection.

It's a deeply psychological novella, but as John Gray points out in the afterword, there's very little psychology in it. It's all action, or inaction; Simenon never lets us into Mr Hire's mind. He sits still for hours, but we never know what he's thinking, if he's thinking anything at all. He's a blank for the reader to fill in.

When the blood finally stopped flowing, Mr Hire had no choice but to move around carefully, holding his head very still so as not to reopen the cut. One side of his mustache was drooping, and the mixture of blood and water had stained his face pink, like a watercolor.

There's a lot of rain in this book, you see everything like through a curtain of rain, giving the whole novel the feel of a watercolour, the outlines running into and over each other, dingy and smeared. For all Mr Hire's volume, he has no solidity. He's no innocent, he's passive and impassive, but neither is he what others make him out to be.

This is the third Simenon novel I've read recently, and I want more!

NYRB Reading Week continues at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.



(I saw Monsieur Hire years ago, not realizing it was based on this novel. That haunting music is Brahms' Piano Quartet, Opus 25.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My reading is in a way pointless

I must confess that in all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine's rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can't for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkies's reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know... time?

— from Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes.

I'd wanted to read this novel for ages, but part of me held back, thinking I should properly acquaint myself with Flaubert first. Fresh off Madame Bovary's heels seemed like the perfect time.

Well, the first 50 pages or so I found dreadfully boring, and it took longer still to fully realize this opening passage was meant as a kind of satire of academic literary criticism. The narrator's an amateur critic, a doctor. I haven't yet decided whether his being a doctor is at all relevant.

I'm in the final stretch of the book and am glad to have stuck with it, even if only to discover this fabulous — my new all-time favourite — quotation, from Flaubert: "Whatever else happens, we shall remain stupid."

There are some insightful and funny passages about the art of criticism (the above passage hit me just as I was getting angry with Terry Castle's introduction to Maude Hutchins' Victorine), with examples of how a biography might be reconstructed from mere snippets of fact.

But I can't imagine anyone not interested in or familiar with Flaubert and his work enjoying this book at all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rozsądną trzeba być

And now, a musical interlude, brought to you by the fact that I don't have to go to work today and in the spirit of my night last night, drinking and smoking and footprints on the ceiling.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

For one line that scanned


I didn't think I'd have much to say about Victorine, by Maude Hutchins. I picked it up months ago, remaindered, because I loved the cover and figured, on the basis of it being published by New York Review Books Classics, that it must be fine literature of some worth, but quite honestly, it sounded like some run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story, exactly the type of thing I don't generally go in for, and a quick scan of the opening pages didn't disconfirm that opinion, but I bought it anyway.

So I finished reading Victorine days ago, and I decided I would say a few things about it after all, (and happily I realized that by the time I would have time to get around it, it would coincide with the start of NYRB reading week,) for two reasons: 1. It turns out that I loved this book — it just goes to show that books have their own time, they must be read at the right time. Well, I guess it doesn't show any such thing, but I do firmly believe that if you read a book at the wrong time, you're bound to miss out on a lot, and if you read a book at the right time, you're very lucky indeed, but really, there's no way of knowing often until it's too late. The early November chill was exactly the right time for me for this book. And 2. When I finally read the introduction, it made me angry, and I thought Terry Castle (whoever she is) really didn't get this book at all, and I need somehow to rectify this.

This book makes me want to be 14 again, which given any objective thought isn't a very reasonable wish. Hutchins knows this, Victorine knows this. "Had she been aware of her childish happiness when it was present, or only now, when it was gone, did it look pretty? [...] Childhood was a myth!" I think Hutchins gives a similar tint to adolescence. The novel is pleasantly erotically charged with anticipation, but that works for me, as an adult, only because I know what potential delights it's in anticipation of.

There's not much plot to speak of: Victorine has a few odd encounters (the priest or maybe even Jesus depending how you look at it, her childhood imaginary friend, a hobo riding the rails, the village idiot, the lady who isn't really a lady — she married beyond her station — all of which sounds much odder when listed out this way than it really is), and her older brother, Costello, has some too (with his father's mistress, and the glamorous divorcée who flies through town one summer). It's a kind of sexual awakening, for more than just Victorine, and what actually happens is less important than how it's told, how it's remembered, how it makes you feel.

No one knows why Victorine's father's mother, not talkative or given to reminiscing in her old age as some old people are, named him Homer, but she did and it stayed with him and he rather liked it, and it did somehow become him. She, bookish and shy as some remembered her when she was a young woman, may have hoped to produce a poet, who might just possibly say the thing that, tongue-tied and frightened, she dared not pronounce. Her almost total silence as an old lady, lately passed on, may or may not have been the result of her disappointment. In any even and be that as it may, Flora, or Victorine's paternal grandma, had given birth and surprisingly easily to five successful businessmen one after the other, the youngest of whom is that Homer who is Victorine's father, whose adventures and illicit meanderings he never put paper or set to music. As if she recognized in his crib, in spite of his ambitious nom de plume, just one more average man, Flora had given up, and on the advice of her doctor, some years later, submitted to the removal of those battered and bruised internal organs which were of no more use to her. All, it seemed, that the five boys inherited from their mother was speechlessness, hers. But not for the same reason. Flora had not spoken because the overwhelming beauty of her visions frightened her. The boys were fearless, uninhibited and ambitious and would have certainly learned to talk if it had been to their advantage. But even as little boys they found that at dead pan and silence gave them a prestige among the barbarous little chatterers who often found themselves in trouble because they were just that, and later, strong silent men, they were an asset in Wall Street and highly respected along Beacon Street and Worth and found themselves listed in Dun and Bradstreet without having opened their mouths. Women, too, with the exception of their wives, hung on their lips, as it were, and imagined how sweet it must be — what they didn't say — to be unutterable; and they were handsome and tolerable lovers, devoted husbands. It follows that not one of them was ever sued for breach of promise, no vulgar publicity ever followed a change of heart. No love letters would ever be found in any trunk in any attic. In truth, the only literate papers left behind by the five L'Hommedieu brothers would be, we figure, stock transfers and contracts, leases and seven years of cheque stubs in neat brown envelops, and even on these the signatures indecipherable. A hundred years from now the five will appear never to have existed, possibly because, unlike Caesar, they scorned the use of code as well, and no no oak and no tortoise will be found even the initials of the L'Hommedieu boys. No one ever guessed that they did not speak because they might have had nothing to say.

There's something pretty breathless about the prose (maybe not so much in the excerpt above, but that still gives you an idea of the convoluted syntax), which makes me want to put it in a class with Roberto Bolaño (but not so wild or savage) and Patrick Hamilton (at a different level of wit and without the cynicism).

What Victorine reminds me of most of all, weirdly, is Franny and Zooey, I think because of the sibling relationships.

I'm not sure what pissed me off so much about Terry Castle's introduction. Everything, for her, has to do with Hutchins's biography, and aside from that I don't know a thing about Maude Hutchins except for what Castle has chosen to tell me, and that I don't much go in for that kind of criticism, I came away with the sense that Victorine bored her, and that she doesn't have much respect for or understanding of how Hutchins lived her life.

Castle seems to be calling Victorine's mother oblivious, to her marital catastrophe as well as her children. I think that goes too far. Allison is a bottomless well. I think she takes in more than she lets on; simply it fails to make an impression on her. Allison just wants to feel.

The novel's as simple as adolescence itself: a yearning for an ideal love, a deep-seated need in the soul for poetry.

But how few people achieve what they anticipate so strongly. Victorine's grandmother had "longed for just one poet and would have gladly castrated the lot of them for one line that scanned." Costello too: "It wasn't a letter he wanted to write, it was just some words — a line that scanned? [...] did Flora sigh in her grave?" Hutchins is kind enough to throw away a line to let us know that Victorine's younger brother would become a famous poet.

Here's one of my favourite sentences, for how it blends the wonder of childhood with some other surreptitiously burgeoning awareness: "The cadmium-yellow forsythia branched out in every front yard like fireworks, and the lawns, protected by snow all winter, were covered with succulent tender tiny leaves of grass, the kind that is slippery and makes a vivid stain on your sneakers."

NYRB Reading Week is on at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Il faut corriger la dictée

Vampire child went to school on Friday in place of my usual blood-sucking daughter. (Really, they don't look a bit alike.)

First snow yesterday. Patches of it still with us, hiding in dark corners.

Faintly relieved that child decided not to go trick-or-treating, that candy at school and at home was sufficient. Massively guilt-ridden that we have not ever yet been trick-or-treating, except for that time when she was 2, and we were at my mom's, and toddled over to the neighbours' houses, but I don't think that counts.

Helena's dictée this week had 4 fautes. It brought her to tears. An occasional faute will slip through, but she usually aces it. Four slips was devastating. I showed her the PDF I was marking up for work, riddled with simple spelling errors, and bigger problems besides, created by a grown-up, for work she's paid well enough for. This actually made Helena feel a great deal better (I caught her sneaking peaks at my laptop, showing an interest in my work she hadn't before). It made me feel somewhat worse.

I leave my crazy job in a week's time, soon to start on a new adventure. The new job is maybe not so different from the old job (though my concience may sleep a little better now that I'll be marketing business software rather than pharmaceuticals), but it speaks volumes to me that among the questions asked of me at my job interview was, "What are you reading?": it thrills my soul that there are editorial environments in which that question is still asked and the answer valued.

I'll have a few days off between jobs. How serendipitous that I should have time off during NYRB Reading Week!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life in Yonville: small-minded hypocrisy

For this third and final part of Madame Bovary, I'm liking Emma significantly less.

Her expenditures really are over the top. But she is being blackmailed. He's seen them together and "she was afraid, imagining that he would talk. He was not so stupid" (p 241). It's hard to tell how much control she has. I mean, she's never been one to exert much self-control, but now her weaknesses are clearly being played to Monsieur Lheureux's financial advantage.

Favourite sentence: "The most halfhearted libertine has dreamed of sultans' wives; every notary carries within him the remains of a poet." (p 257)

Here it is again in French: Le plus médiocre libertin a rêvé des sultanes; chaque notaire porte en soi les débris d'un poête. Beautiful, no?

[I have it on good authority, based on thousands of transactions with hundreds of notaries, that this is bullshit. Not a shred of poetry in (most of) them. Yet somehow I suspect many of us wish it were true. A romantic notion to believe romantic souls are buried in clerks, yes? Flaubert certainly wished it of the notary he never was.]

I am disappointed in Emma. Happy for her in one way, but also wanting to slap her — she needs to get a grip on reality. She's pulled off her affair with Léon for almost a year! I almost wish she could pull it off for a lifetime, though it seems Léon would have none of that.

Léon is weak. He is just like Emma. This love has begun to bore him, tire him; he'll move on.

This business with the notary is fairly unpleasant (not the notary to whom Léon compares himself in my favourite sentence, above). Maître Guillaumin. Or maybe this is how his poetic debris materializes? It's just so infuriating a that a woman should fall from lover to slut as soon as another man lays eyes on her. Whatever choices she's made, Emma doesn't deserve this.

Monsieur Homais (he has his own website!) finally shows himself to be thoroughly despicable. (In my head I call him M Homard, and I picture him red and blustery and lobster-like.) It's Homais who set the whole ugly Hyppolyte incident in motion. But it's his treatment of the blind man where he is most cruel, in that moment where he makes him dance. For Homais he is a scientific curiosity, and a potential means of renown; for Homais the blind man has ceased to be a human being. For all his forward-thinking, as much as I admired his spirit and wit, he is a hypocrite, and perhaps the biggest villain of them all.

Emma goes to see Rodolphe. Is she prostituting herself? Objective description, moral ambiguity, difficult choices, blah, blah, blah; with this choice of words, Flaubert clearly condemns her.

I'm surprised the novel goes on so long after Emma's death. Poor Charles! He really did love her. And Berthe, the innocent, has a humble start in life. By addressing her as Mademoiselle Bovary, I think Flaubert intends us to glimpse what she might become.

**********
Thanks, Frances, for hosting this readalong. I'm glad to have read Madame Bovary this second time and as a woman of a certain age. I think I got it this time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tokyo, in summer

Engulfed in the hot stench of the city, he found that the boundary between his inner and outer selves seemed to dissolve. The fetid air seeped in through his pores and soiled what was inside, while his simmering emotions leaked out of his body into the streets. In Tokyo, in summer, he felt threatened by the city, so it had always seemed better to avoid the whole season as much as possible, avoid the waves of withering heat that swept through the streets.

— from Out, by Natsuo Kirino.

About a hundred pages left to go. It's gritty and funny, peopled by a fascinating crew of (mostly) strong women who shoulder vast burdens.

No matter how it ends, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Emma and Léon and Rodolphe

Part 2 of Madame Bovary elicited the following reactions.

The subtitle of Madame Bovary is "Provincial Ways," and after this was discussed last week, I was reminded that Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life." Madame Bovary was published in 1856 and Middlemarch in 1871-72 (both first in serial form). I wonder how familiar George Eliot was with the former. They bear some striking similarities of theme. I'd say Madame Bovary is more a psychological novel and Middlemarch a sociological one, but each of them provides commentary on both levels. Dr Lydgate's wife, like Charles's, has social aspirations and contributes to their financial difficulties (although, Lydgate is a fully competent doctor). Mr Brooke is blustery like our pharmacist Homais is, but with a more political bent to his philosophizing. Then there's Dorothea's "scandalous" behaviour. (This off the top of my head; but I wonder if their similarities have been more fully assessed.) I'd love to know if Eliot ever wrote about Madame Bovary or acknowledged it as an influence.

**********

This description (p 63) strikes me as very odd: "a small statue of the Virgin wearing a satin gown, coiffed in a tulle veil spangled with silver stars, and colored crimson on the cheeks like an idol from the Sandwich Islands." Not only is it, in my view, an odd way to dress the Virgin, it made me turn to look at the cover. Can I say? I really hate the cover of this book. The photo is creepy. (I like the font, though.)

So, Charles and Emma move to Yonville, and they bring a wet nurse, but there's no mention of a baby. Did she have the baby already? How much time has passed? Is she still pregnant? How pregnant? There's no mention of it, for pages and pages and pages, like it's a fairly insignificant event.

She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of hoped-for compensation for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.

I'm still finding Emma sympathetic. Not very motherly, but I don't think it's unusual for that time period to be dismissive of children.

(The Homais children are rather out of the ordinary, always in the thick of things and under foot, but I do think it's the pharmacist who's the Enlightened, forward thinker; his children are being raised in an unconventional manner for the times.)

Léon. How bored he is! He and Emma are so much alike. Difference being, of course, that he's male, he can go off to Rouen any time he likes. He can call his mother for money, and leave for Paris. Emma can't. I wonder if we'll see him again.

Poor Emma. She did try to seek out spiritual guidance, but she wasn't taken very seriously, as if a woman of her position couldn't have any troubles.

Not sure what to make of her calling her child ugly (p 101). A bit harsh, but perhaps this is just a detached objective assessment of her child. Or else the comment comes as a reflection of her marriage or husband. I anticipate Emma being criticized for this statement, that she doesn't love her child, but I think it has nothing to do with that. (Besides, she doesn't even say it, she just thinks it.)

Uh-oh! Page 114. Rodolphe has designs on Emma. He'll ruin her. What a jerk!

The whole Hippolyte fiasco! I recall blaming Emma for this previously (and I think Isabelle Huppert's performance reinforced that reading). The potential increase in income from performing a noteworthy operation is a factor, but Emma is motivated also to do something for Charles, to nudge him toward being a being a man she could be proud of, and I see these as practical considerations, godd for the household, I don't think it's all about money.

Aurgh! Damn you, Lydia Davis! Huge spoiler in the note to page 175.

Regarding the narration: I think we've moved very much inside Emma's head now. An omniscient narrator, sure, but not an all-telling one. Is Emma self-absorbed? Well, that's what makes the story. We're not privy to the daily banalities, her managing the household (with the exception of a few key events), just like we don't know about Charles's comings and going, or the small talk over supper — any good writer skips over this stuff. The details Flaubert offers give a sense of realism that contributes to deluding the reader into a sense of completeness, when really the narration is very selective.

I feel Emma is a very much a victim as regards Rodolphe. His intentions are clear from the start, and he knows what buttons to push. I'm not saying Emma's not a willing participant, but it takes a character like Rodolphe to have made her willing.

Is Emma responsible for their financial problems? I want to defend her here, too. (Why am I taking sides like this?) She likes pretty things, Charles has never restrained her. (Most of America lives beyond its means; will you judge her for this?) When she's ill, he neglects his practice — arguably that's her fault, too, but it shows that money and sensible financial management aren't his first priority (he loves her!). Come to think of it, he's pretty passionless himself, doesn't feel strongly about much, he just doesn't see this as problematic, he'd be bored too if he just stopped to think about it.

Loving the pharmacist and the priest! Hilarious!

Ah, so here's Léon again, in Rouen. And Charles practically pushing Emma into Léon's arms. This won't end well.

Here ends Madame Bovary, Part 2.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"There are things that very few portraits of women allow the viewer to discern"

The Wrong Blood, by Manuel de Lope, is set in Basque country during the Spanish Civil War and is ostensibly the tale of two women...

A rape victim:
In church, the priests taught the children such behavior, telling them that they had to be obedient, even in time of war, even though they could escape and disappear on the mountain with the cows after setting fire to the hayloft, and then, for decades to come, the house that had sheltered Etxarris's Bar would be nothing but a burnt patch, a few charred beams on ash-covered ground, and nobody except a very few people would know that María Antonia Etxarri had set the house on fire to save herself from being raped, but instead of doing that, remembering other reasons and other rains, María Antonia obediently mounted the stairs to the room, doing as she had been told, fearing only the barrage of blows she would get from her stepfather should peace ever come.

And a bride:
The bride smiled in a lost paradise of tulle and lace and orange blossoms. The photograph showed neither how much weeping she was to do nor how little she had wept until then, nor was there any visible sign of the two tears of emotion she had shed during the ceremony or of the sighs she would utter that same night, but there are things that very few portraits of women allow the viewer to discern.

I had a hard time settling into this book. The story jumps from one perspective to another, back in time, then forward to our present, and sometimes, as in María Antonia's burning the house down, into a what if. (Not that I have trouble with that sort of thing usually.) But I am glad I stuck with it.

I can't claim to have ever experienced anything near what these women went through, but something about the telling simply didn't ring true — too writerly, too male.

The novel for me is more effective with the stories of the men — the officer, the grandson, the neighbouring doctor — even while telling us so much less about them. These characters are told, without being explained, and I think they are richer for it.

For all this, the novel is lyrical and romantic and engrossing. Though I very early on had guessed what would be "the big reveal," I was compelled to see how it would be unveiled.

Favourite sentence: "There are men who subvert order because they carry a deep-seated, centrifugal inertia that destroys the space as well as the feelings around them." (Although, I'm not sure I agree.)

See this review.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Charles and Emma

Really, I don't remember a thing about Madame Bovary. Something about adultery. I remember being bored by it when I read it 22 years ago. I don't remember whether I admired Emma, despised or pitied her. I don't know which of those I'm supposed to do.

Well, it's very readable. (Except for the seemingly random italics — very distracting.) I don't know if that's a function of Lydia Davis's translation, or maybe just because over the years I've learned to read better (or I'm more tolerant, or more discerning). At any rate, it's not boring. I was really afraid it would be very boring. It's not.

[What's the deal with first communion? Was it different back in the day, or in France? Charles is 12 when he begins his studies, and his parents are waiting till after his first communion before sending him off. Later at the wedding, a girl of 14 or 16 is wearing her communion dress, lengthened for the occasion. I wouldn't've given it much thought but for that Davis includes a note about children usually aged about 7 being prepared for this sacrament. The French text is clearly "première communion" but it sounds like confirmation might be what's meant. Either way I think Davis's note is lacking.]

Charles seems like a nice enough fellow. A bit, mmm, unambitious, maybe, but harmless, nice. Oh, but Charles totally loves her!

Emma seems hard to reach, hard to know, through her placid exterior.

Aïe! The first wife's wedding bouquet still in the bedroom! How thoughtless! This must be a sign.

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words "bliss," "passion," and "intoxication," which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Emma was ruined by romances, and the idea of grand gestures. (That's a weird passage, the shift to second person, "And you were there, too, you sultans...")

I love this sentence: "Charles's conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie." (Mind, sidewalks can be most interesting.)

Oh, she's not happy, is she? Bored, and attracted to shiny things. But I think there's a bit more to it than that, some kind of void she needs to fill. I do like her, and condemn her, and pity her.

Here ends Madame Bovary, Part 1.

A long journey through time and space

Monsieur Monde sighed, gazing at his glass of beer. He noticed that his companion's fingers were clenched on her handbag. And he seemed to have to make a long journey through time and space to find the simple, commonplace words that he uttered at last, which blended with the banality of the setting:

"Shall we take the nine o'clock train?"

She said nothing, but sat still; the fingers clutching the crocodile-skin bag relaxed. She lit a fresh cigarette, and it was later on, about seven o'clock, when the brasseries were full of customers drinking their apéritifs, that they went out, as grave and glum as a real married couple.

— from Monsieur Monde Vanishes, by Georges Simenon.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Octobre reading

(Or, French books by guys mostly named Georges.)

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
A readalong brought to you by Frances (Nonsuch Book), with posting on Parts 1, 2, and 3 on October 14, 21, and 28.

The delectable new translation by Lydia Davis everyone's talking about makes it hard to resist. I first read Madame Bovary some 20+ years ago. I didn't care much for it. I'm counting on my being a much wiser woman now to get something more out of it. (I'll be travelling this weekend and leaving the hardcover behind, but I have the original French loaded up on my ereader, in case I'm feeling ambitiously French.)

A Void, Georges Perec
Richard (Caravan de recuerdos) hosts this shared read, discussions taking place between October 29 and November 7.

I've read this one previously as well, back when it was first made available in English, at a time when I was fascinated with things Oulipo and also toying with the idea of pursuing further studies, and some kind of career, in problems with translation (which I never did). The book's conceit is that it is written without the letter "e," the most frequently occurring letter in French and also English). Now how do you translate that? (The Spanish translation has no "a.") I read it then as a puzzle; I'll read it now with, hopefully, appreciation for plot and character, which I've since learned that Perec can in fact do rather well.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Georges Simenon
I've been saving this. Having loved Simenon's Strangers in the House recently, I thought another roman dur would be perfect for my coming weekend getaway. The kid and I are flying to DC to visit with my sister for a Canadian Thanksgiving away. Even though it's a short flight, I've given excessively careful consideration to which book it is I want to have on hand when we're told to turn off all electronic devices. This is it.

(For Helena I picked out something called Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, cuz, well, cyborgs! and lunch! Note: this book is not French. It's by a guy called Jarret J Krosoczka.)

So. Monsieur Monde walks out on his life, according to the back cover, and apart from the fact that I have a fascination with people who do this (I mean, real people actually do this!; it's not just in stories, you know, where he says he's going out to get a pack of smokes and that's the last you hear of him!), the why and how of their doing it, I've spent every day of October, and most of September, thinking about running away (mostly because of my stupid job). Plus it's cold and raining a lot, so it feels right.

Yet another couple of French books
I finished The Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille, and I'm within a few pages of the end of Roberte Ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by Pierre Klossowski (acquired during a thankfully short-lived phase of exploring obscure writers whose surnames begin with the letter "k," in some misguided desire to one day be considered one of them).

I can't say I actually recommend either of them — they're not exactly entertaining in any conventional sense. But. The Story of the Eye is an interesting complement to Tom McCarthy's C, the whole sex-death-grieving-dissociation thing. And there's a lot to dissect in Klossowki with regard to sex and gender politics; it's quite philosophical and written in a somewhat dry and academic, but playful, tone, and it could be worth careful study if you have the time or inclination, of which for the time being I have neither.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Remaindered thoughts

Why is it that some of the best books are often the hardest to write about? It must be that flush of first love with a book, the recognition of myself in the other (or is it the other way round?). I'm giddy with emotion, can't articulate much beyond, "I just so LLOOOVVE this book!" — certainly nothing meaningful.

So here I am, a couple months after having read Tom McCarthy's Remainder (of which I'd acquired a remaindered copy); the first flush has subsided, but I still want to say something about it. (Part of me wants to rush downstairs and pull the book off the shelf in my bedroom — it's unusual that I write about a book without having it by my side — but that would feel less authentic. I want this to be true to my recollection of it, not dried up by objective evidence.)

So, it's all about this guy who suffered an accident, the details of which are never made clear, and basically he's left with gaps in his memory, but worse, this leaves him a shell of his former self. Something essential, something you can't quite put your finger on, is out of whack. But, also! He comes into a pile of money because of this accident, and he uses it to recreate (or create, really) scenarios from possibly his past, or maybe his imagination, but the thing is, the scenarios aren't important in themselves (well, they are, but), it's more the feeling they instill, the sense of authenticity, so the details of scenarios are important only insofar as they help further that.

Anyway, it's brilliant! (There's that flush flooding back. Really, what else is there to say about this book.)

You can read about this book all over the place, so I won't bore you with particulars. I first heard of this book through the 2008 Tournament of Books. (Careful what you read there! Some commentary has spoilers.) Interesting also is the publication history of this book, the fact that it was first published by an "art publisher" (so Remainder was recognized as "art" before it was seen as a marketable commodity by "regular" publishers?).

What gets me about this book is not just the obsession of his little hobby, it's the sense of addiction. They go hand in hand, of course; the pursuit of the addiction becomes obsessive, and then the pursuit itself becomes an object of addiction. But I think they're separate things, and McCarthy knows that. Obsessive behaviour is something you do because you have to, you feel you need to, you don't necessarily derive any pleasure from it, quite the opposite often, but addiction is after a particular high. Remainder's main character is in search of authenticity, that feeling of being real, and if you're of the sort of disposition wherein you think about those sorts of things (and I think I am) then you realize that feeling is really pretty rare. It's not about about power and control, strictly speaking; it's what those things can bring you. This became pretty clear to me in the characterization of the manager he hires to direct his affairs. This guy felt a thrill in managing these complex logistics and pulling them off successfully. I mean, I can almost relate to that, when things are crazy at work and you can actually make all the pieces fit together, there's the rush of the busy-ness of it all and immense satisfaction when it all comes together. It's not about being a workaholic, or being obsessive about the details per se; it's not lovng your work, or whatever, exactly; it's knowing you're good at what you do, doing it, and getting off on it. (Umm, I'm probably projecting here; I don't know that any of that's actully in the novel exactly.)

Maybe because I don't have obsessive behaviours, clinically speaking, or addictions of the intrusive-to-one's-daily-functioning variety, much as I enjoy food and alcohol and sex and chocolate, because I'm not consumed by my career and I don't live for the adrenaline rush of a regular physical workout (hah!), maybe because none of those things do it for me, maybe I'm realistic about the thrill of my first love and jumping out of an airplane and as much as I'd like to relive those things, I know I can't, I can't go back, it wouldn't be the same, I'm not compelled to try, maybe because there's nothing else to occupy the position of that which must be pursued at all costs, this idea of going after authenticity, all that is real and true, actually seems pretty reasonable to me. I mean, if you're going to be addicted to something, that's the thing. And that's where it gets pretty fucked up, because the more you pursue it, the more removed from it you actually become.

Anyway, pretty weird, troublesome book. Very, very good.

Excerpt.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Discovering Simenon

I must've read some Simenon, way back when, I'm sure I did, at least one Maigret book, and the more I think about it, I think I recall I read something in high school French class, something abridged or in graphic novel form, I learned the word clochard.

But I couldn't've seen any great appeal in it. Certainly, nothing's compelled me to pick up a Maigret story in the last 25 years.

New York Review Books, though, has a way of making me lust for books I've never heard of, authors I'd dismissed. By my count, they've published 8 books by Simenon to date, none of them featuring Maigret, all of them sounding bleak and psychological and fascinating.

Finally I gave in to temptation and ordered myself a couple, just to see. The first arrived last last week, and once I'd made up my mind to set other books aside, I couldn't put it down.

(I was surprised to see it had a glossy cover, setting it apart from the trademark look of NYRB Classics. I've since learned he's the only author to have this treatment (and also usually with last name only) because "the series editor wanted a "none more black" feeling for those covers.")

The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon, is indeed bleak and psychological and fascinating. The language is deeply evocative, the setting is oppressive, the story is surprising. Throughout, Simenon is the perfect host, full of charm and always in control. No character is minor. It strikes me as, if I may, very French.

Rossigart was no doubt at that moment telephoning to Mme Dossin and the latter was no doubt reclining on a sofa draped in muslins that were probably mauve. She'd be looking distinguished of course. Looking distinguished and being in delicate health combined to provide her with a full-time occupation, leaving her perhaps just sufficient energy to arrange a few flowers in a vase.

(There's a lot in this book that reminds me of Fred Vargas: the charm, the philosophizing, the wry observations, the character quirks.)

The story is this: Loursat is a lawyer who's pretty much stayed holed up in room, drinking, for the last 18 years, since his wife left him. One night he hears a noise, and it awakens something in him. It's not a noise he should be hearing in his house — it's a gunshot, it's a murder. So Loursat comes to learn about his daughter's goings-on, her crowd, and the secret life that persisted under his own roof.

What's beautiful is watching Loursat wake up from his drunken stupor, climb out of hole, and live again. He finds he has a reason to after all, and it may be as much to shake up this small town as it is out of love for his daughter.

My second Simenon arrived in yesterday's mail. I hope to save it for when I'm travelling next weekend, but I don't know if I can hold out that long.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amazing things my daughter says #23,834

I'm having a hard time at work these days, and as a result I'm finding it hard to feel present in almost anything else I do (certainly blogging). The kid, though, does an amazing job of keeping me grounded.

I'm looking through Helena's homework assignments for the rest of the week, and I mention tomorrow's, she doesn't need to do it yet, but maybe she should think about it, think about how to approach it, what topic to choose to make it easier.

"It's not good to choose what's easy, Mom. You won't learn anything that way."

Thanks, kid.

(It would've been easier to do it today, but I guess we'll learn more if we do it tomorrow.)

Life in Russian

My Life as a Russian Novel, a memoir by Emmanuel Carrère, recounts the author's attempt to film a documentary in the Russian village of Kotelnich, about nothing in particular. "The Hotel Vyatka [...] is one of those places familiar to travelers in Russia, where not only does nothing work (heating, television, elevator, all kaput), but you get the feeling that nothing has ever worked, not even on the first day." You get the feeling that the whole of Kotelnich is much the same.

Life is, as we all know, what happens while you're busy trying to make a documentary about something else entirely. Somehow, Carrère's book (and his film, apparently, too) managed to capture something of it.

She threw us out, but as we were putting on our coats, determined not to hang around any longer, she forgot about having thrown us out and wanted us to drink some more, talk, wanted to show me the curtains. She'd taken the curtains — with a design of red and green circles on a white background — from Sasha's and her daughter's apartment, curtains streaked with blood and brains. Galina had boiled them several times, so that most of the stains were gone, but not all, and she traces with a fingertip the outline of the brownish spots, more visible in the lamplight, and she draws the lamp closer so that I may see them. Look, Emmanuel, look, she says tenderly. It's the blood of my daughter and my grandson. Every time I draw the curtains, which protect my eyes from the moon and the streetlights outside, it's the blood of my daughter and grandson.

Life does happen in Kotelnich, but it's hard to nail it down. Fortunately for us, Carrère doesn't force his film in one direction or another; he keeps waiting for something to grab him by the throat, and if you wait long enough, it kind of makes itself.

The memoir feels a little bit more forced, in some respects. Carrère is ostensibly tracing his roots, wanting to know his Georgian grandfather and discover his mysterious end. To this end, Carrère does little beyond poking through some old letters his uncle kept, and while he harps on his grandfather's circumstances, his stance is not investigative. Merely, he's working out how to come to terms with his family's past and its dark secret. Frankly, the details concerning his grandfather bored me. The facts were spilled out quite dryly. Carrère is right to call that story "a tragedy, yes, but an ordinary tragedy," by which I think he means, all families have them, and this story is not any more special but for being his.

But there are two particularly fascinating aspects of this book. One is Carrère's reflections on his relationship to the Russian language, which he spoke as a child — his comfort level, how his fluency depends on mood and circumstance, that language is clearly more than academic and the problem of immersion is more than linguistic.

The other is his dissection of his relationship with the woman he loves and who for the most part is in Paris, while he is not. I previously read his erotic open letter to Sophie as a standalone piece, as originally intended, and found it, well, pretty erotic. In the fuller context of his domestic drama, however, it becomes a little uncomfortable, and you see that his intent was perhaps misguided.

They say Carrère is best known for The Adversary, which I have not read. But I did read Class Trip, which I don't remember, and The Mustache, which I loved, along with its movie adaptation. You don't need to be familiar with Carrère's other work to be swept up in this memoir. The story is in the telling.

Reviews
The Washington Post
The Complete Review

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kennscht mi noch?

C, by Tom McCarthy, is a very demanding, very rewarding novel. It took me a couple weeks to read it (and more than another week to work up the courage to write something about it) — it demands your time and attention. If you want entertainment, I encourage you to read the other Booker Prize nominee I read earlier this year. That said, I think C (or at least aspects of it) will stay with me for a lifetime.

What it reminds me of
As I progressed through the novel, I was reminded of each of the following books to varying degrees and for quite possibly very superficial — but meaningful-to-me wrt the conversations my books have with each other (and me) — reasons:
  • AS Byatt, The Children's Book, for the time period, the focus on children's life in an atypical adult world, their games, the staging of a play riddled with symbolism;
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (which I haven't finished reading, but), for the sanatorium setting, of course, but also a morbid fascination with all manner of effluvia, and there's this scene with the x-ray (although where Hans sees his mortality and his eventual inanimate state, Serge sees something organic and primordial), and also, a humorous but enigmatic tone, trying to figure out the workings of the place;
  • this tone segues very nicely into that section that reminds me of EE Cummings, The Enormous Room, what with the war experience, and the maneuvers, the barracks, prison, the sense of camaraderie and loss;
  • Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations, for how the text gets scientifically physical and metaphysical, and sentences like "The restlessness, he comes to realise, is in truth an attempt to achieve its opposite: stasis." — something still and deep;
  • even Julian Barnes, Arthur & George, for the spiritualist aspect;
  • José Carlos Somoza, ZigZag, because of the idea of being able to tap the residual energy of Christ on the cross, to be able to see it, hear it;
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault, for the Egyptian setting, similar concerns regarding authenticity;
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, for obvious reasons.

I love all these books (well, maybe the Barnes not so much, but my point stands). I found it a strange sensation to be recalling them, or certain parts of them, while reading C, and so strongly too. I doubt that McCarthy had it in mind to emulate any of these. My point, though, is that there's something about McCarthy that feels intensely familiar to me. He speaks to me. He taps into those same moods or ideas that have captured me before.

What the C stands for
I'm not sure I like the idea that it can represent so many things: Carrefax, communication, Cairo, caul, crash, copper, connectivity, cocaine (with a C even placed in shop windows to indicate its availability). So many vague associations make it feel more like a cop-out of a title. There is a strong indication, relatively late in the book, that carbon is it. I hope McCarthy's the kind of writer who'd say, yes, C is for something in particular, yes, carbon. The basis of all life after all.

What it's about
This is what I get out of it: Situating yourself in time and space. Grounding yourself, even. Despite the fact that there's nothing to really ground yourself to. This whole world is one big dummy chamber.

I loved Remainder, and I admit to at first being someone disappointed to find that C was nothing like it. Only, that turned out not to be the case at all. The whole authenticity question is huge (to my mind), but it's not concerned with just some random guy; it's the whole state of our being, all humanity.

(Of all the books C reminds me of, the closest in theme and in tone is clearly Michaels' Winter Vault.

What I like about it
I love the wordplay. There is a lot of humour. There are some mind-bending meta-moments of awareness. I love the giant Monopoly-like game the children play, that grows from a board, to the grounds, into something purely abstract, extending over the ether. I love passages like this one:

Versoie seems smaller. Its proportions are the same: the surface area of the house's side-wall in relation to that of the Maze Garden above which it rises, or the width of the maze's paved path in relation to the garden's lawn; the height of the Crypt Park's obelisk-topped columns, or the sightline above these into the park itself afforded by attic window — all these are correct. But, taken as a whole, they seem to have shrunk. The left-swerving passage from the house's from door to the Low Lawn, then through the Lime Garden with its beehives and, beyond these, past the green slime-topped trough-pond towards the long, conker-tree-lined avenue that skirts the Apple Orchard as it heads towards the spinning sheds and Bodner's garden — a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity — now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It's as though, in Serge's absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he's now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche...

Versoie seems smaller, and the world seems smaller, seems like a model of the world. It's not just that the distance between, say, here and Lydium has shrunk (and done so almost exponentially thanks to the motor car his father's purchased and now lets him drive whenever he feels like an outing), but, beyond that, that the inventory of potential experiences — situations in which he might find himself, conversations and interactions he might undergo — has dwindled so low that they could be itemised on a single sheet of paper. The exchanges he has in shops or in the post office, the movements and gestures these involve, seem so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined — as though they'd already happened and were simply being re-enacted by two or more people who'd agreed to maintain the farcical pretence that this was something new and exciting. He's taken to walking out on the charade halfway through: stepping into, for example, the cheese shop, responding to the usual questions about how his parents or the Day School pupils are, agreeing how nice it is to be back after serving his country so bravely, admitting that the weather isn't quite doing what might be expected of it at this time of year, and so on — then, just as the shopkeeper shifts his stance above the rows of Lancashires and Stiltons and asks him what he'll have, turning round and pushing the door open, leaving its ting! hanging in the air behind him with the ruptured conversation. He once did this on three premises in a row — neighbouring ones: newsagent, baker, fishmonger — not out of maliciousness but simply to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of...

[I marvel over this phenomenon, how everything looks smaller when you go back. Somehow, a place, a house or a whole city shrinks as your experience expands. Plainly, it's actually physically smaller, but there's more to it in one's perception of a place. It changes how you interact with your space. It can take days to shake.]

Nice packaging!
Certainly nice enough to elicit a response from the designer guys around the office. They utter, "Nice," and "Neat," and pick it up and turn it over. And very excitedly I say, "I know! Check this out," and I open it up to exhibit the flaps, on which the text runs, gasp!, vertically, oriented perpendicular to the usual. And the page margins — the text starts a bit high on the page. I found this a bit distracting first — like why isn't this sort of thing standardized? — but I got over it. Anyway, neat how such little nothings can make you feel like you have something in your hands.

The Casual Optimist has a wonderful interview with the jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, about how it came to be it and what it means and why it works.

Honestly, I find the cover kind of unsettling, but Mendelsund has me sold on what a perfect fit it is for the book. Also, reading the interview makes me feel pretty stupid, as a reader, as other levels of C are brought to light that I had no idea even existed.

What's so avant-garde about it
I have no idea. If anyone can explain this to me, why McCarthy and this book are being touted as the future of literature, please do. Don't get me wrong — I like it (a lot, even), I just don't see how any of this is new, or cutting-edge. Did you see my list of what it reminds me of? Others have done this before. There's a surreal ending that I can't quite place in terms of influence, or what it reminds me of — in fact, it's a good deal more "filmic" than literary (David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch?) — but that's all of, what?, 8 pages. The book's reputation can't fairly rest on that. Anti-realist anti-novel? (But it is realist (very much of the time), isn't it?) I can appreciate C's being Important, but how is it so out of the ordinary?

How about that ending?!
Can I say? [Possible spoiler alert.] What an immense release it was to find Sophie on the scene at the end! I mean, the whole book, since that first section, she was just hovering between the words, and I was certain she would make an appearance, or make herself felt, I mean in the sense that Serge would address the fact of her, as a memory or a story to tell someone, I kept waiting, she was always somehow present, with Tania, deep in the earth, in the air, with Cécile, at London parties, and at the seance. I think the writing's pretty awesome, that McCarthy could make her presence so palpable even though she's so absent, which makes the climax all so bloody climactic. Wow.

See also
Surplus Matter: a site dedicated to the work of Tom McCarthy
International Necronautical Society

Excerpt.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Our Shangri-la of sound

The Cat Piano, poem written by Eddie White, narrated by Nick Cave.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two social documents

I recently read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (originally published under a pseudonym), and I have to admit, I'm a bit mystified why so many people (well, mostly anonymous-to-me online readers, grown women who read it when they were moody teenagers) think of this book so fondly.

I didn't know anything about The Bell Jar, except that it was the only novel Plath wrote. (The Biblioracle suggested it to me months ago, and I thought, huh, there's a gap in my literary education.) Talk of it never seemed to address the novel itself, but rather was steeped in the "romantic" circumstances of Plath's life and suicide.

It's often described as chronicling Esther Greenwood's descent into depression, which I think is a bit false; there is no descent into madness — the depression is always there. It's not a gradual progression, nor does it appear to be due to a particular trigger. Esther's just wired that way. And in that way, I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal of what I understand clinical depression to be. Also, the account of the experience of undergoing electroshock treatment is fascinating.

The first portion of the book tells of Esther's adventures in New York City. They're kind of crazy, not in a psychologically abnormal way, but in a wild-life-of-college-girls-let-loose-in-the-big-city way, and this is fairly comic and entertaining. The tone is quite similar to that in a couple other books I've read lately: Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado and Rona Jaffe's Best of Everything (more on this in a bit).

And then Esther starts trying to kill herself. This is where the novel stops working for me, because I just can't connect with this character. I take this as a fairly sure sign that I don't have clinical depression, but it also makes me question how good is this novel as a novel. Forget its worth as a sociohistorical document, insight into Plath's biography, the breaking of taboos regarding mental illness, for there's no doubt the novel has great value in this regard. It just leaves me cold. And a good novel makes me feel for who peoples them, whether or not I have anything in common with them. With Esther I feel a kind of blankness (and maybe this is the point? that this depression, the suicidal ideation, is really unknowable unless you're in it?).

I'm now also seriously worried about all the young women who relate to this book. Really?

For all this, The Bell Jar is a quick (less than 200 pages) and relatively entertaining read, not depressing at all. Esther's voice is light and chatty; it's not the "poetry" I was expecting, but there are some wonderful, sometimes startling, descriptions:

That was another thing — the rest of us had starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that doubled as beachcoats, but Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could half see through, and dressing-gowns the colour of sin, that stuck to her by some kind of electricity. She had an interesting, slightly sweaty smell that reminded me of those scallopy leaves of sweet fern you break off and crush between your fingers for the musk of them.

There's a throwaway line in the opening pages: "last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." Later, when Esther's steeped in her illness, I questioned whether I'd read that line at all, or if I'd understood it correctly, and I wonder now how much it contributes to the attitude I'd formed toward the rest of the book, that Esther will survive this, everything's going to be all right.

But as far as depicting the recklessness of the young American woman of the 1950s, The Dud Avocado (though set a few years later) conveys something more meaningful to me, with more comedy and tragedy, and in a much stronger, fresher, more distinctive voice.

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, is another fascinating sociohistorical document, much more accessible, and in my opinion, an all-round better novel.

I've only recently started watching Mad Men, and at the beginning of episode 6 (Babylon) of season 1, Don Draper is in bed with this novel as Betty is chattering about the movie adaptation and whether Joan Crawford's looks are holding up. The beauty of the ereader is such that minutes after the episode finished, I myself was reading The Best of Everything in bed. (I'd be reading Leon Uris's Exodus now too if it were available as an ebook.)

No doubt Don was reading it to complement the advice of the review in the New York Post: "Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom."

It follows the lives of a handful of women, most of whom work in a publishing office, and offers a glimpse into the workings thereof. While it might be said to focus on their romantic adventures, it's a lot more complicated than that. Office politics, gender politics, career ambition, the pressure to marry. These women have a lot to deal with, and Jaffe dispenses a fair measure of philosophical wisdom in her commentary:

Change in a person's character structure is slow and almost imperceptible, and although many people look back and say, This was the day that changed my life, they are never wholly right. The day you choose one college instead of another, or decide not to go to college at all, the day you take one job instead of another because you cannot wait, the day you meet someone you later love — all are days that lead to change, but none of them are decisive because the choice itself is the unconscious product of days that have gone before. So when April Morrison, looking back, said, "The day of the Fabian office party in 1952 was the day that changed my life," she was wrong. The day she cut her hair because she wanted to look like Caroline Bender, the day she saw her first movie and dreamed of New York — all were days that changed her life, and if it had not been for all of them she would never have become involved with Dexter Key.

(And a tragedy that turned out to be!)

Anyway, The Best of Everything is a novel that had me up late at night and snatching coffeebreaks at work just to see what happens next. It even made me cry. It had seemed to me that the only way to close off the story would be either in utter devastation or else with an unrealistically fairy-tale finish, but Jaffe surprises in offering up a perfect ending. It's completely hopeful that a balance can be struck between career and family, and that a woman's independence, whether sexual or financial, can be asserted. Sadly, I think this novel is still very relevant today.

If you're one of the many who love The Bell Jar, I'd love to hear why! Then go read The Best of Everything.