Friday, December 30, 2016

The swamp gas of European anxiety

Mystery lingered in the air like the scent of a scorched book.
As a teenager I tried reading H.P. Lovecraft — my big brother wouldn't shut up about him. But I didn't get very far; it just wasn't for me. I tried again in my twenties. This time, with a decent liberal arts education behind me, while the concepts intrigued, I just couldn't get past the poor quality of the writing. Today, I have a passing familiarity the Cthulhu mythos, despite never having read the source material.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle, is a retelling of Lovecraft's 1925 story The Horror at Red Hook, generally acknowledged to be not particularly good. The original story is also widely considered to be offensive in its bigoted, xenophobic attitude. (After finishing Lavalle's Ballad, I decided to skim through the source. I am ashamed to admit that the racism wasn't entirely obvious to me; if I weren't looking for it, I might miss it, not because it's not there, but because it is so much a part of my cultural context. Is the story exceptionally offensive for its time or merely a mirror of society? Am I that oblivious? I don't know.)
"Your people," Robert Suydam began. "Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence."
Lavalle manages to spin the negativity and bring it front and centre, making it essential to this story of otherness, of anger, corruption, power, entitlement.

The Ballad is told in two parts, the first from the perspective of minor hustler Charles Thomas Tester, the second from police detective Malone. Malone has for some time been watching the activities of Robert Suydam, a rich old eccentric, who is apparently connected to various nefarious goings-on relating to the immigrant community of Red Hook.
Locals attributed the rumors of abduction to the swamp gas of European anxiety known to flare up with a neighborhood's proximity to Red Hook.
Tommy Tester finds his marks, picks up jobs, while playing his guitar on sidewalks. He's not very good, so why would Suydam hire him to play for a party he's giving?
The idea troubled him like a pinched nerve.
Of course it's part of Suydam's bid for world domination, and his plan to summon Cthulhu. But, surprise: things go terribly wrong.

There's a fantastic review at Fantasy Fiction that explains the story better than I ever could (but be warned, it's rife with spoilers).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and the experience has been truly enriched by reading commentary about it.

One interview with Lavalle in particular in The Lovecraft eZine gave me a great deal of perspective:
I switched to Malone for a few reasons, but one of the biggest was that I wanted to spend time with Malone and show the journey of a white character who is a passive racist. There's a private detective in the book, Mr. Howard, who is the more virulent — and easily dismissed — kind of racist. He says terrible things about black people, he’s physically abusive to black people, he kills them without any guilt. Of course he's terrible. Malone, on the other hand, seems to have a greater respect for Tommy. He doesn't say racist things and he doesn't seem to relish being brutal to black people. And yet he never stands up against the system in which he works. He sits at the same table as police who have very recently murdered an innocent black man and he doesn't object, or try to bring criminal charges against them. He's good in the sense that he isn't overtly evil but if that's the best he can do then what the hell good is he? I wanted to write that guy because I find that kind of perspective interesting. "Well I've never called anyone a nigger." Or, "But my family never owned slaves." It's that kind of person, the one who simply stays silent in the face of oppression, who in fact looks away from it when he sees it, that is as much to blame for the situation as the more overt Mr. Howard. I didn't worry about making him too sympathetic, instead I simply tried to show him as someone who was blind but didn’t know he was blind. I've known lots of people like that. I've liked many of them but that didn't make them blameless.
Lavalle's novella ends with "Zig zag zig." It kind of made sense, in a passively random this-is-the-way-the-world-ends way, but it didn't make any sense at all, so I looked it up. The last letter of the Supreme Alphabet, signifying "from knowledge to wisdom to understanding." This be the last page of the book Tommy Tester is delivering when the novella opens, a page he withheld.

This makes me want to read the novella all over again, realizing that there are other mythologies woven into this story, that there a different levels of knowledge, types of arcana — the Ballad is rich with it. The writing is compelling, the plot and characters are well crafted, and there's a wonderful sense of unease throughout, making this my kind of horror story. Plus, a new kind of swamp gas of anxiety hangs is the air, which makes it relevant.
This is how you hustle the arcane. Skirt the rules but don't break them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Even my morality is just discipline

Once, after she'd been introduced to the tape recorder in our apartment and told that you could play back a text or a piece of music, she talked about what it would be like if someone's life were recorded and put on tape, to be rewound, stopped and replayed at will. She said she'd accept her own life the way it was; or rather, as is would be up to her death, but with the proviso that she might rewind it to any point she chose. I didn't dare ask where she would stop the machine, and still less, why there. I didn't think she's tell me anyway.
In The Door, by Magda Szabó, a writer describes her tumultuous relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Emerence is difficult.

The title no doubt refers to the door of Emerence's apartment. No one is allowed inside, ostensibly because of the cat, or nine cats, except for the dog, because the dog is privileged. But perhaps she hides other secrets inside. Late in the novel, there's another door, inside the apartment; it's a door to a past, but it's a mausoleum really, everything turned to dust.

I recently read an interview with Elena Ferrante conducted by Sheila Heti, which helped me put into perspective the writer's relationship with her housekeeper:
In Magda Szabó's The Door, Emerence — the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó's protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the "intellectual" female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?

You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we're still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven't completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn't really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it's there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.

Reading The Door has provoked a lot of reflection, about honour and pride and betrayal, discipline, friendship, love, about how we can never get inside somebody else's head, how other people must in some ways forever remain mysterious to us.
She's making these underhand remarks to settle the score, I told myself, but I quickly dropped the thought because I knew this wasn't true. Emerence wasn't getting even. The matter was more complicated than that, and rather more interesting. Emerence was a generous person, open-handed and essentially good. She refused to believe in God, but she honoured him with her actions. She was capable of sacrifice. Things I had to attend to consciously she did instinctively. It made no difference that shewasn't aware of it — her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing. It was only later that I developed my own clear moral standards. One day Emerence would be able to show me, without uttering a word, that what I consider religion is a sort of Buddhism, a mere respect for tradition, and even my morality is just discipline, the result of training at home, in school and my family, or self-imposed.
This is a very beautiful novel, and it did put me in mind of Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, only it's funnier, while somehow at the same time more serious. Less Latin, more Eastern European (I couldn't help but be reminded of other Hungarian works). Less telenovela, more absurdist crazy cat lady. I will definitely be reading more Szabó.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A kind of unimportant nebula

According to the back cover copy of my trashy-looking mass market paperback (exactly as pictured here),
The Accomplices is Simenon's powerful study in guilt and obsession — the portrait of a man destroyed by the consequences of sexual bondage.
That's a simplistic reading. Joseph Lambert is not a sexual obsessive per se. He lives an ordinary life. He wants to escape his mundane life, his boring wife, his predictable routine.
He was fed up with himself, fed up with being a man.
The novel opens with Lambert driving through the rainy countryside with his mistress, his secretary Edmonde. He doesn't have both hands on the wheel, and his attention is not on the road. By page 2, he has caused a deadly crash — a schoolbus full of children goes up in flames. The story follows Lambert's trajectory through guilt and self-destruction in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

One intuits immediately that the occupants of the car are the accomplices of the title.
Though they were not in love and had never acted as if they were, there was nevertheless an intimacy between them, an intimacy of another kind that bordered on complicity.
Their complicity is noted a few times, but Edmonde's complete silence about the incident makes one wonder whether she's aware of what happened at all. Doesn't complicity require some form of intent? Is she so cold or so oblivious that she does not recognize it as a tragedy at all?
What did Edmonde think about what had happened, about the way he had behaved? What did she think bout him? Had it been anyone else, he would have asked. But her — he dared not.

Why?

Was it because what existed between them was on a plane different from that of ordinary life, of life as one conceives it, as one lives it, as one wants it to be?

It was somewhat as if, at a given moment, for no apparent reason, they exchanged a signal and then escaped.

He was not modest in her presence either. They entered a different realm, a realm which resembled that of childhood rather than that of evil.
There are times when it seems the whole town is complicit with Lambert. Despite the occasional marital indiscretion, he is, on the whole, an upstanding businessman, and nobody suspects him of playing a role in the disaster. Nobody wants to suspect him, nobody wants their routine disrupted, their humdrum, provincial existence upended.

Except maybe Lambert himself.
He felt within him a refusal to return to ordinary life, and he plunged almost fiercely into a universe where all that mattered was the quivering of his senses.

The universe then drifted away until it was only a kind of unimportant nebula. Objects lost their weight, human beings were merely tiny or grotesque puppets, and everything to which one usually attached value became ridiculous. All that remained in a shrunken, warm, enveloping, an kindly world was the pounding of the blood in their arteries, a symphony which at first was vague and diffuse, then gradually became sharper, and finally concentrated in their sex organs.
There's a very specific thing in The Accomplices that put me in mind of a very specific thing in Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Lambert's pursuit of "the click" — that's what Edmonde enables. It's a mental switch, a cognitive break from reality.

In Hamilton that break is tied up with mental illness, and blurred by sex and alcohol; sex acts as a trigger, evidence of all the dirt and filth the character needs to break from. In Simenon the break is pursued, and the pursuit of sex is a catalyst to achieving that break, kind of like the ultimate, transcendent orgasm, only it's not sexual per se — it's sensual, fully inhabiting one's senses. It mimics a return to childhood, a detachment from reality, an absence of responsibility.

It's taken me ages to read this slim little novel. I've made several false starts on this one over the couple years since I acquired it. My copy is very used, and very pungent with old-book smell. It's also sticky. Twice in the past week I've left home without a book, without this book. One might take this for a sign of illness. Or a sign of avoidance. I find reading Simenon takes a certain strength, a willingness to abandon oneself to the questionable morality Simenon probes at, book after book after book. But it's a very rewarding interior journey.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Library packed, unpacked

About a year ago now I was packing up house. I whittled down my possessions to those I truly wanted to possess, those that I would freely invite into my new home. That included books.

I gave away about half of my books. That still leaves me with too many books.

It's also about a year ago that a friend sent me a "postcard book," something she'd recently picked up in Atlantis Books on Santorini. It's a 2013 publication from Paravion Press of Walter Benjamin's essay, Unpacking My Library.

It seemed a small gem, and I kept it in my purse for a few weeks for fear of losing it in the shuffle of boxes. But then I decided I should put it in a safe place, where it would be protected from my daily rummaging. But then I couldn't remember where I'd put it, so it was effectively lost for a few months, till I found it and moved it to a more logical, more sensible, safer place. And so it was lost for another couple months. Till I slipped it back in my purse, and finally read it.

Illustration (detail) by Marie Basten
It's not really about books; it's about collecting books. It's not even really about libraries, except insofar as libraries house collections. The books here are incidental. It's about books as objects.

This shouldn't surprise me. I encountered Benjamin previously in a class on Dada and Surrealism; he had some thoughts on thingness. In this essay books are physical things with physical histories, never mind their contents.
[For the collector] it is not so much books as copies of books that have their fates. I am not saying too much: for the true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. [...] To make the old world new again — that is the deepest drive in the collector's wish to acquire new things, and that is why the collector holds older books to be closer to the essence of collecting than reprints, which are interesting for bibliophiles.
Clearly, although I have collected many books, I am not a collector.

Benjamin offers some thoughts on the book collector hovering between the poles of order and disorder "If there is a counterpart to the lawlessness of a library, it is the strict adherence to rules in its indexing." Benjamin seems to claim that this is the only respect in which a collector of books is distinguished from a collector of fine china or come other collectible. But I dispute it, having viewed finely catalogued collections of stamps, baseball cards, and geological samples.

My library of books, much reduced over the years, is in my head more than it can be defined in spatial terms. But much like a collector, the value of the books I have read is inextricably linked to the circumstances that brought me to them, the network of people, places, subjects in which they are entrenched.

I am more enamored of the idea of them than the physical evidence of them. But this is not a natural position of mine; it had to be learned. Maybe there's something to Benjamin's position that childishness permeates the collector. Simply I've outgrown it.

Benjamin's essay is a phenomenological digression, and not the paean to books that sings in my soul.

I wonder what Benjamin would make of ebooks.

Read Benjamin's essay online.

Friday, December 02, 2016

A border area between states of being

"The water's boiling." Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn't bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn't belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is a creepy little novel, in the most beautiful way. It's completely weird and fascinating. I love this book.

Despite having read quite a few reviews of it, none of them quite prepared me. Maybe, since I was already interested in reading it, I merely skimmed the reviews in order to avoid spoilers. Basically I had the impression that this was a book about a dinner party gone wrong. (I love dinner parties! I love when they go wrong!) There is indeed a dinner party, and it does go wrong. And then there's a family dinner that goes so much more wrong. But there's more to this story than what is served and what is eaten.

Yeong-Hye turns to vegetarianism because of a dream (a horrific dream, all the more terrifying for being only vaguely described for the reader). She will not even touch mayonnaise, and later eschews food altogether. She wants to photosynthesize; she wants to be a tree.

She posits also that it's the trees' hands digging into the earth (heads buried?), their legs flailing above, crotches flowering.

The novel is in three acts, from the perspectives of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Yeong-hye turns vegetarian, her family stages an intervention, she's hospitalized; she's released, there's an interlude of peace, but not exactly normalcy, that gives way to art, maybe some kind of understanding, sublimation, acceptance; she's institutionalized.

Yeong-hye's vegetarianism is not symptomatic of anorexia. It's not about control. Despite being shackled by domesticity and refusing (or forgetting) to wear a bra (it's just not comfortable), it's not about feminism. Her actions do not have any religious motivation.

A review in the New York Times calls out some of these readings — feminist, ethnographic, sociological — as not exactly faulty or skewed but incomplete or incapable.

I don't think any isms explain Yeong-hye's behavior. Some things defy explanation. Some things cannot be explained in words. Some things can only be expressed through art.

Yeong-hye's brother-in-law is an artist. He had a vision, an artistic vision he had trouble realizing.
His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn't going well.
Yeong-hye's sister (the artist's wife) also has dream. She tried acting on a version of it once.

The reason for these things is beyond words. Wounded bodies, strained souls.

It is somewhat mystifying that the plantlike and the animal are sometimes confounded. Of course, what joins them is their nonhumanness. Plantlike should not be taken for passive; it is persistent.
The trees by the side of the road are blazing green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.
Genesis
A poet's proclamation, "I believe that humans should be plants," was the seed of this story, but I wonder if Kang didn't then investigate the several cult-like philosophies whereby it is believed the human body can derive all its energy and nourishment via the photosynthesis of sunlight.

In a beautiful instance of synchronicity, my cursory Wikipedia research takes me from sungazing to Joseph Plateau, whose father was a talented flower painter, an entirely random yet meaningful fact.

Related concepts
Two documentaries:
Sungazing: Eat the Sun
Breatharianism: In the Beginning There Was Light

Two books come to mind, related obliquely, but which may appeal to readers who liked The Vegetarian:
The Art of Murder, by José Carlos Somoza, insofar as it relates to the human body as a canvas.
The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley, where fungal disease takes humanoid form, kind of.

Two sources:
Excerpt of The Vegetarian [Words without Borders].
"The Fruit of My Woman" — the short story from which this novella grew [Granta].

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A library between worlds

For a book purportedly about a library, The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman, has very little librarying going on here.
"I and Mr. Strongrock are agents of a library which exists between the alternate worlds. Our task is to collect books for the Library from all those worlds, to preserve them."
That's the premise. While the laws of physics are upheld throughout the worlds, they allow for magical elements and creatures like fairies and dragons, vampires and werewolves. Each world is governed by forces of order and of chaos, in varying degrees. I don't really see how all this jives with the claim that science remains true, but blah, blah, blah, suspension of disbelief, it's just a lame excuse to tell stories about different realities.

This story covers one particular mission in one particular alternate. This world is very Victorian-era steampunk, with a murdered vampire, zeppelins, and mechanical alligators. Our librarians seem to have stepped into a conspiracy, though whether it's masterminded by the Fae folk, the Iron Brotherhood, or Luxembourg is not clear. There's a bit of penny dreadful about it, as our chief protagonist, Librarian Irene, herself notes.

The book she's after is a version of Grimm's Fairy Tales. We're treated to a small sample of it, but my sense is that the object of the chase could have just as easily been another type of artefact.

Librarians also have access to the Language, a type of magic that seems to depend on naming things very precisely, but it's mostly just mysterious and convenient.

So what is the point of the Library? Although it opens onto all the alternate worlds, librarians are careful not to interfere in the workings of those worlds. They collect knowledge, but squirrel it away without ever really using it or even understanding it.
The conversation shifted, much to Irene's relief, into a debate on poetry that lasted for most of the journey. She herself was mostly silent, being more used to acquiring it than reading it.
Which doesn't seem very librarian-like to me.

It's a fun book, but mostly forgettable. I've had trouble focusing the last couple weeks, so this book was easy, not too demanding, and provided some distraction. There were some funny bits, and it reminds me a little of the Thursday Next books, but without the clever literary references. I won't be searching out the subsequent volumes of Cogman's series.

Friday, November 25, 2016

On not buying books

Yesterday for lunch I went to the bookstore. Food for thought, food for the soul. Usually I just like to browse, just being in a bookstore brings me comfort (and I'm lucky to have recently found a non-big-box-chain store near my office — I blame the shifting streets of Old Montreal, like mischievous Hogwarts staircases, for keeping it hidden from me for so long), but yesterday, uncharacteristically, I splurged on impulse.

I have tried to keep in check the acquisition of books, but when displaying my spoils back at the office (just three books), a coworker, having witnessed me purchase books on two occasions and at other times open packages of books, called me on this delusion of mine.

Since September,
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle — because a review made me want it, it's Lovecraftian
  • Le Chat, Georges Simenon — to practice my French
  • The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon — because I've been planning to read it for years, so finally now
  • The Door, Magda Szabó — because I wanted Iza's Ballad (because the name) but it wasn't available, and NYRB Classics books are beautiful
  • Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau — because it's exercises in style, so I can argue that it's related to my work
  • The Familiar, Volume 2, Mark Z Danielewski — because volume 1 was exhilarating, and it's fascinating as an object
  • The Hand, Georges Simenon — because I'd never heard of it, and since it's not available in Canada it's that much more precious
  • The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman — because it was on all sorts of books-to-watch-for lists and it cost less than 2 dollars, and it might be about a library
  • The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville — because Miéville is one of the few authors about whom I feel I must own his entire oeuvre
  • The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley — because I had it on a list somewhere, I don't know why
  • Monday Starts on Saturday, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — because now available in English, plus it's an excellent title
  • So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, Patrick Modiano — because I'd never heard of it, and I felt a connection to Modiano this summer, and it was shelved in the thriller section
  • The Vegetarian, Han Kang — because I've been wanting to see what the fuss is about, but it wasn't available at my library, and I know I can hand it off to someone afterward
And before September, the last time I purchased a book was August, and before that was June. If you don't count the travel guide I picked up in July, along with some other vacation-reading material.

That's not counting the books I've purchased as gifts for other people, which typically occasion an oh-I'll-just-pick-up-a-little-something-for-myself-then-too moment, which helped contribute to the above.

Some of the above books were rationalized in a my-birthday-is-coming-soon way, and then an it-was-just-my-birthday-so-of-course-I-should-treat-myself way.

I'm proud to be using the library more regularly this year (quite suddenly they have a decent selection of ebooks), and when I'm hankering for something new I'm likely to browse NetGalley review copy offerings. At least some of the books listed above are ebooks (for which I'll rarely allow myself to spend more $5). I have not listed here the free ebooks I've acquired.

But believe me when I say it's not a spending problem so much as a space problem. I've become adept at slipping books in and overlooking them mentally; physically, it's a bit more challenging. Surely I'm a victim of book creep — the steady but so-slow-as-to-be-almost-imperceptible advance of books from designated shelves and corners onto most surfaces of my living space.

Me not buying books? Not very good at it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Prospero's library



If my library were peopled with creatures rather than books, it would house polar bear memoirists, insurgent dogs, poetry-spurting robots, grieving elephants, musical dragons, literary rats (and cockroaches), dream-weaving spiders, and pulsating intelligences. Murderers, detectives, hackers, God's gardeners, librarians, artists, occultists, mothers, medieval scholars, and bureaucrats all live here.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A smell cannot lie

Wolfgang's mouth smelled of lies. There are different sorts of lies, and each one has its own smell. This particular lie smelled of suspicion: Wolfgang was probably reporting not his own thoughts but the words of his boss. Wolfgang was a liar, but fortunately he was still a young liar. His smell revealed that he was still a child, and a smell cannot lie.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, is a beautifully whimsical meditation of a novel.

Really it's the memoirs of three polar bears spanning three generations. But they are the collective unconscious of an archetypal polar bear. Each bear embodies all past bear ancestors.

The subject of that meditation is tough to pin down. It is about writing and words and politics.
"Writing isn't particularly different from hibernation."

"The smaller the newborn text, the better, because then it has a better chance at survival."

"The boss had no doubt intended to enrich this low-fat speech with a bit more semantic butterfat."

"After that I stopped writing anything political, though I'm not entirely sure what's political and what isn't."

"Rage is a sort of fuel that can't be found in the forest."
It is about nationalism and cultural identity. How language is linked to identity. It is about climate change and responsibility and responsibility for the actions of our forebears. Free will and predetermined nature. What is natural and what is learned behaviour.

The first bear, the grandmother, is a star circus performer; she rode a bicycle in the early days. When her knees gave out after training in Latin American dance, she was assigned a desk job and started participating in conferences (for example, Working Conditions Among Artists, and Working Class Pride).

So there's this polar bear just living out her life in Moscow, sweet-talking her superintendent into giving her some contraband vodka, and the super starts discussing a masterpiece of Japanese diary literature from the Middle Ages, which inspires the bear to pen her autobiography, which is well received by the public, but her celebrity leads to persecution by the state.

She defects to West Germany, where she is overwhelmed by the availability of goods and somewhat taken aback by the conspicuous and wasteful consumption of the West. The bear begins to realize that her fate is inextricably linked to that of humans and human rights.

A bookseller presses Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll on her, for which she reproaches him: "You sold me an indigestible book!" Atta Troll, A Midsummer Night's Dream, an 1841 epic poem, is about a dancing bear who makes a break for freedom, to end up as rug in Paris. (Everything I know about Atta Troll I owe to short summaries and a Google preview of Reading Heinrich Heine; it appears to be not widely known in English.) The conversation turns to censorship.

Eventually she seeks political asylum in Canada. She learns English, marries, has a daughter (Tosca); her husband wants them to flee to East Germany, to contribute to the creation of an ideal state, so they do.

And this is how this novel is. Is she really a polar bear, or is she a metaphor? She is nameless.

Her daughter, Tosca, makes her name on the stage, and eventually also works in the circus. It appears that Tosca's son, Knut, is born in captivity, in a zoo, and is also an acclaimed public figure.

Their memoirs in turn are both funny and poignant.
"Someone told me once that illness was a traditional form of theater practiced by office workers, who were allowed to put on these performances only on Mondays when they didn't want to come to work."

"It's not that I want to talk about the war, it's just that it makes me nervous to have a hole in my circus biography. A hole that big might one day become my grave."

"I wanted to wrap myself in the black woolen blanket of grief and brood over my clutch of sorrows until they hatched and flew away, but it wasn't possible."

"Knut felt powerless in the face of time. Time was a huge ice block made of loneliness. Knut gnawed and scratched at it, but without effect. When Christian complained of having no time, as he often did, Knut envied him."
Each bear gains awareness of themselves, their heritage, and the larger climate of which they're a part. Only by looking inward can one begin to see outward.

I expected gimmicky and sentimental, but this novel was unpretentious and thoughtful, thoroughly charming. It let me revel in surreal circumstances and circus stories, but gave me space to consider some very serious questions indeed. The narrations flits easily, letting my mind settle where it will.
After the death of all living creatures, all our unfulfilled wishes and unspoken words will go on drifting in the stratosphere, they will combine with one another and linger upon the earth like fog. What will this fog look like in the eyes of the living? Will they fail to remember the dead and instead indulge in banal meteorological conversations like: "It's foggy today, don't you think?"

Sunday, November 13, 2016

All our conversations compete

I don't know how to say what I have to say to you. If I say, "I find that my choice is whether to not be or to be," it'll worry you. I could maybe say, "My choice is how to be," but that leaves so much unsaid.

When a robot vacuum cleaner hits the sofa leg, it might veer left, might go right. Is that choice? I don't know yet which way I'll veer.

The time I'm talking about is just before you got that last text from me, to which you didn't immediately reply, because it was in the middle of the night and it made no sense. I know later you came to my ruined house and couldn't get in, and no one could find me. I got your messages, but I couldn't answer. I saw how you all looked.

How do I tell this?

It's hard to think sometimes amid the clamor of argument. The politics of objects. All our conversations compete.

YouTube videos might be conversing among themselves — their lists and references and cuts parts of their dialect. When we bounce from song to nonsense to meme, we might be eavesdropping on arguments between images. It might be none of it's for us at all, any more than it's for us when we sit on a stool and intrude on the interactions of angles of furniture, or when we see a washing line bend under the weight of the wind or a big cloud of starlings and act like we get to be pleased.
— from "The Dusty Hat," in Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Miéville.

Conversations in the world that have nothing to do with you are suddenly meaningful. Everything is suddenly loaded with meaning.

I'm restless this week, and so is my reading. I can't seem to settle on anything, or see anything through.

I've been dipping into this volume of Miéville's short stories for well over a year now. I have a difficult time appreciating short stories in general. Maybe not unexpectedly, short stories feel just right at a time like now.

Some of these are brilliant, others less so. (Every reviewer has a different favourite; I'll keep you posted on mine.) But all of them are suddenly loaded with meaning.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Cohen, elsewhere

In the summer of '94 I was passing through Wrocław. A friend of mine from Kraków was in town, and we arranged to meet one afternoon in the bar beside the experimental theatre. My friend introduced me to Igor, an actor — more of a troubadour really — from Russia, somewhere east of Moscow. Igor spoke little Polish, and even less English or French. My friend was quite drunk already, and tired of translating.

Igor looked at me and said, Kanada, as if to confirm. Yes, I nodded. Igor smiled and said, Leonard Cohen.

And so we sang.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Who shall I say is calling?

A time for weeping...
Who by Fire?

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

— Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Monday, November 07, 2016

I'm a tree that grows hearts

"One day, I found a big book buried deep in the ground. I opened it, but all the pages were blank. Then to my surprise, it started writing itself."



Björk Digital offers 5 virtual reality experiences, a musicological education space, and a cinematic screening of a curated program of music videos.

It should be no surprise that Bachelorette, a metafictional book-themed video, of a song with lyrics written by Icelandic poet Sjón, is among my favourites.

You don't have to be a fan of Björk's music to appreciate the show, but it helps. I for one hear a very hopeful and positive tone in her songs, even when they're imbued with melancholy.

The highlight of the exhibit is definitely the virtual reality aspect, through which you're guided in a set order. But I would happily spend more time in the wider exhibition space; the video program itself runs for about 2 hours and the hands-on learning app is fascinating — also immersive in their way. The context pushes you to view the music through different lenses — from mathematical to spiritual.

Björk Digital is on view in Old Montreal until November 12.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Shivering jouissance

"Were you ever in Canada?" I asked him.

"No."

"Do you know what sort of country it is?"

"A very cold one."

When I heard that, I wanted to move to Canada right away.

The adjective "cold" had such an appealing sound. I'd give up anything to experience such cold, for Ice Queen beauty, for shivering jouissance. The ice cold truth. Acrobatic marvels that give you cold feet. A talent that makes all your competitors blanch and tremble as if frozen. Rationality honed sharp as an icicle. Cold has a broad spectrum.

"Is it really that cold in Canada?"

"Yes, it's incredibly cold there."

I dreamed of a frozen city in which the walls of all the buildings were made of transparent ice. Instead of cars, salmon swam through the streets.
—from Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada.

No, Canada's not really like that. But one can dream.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Off-putting in some way


I seem to be a little out of sync with the rest of the world in my impressions of The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. We're all in agreement that this is a serviceable page-turner, but less so about what works and what doesn't.

The girl on the train is Rachel, a grown trainwreck of a woman. She sees the same faces, the same scenes, day in, day out; what commuter doesn't feel this sense of familiarity about the strangers that surround them. Rachel gives her regulars backstory. Then one of them goes missing.

I was not prepared for how depressing this book was. She drinks and she whines, she can't let go and she can't move on. But this is no parody. This is love and hope, and fertility and motherhood, and family and fulfilment, and things going wrong, love going wrong. This is life.
I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I'm off-putting in some way. It's not just that I've put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it's as if people can see the damage written all over me, they can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.
One review asserts that "with a protagonist so determined to behave illogically, self-destructively and frankly narcissistically (someone even refers to her as “Nancy Drew”), it’s tough to root for Rachel." To the contrary, I think she is a devastating character, wholly believable, if pathetic, and it's concern for her fate that carried me along to the end.

The story switches narrators along the way. Many readers like the shifting perspective, and I see its narrative value, but the other narrators are not so well drawn as Rachel. "So I'm sailing along in my bubble of happiness" is exactly the kind of thing someone in a bubble of happiness wouldn't say. Rachel, unreliable as she is, is clearly the main narrator, the one with a story to tell; the others come along merely to move the plot.

I won't relate the plot here, as I'm stunned that so many tell so much, when the pleasure is all in the unfolding. This review at NPR manages reasonably well.

The Girl on the Train is a mostly believable scenario. It shows how what we remember is often only what we imagine. It shows the extent of desperation we might be capable of. Rachel, and the other women for that matter, is redeemed only because extreme circumstances pushed her too far; she was snapped back to reality. But it doesn't show the rest of us a way back; part of me thinks this book should be a feminist rallying cry (I mean, even the title is dismissive of women), and I'm dismayed that it's not recognized as such, but I know this is not that book. It's just a ripping thriller.

Excerpt.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A diagram of woe

Noble people don't do things for the money, they simply have money, and that's what allows them to be noble. They don't really have to think about it much; they sprout benevolent acts the way trees sprout leaves.
So says Felix's figment daughter Miranda of her father, who's staging The Tempest at a local correctional facility and casting himself as Prospero. Hag-Seed, like The Tempest which it retells, is about vengeance, that most noble of acts.

I'm an Atwood fan from way back — 30 years now. I'm more familiar with Atwood than I am with Shakespeare. Sure, I like Shakespeare as much as anyone does — I acknowledge his genius even if I don't always recognize it. But Atwood never fails to disappoint. Noble Atwood sprouting devourable fiction.

The reviews of Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold are quite boring in their consistent and unsurprising praise for her wit and overall skill. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to find fault with. That may not sound much like praise; more like the absence of criticism. It's a relatively compact, near-perfect novel.

So I'm not sure what I can offer you by way of review. I give you this.

You don't need to know anything about The Tempest to enjoy Atwood's Hag-Seed.
I don't know The Tempest. I always assumed it must be cool, based on it being quoted by Laurie Anderson in Blue Lagoon; oh, and by Eliot in The Wasteland. I did see Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, but, visually and aurally stunning as it was, it can't be said that I understood it. I suspect that knowledge of Shakespeare's original would give the reader an added layer or two of appreciation, but it's not a prerequisite for reading this book.

I now want to see The Tempest staged.
More specifically, I want to see Atwood's version of The Tempest staged, just as she outlines the direction in this novel. A cloak of the pelts of stuffed animals, heads and all, nightmarified Disney princess puppets, rap musical numbers. Sounds awesome. (A couple reviews nitpick that Atwood's rhymes are substandard. I didn't find them out of place.)

Atwood is a master of language.
One character is described as "a diagram of woe." I love that. Her passages may not be liltingly beautiful, but they are crafted to great effect.
There's a click. The door unlocks and he walks into the warmth, and that unique smell. Unfresh paint, faint mildew, unloved food eaten in boredom, and the smell of dejection, the shoulders slumping down, the head bowed, the body caving in upon itself. A meagre smell. Onion farts. Cold naked feet, damp towels, motherless years. The smell of misery, lying over everyone within like an enchantment. But for brief moments he knows he can unbind that spell.
Atwood is a skilled storyteller.
While reading Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, I kept thinking how much it felt like a Margaret Atwood novel, just missing some unpindownable something that would make it great and lasting. So it was interesting to read Atwood so shortly afterwards. Both novels cover the production of Shakespeare. I know it's not fair to compare them — these books set out to do very different things. But I keep trying to figure out, what is it in Station Eleven that reminds me so much of Atwood, and why it falls short of Atwood. Atwood's Hag-Seed is clearly focused and controlled. Maybe this: maybe Station Eleven is trying to be bigger than it needs to be; Hag-Seed is only as big as it needs to be and is careful not to let anything else in.

This book teaches me a new way of reading.
Hag-Seed is a lesson in how to read critically, and this evolves quite naturally out of the context, is never didactic. Felix teaches the prisoners how to read — really read — The Tempest: what do the words mean, what do they really mean, what do they say about the characters who speak them, what is the nature of these characters, human or otherwise, what makes them who they are, why do they do what they do. What happens to them when the play is done? Felix asks his actors to imagine their characters' lives after Shakespeare leaves off. What happens after can inform what happened before. I'm not overly interested in close reading, I read novels for fun, but I think the best works of literature inspire these questions anyway, leading readers to run away with their thoughts. Shakespeare does it. Atwood too.

Atwood on rewriting The Tempest in The Guardian:
The last three words Prospero says are "Set me free." But free from what? In what has he been imprisoned?

Monday, October 24, 2016

A sentimental, decadent cult

Stop Global Warming and Save the Polar Bears!
The polar bear speaks up, and it makes me want a bicycle:
"The bicycle is beyond all doubt the most excellent invention in the history of civilization. The bicycle is the flower of the circus stage, the hero of every environmental policy. In the near future, bicycles will conquer all major cities in the world. And not just that: Every household will have its own generator attached to a bicycle. You'll be able to get fit and produce electricity at the same time. You can also get on your bicycle to pay your friends a spontaneous visit instead of first calling them on your cell phone or sending an email. When we utilize the multifunctional capacity of the bicycle, many electronic devices will eventually become superfluous."

I saw dark clouds gathering about several of the faces. Putting even more power into my voice, I continued: "We will ride to the river on our bikes to do our laundry. We'll ride our bikes to the forest to collect firewood. We don't need washing machines anymore, and we don't have to rely on electricity or gas to heat our apartments or cook our meals." Several faces were amused by these fanciful proposals, displaying unobtrusive laugh creases, while others turned gray as stone. Not a problem, I cheered myself on, don't let them intimidate you. Pay no attention to these bores. Relax! Ignore this wrong audience, imagine yourself standing before hundreds of ecstatic faces and keep talking. This is a circus. Every conference is a circus.

The chair coughed dismissively, as if to show he had no intention whatever of dancing to my tune. Then he exchanged intimate glances with a bearded official seated beside him. I remembered that the two men had entered the room side by side. The official, thin as a nail, wore a matte black suit even though he wasn't at a funeral. He began to speak without first asking permission: "Rejecting automobiles and worshipping bicycles: This is a sentimental, decadent cult already familiar to us from Western countries. The Netherlands are a good example. But supporting machine culture is a matter of the utmost urgency. We must provide logical connections between places of employment and residential areas. Bicycles create the illusion that one might ride anywhere one likes at any time. A bicycle culture could exert a problematic influence on our society." I raised my hand to contradict this line of argumentation. But the session leader ignored my hand and announced the lunch break. I left the room without a word to anyone and ran out of the building like a schoolchild running onto the playground.
—from Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada.

Imagine a bicycle-driven future! Perhaps the most problematic influence on our society is the Establishment. See through the illusions.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear will be released November 8. I was eager to read a review copy on the basis of Rivka Galchen (whom I revere on the basis of a single "essay") having referred to the author's whatness as Yoko Tawada's Magnificent Strangeness.

It's early pages still, but if the polar bear is expressing her concern about having missed the forecast for the weather change of the Prague Spring, I'm guessing climate may be a running thread, whether ecological, social, or political.

Excerpt.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Too much shit is monotonous

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

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

"I been called worse," says PPod.

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

There was a kind of greatness in choosing to be ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CBC: The Next Chapter
Maisonneuve

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nobel thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

I am Elena Ferrante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 03, 2016

Eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Do not think about sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?

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

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?

Where?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Just another broken heart’s beaten down story

Here's a great octopus of a poem I discovered this week:
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

I’m reviewing a left ventriculography
from a man with chest pain, MI ruled out,
his wife dead for a post-crash hour.
The scan shows his cardiac apex
bulging with each beat, shaped
like a takotsubo, an octopus trap
a Japanese cardiologist recalled
from his childhood fishing village,
the scan just another broken heart’s
beaten down story of futility and resilience.
And I will say, “I am sorry for your loss,”
explain the image, reassure him
his heart muscle will recover in a week,
all the time wishing I could hug him
with eight strong arms instead of two.

— Richard Berlin

I am enrolled in a MOOC, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing — I couldn't know if its focus would be more reading or wellbeing.

Week 1 was a lot of poetry, and the instructors' taste in poetry is rather old and very English, quite unlike my preferred variety. Poetry as stress management, as a means to access stillness. Slowing down.

Some great video interviews, including with Ben Okri, who made a great observation about how we reach for old favourites in times of emotional need — it's not just a comfort blanket, it's the way we know how to access an interior life.

Week 2 covered that classic mental illness, heartbreak (hence the poem above). And Jane Austen (ugh).

We left off with the question: Can literature be harmful?

(Of course! It can send people to prison, incite revolution. It can inspire wives to leave their husbands. They had to stage an intervention for Don Quixote.)