Sunday, December 10, 2017

Proof that you existed

Little O noticed that boys noticed her. Although she didn't know why they did. She didn't have trouble attracting their attention the way some of the other girls did. When she would sense that a boy had fallen in love with her, there would be a peculiar feeling, a magical sort of lonely feeling. When you realized that someone was in love with you, you got to see yourself from the outside, just for a minute. You could finally have proof that you existed. You could look at yourself as though you were a fabled creature, like a unicorn.
— from "The Story of Little O (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl)" in Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O'Neill.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship

I'm going to go through our texts and figure out who instigated each individual texting conversation and who was the last one to reply. I personally hate being the last one to reply in texting conversation. It's like the other person just disappears or tells you to go fuck yourself, so I try specifically now to leave most texting conversations first as a matter of principle. Except for the inner circle. Everyone who now holds membership in my inner circle always signs off a texting conversation with XO or xx or xoxo or xox or the deadly x. To get into the inner circle, in fact, you can't be a texting abandoner. That's a fucking rule.

You are no longer in my texting inner circle precisely because of these statistics. For instance, last month you instigated six texting conversations and I instigated five, but you text-abandoned me nine out of the eleven conversations. This month is different. I'm aiming for four to five abandonments at the most because I know I can quit better than you. If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship. It means that our conversations are a lot shorter and shallower but I'm not getting caught with my pants down, so to speak. Maybe I should add text-length to the chart?
I have mixed feelings about This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

It's labeled "songs and stories." For the most part I liked the stories — it's the songs I don't get. For starters, what makes songs different from poems? How are you supposed to read a song? Doesn't reading a song negate its very songness? So I'm not going to talk about the songs. I just don't get the songs.

The stories, however, are quite beautiful, poignant, and funny.
Topic 11: Being a Writer Sucks
Writing actually sucks. Like you're alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness, just wondering how healthy it is to make all this shit up, and just wondering if you did actually make this shit up, or if you just copied down your life or worse someone else's life, or may you're just feeding your delusions and neuroses and then advertising it to whoever reads your drivel.
It all feels very honest, but this is where you remember that this is fiction. It doesn't have to be real to be true.

In the Globe and Mail,
It's not possible to tell which details are lived experience and which are imagined. ... Her writing educates the reader even as it admits to not having all the answers. ... I was stunned by Simpson's generosity in sharing these experiences and inviting us to be challenged and to be lost.
As a reader, I don't know what I'm being educated about. That the reviewer is stunned by Simpson's generosity makes it clear she assumes lived experience and authenticity.

Indigenous issues do arise, and they're not insignificant.
They want a beach. We want rice beds. You can't have both. They want to win. We need to win. They'll still be white people if they don't have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won't be Mississauga if they can't ever do a single Mississauga thing.
In The Winnipeg Review,
What fascinates me about Simpson's work is not its Anishinaabe cultural roots, but its examination of intimacy and love. You can't separate being Indigenous from how we love others. It's an extension of culture and worldview.
This surprises me. In my view, the bits about intimacy and love were absolutely the best, and also the most accessible, because they're the most universal. These stories neither educated me nor helped me access an indigenous experience — they were simply relatable. This has nothing to do with native ways being confounded my modern times; I mean, who hasn't obsessed over a love interest's texts?

Reviews
Globe and Mail
PRISM International
Rough ghosts
The Winnipeg Review

Video.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

What are Basque ghosts like?

Do ghosts prefer southerly winds? Are Mediterranean ghosts calmer? They say that in Northern Europe ghosts are loud, horrifying, that their shrieks are more out of tune because of the cold. With Northern ghosts — Irish, Estonian, German, it's easy to imagine them coming at you with a knife and no explanation. Mediterranean ghosts, however, are not as gloomy, it's impossible to take them too seriously; even when they kill you, they do it in an incompetent way; Don Juan Tenorio and others like him are laughable, buffoonish, and sometime it's their own comedic candor that makes them all the more fearful; we'd risk our necks to bet that they'd rather dance to a tambourine than use a knife; Mediterranean ghosts sound like they'd be fun to have a few glasses of wine with. "Ghosts fervid for Frescuelo and Maria. "Is there a really frightening and serious ghost in Spanish literature? And in the Basque Country? Who are they? What are Basque ghosts like?
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body

The unevolved axolotl is an apt pet for Javier Cetarti, although he comes to care for it quite by accident and later abandons it without a thought.
He imagined it at that moment, settled at the back of the fish tank, in the darkness of the shuttered house, wondering in its crude way at what moment a blurry shadow would come to scatter food over the surface of the water, and perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body, emptier and lighter with each passing day.
Under This Terrible Sun, by Carlos Busqued, is oppressively bleak and disturbing. It's mostly the story of Cetarti who travels to a small town to settle the affairs of his mother and brother, who allegedly were murdered by the mother's boyfriend Molina before he turned the gun on himself.

The town is literally a cesspit, the water table having risen, the cesspits overflowing, shit and piss seeping up through the ground. The trees have died (so the sun is punishing), the place stinks, but people have gotten used to it. There are giant poisonous flying cockroaches.

The cop Duarte was a longtime friend of Molina; they were in the airforce together and, it's hinted, later collaborated on other business dealings. These days Danielito, Molina's son, helps out Duarte in his ventures.

In addition to simple insurance scams, Duarte has some kidnapping racket going on. He's also a connoisseur of extreme pornography, although it's not clear if he may be involved with porn in a deeper, more criminal way.
There's some pornography you don't watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go. [...] This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them.
Under This Terrible Sun is well written. The text is clear; the novel's ambiguity — and its creepiness — arises from not being privy to the whole picture. The characterization, the minimalist plotting, the sense of dread (both existential and visceral), and the pacing are excellent. If you have the stomach for it.

One of Duarte's videos is graphically described, and had it gone on for longer or were there more, I might've had to put the book aside. As it is, that scene certainly pervaded the mood of the entire book, to great effect.

Warning: there are also some vile descriptions of insects and brutality against dogs.

Everyone smokes a lot of weed. Duarte watches a lot of military history and builds model airplanes. Cetarti and Danielito appear to be cut from the same cloth (even though their characters don't interact till late in the book) in their penchant for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

There are recurring references to cephalopods, on TV and in magazine articles, which may be somewhat allegorical of Cetarti's situation as a whole.

Squid have cannibalistic tendencies: the squid that fishermen pull in often is often not the one that swallowed the lure, but a larger one eating the originally hooked squid.

Cetarti reads some details about the giant squid — three hearts and two brains — but he doesn't find what he's looking for. The monsters have never been captured alive. They live in an environment that is hostile to life. One only ever glimpses a small part of the horror at a time, never seen in its entirety.

This is the third book from Argentina I've read this year (the others being the subversive Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac, and the insidiously unsettling Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin). I've decided that Argentina must be a very strange (possibly depraved) place.

Reviews
Three Percent
Tony's Reading List

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ice storms always melt

If I had your undivided attention, even for five minutes, I would tell you to stop panicking. I would tell you that you have no idea how amazing freedom feels and that you should stop giving a fuck about all those things you are supposed to give a fuck a bout, even if it is just for five minutes. For one thing, you'd realize that ice storms always melt, eventually.

If I had ten minutes alone with you, I'd tell you that I love you. I'd tell you not to be scared, because it's the kind of love that doesn't want anything or need anything. It's the kind of love that just sits there and envelops whoever you are or whoever you want to be. It doesn't demand. It isn't a commodity. It doesn't threaten all the other people you love. It doesn't fuck up and it doesn't fuck things up. It's loyal. It's willing to feel hurt. It's willing to exist on shifting terms. It's willing to stay anyway. It doesn't want. It's just there. It's just there and good and given freely, sewing up the holes unassumingly because it's the only thing to do. There is so much space around it and the space shimmers.
— from "Seeing Through the End of the World" in This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, despite being set in an unnamed city, is clearly an allegory of revolutionary events occurring in Egypt in recent years. However, beyond that, it's difficult to pin down any sense of truth or justice or clear delineation of right and wrong, as the ambiguity of novel drives home.

The story centres on Yehya, who was injured during the Disgraceful Events, and his quest to have the bullet removed from his stomach. Bureaucratic complications arise because bullets "may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." Dr. Tarek is reluctant to perform the operation Yehya needs. It's this special authorization that brings Yehya to queue up at the Gate. Others come to the Gate to file a complaint, get a certificate notarized, obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship, etc. But the Gate never opens.

Days pass. Weeks. A whole society springs up around the queue. The sales rep mingles with the teacher, the cleaning woman, the journalist. Prayer meetings, refreshments, phone service. Bus routes are modified to accommodate the queue.
Yehya wasn't like them. He was a different kind of man, steadfast and stubborn, and must have realized that day in Zephyr Hospital how important his injury was; he was carrying a government bullet inside his body. He possessed tangible evidence of what had really happened during the Disgraceful Events, and was perhaps the only person still alive who was willing to prove what the authorities had done.
Why do people keep queuing up? Don't they know the Gate isn't going to open?! How can they not realize it? Why don't they rise up, do something?!

Their access to news is being controlled. They're being surveilled via the cell network. People are disappeared. Dr. Tarek's file on Yehya all the while mysteriously is being updated.

Yehya's character is called into question, the nature of the Disgraceful Events is called into question. And so it goes.
Nagy had failed to convince them that everything in the world was interconnected, and that their lives were ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations. Even things that seemed random operated according to this invisible system, even if the connections couldn't be seen. Yehya laughed whenever they discussed it seriously, teasing him that the philosophy department had corrupted his mind and destroyed his faith in human nature. Amani would laugh, too — she could never be convinced that the independence she believed she possessed was in truth no more than an accepted illusion, part of a web of relations and contradictions. The Gate itself was an integral part of the system, too, even if from the outside it appeared to pull all the strings.
What will we not normalize? What does it take to drive people to action?

Review.
While Basma Abdel Aziz's new work starts with a bullet to the gut it is also relevant to those of us stuck on hold with an insurance agent.
Roundtable including the translator, which approximates a decent bookclub experience.
Getting the tone of the ending right was one of the more challenging parts of translating the novel: working to approximate the same amount of vagueness, to not make it more concrete or more open-ended than the Arabic suggested.
Excerpt 1.
Excerpt 2.

The more I think about The Queue, the more I like it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power.

"Why should you care? he shouts. Why should you fucking care? We're talking about intelligence gathering on an unprecedented scale. Forget data mining. This is mind rape. The end of privacy as we know it. It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power. Control. Sure, the marketing men might be the first to come knocking, but sooner or later this information is going to end up in the hands of agencies whose only interest is the total suppression of your freedom. In the whole of history, no system of mass surveillance had ever existed that hasn't ended up being hijacked by malevolent forces."
In Broadcast, by Liam Brown, a star vlogger is given an opportunity to test-drive a new technology. A small chip is implanted in the base of David's skull, which essentially live-streams his thoughts over the internet 24-7.

While reality TV gives us the passively reassuring and relatable everyman, and books offer a more immersive experience of empathy, MindCast then is poised to be the ultimate entertainment.

Interesting things start to happen once the implanted program starts to learn the patterns behind David's thoughts. His thoughts start to take shapes other than splotches of colour. As a vlogger, David thrived on feedback; as a MindCaster, he confronts a different kind of feedback loop when watching his own channel, that feeds and strengthens thoughts he didn't know he had. And it turns out that chip can upload in both directions.

Broadcast has the difficult task of discussing very current social and technological phenomena without making it seem dated. It wants to issue warnings regarding our social media-infused, reality TV-obsessed culture, but it's tough to do without coming off as trite or irrelevant. Or simply too late.

Unfortunately, the novel reads a little like someone of my generation trying to document the ways of my daughter's generation for the benefit of people who have spent the last decade in a technology-free zone. Vlogging had come into its stride by 2005. Reality TV for the internet. Vlogging is so commonplace these days that the book puts me at a remove when it explains it to me rather than weaving it seamlessly into the world it's trying to build.

While the technology that's core to the book is of the imagined near future, this book may have been written years ago. Apart from vlogging culture, references to Uber, mood rings, and "the static between channels on an old television set" had me puzzling to fix this story in time. Given the age of the characters, the tone and the historical timeframe all felt a little off.
"You need to understand that you're going to be a character in a book. Every character needs context. The reader has to know where they've come from, what they've been through. I'm not saying you have to be likeable. But you do have to be believable. You need substance. Dreams and desires. Hopes and fears. Emotional heft. You have feel like a real person rather than some two-dimensional cypher — otherwise why would they possibly care what happens to you?"
So says Alice, who's tasked with writing David's biography. But it's also a problem for Broadcast. So how is it that the character of David is believable even while he lacks emotional heft? Paradoxically, maybe his two-dimensionality is what makes him seem real in this day and age.

Broadcast is short novel that is fairly predictable once the main premise is established. I think it could be a good introduction to speculative fiction for those people who are wary of the genre as well as those interested in getting a glimpse of one aspect of youth culture.

The tagline on the cover is "Black Mirror meets Inception in the YouTube Age." If you've ever seen an episode of Black Mirror, this book won't hold any surprises for you. It doesn't bring anything new to the conversation we should be having about the implications of technology, but Broadcast might yet invite a few people in.

While I may sound overly critical here, I found Broadcast to be an enjoyably entertaining, non-demanding palate cleanser of a book.

Excerpt.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The whole of human life is contained in books

"The whole of human life is contained in books" and that's especially true of The Master Key, by Masako Togawa. It's a cross-section of the lives inhabiting a ladies-only apartment building, more like a series of interconnected stories than a novel.
At the age of twenty-five, instead of marrying a young man, she settled down as receptionist manageress of an apartment block full of young women. Day in and day out she sat at the front desk, dreaming her dreams, and determined to better herself. She would watch the young ladies of her own age going out to their work, and she would secretly read and read — several books a day, sometimes, keeping them hidden on her knee under the desk. Well, the whole of human life is contained in books. Love, desire, success and failure, death and grief... they're all there, in the world of books.

So she went on sitting at that desk, and her straight little back gradually began to bend a bit, but still she went on reading books and fed and nourished her mind in that way. And one day, before she had time to notice what had happened, she woke up to find that she was forty years old. Suddenly the shadow of tragedy passed over her at that moment — she didn't know why it was so, but she felt it, and that's what matters.
This is a quiet book of small and forgotten mysteries, the secrets of women's pasts.

The Master Key was originally published in Japan in 1962, and it has justly survived as a classic, to be reissued by Pushkin Press. Apart from a very few details (like the very fact of a ladies-only apartment building), it remains timeless and universal.

This is not a conventional mystery, with a detective investigating a clear criminal situation, and it may not be for everyone. You will not get a linear narrative and complete resolution. But there is an unsolved kidnapping, a stolen violin, a hoarder, a cross-dresser, a cult, a séance, and a missing master key. And a prowling cat.

As engineers prepare to shift the building about four metres along rails to make way for a widened road, the foundations are laid bare and the building's secretes begin to come to light. More a character study of a building's inhabitants than action-driven, The Master Key is smart and elegant and demure like its residents.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Multiple and contradictory ways of being faithful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

It stripped them of everything

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt.


Monday, October 30, 2017

A sentence about cats

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Addicted to the condiment of the word

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

But this book is not for everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Feeling with hellish voracity

Because inside myself I saw what hell is like.

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Two humiliating negatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The simple moistness of the thing

Reading The Passion According to G.H. (Clarice Lispector) is an exhausting, but thoroughly rewarding, experience. I'm not sure I can maintain this slow pace. I build momentum, and start to zip along, then remind myself to stop and think. Then I reread, and absorb. What am I absorbing, though? Cockroach guts?

I've tried to summarize this book, or the experience of it, to a few people. It goes like this:

It's about a woman, an artist, who comes face to face with a cockroach. Eye to eye. Just that, really. A hundred pages in and maybe an hour has passed, maybe mere minutes, or less. She goes into the maid's room (who resigned the day previously), and the room is bright and dry and pristine white (except for the weird cave painting on the wall). But there in the wardrobe is a cockroach. And it petrifies G.H. And she tries to slam the door on it, but that only results in the white mucous spurting out. And then she confronts it.

And I'm on tenterhooks.

Will G.H. finally succeed in killing it? Will she forgive it, have mercy on it? Will she become it?

What the fuck is this about anyway? Is it about G.H. coming to terms with her classism or racism? Is there an element of lesbianism and/or homophobia vis-à-vis her relationship with the maid? Is it about getting in touch with her emotions? Her sexuality or sexual passion? Her primal being? (The language is startlingly erotic.)

Is it about fertility? What about fertility as creativity, as an artist? There is timelessness in being — the roach's being — but also in art. Is she pregnant?

And what about religious passion? Where's god in all this? (The language is startlingly religious, too.) Are we driving at some cosmic oneness? What transcendence is this?!
I don't want to feel directly in my very delicate mouth the salt in the eyes of the roach, because, my mother, I had been used to the sogginess of its layers and not the simple moistness of the thing.

Even the beauty of salt and the beauty of tears I would have to abandon. Even that, since what I saw predated humanity.
Is this about death? Does she die? (No, she can't die, she's relaying all this the next day.) Does the cockroach die?

What does this book give me? Every page has quotable aha phrases, but do they bring me anything new, anything I've not already internalizedin my life? Then why do I love this book so much?

Of all the books, this is the book I don't want to end. I started reading this book last February, I could easily devour it in an evening, but I deliberately prolong it, something tells me it's better this way, how long can I make it last?

The way it slows down time. The way it instills mindfulness, in a pre-bullshitty-coopted-by-yoga-culture way. [Maybe because I am witness to a slow parade of large black ants across my kitchen, one ant per day, each larger than the last. I kill them all, but I grow tired of my Sisyphean role. The book came before the ants, though.]

I'm halfway. I don't think I can hold myself back any longer. "Transcending is an exit." Everything becomes nameless.

This is gripping existential drama unfolding in slow motion! Feel the horror!

"Freedom is a secret."

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Comforted by its benign hum

The old woman, who was frightened of all machines, found a curious way of making the acquaintance of the refrigerator. She discovered that the fridge made a sort of animal noise, a low purr. It startled her at first, but then she imagined having a conversation with it and would sit beside it, feeling she was not alone. The noise reminded her of some kind of cat but since her last pet had been Captain, a dog, a soft thing as far as she was concerned, it represented a clumsy white version of Captain. On one occasion she spilled cherry soup in it and tried to wash it up because she was afraid of being told off. Iza went quite pale when she saw it, because of course she hadn't turned the electricity off first. "Look, my dear," said the girl. "This is not a block of ice. Never even think of cleaning it with a wet rag. Never mind if it leaves a stain." She pulled out the plug of the fridge and the purring stopped.

After that she no longer tried to make friends with the refrigerator and directed her desperate efforts to understanding how it worked, so that she might prove herself capable of operating it. The trouble was that Iza never had the time to explain and she was reluctant to ask the conductor's wife. She took much more care touching it now and simply sit beside it, comforted by its benign hum.
— from Iza's Ballad, by Magda Szabó.

Poor old woman. Poor fridge. It's like Iza unplugs it as a punishment for them both.

Mmm. Cherry soup.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A belly entirely new and made for the ground

What is there to forgive?

[Whom is she addressing as "my love"? Her lover? The reader? The cockroach? The maid?]

G.H. is compelled to organize, to organize hope. She needs some organizing principle by which to recover. She is aware that she managed to leave the room, but recovery is still required.

She lives so far above the world, she knows her life may suddenly collapse.

She questions why this happened to her. "What was it that called me: madness or reality?" (p 66).

She feels unclean. "And why was the unclean forbidden?" (p 67).

She comes to understand: "Becoming unclean with joy" (p70). Joy without redemption, joy without hope. (Is this a purer joy, or a more sinful one?)
More and more I had nothing to ask for. And I was seeing, with fascination and horror, the pieces of my rotten mummy clothes falling dry to the floor, I was watching my transformation from chrysalis into moist larva, my wings were slowly shrinking back scorched. And a belly entirely new and made for the ground, a new belly was being reborn.
What new being is this?

She lowers herself to the roach's level, and sees it as it is, beyond ideas.

And then there's more white matter spurting out! "The roach wasn't seeing me with its eyes but with its body." (p 73).

The wings are receding. "My convictions and my wings were quickly drying up" (p 73).

And she's just looking at the roach, and it's hideous and beautiful. And completely feminized: "Its two eyes were alive like two ovaries. It was looking at me with the blind fertility of its gaze. It was fertilizing my dead fertility" (p 74). Is G.H. indulging in a lesbian fantasy? [So the roach is meant to symbolize the maid, then?]

More white matter!

[How can this not be sexual?]

G.H. confides that she never experiences this — this slowing of time — by day; only at night. She is feeling pleasure in all this. "My love."

She claims to be asking for help, but it's not clear of whom or for what purpose exactly: what does she need help for?
But what I'd never experienced was the crash with the moment called "right now." Today is demanding me this very day. I had never before known that the time to live also has no word. The time to live, my love, was being so right now that I leaned my mouth on the matter of life. The time to live is a slow uninterrupted creaking of doors continuously opening wide. Two gates were opening and had never stopped opening. But the were continuously opening onto — onto the nothing?

The time to live is so hellishly inexpressive that it is the nothing. What I was calling "nothing" was nevertheless so stuck to me that to me it was... I? and that's why it was becoming the nothing. The doors as always kept opening.

Finally, my love, I gave in. And it became a now.

Monday, October 09, 2017

I, whatever that was

At long last I've returned to Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. This book deserves focus, which I feel I can now give. Part of me has delayed this moment: truly, I do not want this book to end, and part of me does not want to know how it ends.

At this point, the novel is all potential: me (because of course the reader relates to G.H.) versus the cockroach.

When we last left off, the cockroach began to emerge.

Here it is, causing such fear, "a fear much greater than myself," a catalyst to G.H. realizing herself, her power, her "I, whatever that was" (p 46).

And, oh my god, she slams the door shut on the creature! Because she can!
Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris, I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I'd done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?
For G.H., it's not about her capacity to kill so much as what she's killed. But no, it's not dead yet! Can she slam it again? No, G.H., don't look at it! She looks at it. All is lost.

She looks at it, and it is ancient. "It looked like a dying mulatto woman" (p 49). (Like the maid?)

"What I was seeing was life looking back at me" (p 51). Something primordial, raw matter. She fears it, and she recognizes herself in it, and she hates it for doing so. (She hates herself?)

Silence opens within her, and she's looking for the courage to abandon hope. The cockroach makes her do this. What does one achieve by abandoning hope? A truth beyond conventional expectations?

G.H. is reminded of the time she saw her own blood outside of herself, recognizing herself as existing in something external. As if this cockroach too is constituent of her lifeblood.
So I opened my eyes all at once, and saw the full endless vastness of the room, that room that was vibrating in silence, laboratory of hell.
To enter the room, G.H. must pass through the cockroach. This is not physically true. Unless she means another room, of a spiritual kind. Or to earn access back to the reality of the room we already know to exist.

The room is a places beyond "he" or "she," beyond "I." The room is an existential abyss, a desert that seduces. The cockroach seduces. G.H. becomes irreducible.
I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.
Good god, the cockroach is oozing! Something thick and white and slow. She needs to scream a secret scream that will unleash all the screams. It sounds to me like a scream of sexual awakening — abandoned. To depart civilization (enter the desert?), scientists have permission, priests have permission, but women do not.

And the tension snaps (p 59). (Did she scream or not scream?)

G.H. is in the room. She is in the drawing on the wall. She is there with her fifteen million daughters (p 60). She is finally outside of herself. And by everything looking at everything, everything knowing everything, forgiveness arrives.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

My heart was beating at a slight remove

I didn't realize it at the time, I told myself, but Ange's shadow was already very discreetly darkening this room where the three of us used to sit, happy and serene, it was already there, lurking in a corner, remaking our future, because, though I surely didn't realize it at the time, my heart was beating at a slight remove from the two others, imperceptibly less innocent, less constant, less convinced.
I read a review of this novel one morning, and bought myself a copy that very afternoon.

My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye, is an intensely claustrophobic, paranoid novel. I carried it with me in my soul, it weighed on me, it dragged me down.

This is how I felt all week long:

What? What's going on? Why are people treating me this way? What did I do? Did I do something? What happened? Why does everyone think I know what happened? Why don't they believe me? Why won't anyone be straight with me? Are they afraid of me? Repulsed be me? Why won't they tell me? Why has my period stopped? What happened?

This was a spiritually exhausting read. Brilliant.

It starts with Nadia and Ange, teachers, on their way home from school. As they settle in at home it becomes evident that Ange has been seriously injured. Narrated by Nadia, we're as much in the dark as she is. Who did this (and what is it exactly they did) and why?

It seems everyone — the neighbours, the pharmacist, the school principal — is well aware of what transpired. Nadia alone is oblivious. And it's hinted that it's all her fault.

Nadia admits that she and Ange were guilty of arrogance. It's also suggested that they are outsiders to this community. But is that sufficient to bring on this level of harm and ostracization?

Is she an immigrant? But she was born in a nearby Bordeaux neighbourhood. Is it because she's fat? (Or possibly pregnant?) Does her ex-husband have something to do with it? Nothing is clear.

I was sympathetic toward Nadia at the beginning, but she can be inappropriately brash (a sign of weakness?) and she makes some odd decisions. While the sentiment expressed toward her seemed to be part of something bigger, at some point I had to consider whether she as an individual had in fact brought any of this on herself.

She's not exactly likeable.
I extend an uncertain hand. She brushes hers against it, not squeezing it, and I shiver at the touch of a warm, tender skin, telling myself that my own dry, dimpled, frightened little hand must make her feel like she's touching a lizard.

"Good trip?" she asks.

But she's already turned around, uninterested in my answer, or even whether I answer, and so I say nothing, impotent and desolate, feeling my capacity for reflection and judgment and perspective being drowned by the tidal wave of unconditional admiration and painful obeisance that hadn't washed over me for so long, protected as I was by Ange's assurance, he who could never be felt to feel reverence for anything or anyone.

This reading experience called to mind a few other novels:
  • Magda Szabo's The Door, for it's depiction of "community" from one specific — and warped — perspective, as well as the narrator's way of introspection — self-probing but somehow still always at a remove or missing the point.
  • Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. (which I've not finished), for it's distortion of time, it's urgency, but also the sense of the self being swallowed by the self — all that introspection having a deleterious effect.
  • Herman Koch's The Dinner, to a lesser extent, for that pressing sense that this story is bigger than just what happens to one or two little people — that it's important. Also possibly because I was on some level aware of the a racist element in this book.

The ending is quite baffling, but that comes after a long string of bafflements.

1. Why the italics? Is that her heart talking? Is it what's muffled, screaming to get out? Is this her innermost voice? But no, it expresses some very banal things.

2. Who is the great Noget? A writer of treatises on education, he espouses something like tough love, but his treatment of Nadia and Ange could be construes as the opposite. He coddles them, shields them. At times, it seems, with sinister purposes. Is he taking revenge on Ange, or rewarding him? Is he trying to teach Nadia a lesson? What lesson?

3. What happened to Yasmine? Nadia's mother hints at something terrible? Did Wilma devour her? Metaphorically or literally? Why must Nadia not eat the meat?

4. Food plays a role. Nadia eats Noget's food, despite feeling there's some hideous intention in his cooking. Such rich food, she's been tricked. There's the charitable food of a stranger. There's the meat, bloody meat at her son's home. At long last there's the restorative food at her parents' house, prepared by honest fingers.

5. So many smells! The ongoing and intensifying smell of Ange's putrefaction. "He can't smell the stench of his own infection, but he's repelled by the aroma of fine food." The fog, permeating the city with a metallic smell. A woman's accent like a revolting smell. Some healthy, sweet smells, and warm intimate smells. The smell of the dog's saliva, strong and sour. The way the dog reacts to her, Nadia must smell like a dog.

6. There is no humour in this book, just absurdity. Trams don't pick her up. Streets become unrecognizable. The very city seems to want to expel her.

7. What exactly happened? (I have some ideas now.) Nadia may have missed something in the news, because they don't have a television.

At heart, this is a book about owning one's self, owning one's heritage, one's past.

Oh, her poor heart!
This is a figment of my overwrought mind, and I know it. I'm perfectly sane, perfectly capable, even in my mistrust and trepidation, of grasping its outlandishness. But knowing that doesn't stop my heart, my poor fat-encased heart, from racing ach time someone pops up before me, looking slightly haunted (is that real or feigned?), and fixing me with the wide-eyed stare of someone who doesn't see the person he was expecting.

No, I'm not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can't rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me. And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it's hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart.

How does one come to know one's own heart? Or anyone else's?

The heart of the city: "I've been walking the heart of this city, its black old heart, its cold old heart, for the past half century" — "its old, dark, ungrateful heart," "dark and perversely changeable, the heart of my city.""

Her son's heart: "("my little heart," I so long called him, and now here he is forsaking his mother's old heart)."

Her ex-husband's heart: "his devoted but unformed heart, his rudimentary heart."

Nadia's "petty old heart." "My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat!"

"I find I have to stop and rest until my heart, my scandalized, insulted heart, starts to beat a little slower." "But my heart is uneasy, the side of my heart that's still decent, appalled, and humiliated, but meek, so very meek." "My heart clenched, a heart that's not so old anymore, my old heart now young again, stupidly beating in time with what inhuman heart?"

"I feel my agitation and doubts, my confusion and hatred, flowing away with my tears, draining my fat, heavy old heart of the questions that had been choking it."

In the end, Nadia expels the tumour (whatever its nature — rancor?) growing inside her.
Because I say to myself, where could that thing — that black, glistening, fast-moving thing I saw slide over the floor of my room one night as I was undressing for bed — possibly have sprung from if not my own body? A quick, black, glistening thing that left a faint trail of blood on the floor, all the way to the door.
It's a bloody horror novel.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A sort of mute, craven respect

"This is all intolerable," I say.

I fall to my knees by the bed. I bury my burning face in the mattress, pressing Ange's hand to my forehead, my hair.

"You see, you see," I say, as softly as I can, and there's almost a rusted sound to my voice, a withered sound, "we're respectful people, my darling, and it's a fact, yes, that we couldn't help respecting even the wrongs that were done to us, yes, a sort of mute, craven respect, and we felt that respect even for those set out to hurt us, because whenever there's a rule or a semblance of a rule we respect it, that's right, and if that rule offends us, if it attacks us and makes us unhappy, we tell ourselves that rules aren't made to please absolutely and necessarily everyone, that rules, and even semblances of rules, don't have to make us happy, us specifically, and that on the other hand there are already a great many rules that do suit us, or favor us. And isn't that just what you were thinking, my love, my poor darling, when you were walking behind me, trying to hide your wound with your satchel, isn't that more or less what you were thinking: after all, nobody's expected to want to please me by treating me exactly as I deserve, there are times, unquestionably, when I have to accept being treated in ways I don't deserve, for the sake of a greater good I don't see? Oh yes, it's true, that's more or less what you were thinking, out of pride, and that's not good, that's not good at all..."
— from My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye.

I can't remember the last time I read a book that affected me so deeply, burrowed under my skin like this one. All week I've been feeling paranoid, anxious, weak, claustrophobic. And I know it's this book bringing be down and distracting me, it's a scab I keep picking at, I have to know what's going on.

I'm about halfway, and, like the narrator, I have no idea what's going on, why this is happening. (Although, maybe she's deluding herself.) It's a bit of a meta experience as a reader, I'm questioning my own understanding and assumptions with each turn of a page.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Living among dirt and chaos

"I don't like the fact that eventually every conversation between Catholic Poles and Jews goes back to events from almost seventy years ago. As if there hadn't been seven hundred years shared history before that, and everything after it. Just a sea of dead bodies and nothing else."
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the second mystery novel featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. I stayed away from this novel for a few years precisely because I didn't want to read about that conversation.

But Miłoszewski handles it judiciously. Since World War II, and even before then, Polish-Jewish relations have been complicated and strained. The plot of this mystery hinges on those tensions, which persist today.

The murder has the characteristics of Jewish slaughter, and the story is linked to the myth of blood libel. As such, the prosecutor has to confront the anti-Semitic past of his adopted town, Sandomierz: xenophobia and violence and resurgent nationalism. The investigation delves into archives, symbols, and local legends.

A Grain of Truth also features a painting in Sandomierz cathedral, which for years was covered up with a cloth because it was considered offensive. Since the novel was written, the painting is again on display, but with an informative plaque. Here's the thing about owning your past.

Read the excellent review at NPR.

What I particularly like about these novels is the cultural touchstones Miłoszewski offers me: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Jacek Kaczmarski. Julian Tuwim.

I'm not even sure why I know those names. My mother doesn't know those names. It's just luck that my social and educational path at one time crossed the Poland Miłoszewski references. For this reason, I find these books highly relatable. Surely someone who has no Polish heritage would also enjoy these books, but maybe they wouldn't resonate in the same way.

Szacki's failed marriage and his general uncertainty about life (in any realm beyond his profession) also contribute to the feeling of relatability. He's just a regular, fucked-up guy.

I also like how he disses both small-town life and Warsaw. I never much liked either.
All those years living in Warsaw he'd sensed that something wasn't right, that the ugliest capital city in Europe wasn't a friendly place, and that his attachment to its grey stone walls was in actual fact a sort of neurotic dependence, urban Stockholm Syndrome. Just as prisoners become dependent on their prison, and husbands on their bad wives, so he believed that the very fact of living among dirt and chaos was enough for him to bestow affection on that dirt and chaos.
Excerpt.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fatal whirlpools

I went looking for a fragment of one poem, but found something else entirely. And when it comes to poetry, it's usually just as well.

I'm reading a mystery novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The text is liberally sprinkled with pop-cultural references along with some classical ones, a lot of them very, very Polish. When he quoted Wisława Szymborska, I went looking for the source.

Instead I found "In Praise of My Sister," which I've since been reading over and over, all while (silently) actually praising my sister (for entirely unrelated reasons).
There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she'll have
so much
much
much to tell.
I love this poem.

It makes me wonder where poetry comes from. I don't think my sister ever wrote poetry; I'll have to ask her. To my knowledge, my parents weren't afflicted. But my brother was. He wrote on napkins and coasters and the insides of cigarette packages. Filled with mystical symbols and romantic angst. My attempts were more academically driven. (And far superior.) Have we opened the genetic floodgates? Pity my daughter.

But also I've been reading three different translations of this poem, and puzzling over them.

While in the fragment above (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) the sister has much to tell, Adam Czerniawski says "she'll tell us / all / all / all about it." and according to Magnus J Krynski and Robert A Maguire, "she'll tell us, everything, / everything / everything." They're none of them... perfect.

I wondered also about Peter Piper — I couldn't be sure how meaningful or not that reference was to me ("And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as Peter Piper," Barańczak & Cavanagh). The original Polish (see Pochwała siostry) names Adam Macedoński, an activist, artist, and (minor?) poet. One translation leaves the reference, obscure as it is, intact ("and though it sounds like a poem by Adam Macedoński," Krynski & Maguire); another evades the issue entirely ("And — this begins to sound like a found poem —" Czerniawski). And I still don't know who Adam Macedoński is, and what Peter Piper is supposed to mean.

Days like this I hate poetry, and I love it. I have too much time on my hands, and not enough.

Days like this I praise my sister for being an accountant.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt

The Goldens all told stories about themselves, stories in which essential information about origins was either omitted or falsified. I listened to them not as "true" but as indications of character. The stories a man told about himself revealed him in ways that the record could not.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, is about Nero Golden and his three grown sons, living the life in New York City. It begins the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and ends some eight years later.

It is not the book I thought it would be.

While it mocks The Joker who eventually won the country, it takes a few jabs at Obama along the way. Nero Golden, meanwhile, is himself a kind of golden-boy caricature, one young wife after another, his spoiled progeny, so much gold it's garish.
I assumed he had brought serious funds with him when he came west, but there were persistent rumors that all his enterprises were highly leveraged, that the whole mega-business of his name was a flimflam game and bankruptcy was the shadow that went with his name whenever he took it for a stroll. I thought of him as a citizen not of New York but of the invisible city of Octavia which Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan in Calvino's book, a spider-web city hanging in a great net over an abyss between two mountains. "The life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities," Calvino wrote. "They now the net will last only so long." I thought of him too as one of those characters in animated cartoons, Wile E. Coyote perhaps, who are constantly running off the edges of canyons, but who keep going, defying gravity, until they look down, and then they fall. The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt brings about its calamitous ending. Nero Golden kept going, perhaps, because he never looked down.
I had thought Golden was meant to serve as a commentary on, or parody of, Trump. It feels like the whole novel is supposed to be doing that, yet failing to do that. It's not really about the Obama years, or about the America that allowed Trump to happen. But I can't shake the feeling that it should be.

This novel (much like our times?) is chaotic. It's told by a storyteller (I mean Rushdie, not his weak narrator), but there's not much story to it. While it's easy to get swept up in Rushdie's prose, it wears thin after a couple hundred ADHD pages.

There are some compelling narrative threads but they don't come together satisfactorily. Big themes include identity and re-invention of self.

About two-thirds of the way through,
Then a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and the imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing that new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.
I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is where it gets interesting, someone new to shine a light, but no. There was no one. I had stopped caring.

The Golden House novel left me feeling bored and disappointed.

The reviews in the New York Times really nailed it.

Reviews
Monica Ali in the New York Times: In Salman Rushdie's New Novel, the Backdrop Is the Obama Years
Collectively, their story lines are high-octane vehicles for observations on everything from art to gun violence, told with Rushdie's customary brio and narrative panache, and the reader is happy to go along for the ride.
[...]
Despite (or because of) all the apostrophizing, René fails to demonstrate any insight into why "60-million-plus" brought the Joker to power.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times: Salman Rushdie's Prose Joins the Circus in 'The Golden House'
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one.

The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with "characters," as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character.
LA Review of Books: Rushdie's Domus Aurea: "The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
New Statesman: The Golden House is Salman Rushdie's not-so-great American novel
What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

Interview with Salman Rushdie
NPR: Leaving The Past Behind — Or Trying To — In Rushdie's Latest
America clearly has some very heavy, and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years, or three thousand years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country, an Indian family, a wealthy Indian family — in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history — comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central. Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names, people move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people, and it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past, to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.