Friday, May 26, 2017

All Russia's honest men drank like fish

So, where did all this start? Well, it all started when Tikhonov nailed his fourteen propositions to the door of the Yeliseiko village soviet. Or rather, he didn't nail them to the door, he chalked them up on the fence, and they were words, really, not propositions, very clear and succinct, and there weren't fourteen of them, just two. Well, anyway, that's where it all started.
You can see how we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. But sincere. He exaggerates, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much in the end, does it? The spirit is true.

I was tempted to dismiss Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev, as drunken, if poetic, ramblings, lovely ramblings — one man's journey by train to a Moscow suburb. But amid searching for a drink, tales of past drunken escapades, and cocktail recipes (including the likes of White Lilac toilet water and brake fluid), there's a very sober grappling with Kant, free will vs predetermination, the meaning of life, and the angelic orders. And love and death.

And it's quite funny. (In a Bulgakov kind of way.)

Also, it includes graphs, detailing the productivity of his coworkers as plotted against their alcohol consumption.
"What's that got to do with the Social Democrats and Khovanshchina?"

"Plenty! That's where the whole thing started, when they switched from Veuve Cliquot to rotgut. Middle-class intellectuals, rowdyism, Khovanshchina! All these Uspenskys, all these Pomyalovskys — they couldn't write a line without a drink. I've read them, I know! All Russia's honest men drank like fish, yes. And why did they drink? They drank out of sheer desperation. They drank because they were honest! Because they weren't able to relieve the people's suffering. The people were suffocating in poverty and ignorance, you just read Pisarev! This is what Pisarev says: 'The people can't afford beef, but vodka's cheaper than beef, so the Russian peasant drinks, he drinks out of poverty! And he can't buy books, because there's no Gogol or Belinsky in the market, only vodka — yes, there's plenty of vodka, any sort you like, draught or bottled. And that's why he drinks, he drinks out of ignorance!'

"You see? No wonder they were miserable, no wonder they wrote about the peasants, and tried to save them, and no wonder they started drinking out of sheer desperation. The Social Democrats wrote and drank, they drank while they wrote. But the peasants couldn't read and drink both, they just drank! So Uspensky ups and hangs himself, Pomyalovsky lies down under a bar counter and snuffs it, and Garshin flings himself off a bridge, pig-drunk!"
So it's a book about drinking, but it's also about drinking, in all its political, religious, metaphysical glory.

Clearly this book describes much more than a trip to the suburbs. It's a Dante-esque exploration. The ending devastated me. I'm still reeling.

Truly this is a lost classic.

Yerofeev, or Erofeev or Yerofeyev, wrote this prose poem — variously titled Moscow Stations, Moscow-Petushki, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Circles — in 1969, but it was not published in the USSR till 20 years later. Yerofeev cut a tragic figure, and little of his work was ever published.

See also: Venedikt Erofeev: The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is it those eyes want to say?

Another Simenon novel, another bullet to my head.

The Hand, by Georges Simenon, is true to form. Ah, the mind games old married couples play.
"You're going through a crisis typical of almost all men your age..."

If she thinks that, she's mistaken. I know myself. It isn't the infatuation of a man growing old. Besides, I am not in love. Neither am I plunging into some kind of pathological sexuality.

I remain composed, attentive to what is happening inside me and around me and am alone, no doubt, in knowing that there is nothing new in my innermost thoughts, except that I have finally dared to look at them in the light of day.

So, what is it those eyes want to say?

"I pity you..."
This novel might have been as effectively called The Eyes. The eyes are his wife's, the hand his mistress's. Her eyes are a mystery to him — what do they see? — full of curiosity and judgment.

The hand, however, is a compulsion, entirely passive but under his male gaze beckoning. The novel is barely about that hand, but trust the male to choose to make it about that hand.

The Hand starts with a snowstorm. One of their party is lost to the elements. Donald Dodd meanwhile loses his bearings.
"The important thing," my father used to say, "is to make the right choice to begin with..."

He was talking about choosing not only a wife but a profession, a way of life, a way of thinking.

I thought I had chosen. I have done my best. I have worn myself out doing my best.

And, little by little, I have wound up hoping to see approval in Isabel's eyes.

What I had chosen, in the end, was a witness, a benevolent witness, someone who, with a glance, would let me understand that I was keeping myself on the right path.
This is quite a good novel. At under 200 pages, it's an easy diversion but still thought-provoking. I've read enough Simenon to know when to read him; one must take care, as it can send one's soul flying into dangerous territory.

I am at times tired of hearing how the poor hero has been emasculated and has no control over his life, a victim of the various women in his life, fighting societal convention to prove himself to be more than an empty shell. Sometimes I want to read those women's stories.

I marvel that, for all the hundreds of books Simenon wrote, any novel of his could hope to feel original. The Hand is a slow burn with a great pay-off. I should've seen it coming, but I didn't see it coming.
She heaved a sigh, as on every evening, to mark the end of her day and the beginning of a night's rest.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Things I could write about

I found a book at the bookstore, and I wanted it, I wanted it badly. But the more I turned it over, the more I realized I didn't want it so much as I wanted to have written it.

Egg, by Nicole Walker, published by Bloomsbury.

(Also, I've been craving eggs for the last week.)

This book is part of a series, Object Lessons, about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

The egg, however, is no ordinary thing. Is it?

The series includes as subjects objects such as phone booth, eye chart, password, and tumor, but also concepts like silence, jet lag, and traffic.

Things I might like to write about
Salt.
Lipstick.
Grocery list.
Balcony.
Key.

Those are just the object things.

The important things I should be writing about include
  • the buskers of Square Victoria
  • the myth of the bored suburban housewife
  • my coworker's doppelganger, who works just one block over
  • how my mother is and is not a feminist
  • the man who lived in two apartments
So I bought a completely different book instead.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

His own little rebellion

Dinner over, he took the empty plastic tray from his hotpot back into the kitchen and dumped it in the bin. He was supposed to separate out recyclable and unrecyclable plastics, but nobody seemed to notice and he was starting to view it as his own little rebellion against the forces of authority, a mask for the real rebellion, the one which could conceivably get him killed. Look at me, I don't recycle, I'm an anarchist.
— from Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hiccups are above any kind of law

Of course, to commence our investigation of hiccups, we must first call them forth: either an sich, in the terminology of Immanuel Kant, which means from ourselves, or else from some other person, but for our own purposes, which is für sich, as Kant terms it. Of course, the best of the lot is both an sich and für sich, and here's what you do: drink some sort of strong spirit, say Starka, or Trapper's or Hunter's vodka, for two hours non-stop. Drink it in tumblerfuls, one every half-hour, if possible without any snacks. If you find that difficult, you can allow yourself a bite to eat, but something really unpretentious: bread that's seen better days, sprats, spiced or plain, or sprats in tomato sauce.

Then break off for an hour, don't eat or drink anything, just let your muscles go limp, and don't strain. And before that hour's up, you'll see for yourself: with the very first hiccup, you'll be amazed at the suddenness of the onslaught; then you'll be amazed at the uniqueness of the second hiccup, and the third hiccup, likewise. But if you're not a complete idiot, you'd better stop being amazed and get down to business: write down at what intervals your hiccup deigns to visit you — in seconds, of course:

8 - 13 - 7 - 3 - 18 ...

Naturally you'll try to establish some sort of periodicity here, even very roughly; idiot or not, you'll have a stab at working out some ridiculous formula or other, to predict the length of the next interval. Try, by all means. Feel free. But life will topple all your half-arsed constructions.

17 - 3 - 4 - 17 - 1 - 20 - 3 - 4 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 18 ...

You know, the leaders of the world proletariat, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are supposed to have made an in-depth study of changes in social structures, and on that basis they were able to predict a whole heap of stuff. But they'd have been completely foxed by this one. Yes, you have entered, in pursuit of a personal whim, the realm of Fate — so bow the knee and be patient. Life will put all your mathematics to shame, both elementary and higher:

13 - 15 - 4 - 12 - 4 - 5 - 28 ...

Now, isn't this the way in which rise and fall, ecstasy and agony, alternate in each individual life — without the merest hint of regularity? Isn't this how catastrophes line up for the human race — in random order? Yes, the law is above us all, and hiccups are above any kind of law. And just as their commencement takes you by surprise, so also will their ending, and ending which, like death, we can neither foretell nor prevent:

22 - 14 stop. And silence.

And in that silence your heart will say to you: they are unfathomable, and we are powerless. We are bereft of free will, at the disposal of a fate which is nameless, and from which there is no salvation.

We are trembling wretches, and they are omnipotent. They are the right hand of God, which is poised above us all, and before which only cretins and scoundrels will not bow their heads. He is inscrutable, and in consequence — He is.

Therefore be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
— "Kilometre 33 to Elektrougli," in Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev.

(With a nod to Danny Yee, whose post saved me from retyping this entire excerpt.)

This novel, which often reads more like a series of prose poems, is very meditative, and in describing each leg of our intrepid hero's journey, it is highly conducive to reading during one's daily commute.

I'm not quite halfway. I lingered over this chapter, realizing how beautifully it encapsulates the feel of this novel to this point: the drinking and Kant and the crazy. The narrator is just within reach of the sublime, and just misses, both inspired and hindered by drink.

Also, wtf? Hiccups are the embodiment of free will?

Monday, May 15, 2017

People are people

I have been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I blame my mother. In fact, I hold her single-handedly responsible for the popularity of this book. (OK, it was probably Obama's recommendation.)

It was back in the fall that I went to the bookstore with a couple of coworkers at lunch, and we came across a display of Sapiens. I recognized the author's name as that behind Homo Deus, which my mother had been telling me about because she thought it would interest me (and she was right), having heard Harari in interview on one of her many news channels. So I pointed the book out to my coworkers, and before I new it they were both buying a copy. (At this point, I was still hoping that someone would get me the future-looking Homo Deus, rather than the history-based Sapiens, for my birthday.) Then started the raves, and the campaigning to "do" Sapiens for book club.

Fast-forward six months. We did indeed last week discuss parts 1 and 2 (of 4) of Sapiens at book club. We went more than three hours and spent most of it at each other's throats. Fighting mostly about feminism, I think, while mostly sober.

This book is provocative. It's not that Harari puts forth any contentious arguments — I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint anything I may actually have learned — it's merely the fact that these subjects were gathered and presented together. Things we take for granted but that we need to talk about. Capitalism. Racism. Sexism. Humankind's violent nature(?).

Some sections seem a little simplistic; that can't be avoided in a book with such ambitious scope.

I'm finding the book to be weirdly judgmental; Harari explains history on this grand scale and that it couldn't've unfolded any other way, but then blames us for it. I can't decide whether this is careless or deliberately manipulative in order to spur action to quell our darker nature, but if the latter is the case, it risks antagonizing the audience it needs to reach and preaching to the choir. Ultimately, where we've been, were we are, and where we're going — it's all inevitable.

I'm not very good at reading nonfiction, so I appreciated having book club as an incentive. I do plan on reading the second half of the book, but I may take a little break before getting back to it.


See also:
Harari's most recent article on the meaning of life in a world without work:
To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.
It sounds like Harari is saying in this essay that in the future, we will all play video games all day long. But I will give Harari the benefit of the doubt that his writing is sloppy, that he does not intend to insult humanity and be so casually dismissive of our choices, that he is trying to express the more meaningful fact that humans are adept at constructing realities to occupy and amuse themselves.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Watching, waking, leaking, planning

Life is busy of late. My reading is very piecemeal. Somehow I've managed to get myself to this point where, unnaturally for me, I'm reading four books or more at the same time. I'm highly distractible these days, and the lack of reading focus exacerbates the feeling of being unmoored. This blog in fact brings some kind of structure and routine to my life, and I miss it when I ignore it. That ends today.

Here's some of what's been going on.

Watching
My mother is a feminist, but she doesn't know it. And she's far more open-minded than she believes herself to be.

Thank gawd for television. If it weren't for television, my mother might not recognize Margaret Atwood for the Canadian icon she is. Somehow, Peter Mansbridge and I convinced my mom to give the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale a try, arguing that it's deeply relevant commentary on our Trumpian times.



It's dark and riveting, and my mother agrees.

My mom asked me in our first telephone debriefing, "It's almost like... is this science fiction?" I said the only thing I could say. "Ummm, nnnoooo."

Waking
Impulse purchase at a checkout counter: We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I should own a copy of this, leave it lying around the house for visitors to pick up. But I don't have many visitors. I thought about wrapping it up for my teenage daughter, but then thought better of it. She'll find her own brand of feminism without my pressing manifestoes on her. So I sent it to my mother.

If you haven't already, watch Adichie's TED Talk. (Or just listen to Beyoncé. See also.)

Leaking
As part of this year's Blue Metropolis literary festival, Barbara Gowdy was interviewed by Kathleen Winter, substituting for Heather O'Neill at the last minute. I've read only one of Gowdy's books, The White Bone, and it devastated me to the point that I deliberately stayed away from everything else she published for fear of further devastation or, worse, disappointment. But O'Neill was in fact the main draw for me to attend this event; had I known she was absent, I might not have made the effort, but I'm glad I did.

Gowdy's latest is Little Sister, about a woman who through paranormal means ends up inhabiting another's body, but, if I understood correctly, that body is not a mere vehicle (à la Being John Malkovich) — it's a catalyst for a much deeper experience.

The conversation was fantastic, weaving around this idea of fluidity, that so many boundaries have lost their rigidity, particularly in terms of identity, and everything is leaking into everything else. They also discussed, admiringly, George Saunders' Lincoln at the Bardo, which covers some similar territory (as well as the phenomenon of how similar, or even the same ideas, can crop up independently of one another). I'm very much looking forward to reading both the Gowdy and the Saunders (eventually).

Planning
The flights are booked: the kid and I are planning a holiday, splitting our time between Edinburgh, London, and Brighton (with daytrips to the likes of Stonehenge and Oxford).

I'm full up on English literature, but I'd like to read some novels set in Edinburgh. Any recommendations?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

People who took sleep seriously

On the morning of the second day, he opened his eyes and found himself lying in the most comfortable bed he had ever encountered. It was the kind of bed that a person would have to be bodily picked up and carried away from just in order to get up in the morning. But it paled in comparison to the pillows his head rested on, stuffed with down to such precisely-calibrated firmness that they could only have been the end-result of centuries of research. He was covered with crisply-laundered cotton sheets, topped by an old-fashioned quilt. He felt warm and safe and perfectly relaxed. Whatever else had happened to him, he had clearly fallen into the hands of people who took sleep seriously, and it was difficult to hate such people.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Interesting

When I was seventeen, I had a very good year. In fact, it may even have started when I was sixteen. I developed a crush on an older man. Even if it started with a crush on his cat.

Clive (the cat) would sit in the middle of the sidewalk outside his shop, beside the bakery I frequented. Soon enough, I was frequenting his shop, pretending to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to have the guts to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to be the kind of cool I hoped to one day actually be. You know, university student cool.

He gave me a poem he'd written about his cat.

Some friends and I took to cutting class, the period after lunch, to hang out at the shop, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.

We talked about what I was reading (he asked; I guess even then I always carried a book with me). That was my Somerset Maugham phase. He knew them all. My crush deepened. He told me to read Butler's The Way of All Flesh; I did.

He asked what I thought about one book or other, I honestly forget which, and I said it was interesting, and he berated me for lazy thinking. And I've never used the word since, unless I was prepared to expand on an argument.

(He also taught me that when someone is lighting your cigarette, you must look him in the eye.)

As an editor, I've been telling this story to my writers for years. You write "interesting," and I will delete it. Tell me why it's interesting, or if you need to build up to a full explanation, at least give me a flavour: unexpected, playful, nostalgic, frightening.

So when I came across the following passage in Dexter Palmer's Version Control, I had some rethinking to do.
If the worst thing a physicist could say about a statement is that it was "false," the best thing he could say is that it was "interesting." This was different from saying it was true: most true things were, in fact, uninteresting. Interesting statements lived on the twilit boundary between fact and question; they held the promise of revealing something unexpected and new about the world, and thus were to be treated with respect. The physicists Rebecca met always seemed to be on the lookout for something interesting, a claim or proposition that seemed to possess some kind of rare interior light.

Rebecca came to understand that Philip's constant repetition of the word "interesting" meant that he was offering what he saw as the most precious of compliments.
Most of my writers are engineers. I am trying to understand "interesting" from their perspective.

But my crush was not a physicist. And I've been hardwired over thirty years to think "interesting" was boring.

See also
The word "interesting"
"Interesting" is a Boring, Overused, and Lifeless Word