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.