Monday, March 11, 2019

Desperate, detestable, and unhappy

I never could grasp why Polish literature had such bad luck. Looking at it logically, there are few nations who have so many chances for good literature as we, the Poles, do. We've got everything: misfortune, political assassinations, eternal occupation, informers, mystery, despair, drunkenness. By God, what else could you ask for? When I was Israel, I lived with the scum of the earth, but still I never met people as desperate, detestable, and unhappy as in Poland.
— from Beautiful Twentysomethings, by Marek Hłasko.

I was a beautiful twentysomething myself when I first heard of Marek Hłasko. I had stumbled across The Eighth Day of the Week while trying to reclaim my Polishness, but amid literature and memoirs that were more wartime (say, Gombrowicz and Herling) and thus more relatable to my own family's experience, Hłasko failed to make an impression.

And then I met a whole klatch of Polish beautiful twentysomethings down at the pub, for whom Hłasko was a hero. Poland's angry young man. For them, Hłasko was the epitome of Polishness: he forsook communism for the American dream, even if accidentally, to die tragically young and mysteriously, without having accomplished much of anything. His persona, I think, was greater than his talent, the legend larger than his life. He drank a lot. He played with the gods. His claim to fame: writing a novel censored by the authorities. His greatest trick was looking like James Dean, and exuding that rebel attitude.

Perhaps that's a harsh assessment. Perhaps it's because I don't understand him. (How could I ever hope to understand those beautiful twentysomethings!?) But that's precisely the problem, with him, and the whole of Polish literature. An outsider can never understand, and the Polish ego is such that it dismisses the outsider as incapable of understanding.

One of the more interesting chapters of book tackles the subject of "the unrequited love of Polish people for Americans," though it fails to reach any satisfactory conclusions.

This memoir amounts to not much more than a curiosity, and I don't see it having wide appeal. Hłasko recounts tales of looking for work and circumventing red tape. There's a lot of name-dropping of names I've never heard of. It has no particular style or humour or grace such as would substantiate a literary giant.

In its way, it is entirely representative of the people of a certain era. Like all the beautiful twentysomethings: suffering delusions of grandeur.

There are only occasional glimpses into the problem of art, creation, and critical thought in an oppressed society. But they are beautiful.
All the fellows I started out with, they knew it was fatal, but they waited all those years just to be able to write one poem, one story, just to be able to paint one surrealist painting or make a sculpture that didn't resemble anything. There were people — despite the facts and despite everything going on around them — these were people who kept faith that the moment would come when it would be possible to say: "No."

We — losing our hair, no longer beautiful, twentysomethings not more — we had our moment of glory. Some of us turned out better for it, some worse. There weren't any masterpieces made in those days, but maybe the works will be useful as a chronicle of the past, as proof of misery and lack of talent, as evidence of the powerlessness of a person living in a nightmare who doesn't have the inner strength to recognize it as such. But like I said, there were people who believed they'd one day be free to say the single most important word in every individual's life: "No."

When I meet beautiful twentysomethings today and I talk with them, one thing scares me: they all know things are bad in Poland. Nobody has any illusions about the occupation of Poland. On the other had, nobody's really concerned about it. One of the most beautiful girls I've met recently wants to become a computer engineer. Another handsome twentysomething is studying the archaeology of the Mediterranean Sea. There's one who's a metals engineer. Not a single one of them wants to be writer, painter, or sculptor. None of them are holding their breath for the day when they'll be free to say, "No." If a painter, writer, or director defects to the West, years of anguish and sporadic work are waiting for him. Nights spent in fleabag hotels, women who pay the bills, and personally I don't know of a case besides Miłosz where the artists who fled from behind the Iron Curtain didn't get bumped down a social class. These new beautiful twentysomethings won't have those problems. After seeking asylum, they'll work as doctors, engineers, God knows what else. They won't be tormented by boredom or hunger or by a longing for the homeland they've left behind and which never caused them any suffering. And these are the new beautiful twentysomethings.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Anything is possible in the present tense

All I want on the screen, Arlo said, is the present tense. Anything is possible in the present tense. Failure and love and stillness and change.

He's an artist, Davi said. Artists are mercenaries.
What drew me to The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg, was the promise of walking in the footsteps of love (where did it go?), an attempt to retrace and delimit a relationship.

What hadn't registered with me when this novel first came on my radar was that it has horror story elements — but then what love story doesn't?

Her husband Richard was a horror film scholar; he recently died in a car accident. So Clare ventures to the film festival in Cuba on her own. And there he is. (Did he really die? Why is he here? Where do the dead go?)

Weird things happen in this book.
Visitors longed for not a dislocation of reality but an insulation from reality — yet these layers of insulation were supposed to be invisible, imperceptible. People did not like to be too sharply reminded of their status as tourists.
I've often explained to people that one of the things I love about traveling is the opportunity to become someone else — in a place where nobody knows you, you can be anybody. But conversely, traveling lets you shed the baggage of your everyday life, to become more yourself. I think about this a lot when I travel, and I hold both these things to be true. This is my dislocation.
The traveling self was supposed to be temporary, disposed of when it was time to go home — there, how could this self be held responsible? But maybe a person became even more themselves when away, liberated from their usual present tense and free to lie. Maybe travel sent all that latent, ancient DNA swimming to the surface.
Clare has a secret self, the one that goes on the road alone for work. She's not working in Cuba, but she gives everyone who asks a different name. (Who is she really? Does she even know?) She suspects her husband had a secret life too.
Clare struggled to imagine what, forty years into a life, would cause a person to suddenly change the way they walked. There were alien, interminable silences when she called from the road, and when she was home he took long, solitary strolls in the evening hours, a symptom that would eventually lead to his demise.
There's unease simmering beneath every page. I'll leave analysis of the horror-story tropes to the academics, but there's the thing about the order the girls get killed in, the girls are always killed. There's the girl who goes missing. There's Clare being followed, and Clare following. (Will Clare be killed?)

I liked the idea of this book more than the actual book. Clare's past didn't interest me so much as her present with un-Richard.
In the lobby of the festival hotel, a mural of a forest spanned the length of a wall. On her first night, in the middle of a reception, she found herself standing in front of that mural. She peered into the shadows, imagined the secrets living in there. She rubbed the green leaves. The paint was smooth, the treetops tinged with gold. She licked a tree and tasted chalk, feeling wild.
Is she crazy? Has she always been crazy? Did she kill him? What is past and what is present?

(Apparently this novel owes quite a debt to Yoko Tawada's The Naked Eye, which quite coincidentally I have queued up on my shelf. Stay tuned.)

See also
Entropy: What Quivers Under the Surface of Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel

The Paris Review: The Vocabulary of Tourism: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

Tin House: To Thicken and Complicate through Linear Time: A Conversation with Laura van den Berg

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Careerists always salute those who lack ambition

The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman, was unexpectedly engrossing. I knew absolutely nothing about it, hadn't even glanced at a plot summary, I don't know why — perhaps because from the moment I heard about it I already planned to read it. It's not about an Italian teacher at all. At least, not in any conventional sense.

So here's a book that was absolutely the right book at the right time for me. It gave me a great deal to think about, given some of my current circumstances.

There's the tension between art vs craft (in my own life, my chosen profession is the craft of editing, perhaps at the expense of the art of writing). There's what we perceive others' lives to be, and the reality of their lives behind closed doors. How we define art. How we define success. How we fight or fulfil others' expectations of us.

There's how we think our lives are going to turn out, and how far off the mark we end up. It's about what we become when we're not paying attention.
Careerists always salute those who lack ambition.
There's very little Italian about it, apart from the opening scenes. There's nothing "exotic" about it; it's Toronto and London. And the "teacher" aspect is incidental. This is a novel that surprised me repeatedly in where the plot took me and the insights it offered. I looked forward to my commute to see what came next.

It's also a book about art and the art world, and I have a soft spot for those. Determining the value of Art is to me an endlessly mystifying fascinating thing, a volatile algorithm weighing the work itself, its objective quality, sometimes the subject matter, the artist, the artist's personality and celebrity and reputation (and these are different things), whether the artist is living or dead, basic supply and demand, the perceived rarity of the work, the perceived interest in the work, the zeitgeist, et cetera.

There's the problem of what is art:
Potters get so exercised about art versus craft. But the older I get, the more I prefer craft. With craft, you know if a piece is right. It the pot so cumbersome that the farmer's wife couldn't lift it? Is my glaze poisonous? A pot is either correct, or it is not. Whereas art is never quite good or bad. Art is simply a way of saying "opinion."
And what is great art:
"If men were beautiful, Marsden, why is beauty always portrayed as a woman?"

"Because artists are servants of the rich, and the rich are men. They've always wanted their pinup girls."

"Great art is not a matter of sex."

"My dear friend! What else would it be?"
This novel is not about a great artist, as some plot summaries might have you believe. It's about his son Charles (otherwise known as Pinch), growing up in his shadow, waiting be be acknowledged.

The novel spans Pinch's whole life. We undoubtedly see far more clearly than he does the effect of his father on him, how overbearing — thoughtless and cruel — the father and how sad — pathetic — the son.
Nothing sadder than those who declare themselves artists when not a soul cares what they create.
Pinch does finally develop a secret life (I was rooting for him!). His motivations are complex (revenge against his father, vindication of his mother, personal fulfilment, financial security for the 16 other children fathered by the artist, spite against the world, et cetera), and it's debatable whether he achieves success in his project. You decide.
"Why impress anyone, if not the people you don't care for?"
Reviews
Chicago Review of Books: In 'The Italian Teacher,' Art Is Sex

Guardian: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman review – great art and monstrous selfishness

Washington Post: The art of rebellion: The son of a famous painter tries to reframe his life
With his own artistic aspirations, he's constantly torn between exploiting his relationship to the famous man or proving that he can succeed on his own merits. In the end, Pinch can't do either, which is just the kind of slowly grinding humiliation that Rachman's wit captures so tenderly.
In interview on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem

Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.
And then,
Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it's all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That's part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.
— from "Personism: A Manifesto," by Frank O'Hara.

Lucky poem.

Be gratified. Be the poem.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Mistress of my own text

Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn't it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? I could use quotes and footnotes, I could in the order of points or chapters reap the consequences of demonstrating step by step what it is I mean; I would verify an aforementioned hypothesis and ultimately be able to carry off my arguments like sheets after a wedding night, in view of the public. I would be the mistress of my own text, I could take an honest per-word payment for it.

As it is I'm taking on the role of midwife, or of the tender of a garden whose only merit is at best sowing seeds and later to fight tediously against weeds.

Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me — insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I am too naive. Weeds thrive in my garden, as do insects and vermin and fungi. What kind of mistress am I?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Normality — however messy — is far more comprehensible

"Furukura, you're lucky, you know. Thanks to me, you can go from being triply handicapped as a single, virgin convenience store worker to being a married member of society. Everyone will assume you're a sexually active, respectable human being. That's the image of you that pleases them most. Isn't it wonderful?"
It's the image the characters of this novel strive for. It's what most humans aspire to (or is it?).

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, is a quirky little book that I wish I'd liked more. I found it difficult to connect with — it's the wrong book for my headspace right now, despite it having interesting things to say. However, the novel's emotionlessness may very well be the point — the narrator is a 36-year-old convenience story worker for whom being human and acting naturally doesn't come naturally at all.

Furukura has spent most of her life trying to fit in, playing the role of a normal person, with varying degrees of success. Her job as convenience store woman, which she's held for 18 years, thrills her because it came with a manual. The training included facial expressions and tone of voice to use. She watches her coworkers, what clothing brands they wear, learns where they shop.

She's not stupid — she's perceptive and adaptable; simply, she can't rely on her own instincts regarding acceptable behaviour — this is something she studies closely.

The tone of some reviews is quite condescending toward the main character, and this bothers me. We need people to work in convenience stores. Some people are perfectly suited to working in convenience stores. Clearly such ambitionlessness is frowned upon in Japan and elsewhere. I wonder to what extent some reviews are coloured by this prejudice, therefore misunderstanding Furukura's drive and courage.
I find the shape of people's eyes particularly interesting when they're being condescending. I see a wariness or a fear of being contradicted or sometimes a belligerent spark ready to jump on any attack. And if they're unaware of being condescending, their glazed-over eyeballs are steeped in a fluid mix of ecstasy and sense of superiority.
The twist is that she meets someone, someone unlikable, even despicable. But it suits them both to be perceived as being in a relationship. They are establishing a "marriage" of convenience. They are relative equals in laying the groundwork of the relationship. Furukura initially treats him as a pet. Even though he's a jerk, part of me almost wants to this relationship work, to pull one over on Japanese societal expectations.

In theory, this is the kind of book I should be all over, so I am somewhat puzzled by my response to it. I question my own abilities at work, motherhood, etc. But for the most part, I have stopped caring about what people think. This is clearly not the case for Furukura, whose efforts are all aimed at acceptance. Also, I am fascinated by Japan's asexual generation, but I cannot relate to it in the least. So I found the novel quirky, but not funny, and a little bit off-putting. It sits uncomfortably with me, and I don't know if it's me, the book, or Japan, and I don't know if I'll ever get around to resolving it.
She's far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has lot of problems, then she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For here, normality — however messy — is far more comprehensible.
See also the review in the New Yorker.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

It's very arresting, happiness

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh — I love this book! I'm not entirely sure why. It's hilarious and dark, and unexpectedly complex. I guess that's why.
Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness. I was not a narcoleptic — I never fell asleep when I didn't want to. I was more of a somniac. A somnophile. I'd always loved sleeping. It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games or go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.
[I love sleep!]

She just wants to get some sleep. A little more sleep. She's not sleeping enough. She resorts to sleeping in the closet at work. But you slowly learn that she's sleeping like seventeen hours a day, what do you mean that's not enough?! She needs more sleep?! So she finds herself a quack doctor to prescribe her sleeping aids and other things. By lying to the doctor! About everything!
Sleep is key. Most people need upwards of fourteen hours or so. The modern age has forced us to live unnatural lives. Busy, busy, busy. Go, go, go. You probably work too much." She scribbled for a while on her pad. "Mirth," Dr. Tuttle said. "I like it better than joy. Happiness isn't a word I like to use in here. It's very arresting, happiness. You should know that I'm someone who appreciates the subtleties of human experience. Being well rested is a precondition, of course. Do you know what mirth means? M-I-R-T-H?

"Yeah. Like The House of Mirth," I said.
(Which takes its title from Ecclesiastes 7:4. "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.")

But gradually it emerges that she's dealing with grief. In the last few years, her father died of cancer, and months later her mother did herself in. And then there's the less than healthy "relationship" she's been having with an older man. Our protagonist (she's messed up, but I'm rooting for her!) drops breadcrumbs leading toward her emotional reality. And clearly the doctor's not listening at all.

Because she's young, thin, blonde, and rich, she gets a pass on her behaviour, at first anyway. But her social contact is truly limited.
The next day, I filed for unemployment, which Natasha must have resented. But she never called. I set up a weekly pickup with the Laundromat and automatic payments on all my utilities, bought a wide selection of used VHS tapes from the Jewish Women's Council Thrift Shop on Second Avenue, and soon I was hitting the pills hard and sleeping all day and all night with two- or three-hour breaks in between. This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I'd slept enough, I'd be okay, I'd be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.
That's quite the wish fulfilment fantasy, in part why this novel is so engrossing. Who doesn't want to take a year off from it all and just watch dumb movies and nap? Our narrator has the funds to do so. And she's beautiful, so we know nothing bad will happen to her! The year is 2000; 9-11 is on the horizon (wake-up call to the nation), but the text early on hints that she survives that day.

Her only friend is Reva, a bulimic having an affair with a married man. She drops by now and then unexpectedly and drones on about clothes and clubs and her dying mother. But Reva! — un rêve, a dream! Reva serves as a foil, maybe an alter ego. At some point I began to question her objective existence, outside the narrator's own hallucinatory perception.

Incredibly, this book about a young woman who sleeps away a year of her life is highly compelling. Much like dreaming, although nothing much happens in the material world, there's a lot going on below the surface, if not for the narrator (it's debatable) then for the reader.

We discussed this novel at book club last night, and I almost wish I'd managed to finish jotting down all my thoughts here beforehand, as now I'm in the position of reconsidering everything I thought I knew about this book and wanting to reread it closely.

This book is certainly about white privilege and wellness culture. Social class and authenticity. Appearances and consumerism, and how we sleepwalk through our existence. It's about empty art and cultural icons.

A lot of people agreed this was a book about depression and thus discussion very reasonably turned to how difficult it is to recognize mental illness and get suitable help. I didn't get the chance to voice and develop this thought: she's not suffering from depression so much as grief, which is a temporary condition. So maybe she wakes with her grief resolved, but when 9-11 happens, a new grief cycle begins, again with personal losses but also shared on a national scale.

(Something about the pills and questionable reality and frantic tone put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49, and I mean that in a good way. I guess I should reread that someday too.)

What else to say? Highly recommended.
"People would be so much more at ease if they acted on impulse rather than reason. That's why drugs are so effective in curing mental illness—because they impair our judgment. Don't try to think too much."