Friday, December 19, 2014

Where are they going?

Back in November I read Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai, and I'll even write about it someday. My challenge these days is to find an 8-hour block of time so that I can watch Bela Tarr's film adaptation of it, uninterrupted.

While trying to find my way into novel, I found some clips of the film. Nothing much happens, in any of them. Yet the clips are oddly compelling. I need to see how the nothingness resolves. I need to watch the full movie.

Where are they going? They look like they're going somewhere. That's quite the wind. Do they have far to go? They look like they're in a hurry. They must be in a hurry to get to wherever they're going. But the street's not passing fast enough beneath their feet. Where is everybody anyway? Maybe they're just leaving this place. But, no, they're going somewhere. Will they get there? Is that where everybody is?

So where is she going? And why is she carrying a dead cat? (Is it a real dead cat?) Will the rain ever let up? Oh, thank gawd, the rain is letting up. And it's daylight too. That's a lot of walking. The landscape has changed; she's making progress. But what's wrong with her? Why is the cat dead? Does she even know where she's going? Will she ever get there? She must be tired. Doesn't anybody care that she's been out all night? Where is everybody? Is she going someplace, or just leaving someplace behind? Where?

It's so much nothing. But something's going to happen, isn't it?

Where are they going?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A presentiment of indistinct terrors

"Yesterday their childhood came to an end." Yesterday, their mother dismissed their governess, pregnant with their cousin's child. The governess was so happy in love, but lately she's been sad. The girls overheard that there was a baby; they think that's why she's sad — the governess in another life somewhere had to leave behind her baby to come work for them. Well, not quite. And then the governess is gone, and the circumstances of her departure are a little ambiguous even, but this is not her story.
That afternoon they grow many years older. And only when they are alone in the darkness of their room in the evening do childish fears surface in them, the fear of loneliness, of images of dead people, as well as a presentiment of indistinct terrors. [...] They still dare not talk feely. But now the younger girl at last burst into tears, and her elder sister joins her, sobbing wildly. They weep, closely entwined, warm tears rolling down their faces hesitantly at first, then falling faster, hugging one another breast to breast, shaking as they share their sobs. They are united in pain, a single weeping body in the darkness. They are not crying for the governess now, or for the parents who are lost to them; they are shaken by a sudden horror and fear of the unknown world lying ahead of them, after the first terrifying glimpse that they had of it today. They are afraid of the life ahead of them into which they will now pass, dark and menacing like a gloomy forest though which they must go. Their confused fears become dimmer, almost dreamlike, their sobbing is softer and softer. Their breath mingles gently now, as their tears mingled before. And so at last they fall asleep.
— from "The Governess," in The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, by Stefan Zweig.

Do you remember crying yourself to sleep? Was it like that, puberty? Some inkling of the mysteries of love, a sexual awakening of a sort. The dark and menacing forest of fairy tales.

I rather think it must be like that. In a phenomenon like childbirth, the memory of the pain of it disintegrates over time as it yields to a greater thing. But Zweig and the intensity of my daughter's emotions these days (she is 12; the girls in the story, 12 and 13) convince me of its reality.

Zweig writes love well — the blooming of it, the tragedy of it, the awareness and secrecy of it. In one story ("A Summer Novella"), one character suggests to another that he is telling "a story like your German novelists, that's to say with lyrical fancies, broad, sentimental, tedious," and it is taken as a criticism. Indeed, I am seeing Zweig falter when he paints broader landscapes, whole villages in historical context. But when Zweig writes of the personal and intimate, I think he is "German" (without the tedium), and he is magnificent.

About the stories.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Colouring mandalas

Here's an unusual book I received for review: Coloring Animal Mandalas, by Wendy Piersall. Yes, it's a colouring book. How does one review a colouring book?

Colouring is one of my favourite things these days. Sit down at the kitchen table, throw some Netflix up on the laptop, lay out my materials in front of me, empty my mind.

I use felt tips and pencils, sometimes both within the same picture. I think I prefer pencils; I like the idea of felt tips, but I'm better with pencils. The fish at left, that's pencils.

This book smartly presents images on one side of the page as ink can and will leak through. I tend to insert a loose leaf behind whatever I'm working on as a safeguard anyway (plus, scrap paper for testing colours). If your ink is wet enough, or your pencil aggressive enough, the ink from the printed lines may smudge into your colour a bit (get to know your materials to avoid messes).

Mandalas are fantastic for colouring, it turns out; the repetition makes for a very calming experience. The animal theme keeps it interesting. Check out this time-lapse promo for the book.

Colouring as a pastime for adults is gaining respect. Now we call it anti-stress art therapy. I'm here to tell you it works. And a nice book with a set of fancy pens or pencils makes an excellent Christmas gift!


Monday, December 08, 2014

The book bears witness

"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists . . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, was a terrific palate cleanser of a book. A book lover's book. About book lovers. And one book in particular.
Why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?
The story concerns a book conservationist who's called in to work on a famous manuscript, the Sarajeveo Haggadah — an actual artifact, the history surrounding which inspired Brooks' novelization. It gets a bit meta, with the rare book expert explaining in an article about the conservation project:
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.
Because of course, that's exactly how the novel is structured. We follow a trail of forensic clues into the imagined past lives of the book.

This short PBS video summarizes the haggadah's history, including the forensic evidence that helps decipher its past, showcases the gorgeous illuminations, and features commentary from Geraldine Brooks.

The novel offers up a few other interesting things:
  • A line from a poem — "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," by Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Whát I dó is me: for that I came." I'll be mulling over this poem for days to come.
  • Some discussion of the nature of art, and the sinfulness of figurative depictions.
  • The coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though sadly usually fraught with tensions, and worse.
This to say it was a gently thought-provoking read, not too mentally taxing, thoroughly entertaining.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A brief history of melancholy


I apologize (to the cosmos) for my recent lack of presence. I have things to write about, but no time for writing. Melancholy has little to do with it, though there's some of that today. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


"The season in which we were born is peculiarly akin to us, and we to it. [...] For really, in my experience, there is a sympathetic relation between ourselves and the season that produced us. Its return brings something that confirms and strengthens, that renews our lives."
— from The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann.

That's how I feel about November.

I have been taking German classes now for eight weeks. I have learned how to count, how to conjugate, and how to conduct a stilted and limited conversation in a very specific, unrealistic scenario.

I have learned also that German is much stranger than I'd ever imagined. For example, the verb takes second position in a sentence. Weiso? So the addition of a sentence adverb therefore changes everything.

I still cannot read Rilke.

The compounding of nouns, however, has its own kind of poetry. Like "der Kugelschreiber" — the pen, a bullet for writing. And "der Fernseher" — the television, for watching at a distance.

I love the fact of Novembernebel, that November has its own kind of fog.

The assignment in lesson 4 was to describe a scenario in a train using the vocabulary learned to date. Here is the story I wrote:
Der Zug
Robert Walser, Stefan Zweig, und Thomas Mann fahren nach Berlin. Sie spielen Karten für kurze Zeit. Robert schläft. Stefan schreibt eine Fabel. Thomas weint. Sie arbeiten zu viel.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Strange things did happen here

We took the girl out this weekend to celebrate her 12th birthday with a few friends: a movie matinee and then wood-fired pizza. Hunger games, indeed.

Yes, we saw Mockingjay, and we loved it. Only we saw it in French, so really we saw La Révolte. (I admit I dozed off a couple times, but that was just the French short-circuiting my brain.) Because: Revolution!

One of the best things about the movie is the song, the anthem for the revolution.
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
It sounds like an old folk song, but it's not. Turns out, Suzanne Collins wrote the lyrics, and it was set to music specifically for the film.

Not having read the books, I was particularly interested to learn how the song was woven into the story for deeper significances. (See What Is the Origin of Mockingjay’s Haunting Song, "The Hanging Tree"? for more background.)