Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Staring without seeing

little scratch by Rebecca Watson was a brilliant surprise, an unexpected one-sitting read. 

instead I think        about art galleries             (a decent diversion, no?)

I decide (without much decisiveness) I will no longer go to art galleries 
with other people                    it is too much                 having to 
give an allotted time to each painting, staring without seeing, (has this painting been given enough attention? will my companion suppose I have appreciated it now?), it's not that I don't like art, naturally, it's just, I can't like it all, and I don't have the reputation that allows me to be selective, to walk into a room and examine this one, and this one, cursory glance at the rest, shake head, and move on,

sometimes I think: art is incredible                     a popular opinion

but

sometime I think: what do I actually get out of it? how much more am I getting than when I see an attractive person on the tube and take the time notice each part of their outfit, clocking through, studying the fringing on their trousers, and the way they've drawn liner across their lids, before moving back to staring into nothing, what is the difference, really, truly, honestly, yes, other times this seems to me a ridiculous argument to make, one I do not agree with whatsoever, and would not condone — would frown on if someone were to make — but I cannot stand still,

Some descriptions of this book give away more of the story than others, and I don't know how to tell you about this book without spoiling the experience of the discovery of it, I can only hope you read my thoughts here and remember to look out for this title but forget all the details. It's not the kind of book I would ever feel in the mood for if someone told me what it was about. 

In short, it's a day in the life of a woman who wakes somewhat hungover and drags herself to work and you know something's not quite right, is it the night before?, is it something at work?, something simmering just beneath her foggy consciousness, and you finally work out that she's experienced a trauma, was it last night?, was it weeks ago?, and it's always there, she's trying to name it, trying to decide how much it is a part of her, how her identity stands in relationship to it, whether she should tell her boyfriend, do other women grapple with this trauma, and she stays hydrated and meets her boyfriend after work for a poetry reading and several drinks, they fuck, and he falls asleep leaving her alone with her thoughts.

It's only when I opened up the novel that I realized just how experimental it is in its format. This almost put me off, but within a couple pages I was hooked. (The bits I've quoted here are on the straightforward side.)

The text runs in two, sometimes more, "streams" down the page, the way thoughts run in parallel, or in counterpoint. It does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of thinking many things at once, and allowing those things to come into conversation with each other, and inviting you into that dialogue too. It's incredibly immersive, even intimate.

It manages to be funny and weird and sexy and conflicted.

There's the scratch, she keeps scratching, or trying not to scratch, the backs of her legs, behind her knees. There are recurring references to eggs and potatoes.

But I didn't roll my eyes once.

                    looking at my phone notes

(filled with the sort where a thought flies into your head that suddenly you know you must record, regardless of anything, in that moment, regardless of who's there or what is balanced in your hands, it is IMPERATIVE that you record this fragment)

    (not the phone note sort where you say

    OH YES, THAT BOOK SOUNDS MARVELLOUS!

    and put the title in you phone

    perhaps with the author's surname

    and come across it three months later

    try to recall its roots

    ignore

    a few more months later

    glimpse

    ignore

    no not that sort)

One reads                    firwqks sex sme thing a provess and end

    huh

at the time, it was                 a (!) revelation (!)

(when even was it?)

See also  
Audio excerpt (which I would've thought impossible to pull off, but it's quite good)  
"Moments Are Part of a Pattern": An Interview with Rebecca Watson (which references I May Destroy You, with which there is some thematic overlap)  
Review at Alt Citizen: "like VR for books"  
Excerpt  

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The architecture of limited possibilities

There certainly is what doctors call a "migraine personality," and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist. "You don't look like a migraine personality," a doctor once said to me. "Your hair's messy. But I suppose you're a compulsive housekeeper." Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

Despite the migraines, Joan Didion packs a mean sentence. The White Album is a relatively early collection of what are commonly considered her lesser essays, among which is "In Bed," quoted above, on being perceived as someone afflicted by an imaginary illness. 

I've been dipping into these essays for months. They're too rich to consume all at once, though the temptation is there. Spanning 1968 to 1978, most of the articles hold up, though I cringe at how wrong she got feminism and I disagree with her assessment of Doris Lessing. 

Still, the essays offer a view onto American life of the time as seen from Didion's particular vantage point —a place of educated privilege. She concerns herself with water, shopping mall theory, Hollywood. She has access to celebrities and political figures, fancy hotels and Hawaiian vacations.

My favourite essay in this collection is "Many Mansions," and it owes its status to the peculiar circumstance of my reading it during a pandemic.

I have over the last seven months become obsessed with the notion of home and the buildings within which we make them. I have spent most of those last seven months inside my own home, a modern 2-bedroom condo of less than 800 square feet, shared with my daughter and my cat. 

I have spent a great deal of the almost 5 years that I've lived here channeling Jimmy Stewart. My Rear Window is less New York. It's very Montreal, overlooking a dead-end ruelle down which many people walk their dogs. I overhear French (both Quebecois and from France), Spanish, and some English. I have my very own concert pianist living just up and over to the left (though she took up the cello last spring), and over to the right is an elderly couple who listen to the radio tuned between stations at a very loud volume. The cat downstairs from them is now kept on a leash; I've seen it climb through the windows of other people's apartments. 

But my Front Window, overlooking the building courtyard, is conceptually more akin to Hitchcock's setting — children play, neighbours tend the garden and share a bottle of wine. I have watched people inside their homes play guitar, read, watch tv. I have witnessed dinner parties and seductions, and even a couple of illegal gatherings during lockdown. These days I see people carry their laptop from room to room.

I have in the past offhandedly aphorized that "home is where I lay my head" or "where I keep my stuff." Now home is also where I work, eat, play, learn, create, and sometimes die a little inside. It's where I really live. All the time.

When I'm not at home, I'm wandering around the neighbourhood, imagining what's behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

All this to say: my home is small, and I feel compelled to cross other people's thresholds, partly to expand my own domain by infringing on theirs, partly simply to understand how other people inhabit their own little boxes. The "downtime" that other people waste on social media I spend perusing real estate listings. 

My "hobby" took off in earnest when we were looking for an apartment for my mother this summer. It's not quite right for her, I would think, but this room would make a great study for the girl, and I could set up a desk in this corner.

I adjust my search filters regularly. Some days I hunt in earnest for a realistic upgrade within my means; other times my fantasy home is unconstrained. I consider what it would be like to live alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I lived across town. Would it make sense to live close to the office if I never go to the office anymore? If I had an in-home studio, could I quit my day job and support myself on my art? How long would it take me to clutterify and completely obscure a minimalist design? 

In "Many Mansions" Didion explores the official residences of the Governor of California, focusing on the monstrosity the Reagans built and never lived in.

It its simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently "democratic," flattened out, mediocre and "open" and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of "background music," decorators, "good taste." 

As I swipe photos, I realize very little of real estate is real. I saw my mother's house staged when it was listed for sale, and essentially stripped of all personality. I no longer trust listings, the words they use, the pictures they show. One roll of photos displays empty rooms and then the same rooms furnished. Another listing is a new build, not yet built, that offers imagined renderings. I recognize the layout of paintings on one bedroom wall matching exactly a room layout halfway across town, with only the mass market art reproductions swapped out.

The walls "resemble" local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and exposed beams "resemble" native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown. If anyone ever moves in, the concrete floors will be carpeted, wall to wall. If anyone ever moves in, the thirty-five exterior wood and glass doors, possibly the single distinctive feature in the house, will be, according to plan, "draped." The bathrooms are small and standard. The family bedrooms open directly onto the nonexistent swimming pool, with all its potential for noise and distraction. To one side of the fireplace in the formal living room there is what is know in the trade as a "wet bar," a cabinet for bottles and glasses with a sink and a long vinyl-topped counter. (This vinyl "resembles" slate.) In the entire house there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur, but there is $90,000 worth of other teak cabinetry, including the "refreshment center" in the "recreation room." There is that most ubiquitous of all "luxury features," a bidet in the master bathroom. There is one of those kitchens which seem designed exclusively for defrosting by microwave and compacting trash. It is a house built for a family of snackers.

I have discovered about myself that I like cedarwood ceilings and value closet storage systems, but I don't feel strongly about whether the bathroom has a separate shower stall. I may compromise on the configuration of my kitchen but will not yield my outdoor space. I want to have room to better compartmentalize my life.

I believe that this condition of house envy is temporary. Once the pandemic abates and freedom to move and socialize in other spaces is restored, the demands I put on my home will be recalibrated. I will resume a state of domestic bliss where my home meets all my needs. 

Until then, every morning I stop by "the café" (the cappuccino machine at the end of the kitchen counter), and roll through "the office" (12 square feet in the dining room where I squeezed in a workstation) to lounge in "the library" (30 square feet by the window with a comfy chair and a pile of books) every morning, where I sneak a look at new listings between chapters.

The old Governor's Mansion does have stairs and waste space, which is precisely why it remains the kind of house in which sixty adolescent girls might gather and never interrupt the real life of the household. The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.

Excerpts
"The Women’s Movement" (1972)
"Holy Water" (1977) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free of existence's gravitational pull

She walked through the market stands with her new stride, at once lazy and confident, loose and firm, looking at everything and knowing she'd buy nothing because she and Marko now had to avoid all unnecessary expense, but not wanting anything anyway, neither fabric nor pottery nor metal bangles, simply happy as she thought she'd never been before (because anxiety had always subtly spoiled her most joyful moments, the birth of her children or the completion of her degree), feeling her healthy, familiar, faithful body move freely through the warmth, her thoughts wandering this way and that, unencumbered, weighed down by no worry, no incomprehension.

She could, if she wanted to, or if the miracle of this new outlook had not come to pass, easily find something to torment herself with, she knew that.

But it was as if, rather than deposit her in another land, the plane had delivered her to a universe apart, where she could finally feel the happiness of being herself free of existence's gravitational pull.

Is this what death is like? she wondered. Could she have died and not remembered?

But what she was feeling bore all the hallmarks of life at its fullest, particularly her awareness of her warm, rounded body, lightly dressed in pale lines, which she guided through the stands, she thought, smiling to herself, simply for the pleasure of enjoying its perfect mechanics.

Ladivine is another unsettling novel by Marie Ndiaye. It's emotionally uncomfortable — it seems so foreign until you recognize yourself in it and you wonder, am I so petty, or so proud, so concerned about what others think? Where do the standards and ambitions for myself come from? How many truths do I hide from the people closest to me? What do I hide from myself? Do I even like myself?

It's been months since I read this novel, and it's like I had to rush away from it, cleanse myself of its dark intensity. The book has very distinct phases, covering Clarisse's relationships with her mother, her husband, and their daughter, and then

The mother and daughter are both named Ladivine, but they do not know each other. Clarisse was born Malinka, but only her mother knows her by that name (until later, anyway). As a child, out of shame or disgust Malinka starts referring to her mother as her servant. At age 17 Malinka leaves for Bordeaux and reinvents herself. But her mother find her.

Her love for her mother was a foul-tasting food, impossible to choke down. That food dissolved into bitter little crumbs in her mouth, then congealed, and this went on and on and had no end, the lump of fetid bread shifting from one cheek to the other, then the soft, stinking fragments that made of her mouth a deep pit of shame.

Not exactly a loving relationship. We learn early on that Ladivine's complexion is dark, and clearly Clarisse passes for white, and I can't begin to unravel this aspect of their relationship — maybe it allows Clarisse to disconnect from her mother, her history, maybe it's self-hatred deflected onto a convenient target. Clarisse is also disconnected from herself, emotionless, but driven to become the sort of person she thinks everyone expects her to be. That doesn't bode well for love in the long term.

Clarisse marries Richard, and they are happy and successful with a beautiful home, a daughter, and a dog. Clarisse told them her mother had died long ago. Clarisse thinks the dog has her mother's eyes, and there are some incidents. By the time her marriage falls apart (Richard remarries, to a woman named Clarisse), the daughter Ladivine is emotionally distant from her and living in Germany.

Clarisse really can't figure out where it all went wrong. She still visits her mother every Tuesday.

When she meets Freddy, she doesn't reinvent herself so much as she undoes or erases her previous self. Here things go really wrong, and Clarisse, or Malinka, falls out of the story. We're only a third of the way through. The book is called Ladivine, after all. But I'm already gutted.

Growing up, Ladivine could do no wrong. Permissive parents led her to be something of a wild child. But now she's married in Berlin with two children and going on a family vacation.

They're in place they'd never dreamed of going, somewhere south, and Ladivine is repeatedly mistaken for someone else, and she loses herself utterly. Of course, Clarisse haunts her, and some stray dog always follows them.

The characters are frustratingly opaque, not least to themselves. Families are doomed to repeat their dysfunctional dynamics.

It feels hot and confused, it's surreal and uncomfortable, and I don't entirely understand why. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

What do you know about yourself?

In a man, not liking women is a pose. In a woman, not liking men is a pathology.

Sounds a little like Atwood's, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." This is Virginie Despentes. But her statement is not about how men and women behave, it's about how society perceives them. Imagine, Despentes prompts us, if a woman wrote about men the way Houellebecq writes about women.

This is not an easy book. King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes, is ferocious. Like any good manifesto, it sucks you into its worldview without giving you space to breathe or time to think. 

So I read along, yes, yes, yes! 

Little girls are bought up learning never to hurt men, and whenever a woman flouts that rule, she is quickly put back in her place. No-one wants to know that they are cowardly. No-one wants to feel that in their own flesh. I'm not angry with myself for not daring to kill one of them, I'm angry at a society that educated me without teaching me to wound a man if he tries to fuck me against my will, especially when this same society has drummed into me the idea that it is a crime I should never get over. And mostly I am fucking furious at the fact that, having been faced with three guys and a gun in the middle of a forest with nowhere to run, I still feel guilty that I didn't have the courage to defend us with a little knife.

This is the kind of feminist the world needs! Or is she? Though I was swept up in her diatribe, when I stepped back to unravel what I'd read I found myself not always wholeheartedly agreeing. For example, she defends prostitution for the agency it lets women claim over their bodies. To which I can only say, yyesss but that's nnnott exactly the whole story.

Despentes is angry. In this series of essays, she tackles rape, porn, and prostitution. Capitalism, the beauty industry, the marriage contract.

If we do not push on towards the unknown that is the gender revolution, we know exactly what we will be slipping back towards. An all-powerful state that infantilizes us, meddles in our every decision, for our own good — keeping us in a state of childhood, of ignorance, fearful of punishment, of exclusion. The special treatment so far reserved for women, using shame as the primary tool to enforce their isolation, their docility, their inability to act, could be extended to everyone. To understand the mechanics of how we, as women, have been made to feel inferior, and been trained to become a crack team that polices itself, is to understand the mechanics of control of the population as a whole. Capitalism is an equal-opportunities religion in the sense that it subjugates us all, and leads each of us to feel trapped, as all women are.

Several of her arguments are simply uncomfortable, not because I disagree with them but because I haven't formulated a stance on my own, and I'm not sure I always need to (my personal relationship with porn is near nonexistent and I don't feel compelled to change that). Despentes writes that "the true history of porn, what creates and defines it, is censorship." Clearly, society's relationship to porn is convoluted at best — to be expected of an industry that we demand reflect reality while embodying pure fantasy — and it's hard not to agree on the necessity to smash the stigmatization of porn. It's just hard to keep up with her — for example, in a paragraph on female nymphomania, she concludes that it's men "who rack up conquests in the hope of one day experiencing something approaching a real orgasm." Which, OK, yeah, but then she just moves on to Paris Hilton and how her social status trumps her gender. 

All this to say, this book is loaded with theories sprung from analyses on top of throwaway observations, and I wish some of them had a little more room.

Despentes puts a lot of responsibility on women, which doesn't seem fair, but that's the point. Who else is going to fix things?

I realize that what other women do or don't do with their clitoris is none of my business, but I'm still slightly troubled by their indifference to masturbation: if they don't get themselves off when they're alone, at what point do women connect with their own fantasies? How much do they know about what really turns them on? And if you don't know that, what do you know about yourself? What connection can you have with yourself if even your pussy is systematically controlled by someone else?

Excerpt
Author profile.
#fuckthepatriarchy

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Surviving is something to do

The ways of the heart cannot be explained. It does what it wants.

This morning I woke up and allowed myself a moment of wistfulness, I watched the hazy morning light through the curtains and thought of him, just for a second, how he'd commented on the view of naked me in the foreground with the light through the billowing curtains, and I thought how I miss waking up with someone, I haven't done that in years, I'd like that, not every day but once in a while, say, on a lazy weekend. 

But it's Wednesday and I woke up with the cat, she waits for me to put my feet on the floor before asking me to feed her, and already I'm thinking about work. I've enjoyed an extra long weekend, so I'm ready for it. I allow myself the time to enjoy the coffee, not simply consume it, and I do a German lesson, a 225-day streak.

I work steadily, productively. I join the online meditation group for a session at noon, it succeeds only in helping my mind wander. (What novel can I get for my mother? I don't know anything about historical romance. Some vaguely literary options cross my mind, but it turns out they're not available in Polish.)

I turn on the TV and despair that the US Supreme Court nominee refuses to comment on hypotheticals, and our reality consists of hypotheticals. Cigarettes cause cancer because it says so on the package, but human impact on climate change is hypothetical. 

The inspection on my mother's house comes back indicating potential mould in the attic, and the buyers are concerned. I wonder about the teenage years I spent in the room with door to attic and if the mould seeped into me then. I google remedies, for the house, that is, and costs. Any mould deep in my brain had better lie undisturbed.

After weeks of seemingly no news of the plague in the outside world, suddenly there is news, lots of it, none of it good. In Europe, record highs, school interruptions, partial lockdowns. Paris is closed.

I exchange sexy messages with a man I've never met who lives half a world away. I tell the man I've never touched how much I miss the possibility of touching him. I believe my words to be true.

Is any of this real? 

I work steadily, productively, for hours more, but I stop at a reasonable hour, before I'm finished. As is typical, I haven't even started the one thing I expected I would do today.

I watch a couple episodes of Dark (having watched the first season upon its release, I've had to rewatch it before seeing the rest of the series) and wish I could travel back 33 years, or maybe a year ahead, or maybe two months ago. My heart believes in free will, but some days it contradicts itself. I think about how random my life is with its occasional infuriating perfection.

I'm reading Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh, and it makes me laugh in the way you laugh when if you didn't laugh you would cry.

But, as long as you aren't dead, you need something to do. And surviving is something to do.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, was a real treat for me this week,  inspiring the kind of just-one-more-page feeling that kept me up past my bedtime. It did not fill me with paranoia and unease the way Fever Dream did (one of my favourite reading experiences of recent years), but instead made me ache with sadness and grieve over my relationships with people I barely know. And yes, that kind of reading experience is my idea of a good time — I'm complex that way.

The novel is a collection of vignettes about the connections formed by an expensive toy, a kentuki. It's the body of a Furby with the responsibility of a Tamagotchi and the power of an Elf on the Shelf, with human sentience. Some of the stories end abruptly and are very one-sided, others are picked up over and over again, much like every toy has a unique lifecycle — they are cast aside after a day, they break, they become part of your life.

The kentuki is not a straight-up surveillance device. The watcher is not a megacorporation intent on controlling your consumer behaviour or otherwise keeping you in line legally or morally. At the other end is a person with their own motivations.

The toy is really just a limited interface between two random people; one person buys the toy, the other buys a code that gives camera access through the kentuki's eyes and instant translation that's locked on the owner. So there are two types of people: keepers and dwellers (roughly analogous to exhibitionists and voyeurs). One character is both, which gives her a rare perspective. (Which would you be?)

This arrangement grants anonymity. We see how people behave when they don't know, or they forget, that someone's looking. The society begins to grapple with the legal responsibilities the parties owe one another. Various kentuki liberation organizations arise.

There's a lot of loneliness in this book. It's people failing to communicate, failing to connect.

And that morning, after coming back from her run and flopping on the bed with her tangerines, she kept turning the matter over and over with the sense she was getting ever closer to an epiphany. She stared at the ceiling and thought that if she were to organize her thoughts to guess what kind of discovery was coming, she would have to remember a piece of information that she hadn't thought about in days: at some point the week before, she'd gone down to the the only kiosk in the village next to the church, and in her distraction she'd caught a glimpse of something she would rather not have seen. Sven's manner of explaining something to a girl. The sweetness with which he was trying to make himself understood, how close they were standing, the way they smiled at each other. Later she leaned it was the assistant. She wasn't surprised, nor did it strike her as an important discovery, because a much deeper revelation suddenly caught her attention: nothing mattered. In her body, every impulse asked, What for? It wasn't tiredness, or depression, or lack of vitamins. It was a feeling similar to lack of interest, but much more expansive.

Lying in bed, she gathered the tangerine peels into one hand, and the movement brought her to another revelation. If Sven knew all, if the artiste was a committed laborer and every second of his time was another step toward an irrevocable destiny, then she was exactly the opposite. The last point at the other end of the continuum of beings on this planet. The un-artiste. Nobody, for no one and for nothing, ever. Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation. Her body placed itself in the in-between, protecting her from the risk of ever one day achieving something. She closed her fist and squeezed the peels. They felt like a cool, compact paste. Then she reached her arm over the sheets toward the head of the bed and left the peels in a little pile under Sven's pillow.

For me, this book is less about the horrors of technology than it is about the horrors of interpersonal communication and the impossibility of knowing anyone. We only know about people what they want us to know. We only see what they show us.

Even the artiste's shocking reveal is not necessarily any closer to "truth." Although his work appears to be a grand commentary on kentuki interactions, he shows us a carefully constructed artwork to communicate his message, the materials for which were acquired and curated and created under circumstances we know nothing about. 

I can relate to these stories in terms of what they say about my online activity, particularly dating — what I choose to share or not, the slice of someone else's life I'm privy to in return, the narrative I fabricate around it, the intentions and motivations I attribute to others based on nothing but the debris that clutters my own headspace, the degree to which I immerse myself in any relationship. But really, it's as applicable to real life — simply, what we experience of someone else is always limited, and when processed through complicated sets of assumptions, it becomes clear how far away we are from each other, and we stay that way.

Excerpts 
Antigua 
Beijing — Lyon
South Bend 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter

First published in 1932, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, is well known in Poland, commonly believed to have been the "inspiration" that Jerzy Kosinski blatantly ripped off for Being There. By contrast, although he is morally and culturally bereft, Nicodemus Dyzma has a firmer hand in architecting his fate. 

"Yes. We women, we may not do it scientifically or even systematically, but we are specialists in psychoanalysis, or, I should say, in applied psychology. Our intuition is our scientific method, and our instinct alerts us to our errors."

She just goes on and on! . . . Dyzma thought.

"And that is why," Nina continued, absently flicking through the pages of the book, "that is why it's easier to guess the cipher by reading a closed book than an open one."

"Hmm." Nicodemus considered this. "But why would you have to guess when books are so easy to open?"

He'd thought that Nina, with her talk of closed books, intended to demonstrate for him how to read [Jack] London through its cover, and added,

"Nothing is easier than opening a book."

Lady Nina met his eye and replied, "Oh no. There are some who won't abide it, and those are the ones who are most interesting of all. Those who can only be read through the eyes of the imagination. Don't you agree?"

"I don't know," he answered heedlessly. "I've never come across that type of book. I've even seen very valuable editions, but I was able to open and read each one."

"Ah, that's understandable, I imagine you don't generally reach for books that aren't interesting, while those that do interest you surely open for you as if under some magnetic power. Such are the properties of a strong will."

Dyzma was amused — what kind of baloney was she talking?! — and answered "Why, even a baby has enough strength to open a book."

Dyzma is a fool mistaken for a wiseman who speaks his mind. While naively and brutishly looking out for his own best interests, he quite accidentally climbs to a position of great economic and political influence in Warsaw.

It all starts with an invitation to a Minister's banquet that he picks up off the ground — Dyzma decides to score a free meal, and he makes some friends along the way.

It's mysterious how he holds such sway. This novel goes beyond a superficial critique of the division of  classes; it's not simply the nouveau riche standing up to the old guard (with both of them having rights over women and peasants) — a very real thing in early 20th-century Poland.

It's difficult to regard Dyzma as an Everyman — he's not just uneducated, he's thick. At best, Dyzma reflects those who meet him, echoes what they say.

"Think about it," the district governor continues, "always and forever, it's been the case that simply knowing how to do things isn't nearly as important as actually making them happen. Everything was just fine when it was you, Mr. President, who was in charge of the bank." 

The story is mostly light and funny — it's astonishing what he gets away with. But there are some dark moments, including a murder (Dyzma hires some thugs to take someone out) and some violent rapes (which scenes were skin-crawlingly unpleasant). It's difficult to dismiss the violence against women as a product of its times.

Then there's the satanic sex cult of women who revere Dyzma as a god, complete with elaborate ritual preparations and peyote. Truly unexpected. Perhaps Dyzma owes more to their spells and their influence then he can fathom.

The novel has relevance today, calling into question whom we allow to rise to positions of power, what we allow to pass for wisdom, how we measure the success of an individual relative to that of the state.

Only George Ponimirski, who is Dyzma's brother-in-law by the novel's end, sees him for what he is. But he's been institutionalized before; he's generally regarded as a madman. 

"What are you laughing at?" the governor asked in an offended tone. George jumped up, his laughter trailing off, and made several attempts to put in his monocle, but his hands were shaking so much that he was unable to do so. He was agitated; this had clearly been the last straw.

"What am I laughing at? Not at what, ladies and gentlemen, but at whom?! I'm laughing you, at you! At all of society, at all my beloved fellow countrymen!"

"Sir!..."

"Silence!" Ponimirski yelled, and his pale, sickly child's face turned red with rage. "Silence! Sapristi! I'm laughing at you! At you! The so-called elite! Ha, that's a laugh! I'm telling you that your statesman, your Cincinnatus, your great man, your Nicodemus Dyzma, is nothing but a common swindler who's leading you around by the nose, a cunning scoundrel, imposter, and complete and utter moron all at the same time! An idiot who has no idea about anything, not economics, note even spelling! He's a boor, without a hint of good breeding, devoid of even fundamental civility! Look at his yokel face and his ill manner! I give you my word of honor that not only is this Oxford business all a lie, he can't speak a single language! A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter. Sapristi! Can't you see? I was wrong when I said that he was leading you around by the nose! You did it to yourself, it was you who put that swine up on a pedestal! You! You, bereft of any shred of critical reasoning! I'm laughing at you, you idiots! At you! Common rabble!...

He'd finally managed to put in his monocle. He gave everyone a look of pure contempt and left, slamming the door.

Director Litwinek, frightened and astonished, searched the faces of those present: they all wore a smile of embarrassment and pity.

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