Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Notebooks, neckties, and homework

For one and half school years, between sixth and seventh grade, Mevlut worried constantly about where to sit in the classroom. The inner turmoil he endured while grappling with this question was as intense as the ancient philosophers' worries over how to live a moral life. Within a month of starting school, Mevlut already knew that if wanted to become "a scientist Atatürk would be proud of," as the principal liked to say, he would have to befriend the boys from good families and nice neighbourhoods, whose notebooks, neckties, and homework were always in good order. Out of the two-thirds of the student body who, like Mevlut, lived in a poor neighbourhood, he had yet to meet anyone who did well in school. Once or twice in the school yard, he'd bumped into boys from other classes who took school seriously because they, too, had heard it said, "This one's really clever, he should be sent to school," but in the apocalyptically overcrowded school, he had never managed to communicate with these lost and lonely souls who, like the quiz team, were belittled by the rest as nerds. This was partly because the nerds themselves regarded Mevlut with some suspicion, as he, too, was from a poor neighborhood. He rightly suspected that their rosy worldview was fatally flawed: deep down, he felt that these "clever" boys, who thought they would become rich one day if only they could learn the sixth-grade geography textbook by heart, were, in fact, fools, and the last thing he wanted was to be anything like them.
— from A Strangeness in My Mind, by Orhan Pamuk.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

There was no prize

When she sat back down at her table she found that a group of men dresses as condoms were staggering across St Helen's Square. They were in one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and they were dressed as condoms. What was wrong with Benidorm? Or Magaluf? ("You want everyone to behave better, but you don't behave better yourself," Bertie said.)

One of the condom men squashed himself like an insect against the large plate-glass of Bettys and leered at the diners. The pianist glanced up from his keyboard and then continued serenely with Debussy. A van drew up in the centre of St Helen's Square and disgorged several people dressed as zombies. The zombies proceeded to chase the men who were dressed as condoms. The condom men didn't seem very surprised, as if they were expecting to be chased by zombies. ("They pay for it," Bertie said.) Was this fun? Viola despaired. It was possible, she thought, that she had won the race to reach the end of civilization. There was no prize. Obviously.
— from A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson.

It's a devastatingly lovely book. The above excerpt should not considered representative, but it did make me laugh amid the general bleakness of war, and of life in general.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

All alike, perhaps just because they all wanted to be different

Here the pavements were swarming with feet wearing shoes, boots, high boots, shoes with heels and shoes without, and some in sandals, which, to look at them, make one's head go round; here the people were strolling up and down in couples, or in groups of men, women and children, or alone: some slow, some in a hurry, all alike, perhaps just because they all wanted to be different, with the same clothes, the same hair, the same faces, eyes, and mouths. Here were the furriers, bootmakers, stationers, jewelers, watchmakers, booksellers, florists, drapers, toyshops, hardware stores, milliners, hosiers, glove shops, cafés, theaters, banks; here were the lighted windows of the buildings with people walking up and down or working at desks; the electric signs, always the same; on the street corners stood the newspaper kiosks, the chestnut sellers, the unemployed selling ruban de Bruges and rubber fins for umbrellas. Here were the beggars, a blind man with black spectacles, cap in hand at the top of the street, his head thrown back against the wall, lower down an elderly woman suckling a child at her shrunken breast, and lower still an idiot with a shiny yellow stump like a knee-joint where his hand should have been. As I ground myself once more in that street, among such familiar things, I had a funereal impression of immobility, which made me shudder profoundly and feel momentarily naked, as if the icy breath of fear had passed between my body and my clothes.
— from The Woman of Rome, by Alberto Moravia.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Library for the soul

Libraries sometimes happen in unexpected places, right when you need them.

Last week I spent a night with my mother and my sister at Mark Preece Family House while my brother had brain surgery at the hospital next door. The idea for the House is to function as a home away from home for families whose loved ones are critical care patients in nearby facilities. So families can spend time being families instead of worrying about the price and logistics of travel and accommodations.

Part of the comfort of the House comes from its library. (Other House comforts: the kitchen, the bountiful complimentary baked goods, the fact that everyone there is going through something like what you are.) For me, a library signals both normalcy and escape.

These books were all donated or left behind. The library is genre-spanning, from Tana French, to James Patterson, to Douglas Adams.

I picked out Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth — something I'd been meaning to get to someday. I made it tens of pages in, but decided to leave it for someone else to discover. (I already know I want to read it.)

Staying at the House was a really positive experience, and I encourage you to support ventures like this one. Sadly, a lot of people don't recognize the value of this sort of organization until they need one.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A factory to manufacture sorrow

You may well doubt words themselves, but there is often no mistaking the tone of voice in which they are uttered.
I had occasion recently to read Alberto Moravia's The Woman of Rome, in Rome. This was a marvelous reading experience, for several reasons, and I am definitely motivated to read more Moravia on its basis, quite apart from the enticement of the several of his novels issued by NYRB Classics.

I anticipate a surge in this novel's popularity due to its being featured in a near-final episode of Mad Men. That was certainly a factor in my choice to read it at this time. It is currently hard to come by in print, but it's readily available electronically. I hope for an NYRB edition, but at 336 pages, it's a little longer than their average publication.

The Woman of Rome shows up poolside in 1970; one fully expects Don Draper to make a play for its reader. So I was a little surprised to discover that the novel dates back to 1949, appearing in English the same year (if my copyright page is to be trusted, but the date of Italian publication varies around the web — either 1947 or 1949). The story centers around a prostitute, so it's easy to interpret the bathing beauty as a simple symbol of Don's temptation.

But really, The Woman of Rome is about Don Draper. Don is Adriana, both of them saddled with expectations, both realists in their way even if they are mostly deluded. They are fully in themselves but not of themselves.
I can remember that when I found myself in the street, among the crowds, on a fine and cloudy day of that mild winter, I felt with better certainty that my life, like a river that has been artificially turned from its course for a brief period, had begun once more to flow in its usual direction, without change or novelty, after an interruption caused by my hopes and the preparations for my marriage. Perhaps this sensation was due in part to the fact that in my bewilderment I was looking around me with a gaze shorn of its original bright hopefulness. The crowd, the shops, the streets, appeared to me, for the first time in many months, in a pitilessly objective light, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither interesting nor dull, but just as they were — as they must appear to a drunkard when his state of intoxication is past. But more probably it derived from my realization that the normal things of life were not, as I had supposed, my plans for happiness, but the exact opposite — I mean, all those things that are inimical to planning and programs are casual, faulty, and unforeseen agents of disillusionment and sorrow. If this were true, as I thought it must be, I had undoubtedly begun that morning to live again, after a state of intoxication lasting several months.
Adriana is desperately trying to rise above her circumstances, to break out of a cycle but condemned to it.
I climbed the steps, pushed aside the heavy covering over the door, and entered, putting a handkerchief on my head. While I dipped my fingers in the holy water stoup, I was struck by a scene carved around the edge of the stoup — it showed a naked woman, her hair streaming in the wind, her arms raised as she fled, pursued by a foul dragon, with a parrots' beak, that was standing upright on its hind legs like a man. I seemed to recognize myself in that woman and thought how I, too, was fleeing just such a dragon, that the course of my flight was circular, like hers, but that as I ran around in circles, I sometimes found I was not fleeing but was following a desire and gaily pursuing the ugly beast.
Adriana works as a nude model when she falls in love with Gino. They are engaged to be married but it turns out that Gino is a good-for-nothing liar and a cheat, so that's the end of that. Adriana is very realistic about her assets and her prospects. Before you know it she's a prostitute; she likes the money, and her mother likes the money too, although they never really speak of it.
I was not at all ashamed; I only felt an occasional sense of servitude and betrayal of my own nature.
Adriana's relationship with her mother is central to this novel, and that complex relationship appears to have been Moravia's starting point. Mother is always there, complaining about eyestrain and a shortage of sewing work, she's always there in the background, in the next room, or waiting for Adriana to return home, or trying to keep out of the way. Adriana's character is formed by this and the expectations set on her. (Note, the Wikipedia entry on this novel gets a key point wrong: Adriana's mother is not herself a prostitute, although she certainly encourages Adriana to cash in on her looks.)
I had always loved the Madonna because she carried a baby in her arms and because her baby, who became a man, was killed; and she who bore him and loved him as any mother loves her son and suffered so when she saw him hanging on the cross. I often thought to myself that the Madonna, who had so many sorrows, was the only one who could understand my own sorrows, was the only one who could understand my own sorrows, and as a child I used to pray to her alone, as the only one who could understand me. Besides, I liked the Madonna because she was so different from Mother, so serene and tranquil, richly clothed, with her eyes that looked on me so lovingly; it was as if she were my real mother instead of the mother who spent her time scolding me and was always worn out and badly dressed.
Then there's the police chief who offers to keep her. Adriana doesn't like him much, but she comes to rely on him for advice and favours. Meanwhile she falls in love with a politically active student. She's still working and encounters some unsavoury characters. There is theft and murder, thuggishness and underground pamphleteering. All the characters and storylines are threaded together quite nicely.

If it's not clear, I loved this book. Adriana is a wonderfully drawn, complex character. According to the promo copy:
One of the very few novels of the twentieth century which can be ranked with the work of Dostoevsky, The Woman of Rome also tells the stories of the tortured university student Giacomo, a failed revolutionary who refuses to admit his love for Adriana; of the sinister figure of Astarita, the Secret Police officer obsessed with Adriana; and of the coarse and brutal criminal Sonzogno, who treats Adriana as his private property. Within this story of passion and betrayal, Moravia calmly strips away the pride and arrogance hiding the corrupt heart of Italian Fascism.
The story is not, to me, obviously political. I needed to be reminded about Italian Fascism. The novel reads very smoothly and could easily be set anytime over the last century. Reading the story in Rome leant it an extra golden hue, and brought to life the streets, the bars, the shops. Ultimately I found it to be a very introspective novel, about what we demand of life and how unfairly it can treat us.
My room, which was always full of cigarette smoke, seemed to me like a factory working day and night to manufacture sorrow, without a moment's break; and the very air I breathed had by now become a thick gelatinous mass of sad, obsessive thoughts.

The Paris Review
Alberto Moravia, The Art of Fiction No. 6
On the writing process:
I had intended it to run to no more than three or four typescript pages, treating the relations between a woman and her daughter. But I simply went on writing. [...] It was a case, simply, of my thinking initially that I had a short story and finding four months later that it was a novel instead.
On the psychology of his characters:
For the psychology of my characters, and for every other aspect of my work, I draw solely upon my experience; but understand, never in a documentary, a textbook, sense. No, I met a Roman woman called Adriana. Ten years afterward I wrote the novel for which she provided the first impulse. She has probably never read the book. I only saw her that once; I imagined everything, I invented everything.
On writing novels, generally:
I do not foresee a time when I shall feel that I have nothing to say.

Monday, September 07, 2015

A lifelong state of expectancy

Remember your first kiss?
Since then I have given and received many kisses, and God knows I have given and received them without participating in them, either emotionally or physically, as you give and receive an old coin that has been handled by many people; but I shall always remember that first kiss because of its almost painful intensity, in which I seemed to be expressing not only my love for Gino but a lifelong state of expectancy. I remember that I felt as if the whole world were revolving around me and the sky lay beneath me, the Earth above. In fact, I was leaning back slightly, his mouth on mine, so that the embrace would last longer. Something cool and living pressed against my teeth and when I unclenched them I felt his tongue, that had caressed my ears so long with the sweetness of his words, now penetrating wordlessly into my mouth to reveal to me another sweetness I had never suspected. I did not know people could kiss in that way for so long, and I was soon breathless and half intoxicated. In the end, when we broke away from one another I was obliged to lean back against the seat with my eyes closed and my mind hazy, as if I were going to faint. And so I discovered there were other joys in the world than merely living peacefully in the bosom of one's family.
— from The Woman of Rome, by Alberto Moravia.

I was seventeen, the back seat of a cab.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Happiness is a new IKEA catalogue

It was with unreasonable joy that I discovered the latest IKEA catalogue in my mailbox the other week. My daughter and I made an event of it.

But what keeps us coming back to this long-standing series, year after year, awaiting each new edition? Is it the characters? The narrative structure?

A German literary critic reviews the publication:
"Happiness is a super-comfy sofabed, a few side tables and a strong wifi connection." But happiness, according to Freud, was never intended in creation's plan as a permanent state.

(via CBC)