Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The mezzanine of parentheses

Rilke to Tsvetayeva, May 10, 1926:
You, poet, do you sense how you have overwhelmed me, you and your magnificent fellow reader; I'm writing like you and I descend like you the few steps down from the sentence into the mezzanine of parentheses, where the ceilings are so low and where it smells of roses past that never cease.
— from Letters: Summer 1926, by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am finding Rilke's correspondence more interesting than his poetry.

Most of his poetry no longer resonates with me the way it once did. Perhaps I feel the glut of it; I feel the pull of only rare scraps. Most of it feels too much like a riddle to be solved.

How my mindset has changed over the years. Today I seek clarity (even if it is parenthetical).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What I fall in love with when I read dating profiles

[Actual lines from various profiles across several dating apps. A found poem of sorts.]

Dear future girlfriend,

Fantastically flawed human being looking for same.

Two-time winner of Monopoly beauty contest.

Spicier than vanilla. Often accused of being addictive, even in small doses.

Mostly happy with occasional spurts of go-lucky.

Passable credit.

I want a princess by day and complete submissive whore behind closed doors. Ultimately looking for long term.

Research shows the best way to know if you'll want a second date is to go on a first date.

I live on my own, and I smell nice.

Epic poet.

You agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but also value life enough not to share the hemlock with him.

Life without music is pointless.

You: [this space intentionally left blank]

Please don't message me if you're a scammer who expects me to send you money. Had 2 of those already in my first 3 days here, and I wasn't born yesterday. It won't work.

Looking for friends on this planet.

Reassure me that you do, in fact, exist.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Redolent of coffeee

When he got home he found in the mailbox a postcard from Claire that had been sent from Bonifacio the preceding week. The news was out of date but the thoughtfulness pleased him. In fact it was this time lag that made the card valuable, as if the words had mellowed in the space of a few days. The e-mails were precious because they provided almost instantaneous reports, but they would never have that slightly aged flavor. On a postcard, the words had been weighed while staring into space and chewing on the pen. They were laid down with care and measure, since there was limited room. The cards were redolent of coffee and fruit juice drunk on a terrace, the perfume of flowers in the shade of a public park. The e-mails smelled of a dirty keyboard and a poorly ventilated office.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored. This has got to be one of my favourite titles ever. Because cats! In summertime!

The story itself, a mystery set in Southern France, is somewhat quiet. Methodical, both in laying out the crime and investigating it. It's credible, not gratuitous in the slightest. Which makes it nice and easy. This novel succeeded in gently easing me back into reading fiction.

Inspector Gilles Sebag is a very ordinary cop who enjoys spending time with his family, lounging by the pool, eating, making love, sleeping. He is a coffee connoisseur. He finds time for work, but has the best work-life balance of any investigator I can recollect. He doubts his abilities.

And he is drawn into a game of cat and mouse. Somebody's life is at stake, and this finds the right priority amid office politics and potential marital troubles.

I am these days somewhat preoccupied with the phenomenon of the midlife crisis. "Where did adultery begin?"
When you know each other by heart, you can read your partner's body language, smiles and grimaces. You start by no longer needing to look at each other and end up not seeing each other at all. You no longer even bother to look up.
The subject is treated here in a mature and altogether French way.

There is only one actual cat in this book, belonging to Gilles' neighbour, whom he lures over to his side with bowls of milk. The other cats must be metaphorical. I guess they're bored.

I am pleased to note that Philippe Georget has written more novels, and some are available in English. I'll be watching out for them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Something long and difficult to fathom

Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgement of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman's face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savouring each drop.

Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover's face, for dispersing a crowd.

It was all just like a Borges story — except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying knowledge.

By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something long and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying? I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation.
— from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.

Friday, June 29, 2018

How shall I keep my soul from touching yours?

Love Song

How shall I keep my soul
from touching yours? How shall I
lift it up beyond you to other things?
Ah, I would gladly hide it
in darkness with something lost
in some silent foreign place
that doesn't tremble when your deeps stir.
Yet whatever touches you and me
blends us together the way a bow's stroke
draws one voice from two strings.
Across what instrument are we stretched taut?
And what player holds us in his hand?
O sweet song.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
I'm reading Rilke again. Never a good sign.

Three books have come together:
So it'll be another summer of Rilke. I hope this ends better than the last one. What is wrong with me?

Writes Tsvetayeva to Rilke, inexplicably:
I know what time is and what a poem is. I also know what a letter is. So there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The feeling of only half understanding

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?
Batuman is a joy to read. She's funny, smart, and sincere. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, takes the reader from Stanford to Samarkand by way of Russia.

A familiarity with Russian literature is not required to appreciate this memoir, though if you understand the mindset of what it is to revel in these thick and intricate Russian worlds, so much the better.

However, for example, I've never read Babel, to whom the whole of chapter one is devoted; but I think I might want to read Babel now ("Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always "what," not "who."). I have no knowledge of the Uzbek language or its literature, and I'm quite convinced that it's not necessary for me to pursue the topic further. So I guess what you need to bring to this book is an openness to hearing the stories of people who pursue literature, and its more obscure aspects, as a field of study.

(The scholars seem to agree that Babel lived life as a source of material. I suppose a lot or writers are "guilty" of this.)
I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory. The Uzbek language truly was related to both Turkish and Russian, by either genetic origin or secondary contact... but that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no pre-existing entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked.
What may not be obvious about The Possessed, even though Batuman states it clearly, more than once, is that it's about love. The state of being possessed has love at its core. "What is it you love, when you're in love?" This is difficult enough to answer when the object of love is a person — their body, their soul, their attributes, their worldly goods. But when love's target is more abstract, so too are its defining characteristics. What do you love when you love a language or a literature or a body of work?

Batuman exposes some of the tedium and absurdity of academia. But through it all there is love and joy!
When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half understanding — a feeling that is intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry is written in a foreign language:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind — unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

After Samarkand, the beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words — the beauty of things that don't appear on the page — somehow lost its charm for me. From that point on I was interested only in huge novels. I started researching a dissertation on the hugeness of novels, the way they devour time and material. And although I suppose it's just coincidence that Tolstoy compared the subjective charms of half-understood poetry to the Caucasus in particular, nonetheless, I was finished with them, too — with the Caucasus, the Russian East, and the literatures of the peripheries.
Meanwhile, I have lost the ability to read fiction, I hope only temporarily. Between salving my heart, confessing my soul to paper, and walking — the endless walking — fiction has become an interference, reading an irritation. Sigh.


Review: Salon
The fact that I could never quite understand what was going on put me off of Russian novels; for Batuman, it's a prime attraction.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Inviolate to the ravages of time

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?
The White Book, by Han Kang, is a difficult book to talk about. It's billed as fiction, but it reads like something between memoir and poetry. It's less book than art. Being so experimental in form, it is difficult to synthesize.

I read it about a month ago, in one sitting. I promptly forgot its details, but the mood of it washed over me and lingered. I revisited portions of it last week in preparation for book club discussion, but again the substance of it has washed away.

It's a beautiful book as object. It's crisp, stark. French flaps. White space. Blank pages. Black and white photos (greyscale, really).

On the whole it leaves me cold (like frost). It's sterile and antiseptic (like salt).

It starts off as a formal exercise, a list of white things. I expect a meditation on whiteness and its associations (a philosophical inquiry à la William H Gass). I am relieved that there is no discussion of race, but other bookclub participants are outraged that there is no discussion of race; how could anyone call their book "The White Book" and not at least acknowledge the issue of race?

The narrator walks through a foreign city. The city is never named. The very first review of this book that I read identified the city; in fact this knowledge piqued my interest in the book. It's a city that I know, and that I don't particularly like. I wonder if I would've been able to identify the city without having been told. I think so. It's a city that was destroyed and rebuilt. It looks old, but it's brand new. It feels... disconnected.

The story, such as it is, is about the narrator's older sister, whom she never met. (Or it is about her relationship with her older sister.) The baby had lived only an hour or so. The heart and soul of the book is the narrator's imagining of her non-sister's non-life. It is a life reconstructed, resurrected; but it's not the real thing. Her sister is a kind of ghost, realized in this city of ghosts.

Whiteness tends toward innocence, purity, peace, and hope. Also blankness, a kind of neutrality. White is all colour.

The narrator has migraines. So do I. I was the only one in our discussion group who has migraines. Statistically, I thought there'd be one more. "I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time's discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips." White pain, like white noise.
Clean, cold light that had bathed her eyes, scouring her mind of all memory.
The book's whiteness is punctuated with colour: a bead of blood, red brick wall, black earth's reflection, the blue tinge of a sluggish dawn, a gunmetal sea.

Fog: "can we really call it white? That vast soundless ululation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness." Is translucence white?
Blizzard: "This vanishing fragility, this oppressive weight of beauty."
Bed linen: "Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of."
Laughing whitely: "Laughter that is faint, cheerless, its cleanness easily shattered. And the face that forms it."
Bones: "That human beings are also constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck."

This book will not advance your understanding of whiteness. It may or may not have achieved any resolution of memory, or guilt, or writer's block.

The end inspires some hopefulness, that all will be whiteness (all will be all colours?), that the narrator will see clearly with her non-sister's eyes. It confirms connection through detachment.

This book is not a story, it's an experience.

Asian Review of Books
The Irish Times
There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.