Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Fixed points

It is the café of lost youth not in the sense that I'm older now and I've lost my youth, nor that I lost my youth too by growing up too fast. This is the place where the lost souls come. A lost generation. Like every generation.

I know this place. I spent my twenties there. And in truth that café (pub, in my case) represents all these interpretations of lost youth.
I've always believed certain places are like magnets and draw you towards them should you happen to walk within their radius. And this occurs imperceptibly, without you even suspecting. All it takes is a sloping street, a sunny sidewalk, or maybe a shady one. Or perhaps a downpour. And this leads you straight there, to the exact spot you're meant to wash up.
The world Patrick Modiano weaves in The Café of Lost Youth is spell-binding. Time slows. Read a page or two on the commute and the walk across the neighbourhood is suddenly infused with new meaning. I move in a haze, embraced by the city, a stand-in for Paris, and I find myself looking for fixed points.
In this uninterrupted stream of women, men, children, and dogs that pass by and end up lost from sight among the streets, it would be nice to hold on to a face once in a while. Yes, according to Bowing, amidst the maelstrom that is a large city, you had to find a few fixed points.
Louki is the fixed point of this story, a young woman who frequents the café among the many writers and bohemians. Her identity is elusive, few know even her real name, but it is around her that the texts revolve.

Four sections, chronologically overlapped, with four distinct narrators, Louki herself one of them.

The opening section presents the café through the eyes of a student at École Supérieure des Mines. He dares not tell the clientele that he's a student though, for fear he'll be mocked.
At the Condé, we never questioned each other about our origins. We were too young and we didn't even have pasts to reveal, we lived in the present.
I remember wishing I had a past. I miss not having a past.

The second narrator is Caisley, who smokes American cigarettes and occasionally calls himself an art publisher. He seems to have connections on both sides of the law, and alludes to some shady dealings. This section tells of his stint as a private investigator, hired by a man whose wife has gone missing.
I had a habit of getting to know the lay of the land before jumping straight into the thick of things. In the past, Blémant criticized me for it and thought that I was wasting my time. Dive in, he told me, rather than running in circles around the edge of the pool. Personally, I felt the opposite way. No sudden movements, but instead a passivity and slowness that allow you to be softly penetrated by the spirit of the place.
Clearly he is penetrated by the spirit of the café.
In this life that sometimes seems to be a vast, ill-defined landscape without signposts, amid all of the vanishing lines and the lost horizons, we hope to find reference points, to draw up some sort of land registry so as to shake the impression that we are navigating by chance. So we forge ties, we try to find stability in chance encounters.
Louki narrates the third section. She's a liar, but she's honest about it. Kind of the way Holly Golightly's a phoney, but a real phoney. In fact, now that I've made the connection to Breakfast at Tiffany's, I wonder if more couldn't be made of it — the need to run, the need to reinvent oneself. What fixed points does one navigate by then?
I was never really myself when I wasn't running away. My only happy memories are memories of flight and escape.
It is through Roland, the fourth and final narrator, that we process Louki's end. As Louki's friend and lover, he is privy to Louki's spiritual longing, her need for a guru.
I had the impression that since those days at Guy de Vere's, no time had passed. Instead it had stood still, frozen into some sort of eternity. I remember the text I had trying to write back when I knew Louki. I had called it On Neutral Zones. There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no-man's-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefited from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.
Roland obsessed about the Eternal Return.

Time stood still for me reading this book. As if I had regained my neutral zone. Anything is possible.

I want to read it again. I want to be 20 again.

This book may be a fixed point.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wining

I love wine.

I love drinking wine almost as much as I love reading books. Sometimes more. Of course, I often do both at the same time. One can also drink wine while talking about books. And eating fine things.

There was a time I wanted to know more about wine. I bought the occasional issue of The Wine Spectator. I attended wine tastings. I watched Sideways and Bottle Shock (which strengthened my anti-French sentiments). I read about wine. I drank wine while reading about wine. I even took a MOOC about The World of Wine: From Grape to Glass (new session starting soon!).

And I have watched every documentary about wine and wine-making available on Netflix. I have a particular fondness for Somm ("freshly opened can of tennis balls"), in which it is impressed upon me that in addition to amassing knowledge and cultivating a nose, the connoisseur must exercise imagination and execute deadpan delivery, and its recent sequel Somm: Into the Bottle ("I feel like a sommelier when I'm opening a $5 bottle of wine with a $300 corkscrew."), in which is extolled the inspired pairing of popcorn and chardonnay (I've been saying that for years. Duh, butter!).

I'm practically an expert.

And I realized something: the world of wine doesn't fascinate me nearly so much as the world of the wine connoisseur.

Don't get me wrong. Wine is delicious. There is no occasion that wouldn't be complemented by a bottle. But it should be deftly woven into the fabric of life. It's the connoisseurship that demands to be noticed, and it both delights and shocks and awes and leaves me aghast.

This morning I found some clickbait in my inbox, and fully baited, I clicked. The 8 Worst Mistakes Wine Drinkers Make. I'd like to take this opportunity to call bullshit. The biggest mistake is believing these are mistakes.

Let me address these point by point.

1. Filling your wine glass up to the brim — not a mistake
Don't be a wine hog, but no, there is nothing wrong with filling your glass. Of course, much depends on context. If you're there to "taste" the wine, perhaps you need to be seen swirling and sniffing. But if you're there simply to taste the wine, save yourself another trip across the room — pour yourself a tumbler full and enjoy it.

2. Holding your wine glass by the bowl — not a mistake
Yes, it warms the wine. But any wine worth its oak will withstand the minute temperature change. What's more important? Not feeling awkward. You feel the stem may slip through your fingers, you're tipping the glass, so you grip tighter, and now you're afraid of snapping the stem. (Maybe if you hadn't filled it so much it would be easier to hold.) Just be comfortable. Hold it whatever way feels right.

3. Buying wine because of the label — not a mistake
How else are you supposed to decide? Yes, I buy books that way too. There's a lot of useful information on the label, including region, grape type, and suggested accompaniments. And a vineyard's approach to marketing — traditional or innovative, subdued or flashy — can say a lot about its product.

4. Drinking the same old stuff — not a mistake
Yes, one should keep an open mind and try new things. But there's nothing — NOTHING! — wrong with standing by an old favourite.

5. Sticking to classic wine pairing rules — just a bit of a mistake
OK, this one I actually agree with. It's a mistake. Rather than classifying by red or white, try thinking in terms of fullness, fruitiness, or acidity. But hey, there's nothing wrong with a colour-coordinated palate either.

6. Drinking too fast — not a mistake
Examining every slow sip may be one way to learn about wine, but it's not the only way to enjoy it. It can be thirst quencher and a palate cleanser. Not every wine needs to be an education.

7. Dissecting wine on the initial pour — not a mistake
No, you shouldn't share your impressions with the waiter, but that first sip is different from all the other sips you will be taking. It's certainly worth considering, and you can even set some expectations by it.

8. Not using Vivino — also not much of a mistake
I've tried using this app, and it's failed to identify the half-dozen or so labels I've scanned. I'm not sure if this is due to poor recognition technology or if the database just doesn't include the wines available to me locally.

Currently drinking: Château Cazal Viel Viognier 2014, Pays d'Oc, France. Initial purchase based on the vaguely Florentine styling of the label. Subsequent purchases based on how tasty it is.

Do I sound like a wine snob now?

An innate bitterness at the heart of education

They said I was clever.

I see now they meant that I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked most like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings.
This is The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley.

This is a very weird story. In a good way. You know I like weird.

Whiteley's 2014 novella, The Beauty, is one of the most original and unsettling things I'd ever read. So I was ready for this.

Whiteley's recently released novella, The Arrival of Missives, starts off making you believe it's something else. A coming-of-age story, set in the past. I couldn't be sure at first if it was the real past or an imagined past. There was war. It becomes clear that this was the Great War, but war is done now. The setting is gently bucolic. Only it's not. You can feel some darkness lurking there. The story unfolds in "the place where the plans of the old and young do not quite meet."

Shirley is expected to marry someone capable, who can run the farm as her father ages. But Shirley believes herself to be part of the new era, in which women will be recognized as having something to contribute to "the upward path of humanity." Shirley dreams of escaping the farm and going to college. She wants to be a teacher. She has cultivated an attraction to her own teacher.
Look how love coats me in a shiny slick that no grim thought can penetrate. It lights the dark, and distinguishes my being. I am set alight by it.
Teacher has a secret he brought home from the war.

It reminds me very much of Bro, the first part of Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. (Which I very much admired, though I have not yet read the rest of the trilogy. Missives is shorter by far and a swifter read.) Only instead of the Tunguska event, here the catalyst is the shrapnel of war. But in both cases something alien takes hold and demands action.

There are multiple sets of missives in this story. One is Mr Tiller's letters to Shirley, from teacher to student, a madman grasping for a shred of humanity and kindness. Another is correspondence from the college — an invitation to an interview, and then a decision letter. Another is from the future. In many ways they are the same.

Everywhere there is nature; on the farm it is made orderly and profitable, but elsewhere it is a wild tangle. And everywhere there are boys and men, and I feel Shirley's trepidation and diffidence. This is still a world ruled by men.

This is a story of how the old ways of thinking embed themselves and harden. But Shirley "will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave." Perhaps it also a story of how women are patient like water, wearing away at stone.
For love is not the high ideal of beauty, of sacrifice, of noble deeds and chaste embraces that I had imagined when once I dreamed of Mr Tiller. It is a dirty business, of wanting and struggling and making do, and being each other's comfort because the world is cruel and there are few who want to do right by you with no thought of their own needs.
With all the intensity of a schoolgirl's heart and mind.
Once I thought that a bitter teacher spoils a pupil; I wonder now if there is not an innate bitterness at the heart of education, which always comes with hidden meanings and a high cost.
I highly recommend The Arrival of Missives. Poetic and engrossing. Quietly weird and patiently feminist.

Interview with Whiteley at The Thinker's Garden.
Excerpt.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

So have you found your happiness?

Yes, that bookstore wasn't only a refuge; it was also a step in my life. I would often stay there until closing time. There was a chair next to the shelves, or rather a tell step stool where I would sit as I leafed through different books. I wasn't sure that he was even aware of my presence. After a few days, without looking up from his reading, he would speak to me, always the same sentence: "So have you found your happiness?" Much later, someone informed me with great certainty that the one thing we cannot remember is the tone of a voice. And yet even now, during my bouts of insomnia I often hear that voice and its Parisian accent — the accent of the slopes — asking me, "So have you found your happiness?" And that phrase has lost none of its kindness or mystery.
— from In the Café of Lost Youth, by Patrick Modiano.

Friday, May 06, 2016

A personal anecdote of longing and regret

It's a relaxed morning, the kid's away, and I'm feeling good. Heading to work in my Gucci sunglasses. The scarf I got at a Paris flea market, only one cigarette burn hole in twenty-five years.

Through the park to the metro it's dog walkers, joggers, and a juggler. A ruggedly handsome juggler. He's mesmerizing. The path I'm walking shifts trajectory to follow my gaze. I have to keep correcting my course. Three balls, red white blue, red white blue, under the leg, he's juggling with his foot now, red white blue. I'm staring. He drops one, finally. I'm smiling.

"Beau sourire," he calls out.

And in a millisecond I imagine several possible responses, not excluding allusions to his dexterity, and all potential outcomes, most of them variations of lusty abandonment. But the voice of "reason" drowns out the murmurs: what is he doing juggling at the park at 9:30 in the morning?, he can't possibly have a job, when you start planning to vacation together in Turkey next year who's going to pay for it?

I'm passing him now; I turn slightly and give him a thumbs up. (What the fuck does that even mean?) He laughs, and I walk on.

************

I take a seat in the metro and open my novel, In the Café of Lost Youth, by Patrick Modiano. It makes me melancholy.
I took the envelope from my pocket and I pored over the pictures for a long while. Where was she now? In a café, like me, sitting alone at a table? Doubtless the phrase he had spoken earlier had given me this idea: "It's all about trying to create ties." Encounters in the street, in a Métro station at rush hour. We ought to shackle ourselves to each other at that moment. What connection can resist the tide as it carries you away and diverts your course?

************

The busker is strumming out Wicked Game; I hum along. He sings more like Barry Gibb than Chris Isaak; it feels purer this way, less animal, but more tragic. I walk the long tunnel out to the exit, imagining myself clinging to Sailor's snakeskin jacket. I miss being twenty.

************

Why did he laugh?

************

"Maybe he's a dentist," one friend suggests. "They work odd hours."

"Independently wealthy. He's just always wanted to master juggling. What's wrong with that?"

"Cirque du Soleil, obviously."

"Lots of people take Friday off."

Some of them call me an idiot.

************
We ought to shackle ourselves to each other at that moment.
I can't wait for Monday and the walk through the park on my way to work. True story.

Missed connection w4m, Parc Laurier, May 6, 9:30 am.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Funny business

My sense of humour may be broken. Or maybe sex offenders just aren't that funny.
He has made mistakes.
Baldy Conscience was a terrific mistake.
Baldy Conscience was a turbine of a mistake.
He was a tubular bell of a mistake.
A Chernobyl-fucking-cloud of a mistake.
Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, according to cover copy is "hilarious."

John Self in The Guardian says in his opening paragraph that it's funny, but never elaborates.

Emily Keeler at the National Post laughed out loud at "deeply troubling jokes," which make me wonder if the laugh might come as a reaction to the awkwardness of uncomfortable truths rather than as a genuine response to humour.

David Hobbs in The Globe and Mail barely touches on "the sense of humour that guides its dark comedy."

But he astutely observes:
Do we believe that Martin John is driven by rage, or do we believe he is trying to satisfy women, coats and himself? Should we believe either? Does his intent change his effect? Are we inside Martin John’s head, or someone else’s attempt to decipher him?

A reader's initial response may depend on whether she feels Martin John is primarily a sexual offender or afflicted by psychological disorder. Yet Schofield is more interested in the sense of unease produced as the reader tries to sustain either impression. The arrows punctuating the novel's blank spaces resemble Post-It flags reminding us to sign our names in a legal agreement, but each subsequent paragraph reminds us that we are assenting to something beyond our comprehension.
It's clear to me that Martin John is both a sexual offender and afflicted by psychological disorder — these are not mutually exclusive conditions.

Eileen Battersby of The Irish Times describes the novel as a comic tour de force, with plenty of gags.
Be warned: regardless of one's views on sexual deviants who prey on women and who also get their kicks out of sustaining a very full bladder, Martin John will make you ill with laughing but also guilty for smiling at a human tragedy, which it is.

Is Martin John a comedy? Possibly, in the sense that it breezily employs linguistic acrobatics to describe aberrant situations that rub up against social norms. It's entertaining, enjoyable (as a thing to read, despite its subject matter, and somehow (this is Schofield's magic) light even while deeply ambiguous. But I wouldn't call it funny.

Maybe I just need a different word for the kind of funny this.

About that ambiguity... So much of the narrative is related from Martin John's perspective, it makes me question not just the nature of his relationships with other character (are we given verifiably true accounts?), but the very reality of the other characters. Who is Baldy Conscience if not Martin John's bald conscience. Does he live in the house, as Martin John's "tenant," or in his head? What about his mother? Is she a continuing presence in his life, or is it all torturous memory that nags him through his days?

All this makes the novel puzzling, like Martin John's character, his motivations, his worldview are puzzling. But not exactly funny.

Perhaps because the verdict on the Jian Gomeshi trial is still fresh. Perhaps because I work with a recently paroled sex offender, even though I personally, not being a young, male aspiring hockey player, feel no threat apart from that to my moral sensibility. Martin John is no rapist (I don't think), but he should not be excused for unacceptable behaviour simply because it is lies on the milder side of the spectrum.

We do not give sufficient voice to society's victims, so it becomes uncomfortable to spend the length of a novel inside a perpetrator's head. I think we have too much sympathy for the devil. Very much a tragedy.

Monday, May 02, 2016

What steals your memories?

"Do you know what steals your memories?"

I look at him. Because it is a strange question, one that has no answer and many answers. The river of sleep take memories down in the murk and silt. Night and the darkness take them. Waking takes them. Or our own sadness. Or maybe it's the forgetting is like a spore of blight inside each memory itself, and the two cannot ever be separated.
The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, is about memory and about music.

It's poetic and mysterious from the outset. A little Dickensian, but it's not bustling with life so much as buzzing in your head.

The jacket description explains some of the Chimes world, but it's not till I was well past a third of the way through that the world became clear.

Simon keeps his memories close. It seems people have a hard time keeping memories in their heads; they transfer them to objects. Simon can access a memory by examining an object. If you lose your objects, you're in trouble.

When Simon comes to London, the gang he runs with uses music to navigate the city, the tunes describing the paths they take, helping them to find the objects of their hunt as well as helping them find their way home.
He sings and time stands still, as if he is walking on water. His voice is stark and true, and in it there are stretches of empty skies and a bright rime of salt.
It's common wisdom that with the right music, you either forget everything or remember everything. The Chimes takes this aphorism to its dystopic extreme. Personal music links closely to memory, but the public music of the Chimes issued by the Order has a dulling effect, to keep the masses in line.

The language of The Chimes is punctuated with musical terminology; movements are subito, lento, presto. The poetry of "the sunlight's pale violence" drips off every page.
On my palm is a nugget of Pale. About three ounces, and shined with soapy, idle gleam in the thin light, as beautiful as anything I've ever seen. It pulses with silence.
At times I wished it were a little less beautiful. The evil at the heart of this dystopia is clouded by the beautiful language. But maybe that's the point: the musicality can obfuscate the reality.

See last year's review in the Guardian.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In praise of short novels

I recently convinced several people to read Valera Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth, not by describing the main character or his story or explaining the concept behind the book, but by praising how short it was. As if its brevity was its greatest virtue. Perhaps it was.

Of course you can read it over the weekend! It's so short! Only 134 pages, according to my e-version. And all those blank pages at the front. The table of contents is longer than expected. An epigraph or two. Decorative leaves between chapters. Then there are photo plates at the end, and the translator's chronology, which can't be said to be part of the book proper, though it was my favourite part. The author's afterword, also not really part of the book, although arguably it's what gives the book meaning. Still, it doesn't count as story. And more blank pages. Bringing us down to maybe a 100 pages of novel. Who can't manage that?

In this way I "sold" a book I didn't really like (I admire and respect it — I just didn't connect with it) because I had nothing better to say about it. It's really short! And an impromptu book club came into being.

I've read a lot of short books this year. It's all that my time and attention can hold.

Short novels means less commitment, cuz I just don't have it in me these days. Short novels sustain my interest, in ways most 400-page novels just can't. I can slip from one genre to another. More variety. I'm sampling more authors. And I have a sense of accomplishment. I can still read and finish books! And I can convince other people to read them too. Short novels are so digestible.