Sunday, May 06, 2007

Divided

I was disappointed, upset even, that I wouldn't be able to attend any of the Blue Met — I had particular designs on attending the launch of Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Divisadero — but would instead be sitting at my desk, working. I did allow myself some breaks and I spent time in the world he painted for me instead, arguably a better place and a better way of getting to know a writer than face to face.

When I come to lie in your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist. And I will say Paris, the week Colette died. . . Paris, August 3rd, 1954. In a few days, at her state funeral, a thousand lilies will be placed by her grave, and I want to be there, walking that avenue of wet lime trees until I stand beneath the second-floor apartment that belonged to her in the Palais-Royal. The history of people like her fills my heart. She was a writer who remarked that her only virtue was self-doubt. (A day or two before she died, they say Colette was visited by Jean Genet, who stole nothing. Ah, the grace of the great thief . . .)

"We have art," Nietzsche said, "so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." The raw truth of an incident never ends, and the story of Coop and the terrain of my sister's life are endless to me. They are the sudden possibility every time I pick up the telephone when it rings some late hour after midnight, and I wait for his voice, or the deep breath before Claire will announce herself.

For I have taken myself away from who I was with them, and what I used to be. When my name was Anna.


This little prologue may seem a bit precious and is particularly jarring when the story proper opens on horseback, a story of American farmlife (the kind of story I'm not drawn to in the least), but it eventually fits. We see at first through Anna's eyes and come to trust her as an observer: sensitive, well-read, — "the one who read so constantly and carefully she always had a frown, as if gazing at a fly on the end of her nose." I came to trust her too as a storyteller, translator of and researcher into Lucien Segura, a (fictional) Frenchman of letters. But her assumed talent as a storyteller is reason also to question the veracity of all she tells; that is, the emotions are sincere, but the facts remain hazy.

It's beautifully written. Everything about my reading experience was languorous. Like a cat stretching, fur bristling with static.

The title of the novel, Divisadero, comes from the name of the street where Anna lives; that is, it is her address, but she lives, works, loves, elsewhere, in France, in the past, and in her imagination. It's a Spanish word meaning both division and an elevated place from which a broad expanse can be viewed; it's referred to only once but it is a key to seeing the patterns — the divisions and plateaus of clearsightedness, both in the plot and in the structure — to make sense of all the story threads.

And there are many stories in Divisadero. Ondaatje quotes Dickens; he does not leave room for doubt that each character is indeed the hero of his own story — Ondaatje tells them. We lose sight of their connection to other characters' stories; I'm still struggling to find parallels, but perhaps there need not be any. I found the transitions from one story to the next to be abrupt, though by page-end my discomfort was forgotten, so engrossed was I in the new voice and vantage point on the world.

I was disappointed to realize I would not hear the end of anyone's story, particularly Coop's, nor that there would be any straightforward resolution. The present day romance of Anna and Rafael is a lovely if spare interlude. Perhaps the weakest of the stories is that of Claire, but I see know that it may be deliberately so, or at least appropriately.

I have a theory: that Claire does not exist. She is Anna's other self, her fictionalized self, the self she could've been, or wishes she were. Coop mistakes one for the other. Anna herself comments on how much the same they were, until that traumatic event that changed her, divided her from the person she used to be.

Ondaatje makes references to Stendhal's The Red and the Black (among other works of literature, notably those of Dumas). Again there's a sense that this means something; Ondaatje's trying to tell us something without actually saying it. Like Julien, Anna and others grapple with life decisions, and often refuse to make them, letting life unfold as it would. There is love not quite condoned and the questions whether to embrace it, deny it, run from it, toy with it.

A review in the Toronto Star hits on some salient points:

Often, however, Ondaatje's figures of speech prompt the reader to wonder if their purpose is, in the phrase of Joseph Conrad, to help make the reader see, or whether they are there for embroidery. This is sometimes true of the metaphors in Divisadero, although there are no conspicuously over-wrought examples here, as there are in some other Ondaatje novels. Anna's lover Rafael, the son of Segura's former tenant, sits in a chair as a boy and daydreams, "as if the chair he sat in was a horse to gallop into unknown distances." This metaphor could perhaps be dispensed with.

Too many of these dispensable phrases point to Ondaatje's major weakness as a novelist, which is his tendency to construct characters out of nothing more than resonant phrases – phrases that seem to give the reader more information than they actually do. Describing Claire's feats of horsemanship, Ondaatje notes, "It was in this way that she discovered the greater distances in herself." The reader knows what Ondaatje is talking about, but there is no lively appeal to the imagination in these words.


The novel feels fragmented, but it is perhaps just enough that the broad tapestry of life is vividly suggested, though many threads are broken and left hanging. There's something beautiful in Ondaatje's way with words — romantic, poetic, dreamy, indulgent, bloated with some ineffable meaning — even though (perhaps because) I can't put my finger on it. Divisadero is a strangely satisfying read.
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