Monday, January 07, 2008

Colours and follies

Weeks ago, I dipped into Orhan Pamuk's Other Colors: Essays and a Story, as I said I would. I start in the middle and find myself driven forward, wondering what happens next, and finally it occurs to me to ask what came before.

Sampling these essays at random, it turns out, is not the best approach. The preface holds the key. (Sadly I was not forced to read the preface when first I opened the book.) Pamuk has arranged these ideas and fragments deliberately, into a continuous narrative.

I have always believed there to be a greedy and almost implacable graphomaniac inside me — a creature who can never write enough, who is forever setting life in words — and that to make him happy I need to keep writing. But when I was putting this book together, I discovered that the graphomaniac would be much happier, and less pained by his writing illness, if he worked with an editor who gave his writing a center, a frame, and a meaning. I would like the sensitive reader to pay as much attention to my creative editing as to the effort I put into the writing itself.


So I start again from the beginning. And there is a story to be told here.

I don't remember why I turned over the corner of this page in "On My Name Is Red." Maybe for some realization regarding Pamuk's relationship to painting — he grew up wanting to be a painter. Or maybe for this: "My fragility, my filth, my depravity, and my shortcomings — they are not in the fabric of the book, in its language or its structure, but they can be made out in the characters' lives and stories."

I've come to like Pamuk less than I like his novels. He refers often to going through rough times, loneliness, depression. His taking refuge in books quickly loses the sheen of romanticization; his escape into books feels quite desperate. But then I think: this too, this whole book, is contrived to manipulate me. There are essays on and insights into Istanbul, a childhood lived therein, earthquakes, Nabokov, literature in general, and more. They are if sincere, as first I thought, depressing; if not sincere, then a little more awesome for the force of their combined structure, but disillusioning. I'm not sure which state I prefer.

*****

If ever again I turn to freelancing and work from home, I might follow Pamuk's example in establishing routine and discipline: dress and prepare in the morning as if for the office, leave the house, walk round the block, re-enter one's house-as-office, and then at the end of the day pack up and leave to walk back to the same space this time home.

*****

Just before Christmas I picked up Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies. My expectations were low, as most reviews, both published and personal, were lukewarm about it.

As it turns out, it was, for me, the perfect book at the perfect time, lifting me out of the noise of Christmas, and out of the depressing funk Pamuk had cast, to float just beyond the reach of stress.

For all their outlandish behaviour, grand gestures, and bold words, there was something so perfectly ordinary and believable and interesting about all the characters, which I suspect I may not perceive in this way at any other time of year. I'm losing the details of the story already, but certain observations and characterizations (what kind of man where's a white shirt and tie around the house in the afternoon?) have left a mark.

What lucky fools we all are.

*****

Christmastime is the time of the annual jigsaw puzzle. This year I would initiate Helena into the family tradition — where by family, in this case I mean me and my sister, and it was never really planned so much as it just worked out that way, that we would one or the other of us receive a puzzle at Christmas and have to start it straight away, hunching over the dining room table, squinting, for one, maybe two, near-sleepless nights, our mother pleading with us can we move the puzzle please, where are we going to eat, it's so dusty, but we did this for years, every year, I don't remember how it started, now we have to plan a little because we are less likely to spend sufficiently long periods of time together under the same roof.

I'm surprised at how geeky the whole puzzle endeavour is this year. That I should build up the significance and the fun of the puzzle is one thing, but I was compelled to plan, to consider the initiation — that Helena is capable of 100 pieces on her own but I would not want her to feel daunted at the sight of, say, 3000 pieces each the size of one of her fingers, not her whole hand, that I lit on the perfect enticement: a Doctor Who theme, bearing a geek factor all its own, which I researched and special-ordered, settling on a product not dated by a specific Doctor's face nor that of a specific companion, and a modest piece count, well in advance, and wrapped and put under the tree.

I keep thinking of The Gold Bug Variations: she watches the 2 men puzzle together at the cabin, one of them searching the board to find a fit for the piece in his hand, the other searching the table to find the piece that fits a chosen spot.

For years, forever, I was of the first type. I'm shocked by the realization that I am now the latter. I'm certain that the attitude must reflect one's philosophical approach to life, but I struggle with what exactly that might mean.

*****

Thursday, Helena (age 5), after years(!) of denying her father's teasing suggestions that she has a daycare amoureux — Poilly is the only one, she insists (they do sleep together after all) — announces that Emile est son prince, and they're going to marry — Emile is her amoureux, and today they kissed on the mouth!

She interrupts our occasional stolen moments, in the car, at the grocery: "Why are you doing that? Why are you doing what Emile and I do?"

*****

Friday at lunch I gather myself up to go the post office and discover I must've lost my sister's birthday present on my way into work. This distresses me to tears. The website of the metro's lost and found advises it can take 48 hours for an object to reach the central office; they're closed on the weekend; my sister's present will never reach her in time — and these revised timelines rely on the fact that there is kindness in strangers, to turn in a small plastic bag containing a box and a scrap of wrapping paper sized to cover it, but untaped because we ran out of tape at home. I let myself cry over this, because I can't be seen to be phased by the $5000 mistake I made at work, which was uncovered earlier this week, for which my stomach is in knots, over which I've lost sleep. I spend the afternoon obsessing over what I might give my sister instead, though still late, and fixing other people's faulty graphs and references so they might obtain FDA approval. My way home I scour the ground — the corners of the metro station, and outdoors, the shapes of fresh snow mounds — for that small white plastic bag. I console myself, that this is the cosmos taking a little something back for all the free books and door prizes I've received lately, that someone else may benefit by this.

My sister's birthday present is sitting on the shelf inside my front door.

*****

For the umpteenth time we watch the Doctor Who episode "Utopia," and this umpteenth time it occurs to Helena to ask me, "What does 'utopia' I mean?" I summarize the concept as best as I can, but before I get round to explaining how Thomas More coined the term, she is laughing. "Me-topia, Me-topia, Me-topia!"

I record this here not as an instance of the cute things the child says, per se, but because I marvel at how her brain works.

*****

Saturday we stop for gas. As J-F is pulling back out onto the service road, he asks me for his gloves. "I don't have them." "Where are my gloves?" I make a joke, but as soon as I say it, I know it to be true: "You probably left them on the roof of the car." The car has turned, it's too late to stop, and dangerous now to slow down. We watch in the rearview mirror as one glove flops onto the road. We're halfway into the curve of the exit ramp when the wind lifts glove number two and throws it into a snowbank. I laugh, or else I would cry. The gloves I gave him for Christmas.

We track back through the parking lot that's on the other side of the ditch, only it's winter and the ditch is a 20-foot high pile of snow, the length of... I don't know how to measure length in the suburbs, but it must be about 4 city blocks. J-F stops the car and goes over the top.

Just as I start imagining what terrible accident might've transpired on the other side of that white wall, I notice the dark speck ahead running toward us, waving one black leather glove overhead.

We drive forward, just outside the gas station we'd started from. Repeat.

My unoriginal gift. His gallant grand gesture.

(I think he's lost them since.)

*****

The snow had been falling like oobleck. I take respite in thinking that Montreal that night bore a striking resemblance to a magical Persia of centuries ago.

"The following night it suddenly snowed so hard and became so bitingly cold that tongues froze inside people's mouths." (From The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.)
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