Monday, March 31, 2008

Bestowing a robe of honour

Being the 1st-quarter progress report as it regards my attempt to meet the reading challenge I signed on for.

The book: The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalive Lahnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.

The beginning.

A favourite sentence: "The following night it suddenly snowed so hard and became so bitingly cold that tongues froze inside people's mouths."

An extended excerpt.

Where I'm at: page 250, more than a quarter of the way through and nearing the end of Book One. I hadn't read from this tome in weeks, if not longer, till this weekend. Its physical size has a lot to do with this: I wouldn't dream of carrying this book with me on my daily commute, and the rest follows. Simply: I pick up, and then read to finish, much smaller books instead.

Intent to finish: absolute and reinvigorated. Robes of honour! Tricksters spiking the wine! The tales are messianically magical and the language is exquisite.

The might of the reed is tested by the narrative's power, and the vigor of the swashbucklers of colorful accounts is now manifested in the arena of the page.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The witness of evil

This book is extraordinary: The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

(It's been more than 2 months now since I read the book, and almost as long since I gave any thought to commenting on it here. The bones of what appears below was written weeks ago — most of it really; I don't even know how to flesh it out, now.)

(This book was released in early January. I'm a big fan of Pérez-Reverte, and was lucky enough to have received a review copy. I was surprised not to have heard anything about it, and reserved the task of digging up other reviews till after I'd read it and formulated an opinion. It turns out that it had received some press, during the week of Christmas — no wonder I missed it (I was too busy eating and drinking).

I've been putting off writing about it because I felt I needed a large block of time — sitting, thinking, writing — in order to do this book justice. The more time that elapses, however, the harder it is. And it's been my experience that those books that have the hardest-hitting impact on me are the hardest to articulate my thoughts about.)

The truth is: I'm not sure it altogether works as a novel, in terms of plot and plot resolution.

(See the "late" reviews in recent weeks in the Montreal Gazette (whose book coverage, surprisingly, has vastly improved over the last year or so) and the Philadelphia Inquirer; I single these out as providing accurate summaries, with impressions similar to mine.)

Basically: a world-renowned war photographer (Faulques) gives up his craft and takes on a very personal mural painting project.

The final result of it all had been the collection entitled Morituri: his last published work. The shortest route between two points: from man to horror. A world in which the only logical smile was that of the skulls painted by old masters on canvas and board. And when the twenty-three photographs were ready, he realized that he, too, was ready. So he put down his cameras forever, called on everything he had learned about painting in his youth, and looked for the appropriate site.

One day, one of the subjects (Markovic) of one of his award-winning photographs shows up, announcing that he's there to kill him, Faulques with that photo having ruined his life.

It's a little too... melodramatic(?) in its events but dispassionate(?) in their execution to be fully believable. For all it matters, the encounter with his would-be killer is an imaginary one. Faulques confronts one of his old photographs, and the discourse that ensues with its subject occurs strictly within his own head, being the function and generation of his creative process.

(Which may as well be how it is that Perez-Reverte came to write the damn thing. He used to work as a war journalist.)

This novel is an remarkable meditation on art, photography, the relationship between artist and subject; the nature of war; love, compassion, human nature itself. A truth always just beyond our grasp. "The geometry of chaos in the serene face of a dying girl."

The atrocities recounted are terrible. Whether they are composites of actual events or their details have been adjusted to serve the narrative purpose — doesn't matter. They are unquestionably in essence real.

Fiction has the power to invoke what newscasts manage to distance from us.

There are no new questions and certainly no answers, but they are freshly expressed.

(I'd noted many passages. To cite or synthesize any of them now seems so trite.)

We were talking about horror and losing the clean focus of the camera. And you know what I think? That you were a good photographer because to take a photograph you have to frame, and to frame is to select and exclude. Save some things and eliminate others . . . Not everyone can do that: set himself up as a judge of all that's happening around him. You understand what I'm talking about? No one who is truly in love can make that kind of judgment.

When I was in grade 7, a classmate called me "aloof." I had to look it up, but I could not disagree with her. For some reason, this seemed highly relevant when I was first setting out these thoughts. As a state of being. An attempt to understand, objectively, by detaching, that to which one has an overwhelmingly emotional response to. A survival mechanism of sorts. Stepping back is the only chance to catch a glimpse of the cosmic plan.

When we divorced ourselves from nature, we humans lost the ability to find consolation in the face of the horror awaiting us out there. The more we observe, the less meaning it all has and the more forsaken we feel. Think how — thanks to Gödel, who certainly rained on that parade — we can't find refuge any longer in the one place we thought was secure: mathematics. But look. If there's no consolation as a result of observation, we can find it in the act of observation itself. I'm talking about the analytical, scientific, even aesthetic act of that observation. Gödel aside, it's like a mathematical procedure: it has such certainty, clarity, and inevitability that it offers intellectual relief to those who know how to utilize it. I would say it's analgesic.

It's clear to me that Pérez-Reverte loves — and knows — fine art. Why waste words trying to do what pictures have already done? Below are just a very few of the many paintings referenced.

"Triumph of Death," Bruegel the Elder:

"Duel With Cudgels," Goya:

"Battle of San Romano," Paolo Uccello:

"Thebaid," Gherardo Starnina:

Seeing a painting like that makes it clear that photography isn't good for anything. Only painting can do what that painting does. Every good painting has always aspired to be a landscape of another landscape not yet painted, but when the truth of a society coincided with that of the artist, there was no duplicity. True magnificence came when they separated, and the painter had to choose between submission and deception, and call upon his talent to make one look like the other. That's why the Thebiad has what all masterpieces have: allegories of certainties that become a certainty only after a lot of time has gone by.

What words are left after such terrible beauty?



Saturday, March 29, 2008


Yesterday Helena brought home a fabulously weird drawing: her papa battling a vampire, blood on its lips, Helena watching, terrified, from the corner of the page. Detail below:

Here's Helena in a state of terror fleeing some prehistoric scorpion at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, a couple weeks ago:

To my eyes, the resemblance is striking.

The divine diktat

I've just finished reading Seeing, by José Saramago. It starts off as a sharp political commentary, and is not heavy-handed at all, though I'd expected it to be and for this reason even stayed clear of it till now.

I started to falter — life distracting me — just as the tone of the book changed. And it helped remind me: the key to reading Saramago is in your breathing. Really. And I breathed lighter and easier, and I found that the book was not just clever and witty, but really, really funny. If you breathe the sentences right.

It was a pleasant, very sunny morning, which shows yet again that the punishments of which the sky was such a prodigal source in the past, have, with the passing of the centuries, lost their force, those were good and just times, when any failure to obey the divine diktat was enough for several biblical cities to be annihilated and razed to the round with all their inhabitants inside. Yet here is a city that cast blank votes against the lord and not a single bolt of lightning has fallen upon it, reducing it to ashes, as happened, in response to far less exemplary vices, to sodom and gomorrah, as well as to admah and to zeboyim, burned down to their very foundations, although the last two cities are mentioned less often than the first, whose names, perhaps because of their irresistible musicality, have remained forever in people's ears. Nowadays, having abandoned their blind obedience to the lord's orders, lightning bolts fall only where they want to, and, as has become manifest, one can clearly not count on them to lead this sinful city and caster of blank votes back to the path of righteousness. In their place, the ministry of the interior has sent three of its archangels, these three policemen, chief and subalterns, who, from now on, we will designate by their corresponding ranks, which are, following the hierarchical scale, superintendent, inspector and sergeant. The first two sit watching the people walking along, none of them innocent, all of them guilty of something, and they wonder if that venerable-looking old gentleman, for example, is not perhaps the grand master of outer darkness, if that girl with her arms about her boyfriend is not the incarnation of the undying serpent of evil, if that man walking along, head down, is not going to some unknown cave where the potions that poisoned the spirit of the city are distilled. The sergeant, whose lowly condition means that he is under no obligation to think elevated thoughts or to harbor suspicions about what lies beneath the surface of things, has rather homelier concerns [. . .]

So the book moves into this near-farcical police investigation, and carried me swiftly along.

He did all this with great concentration in order to keep his thoughts at bay, in order to let them in only one at a time, having first asked them what they contained, because you can't be too careful with thoughts, some present themselves to us with a cloying air of false innocence and then, when it's too late, reveal their true wicked selves.

Very funny book, in fact.

Except for the ending, which punched me in the gut.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An abundance of riches

Received last week, a box, a long time coming. Weeks went into considering what should go into it, weeks more into waiting.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. An audio CD, wherein the story is read by Hugh Laurie. When I opened the box and pulled this one out, I was devastated to see that it's abridged. I immediately searched out my original order — there must be some mistake; I clearly remember investigating this edition and never in a million years would I have opted for abridged. But clearly I did; I am unable to duplicate my research efforts — nowhere is it shown to be a 15-hour recording (and surely not abridged) except in my imagination, and everywhere labeled as the product I received. I only hope my frustration with abridgements is offset by having Hugh Laurie read this one to me. Although, currently Hugh Laurie succeeds only in reminding me of work, since at our New York meetings I met the company's chief medical director, who has cultivated and completely mastered a House-like persona — the look, the mannerisms, the gruffness. Also, this is my first audio book, not counting various radio-broadcast readings and in particular The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, but I look forward to loading it onto the MP3 player — a technology I own but haven't really got a feel for — and forming a new habit, on those days when the metro is too crowded to open a physical book. I don't know how great my expectations are.

Captain Pamphile, by Alexandre Dumas. Because it's Dumas! Père Pamphile ran the establishment where Edmond Dantès celebrated his betrothal. I assume it to be the same Pamphile and this the book of his earlier adventures.

Ice, by Anna Kavan. On my list since I read Doris Lessing's endorsement of this phantasmagoria.

His Master's Voice, Stanislaw Lem. A project I'd like to undertake is to read Lem's opus. This on the basis of having read no Lem ever. My secret ambition, given enough drive, time, and smarts (or at least dictionaries), is to translate Solaris directly from Polish into English (the only English translation available came via French, and this is shameful), or set up a communal wiki-type effort to do so. But I'm thinking I should actually read some Lem first and see if I have an affinity for it before embarking on a project beyond my abilities.

The Sinbad Collection. Because it's Sinbad! Amazingly, the special effects are not nearly so laughable as I expected them to be. And with a 5-year-old at your side, the adventures are pure magic, again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nothing as trivial as that

" . . . but old Sam's just come clean with me. You know the way he drops in every afternoon to watch the sheets roll out. Well, this time he seemed rather excited, or at least as near as he'll ever get to it. When I told him we were on the last cycle he asked me, in that cute English accent of his, if I'd ever wondered what they were trying to do. I said, 'Sure' — and he told me."

"Go on, I'll buy it."

"Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God's purpose will have been achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won't be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy."

"Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?"

"There's no need for that. When the list's completed, God steps in and simply winds things up . . . bingo!"

"Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world."

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.

"That's just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I'd been stupid in class, and said, 'It's nothing as trivial as that'."

— from "The Nine Billion Names of God," by Arthur C Clarke.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Phoning it in

We've been in DC this week — me and the kid. J-F dropped us off at my sister's place on his way to Florida to watch training camp.

I've had my trusty laptop on my lap and have been working half the time, but that's fine. There's still plenty of morning and lunch and evening time for just hanging out — "just us girls," as Helena says — although, I do regret missing out on Tuesday's zoo excursion.

Helena's passed out early from exhaustion a few times. She woke one night, hungry. We watched tv: Mothra vs Godzilla, dubbed in Spanish, which features some exquisite music. A weirdly magical experience after midnight and with a 5-year-old by my side.

We had chili dogs at Ben's Chili Bowl: "It was not uncommon to see such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., or Bill Cosby at 'The Bowl.'" I let Helena chalk her name on the bathroom wall.

We picked up some treats, and Helena scored herself a free cupcake, just for being cute.

We saw dinosaurs, and rode the carousel on the Mall.

I bought a book for me (By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolano) and a book for the kid (There's No Place Like Space, from the Cat in the Hat's Learning Library). I'm not finding much time to read, but am progressing slowly through José Saramago's Seeing, having temporarily set aside the Alain Robbe-Grillet I had with me on last week's business trip to New York, the effect of being stuck reading which while my flight was 3 hours delayed was suspiciously like banging my head against a brick while walking round in a circle of constantly decreasing radius.

Today Helena and her aunt agreed to go to the zoo again, for my benefit. That is, last time was for my benefit, for me to get some work done; this time was for my benefit, to get to go to the zoo.

Today we saw a magnificent octopus.

J-F will be arriving soon; then we head home.

Monday, March 10, 2008


for every sweet lump of baby born that women croon over, is one vast rotten meat burning slow worms in graves of this earth

— from Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac.

How I came to know Jack
I've never read any Kerouac. That is about to change.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of On the Road (published in 1957), while I recognize it as an important landmark of American literature, blah, blah, blah, did not inspire me to read it. Nothing about it captured my interest, honestly; which is kind of weird actually, in light of those things that generally do capture my interest. But there you have it: I haven't read Jack.

Then last week, I had to go to New York City, for meetings for work. And it so happens that our New York office is across the street from the New York Public Library. And it so happens that there's an exhibition running there till March 16: Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road. Featuring the scroll on which On the Road was written (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).

I had a few spare minutes at lunch, and it seemed the library would be a worthwhile destination. And it was.

I had time enough to walk through quickly, and be astounded. A notice on Jack's view of sex and celibacy caught my attention, in which I read the above quotation ("every sweet lump of baby born that women croon over"! — isn't it beautiful?! (the idea being that the procreative act is the original source of all our misery on earth, all sweet babies die)) and I was lost, found, swept away, in love, and wanting to know everything about Jack.

What I now know about Jack
He loved Beethoven.
He loved cats.
He loved baseball, and managed fantasy leagues obsessively.
He loved his mother.
Not only did he author a classic — give voice to a generation — with On the Road, he supplied the titles for both Allen Ginsberg's Howl and William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
He kept a list of other artists' transgressions against the beat gospel (as it was in his view).
He put the beat in beatitude.

Beethoven and cats. That's all I needed to know.

An aside
I went to New York City, and all I got for my boyfriend was this lousy t-shirt. From the library.

I looked for Jack Kerouac at the bookstore on my return to Montreal. I didn't have much success at first. By accident, I stumbled across a locked glass case up against a column and not noticeably related to any one section. I had to ask for access to browse, and had to ask why it was under lock and key. Those titles identified as high potential for theft, the clerk told me. Bukowski, Burroughs, Camus, Philip K Dick, and Kerouac.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Monsterpiece Theater presents

Ali Baba and 40 Thieves, starring Ricardo Monsterban and 40 thieves.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


I continue (to try) to weed. Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger — I don't remember reading it. I'm not sure why I have it; I mean, apart from it being Salinger, I never felt a particular draw to reading this or any other of his work, no matter how much I love-love-loved The Catcher in the Rye. It's sat there for years. Occasionally my eyes set upon it, and I think I should get round to reading it one of these days.

I start reading on the metro platform the next morning. Inside the front cover is a brief dedication. My heart breaks a little.

love to izia
on her 21st

From my best friend, a very long time ago.

We were messed up at 21. And somehow I managed to cast aside this gift she gave me. That is, I kept it, on a shelf, but I failed to receive its message. Or non-message. And this makes me tremendously sad.

We knew there's no keeping a born scholar ignorant, and at heart, I think, we didn't really want to, but we were nervous, even frightened, at the statistics on child pedants, and academic weisenheimers who grow up into faculty-recreation-room savants. Much, much more important, though, Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn't begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness — satori — is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. Seymour and I thought it might be a good thing to hold back this light from you and Franny (at least as far as we were able), and all the many lower, more fashionable lighting effects — the arts, sciences, classics, languages — till you were both able at least to conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light. We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least (that is, if our own "limitations" got in the way) tell you as much as we knew about the men — the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmuktas — who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted you boh to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Hui-neng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea. Along with all this, I suppose I'm trying to say that I know how bitterly you resent the years when S. and I were regularly conducting home seminars, and the metaphysical sittings in particular. I just hope that one day — preferably when we're both blind drunk — we can talk about it.

We've seen each other only a handful of times since we were 21. We even got drunk, though not quite blind. We've talked in circles around something essential; we manage to get a little closer to it when we talk with our pens, now our keyboards — a dialogue at such lengthy intervals, it may as well be conducted by message in bottle.

(The conversation started some 10 years previously and is primarily about the nature of happiness.)

By 21, we'd made fundamentally different life choices, and non-choices; talking was strange, but also strangely... unnecessary.

What was she trying to tell me, with this book, when we were 21?

Did she see herself in Franny? Or Buddy? Or was that supposed to be me? She admired the writing, thought I'd like it too.

I read further; I recognize parts. I have read this book. Simply, it failed to make an impression on me. Which makes me tremendously sad.

That's why Franny and Zooey is on my shelf.