Saturday, June 28, 2008

To Chelm and back

Thursday night, some friends and I headed to the theatre, for fun, but also to check out what one of our coworkers has been up to — she's been claiming intensive rehearsal schedules and late hours, so now we would see what she had to show for it.

The Wise Men of Chelm is a very funny Yiddish musical:

It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people. He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was much heavier and, after getting caught on a mountaintop, all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chelm.

The news release gives some further background.

It's been years since I've attended theatre of any kind (oh! except for in the park), but the quality of this production — the singing, the acting, the music, the set design — far surpassed the amateur community theatre endeavours I've seen in the past.

The show runs until July 3. See it if you can!

Chelm is a city in eastern Poland; the idea of Chelm as a city of fools is longstanding in Jewish folklore:

There are a lot of popular stories about their "smart" conduct. For example: One Jewish Chelm resident bought a fish on Friday in order to cook it for sabbath. He put the live fish underneath his coat and the fish slapped his face with his tail. He went to the Chelm court to submit a charge and the court sentenced the fish to death by drowning.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has told similar stories about the residents of Chelm. I'll be looking into them.

At the beach

This is a picture of me and Helena at the beach; although, I can't recall that we've actually ever been to a real beach. Watch out for giant crabs!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Against Wagner

I never really got Wagner. Mind you, all I know about Wagner I learned from Bugs Bunny. But I never really understood him, or liked him much. Thanks to Nietzsche, I probably never fully will.

I've only just finished reading the first of two aphorisms published together, The Case of Wagner: A Musician's Problem, which is followed up with Nietzsche contra Wagner: The Brief of a Psychologist.

Wagner's music is big — bombast. Nietzsche explains it this way:

Taste is no longer necessary, nor even is a good voice. Wagner is sung only with ruined voices: this has a more "dramatic" effect. Even talent is out of the question. Expressiveness at all costs, which is what the Wagnerian ideal — the ideal of decadence — demands, is hardly compatible with talent. All that is required for this is virtue — that is to say, training, automatism, "self-denial." Neither taste, voices, nor gifts; Wagner's stage requires but one thing: Germans! . . . The definition of a German: an obedient man with long legs. . . . There is a deep significance in the fact that the rise of Wagner should have coincided with the rise of the "Empire": both phenomena are a proof of one and the same thing — obedience and long legs. — Never have people been more obedient, never have they been so well ordered about. The conductors of Wagnerian orchestras, more particularly, are worthy of an age, which posterity will one day call, with timid awe, the classical age of war. Wagner understood how to command; in this respect, too, he was a great teacher. He commanded as a man who had exercised an inexorable will over himself — as one who had practised lifelong discipline: Wagner was, perhaps,the greatest example of self-violence in the whole of the history of art [...].

There is great irony in that the embrace of decadence is an act of self-negation. This actually makes some sense to me. We see something like it in the rockstar lifestyle. I'm not saying Wagner was a rockstar of his day — simply that artistic or spiritual acts might be analogous to this kind of self-destructive behaviour vis a vis our physical being in the world.

Years ago, in Krakow for the summer, I took a course in 20th century Polish literature. For context, it was vital to know on what footing the the 20th century started — culturally and spiritually, which is nigh inseparable from politically and socially — from what ashes it was arisen. And it was here that I learned about Secessionism and decadence. The switch over from one century to the next often takes hold of people, inspiring a (completely irrational) sense of great significance. It feeds end-of-the-world hysteria, the sense that all reason and structure is spiralling out of control. Anything goes, but this is counterbalanced by the need to rein it in or describe a new order.

Anyway, thanks to Nietzsche, I can hear in Wagner the birth of decadence.

For all I know about Wagner, I know just about as much regarding Nietzsche. This is my first foray into his writing — his name seems to be popping up everywhere lately — but I'm finding he makes a great deal of sense. Nietzsche gives three altruistic requisitions:

That the stage should not become master of the arts.
That the actor should not become the corrupter of the genuine.
That music should not become an art of lying.

So, Herr Nietzsche: Tell me, how do you know when music is lying and when it is true?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Petite allure

Petite Anglaise, by Catherine Sanderson, is available in stores today.

I've been reading Petite's blog for years (even commenting a couple times regarding the oddities of raising a bilingual child) — I'm familiar with the meat of the story that comprises this book, and I'm thrilled to have a review copy. (In Canada it's the US edition you'll find.)

I've always felt an affinity for Petite, seeing a number of parallels in our lives: shacking up with some French guy, adopting a "foreign" city in which to make one's home, feeling a bit trapped by motherhood, in many ways parenting singly and knowing the irony of living in a chosen place but deprived of the ability to experience it fully. And of course, blogging.

This book is not a printout of her posts. While still charming and frank, it lacks the breeze — the apparent spontaneity — of the blog. But in recompense, we're treated to behind-the-scenes glimpses of how those anecdotes are inspired and then crafted into a blog.

We learn how unspontaneous much of the writing is. Most interesting to me is the exploration of the online blog persona — an almost fictional character, scripted and edited to perfection, or, at least, to purpose. Doesn't every blogger consider the problem of persona at some time?: How genuine is a post and its writer when they clamor for effect, playing to their audience? Writers write themselves: more confident or more sympathetic or wiser or more curmudgeonly often than real life allows. Chosen facets played up, improved, and others ignored. It may be honest, even brutally so, but selective.

I'd venture to say that Petite, as alterego, is a better writer than Catherine, but this memoir still provides a vital counterpoint to her blog.

"Mummy's got a bad, bad headache," I mumble feebly, turning onto my side and burying my feverish face into the cool pillow instead.

But there is no pain, at least not in a physical sense. I am, quite simply, stricken with horror; aghast at the thought of the upheaval I am poised to inflict on our little family. Terrified that what I am contemplating can somehow be read in my face: a scarlet letter freshly branded on my forehead.

And yet, at the same time, every cell in my body vibrates at a higher frequency. I feel the blood thundering through my veins; the hair on my arms standing on end. My fear — fear of hurling myself headlong into the unknown — is shot through with giddy exhilaration. Never have I felt so guilty, nor so intoxicatingly alive.

Fuller excerpt here.

Petite Anglaise is an engrossing, quick read, and a sharp reminder that some things, on blogs as in life, can't be unwritten.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


So I found a book in the bargain stacks the other week and immediately snapped it up, without, unusually for me, giving it a second thought.

I've been reading Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island on my daily commute, and it makes me feel a bit conspicuous — a bit dirty actually. What do others make of the woman so flagrantly reading Houellebecq on public transportation?

Michel Houellebecq is widely considered to be a racist and a misogynist, and it's disputed whether his work has any literary merit. According to Wikipedia, "a recurrent theme in Houellebecq's novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships and sexuality."

So what am I doing reading this book?

Well, for starters, it's about clones. Who doesn't love a book about clones?!

The book cover beseeches readers to consider, "Who, among you, deserves eternal life?" (Do I?)

Another reason: I read Elementary Particles and I liked it. Evidently I don't hold to the same standards as the New York Times ("a deeply repugnant read"), because I found something appreciable in it. It was — that cop-out of all adjectives — interesting, on many levels, not least because it tested my own limits and sensibilities.

It's the problem of utopia (that book and this one), to which I'm compelled to return over and over and over again, ever since I discovered that there was such a word, that others also dreamed an ideal and tried to design a foolproof blueprint. Now, in Houellebecq's case that ideal seems to be based in sexual freedom and sexual liberation. The problem of utopia lies somewhere in the disconnect between theory and practice. The problem with a sexual utopia is that that disconnect is (for me) felt much more strongly, emotionally.

I'm reading this book openly on the metro, and the vulgarities make me cringe, whether they're directed at Arabs, Jews, or women. Do other commuters know what's inside these covers and judge me? As open-minded as I may be and always eager to hear all sides, this just feels wrong.

Women are valued for sex, and only so long as they are sexually desirable, often traded in for younger models. As if to validate the narrator's (author's?) attitude, the women are fully complicit, knowing their worth to be exactly that and doing everything in their power to increase and preserve it (thus powering the beauty industry).

So why am I reading this book? I guess it's a kind of test. There are some valid points. (Where exactly are my limits?) And it's interesting besides. (And there seems to be a cultish religious angle developing.)

It's boiling down to this: Is the human experience necessarily a sexual one? How do relationships work? How do men really think? (Who didn't try to figure this all out as a teenager, at the first whiff of romance, and why am I bent on trying all over again to figure it out?)

And on this last point, I'd love to know: Is Houellebecq at all representative of the male population? Outlier or straight shooter?

The story? Thus far: Daniel1, from whom the other narrators were generated, is a stand-up comedian, who dabbles in film-making. The world is cultivating indifference, sounding the death knell for morality.

Beyond the hackneyed subject of paedophilia, this film strove to be a vigorous plea against friendship, and more generally against all non-sexual relationships. What in fact could two men talk about, beyond a certain age? What reason could two men find for being together, except, of course, in the case of a conflict of interests, or of some common project (overthrowing a government, building a motorway, writing a script for a cartoon, exterminating the Jews)? After a certain age (I am talking about men of a certain level of intelligence, not aged brutes), it's quite obvious that everything has been said and done. How could a project as intrinsically empty as boredom, annoyance and, at the end of the day, outright hostility? Whilst between a man and woman there still remained, despite everything, something: a little bit of attraction, a little bit of hope, a little bit of a dream. Speech, which was basically designed for controversy and disagreement, was still scarred by its warlike origins. Speech destroys, separates, and when it is all that remains between a man and a woman then you can consider the relationship over. When, however, it is accompanied, softened and some way sanctified by caresses, speech itself can take on a completely different meaning, one that is less dramatic but more profound, that of a detached intellectual counterpoint, free and uninvolved in immediate issues.


They say (you know, "they") that when sex is gone, at least there is conversation. At the end of the day you want to come home and have someone to talk to. Or just to be with? Are they different things?

What happens when there is nothing left to talk about? Do we repeat ourselves, smile and nod. And what of the notion of a shared, companionable silence — is this, then, as mythical as postcoital cuddling? An empty commentary on a nonexistent main event.

I don't know the answers to any of these and many related questions, and the fact is they're very relevant, as currently I feel (experiencing inside) and see (standing outside) both myself and my relationship aging. I can't wait to figure out where Houellebecq stands.

The thing is: it's really hard to critically dismiss a book when it has me thinking so many intense things when I'm only on page 75 (of 345).

Thursday, June 12, 2008


A few weeks back, Helena's school-to-be had an open house to which all prospective students, as well as the community at large, were invited.

We'd visited the school previously, of course: information session, guided tour, Q&A. We visit the schoolyard regularly to play hopscotch. We've been to the gym to cast our votes. But this visit was decidedly more festive (read: chaotic free-for-all).

If I were the sort of mother who shopped around for a school, this is exactly the sort of school I might opt for. As fate would have it, I strongly support the principle of a public school system and that my child should attend whatever school lies in our district; lucky for us we moved into a condo just down the street from a school renowned for its literature program. (Fate also has it that my child may not be so literarily inclined, but that's something I'll cope with later...)

So there we were, in the gym, tables upon tables of books, used and new, to raise some funds for the school, and present for 2 book launches by local authors. We bought a handful of bookmarks and a copy of one of those freshly launched books.

I just think it's cool that this is the sort of school my daughter will be attending in a few more months.

The book we brought home that day was L'ombre de paon, by Lise Monette. I haven't entirely figured out the story — it took me half an hour to figure out how to pronounce "paon" in such a way that Helena finally knew what I was talking about and could teach me how to actually pronounce "paon" — but the illustrations are gorgeous. Something about the eyes of a peacock's tail transfixing, and threatening to wholly engulf, a little girl in a colourless dress.

Another recent addition to the child's library is The Alphabet From A to Y With Bonus Letter Z!, by Steve Martin and Roz Chast. (Listen to them talk about it here.) This was a review copy. Steve Martin is a wild and crazy guy, and I consider him to be a fine writer. Could he write an alphabet book? It's a bit weird, but yes.

I don't recommend this book to everyone, and whether it's appropriate I think is a matter of the child's disposition more so than of age.

Starting with the title. It took a few minutes for Helena to figure it out (as well as asking what exactly "bonus" means), but once she did she thought it was insanely funny. And she still thinks so.

It's appeal lies in the fact that it's unconventional. Most of it doesn't make much sense, but the pictures are busy (keeping pace with the 5-year-old mind and maybe a step ahead, as Helena discovers something new every time), and the words are interesting. It's more for playing than for reading.

The C page has cacti, chair, center, for which occasionally cranky mommy must explain how one little letter can possibly make so many sounds (of course that's a good thing). L has lowlife, demanding a different kind of explanation.

One of Helena's favourite elements is the endpapers, which features letters not found in English.

The more it goes, the more the bedtime story seems counterproductive — there's just too much to talk about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


See Ed.

A brief discussion on why I love them

They are Roberto Bolaño and Patrick Hamilton, and they more so than any other author have been the objects of my obsession, or something like it.

There are writers whom I've admired, followed. It's only natural, I think, if you like a book to look to other books by that same author, and so I have done. In this way, various authors over the years have been curiosities, projects, familiar territory, intellectual challenges, bad habits, and, yes, guilty pleasures.

But: obsession!

Only Bolaño and Hamilton fit this category. A kind of deep-down necessity, like air. It produces something in my head that is undeniably addictive. And I'm not sure it's altogether good for me.

I've just finished reading Bolaño's Amulet (all quotations here are taken from this novella):

I'll tell you, my friends: it's all in the nerves. The nerves that tense and relax as you approach the edges of companionship and love. The razor-sharp edges of companionship and love.

Perhaps it's a function of age. Why is it that suddenly, on the eve of my 38th year I should encounter literary obsession, something profoundly visceral, the likes of which I've never known? It's a midlife literary awakening. Perhaps I'd brushed up against obsession when I was younger and didn't recognize it for what it was, let alone let myself react to it.

And when I heard the news it left me shrunken and shivering, but also amazed, because although it was bad news, without a doubt, the worst, it was also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things; I can still take you by surprise, you silly girl, you and everyone else; I can still move heaven and earth for love.

I've been trying to determine what these two have in common. (Help? Anyone?) The best I can come up with is, in a word, the breathlessness. These gorgeous sentences that swim circles round my heart and plummet to melancholy depths, leaving me gasping.

Saramago shares this quality of breathlessness to a degree, but his is intellectual, a matter of syntax, a hypnotic rhythm of a thought process. What Bolaño and Hamilton have, that Saramago does not (at least not in his fiction), are passion and desperation, Hamilton's fuelled by alcohol, Bolaño's by poetry.

To look for commonalities of theme? I don't think I can do that. Love, of a sort, yes. A romantic vision of something that doesn't quite exist, not quite. And the question of art; Hamilton consorted with London's theatre people, Bolaño with Mexico's poets. But truly, their greatest connection is the effect they have on me. Both dead, and soon I will run out of books of theirs to read for the first time.

And then I saw myself and I saw the soldier who was staring entranced at his image in the mirror, our two faces embedded in a black rhombus or sunk in a lake, and a shiver ran down my spin, alas, because I knew that for the moment the laws of mathematics were protecting me, I knew that the tyrannical laws of the cosmos, which are opposed to the laws of poetry, were protecting me and that the soldier would stare entranced at his image in the mirror and I, in the singularity of my stall, would hear and imagine him, entranced in turn, and that our singularities, from that moment on, would be joined like the two faces of a terrible, fatal coin.

This is not news, of course, that the cosmos and poetry are one and the same.

Where does this leave me? Finding the universe in a grain of sand. At last.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dust and literature

And they used to say to me, with that distinctive Spanish accent which they never lost, that prickly little music, as if they were circling the zs and ss, which made the ss seem lonelier and more sensuous, Auxilio, they'd say, that's enough bustling around, Auxilio, leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, How right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning, and since at the time I was avid for detail, I conjured up wonderful and melancholy scenes, I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it), I saw whirlwinds, clouds of dust gathering over a plain somewhere deep in my memory, and the clouds advanced until they reached Mexico City, the clouds that had come from my own private plain, which belonged to everyone although many refused to admit it, and those clouds covered everything with dust, the books I had read and those I was planning to read, covered them irrevocably, there was nothing to be done: however heroic my efforts with broom and rag, the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life.


The dark night of the soul advances through the streets of Mexico City sweeping all before it. And now it is rare to hear singing, where once everything was a song. The dust cloud reduces everything to dust. First the poets, then love, then, when it seems to be sated and about to disperse, the cloud returns to hang high over your city or your mind, with a mysterious air that means it has no intention of moving.

— from Amulet, by Roberto Bolaño.

Have I mentioned lately how utterly amazing Bolaño is?

I have plenty of things to say about Bolaño. I will try to save them, sort them. There are things for me to learn from Bolaño, whether about reading, writing, or life. This cannot be rushed.

That ellipsis, for the record, represents about 8 pages. Should I have made it 2 separate quotations? But they're connected. Looking at it here, out of context, it's not even so stunning a quote as I thought. It's the fact that it pulls itself together after meandering for 8 pages that takes my breath away.

It's all connected, and it leaves me breathless and wanting to gulp down the universe.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

All the mornings of the world

My mornings — my days, my head — are filled with the Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris (by Marin Marais). (Because. I don't know why. Because! Because it's beautiful!)


Or watch this less refined, somewhat annoying version.

I too shall play.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


I used to dream of being a violin-maker.

As a teenager, romantic in my aspirations, I searched out books on the subject at the local library. There were two of them, both of them smelling funny and seemingly written a hundred years ago. One was filled with blueprints and instructions for cutting wood, a skill I didn't have. The other was filled with chemical formulations I didn't understand. Neither of them had the romance I associated with the trade, apart from their general mustiness.

Later I came to acquire a copy of Violin-Making: As It Was, and Is, by Ed. Heron-Allen (first published in 1884). It often reads more like a poetic manifesto than a practical manual.

Never let the maple be spotted in any way; for the sake of both appearance and sound the wood should be of a uniform silvery cream colour under the planing-iron. The pine should be quite white and brilliant like silk when split open, avoiding anything like a reddish tinge, which indicates a most unhealthy growth. The grain must not be too close or too wide, and must be disposed evenly and straight from top to bottom of the belly. The grain of the back should also run from top to bottom of the instrument. One is often asked, why the belly should not have the grain setting crossways, and it is often argued that the best makers have sometimes cut their backs so that the grain ran across them. In the first case experiment has proved to us that the vibrations are transmitted along the fibres of wood quickest in this position and under these circumstances, and in the second it will be remarked that the tone of the Cremonese masterpieces is always most brilliant when this perpendicular setting of the grain has been adhered to.

(I would never have thought to place the English — I mean, historically, as a class; Nigel Kennedy is excepted, of course — among the world's finest violinists or, by association, violin-makers, and I suspect there is a much richer literature on the subject to be found in other European languages, but I have not seen it.)

When I went to university, my calculus textbook had a picture of a violin on the cover. I took this as a sign intended especially for me. A marriage of mathematics and music over which I might officiate.

I took pictures when I travelled, peering into luthiers' workshops in Paris, Prague, and over all of Poland. No clear image was ever returned to me by my camera, just a blur of my half-dreamed otherworld.

It was before I read Antonietta (John Hersey), before I saw The Red Violin, that I imagined it, to pore over the wood, carefully mix resins, and polish and polish and polish. I knew that crafting a violin required a piece of its maker's soul.

I was born into the wrong circumstances, in the wrong part of the world (and of the wrong gender) to pursue this trade. My blurred photos were a sign to me that this secret world was closed to me.

Then my violin needed repair.

I'd been in various shops, of course, even some associated with workshops, but those were simple transactions: new strings, resin, sheet music.

This was the first time I crossed a luthier's threshold, for more substantial matters. I chose the ramshackle shop with the woodshavings on the floor over the one with the modern storefront on a major intersection.

He was bearded and grey, dust settled in the creases of his face. The smell told me he hadn't bathed in days. His eyes twinkled, and he talked, and talked, and talked. About learning to play, about gypsies, about nuances in shape, about customizing the violin to its player's style, about the difference between American strings and German strings, etc. I was captive for close to an hour. Several customers stopped by during that time, one to pick up his bow, others to check on progress and estimates of repair work. This luthier was a character — everything I expected a luthier to be — and he had my trust.

I'd procrastinated, wary of the expense and not sufficiently motivated in spirit to set my violin in order. The necessary fix, it turns out, was a relatively minor outlay of time and money. Recent events have led me to this place, where I'm turning with an almost desperate need to music to help my soul sing again, and I see this gnome of luthier as a catalyst in tuning my instrument to play for me the way I'm meant to play it. Perhaps he's a trickster, more savvy businessman than appearances let on, but still I trust him.

My pegs now turn the way they're supposed to. Ten years ago I knew the bridge was severely warped and needed replacing. So now I have a new one:

It must not be imagined that the design thus fixed upon by the greatest fiddle-maker the world has seen [Amati] was merely his idea of what was most pretty, though to this day there are a great many violinists who are firmly under the impression that the ornamental cutting of the bridge is merely a matter of taste. Very far from it; for countless experiments have been made with a view to altering the accepted design, any deviation from which has proved injuriously to affect the tone of any instrument to which it is applied. It is difficult to imagine the reason of this; how it is that a little piece of maple, which merely serves to keep the strings off the finger-board, should have such a powerful effect on the tone of the instrument to which it is not fastened in any way, being merely kept in its place by the pressure of the four strings. The first explanation of this influence must be sought for in the fact that it is the principal channel by which the vibrations of the strings pass, to the belly by way of the bass bar, and to the back by way (in a lesser degree) of the sound post. In consequence of these its important functions, its proportions, and position on the belly must be very nicely adjusted to the quality of the violin to which it is affixed. For instance, if it be too thick, the vibrations of the strings will not pass with sufficient rapidity of the belly. Its height must also be most carefully adjusted to the quality of the instrument, for if it is too high, the tone will be dull and sluggish, and if it is too low, a harsh, piercing tone will be the result.

While I don't claim to sound anything like ever I did at my "peak" (say, that time at which I practiced regularly and followed lessons), I am amazed by the physical memory that's resurfaced. How easy to keep the elbow under the instrument, not because it's a natural position or a particularly comfortable one, but because my body knows that's where it goes, where it's always gone. My fingers remember their distances. My hand shifts position almost effortlessly (and almost accurately); I am learning minor adjustments after having the neck planed, rounded.

It is much louder than I remember. My soul is singing louder than it has in a long time.

"Heaven reward the man who first hit upon the very original notion of sawing the inside of a cat with the tail of a horse."