Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Byatt in Blue

The 2009 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prize is being awarded to A.S. Byatt.

The 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival takes place April 22–26, 2009. Byatt will be launching her new novel, The Children's Book.

(The festival website has not yet been updated.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Closing Lessing

I finished it, by the way, the other week. All 34 stories (a couple of them called novellas) in 655 pages. Brilliant.

I almost wish there were more. I mean, I know there are more out there, but, I mean, at hand. But not really, because it was emotionally exhausting.

Here are some highlights:
How I Finally Lost My Heart
Our Friend Judith

And how I came to this book in the first place.

I realize now that most of these stories are fairly depressing. The problems of class, the meaninglessness of political life, the common plight of dutiful women. But oh so gut-wrenchingly real. Grappling with identity through it all.

If The Golden Notebook still scares you, even with all the fascinating commentary it provokes, ease into Lessing by reading her Stories.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Now we are six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five, I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I'm as clever as clever,
So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.

— A.A. Milne

You couldn't be cleverer on our walk to school this morning.

Happy birthday, kid.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The alienation effect

On Auster — the games and connections, the intertextuality:

Why does Auster do these things? In some ways, one might liken his narrative games to Bertholt Brecht's "alienation effect." Brecht held that an actor should play his role from a distance, almost tongue-in-cheek, as though commenting on the part rather than losing himself in it. He felt that even the backstage activity should be made obvious to the audience. The point of theater, to Brecht, wasn't for the spectators to lose themselves in the play, but to consider the issues it raised, reflect on the interactions of the characters, think about different possibilities and outcomes. Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by "certain philosophical questions about the world," in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life's overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The visceral symphony

Stanislaw Lem, in the introduction to his Imaginary Magnitudes, a collection of fictitious introductions to nonexistent books, covers a lot of ground. A lot.

He speaks to the glut of information and entertainment at our disposal and the need to have this knowledge or art mediated. This necessity is tempered by the recognition that an introduction to any work is often merely the babble of "some authority's sham commitment to a book." Art has lost its authenticity, and we need a new priest-intermediary to find our way back to it, viscerally, naturally. Lem promises to return art/knowledge to the people, to an unmediated purity, while acknowledging the Introduction as a genre of literature in itself.

Lem justifies himself:

[...] I am right to present an Introduction to this short Anthology of Introductions, for I am proposing prefaces that lead nowhere, introductions that go nowhere, and forewords followed by no words at all.

But with each of these initial moves I shall reveal to you an emptiness of a different kind and a different semantic color, changing according to a typical Heidegger spectral line. With enthusiasm, hope, and much to-do I shall open the altar and triptych doors, and announce the inconostasis with its holy gates; I shall kneel on stairs breaking off at the threshold of a void — a void not so much abandoned as one in which nothing has ever been or ever shall be. This gravest possible amusement, this simply tragic amusement, is a parable of our destiny, since there is no device so human, nor such a property and mainstay of humanity, as a full-sounding, responsibility-devoid, utterly soul-absorbing Introduction to Nothingness.

This is the third book of Lem's that I tackle this year. I continue to be drawn to his work even while it's immensely taxing on my poor little brain.

What do I gain from this? According to Lem, "Supreme liberty [...] for eternal enjoyment."

He may be right.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Seizing firmly the second Wednesday of November

I don't know how to read poetry.

I have a copy of Ballistics, poems by Billy Collins, and it's delightful.

But at this moment I'm unable to determine whether I've read the whole of this slim volume cover to cover. When first I unwrapped it, I opened it to the beginning and began. And so it went for quite a few pages. But then I wanted to share something, which I did, which reminded me I wanted to check something else. So I flipped some pages, and the title of some as yet unread poem caught my interest. Then I worked backwards a little. Over the next few days I carried the book around and would start reading at whatever page I opened it to (can't do that with a novel).

I think I've read most of it now. But I feel as if a part of the book has been lost on me. For one thing, the book is divided into 4 parts, and I can't begin to formulate a reason for this. While I see connections between a number of the poems, I don't see any logic in the progression from one to the next, why some are grouped together with others. I don't presume to call the structure artificial, but it seems to me that it's constricting (deliberately?) the organic nature of the poetic romp.

Then there's the where.

Have you read poetry on the metro? It feels weird. Like people are looking at me. This slightly paranoid feeling makes it hard to focus, to feel it, to enjoy it fully. (Do you wonder what I look like, Billy? I wear a suit, and slutty boots, and I ride public transportation.)

Poetry at bedtime? Doesn't work for me. I need something a little softer and more sustained. Skipping through poems is the opposite of restful (invigorating!), and to leave it at one simply is not enough.

I like a poem with my morning coffee, I've decided. Between having decided what to pack for Helena's lunch and actually doing so.

Also while cooking supper.

Anyway. I quite like Billy Collins. He's very funny. I can't even tell you what kind of poetry he writes — sonnets? free verse? I have no idea. It doesn't rhyme, but it has rhythm, and it has form on the page.

I think he's postmodern, but I'm not sure that's a term usually applied to poetry, nor that I've correctly done so. The author features as character in these poems, with a self-awareness regarding the act of writing.

I quite like "Vermont, Early November" (much as I like Vermont in early November), in which there's "nothing worth writing about really" and seizing the day is just a little too ambitious, so the author (and I imagine him writing this precisely a year ago) is
determined to seize firmly
the second Wednesday of every month that lay ahead.

It's something I can relate to.

I've had extensive conversations with Helena about the poem about the little piggy who had roast beef.

Collins is calling on me to glance back at Philip Larkin, and look for Paul Valéry's abandoned poems, which you've brought to completion.

My favourite poem in this collection is "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant."

So glad I waited all these decades
to record how hot and sour the hot and sour soup is
here at Chang's this afternoon
and how cold he Chinese beer in a frosted glass.

And my book — José Saramago's Blindness
as it turns out — is so absorbing that I look up
from its escalating horrors only
when I am stunned by one of his arresting sentences.

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches —

Something so very poignant in this. Something beautiful. The author becomes the subject of the poem he might've written and realizes it's altogether different, and better.

So, no, I don't know how to read poetry. But I am starting to learn to enjoy it.

I like Billy Collins. Funny. Quietly joyous. Makes me feel calm inside, that isn't life funny, but everything's going to be alright. Good with coffee.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cat blogging

Earlier this evening my cat managed to post not one, but two blog entries.

Blank they were. Straight shooter? Or symbolist?

He does not know how to spell the vibrations of the motor in his throat, his belly.

Never much of a lap cat, tonight he is determined to assert his position of authority over the laptop.

But what does he have to say to you, I wonder?

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's the joke?

A bus nosed to a standstill; half a dozen people got off; a man passed and said: "What's the joke?" He winked, and she realised she had been smiling.

Well-being, created because of the small familiar busyness of the street, filled her. Which was of course why she had spent so long, an hour now, loitering around the foot of the tall building. This irrepressible good nature of the flesh, felt in the movement of her blood like a greeting to pavements, people, a thin drift of cloud across pale blue sky, she checked, or rather tested, by a deliberate use of the other vision on the scene: the man behind the neat arrangements of coloured vegetables had a stupid face, he looked brutal; the future of the adolescents holding their position outside the music-shop door against the current of pressing people could only too easily be guessed at by the sharply aggressive yet forlorn postures of shoulders and loins; Ada, whichever way you looked at her, was hideous, repulsive, with her loose yellowing flesh and her sour-sweat smell. Et cetera, et cetera. Oh yes, et cetera, on theses lines, indefinitely, if she chose to look. Squalid, ugly, pathetic . . . And what of it? insisted her blood, for even now she was smiling, while she kept the other vision sharp as knowledge. She could feel the smile on her face. Because of it, people going past would offer jokes, comments, stop to talk, invite her for drinks or coffee, flirt, tell her the stories of their lives. She was forty this year, and her serenity was a fairly recent achievement. Wrong word: it had not been tried for; but it seemed as if years of pretty violent emotion, one way or another, had gelled or shaken into a joy which welled up from inside her independent of the temporary reactions — pain, disappointment, loss — for it was stronger than they. Well, would it continue? Why should it? it might very well vanish again, without explanation, as it had come. Possibly this was a room in her life; she had walked into it, found it furnished with joy and well-being, and would walk through and out again into another room, still unknown and unimagined. She had certainly never imagined this one, which was a gift from Nature? Chance? Excess? . . . A bookshop had a tray of dingy books outside it, and she rested her hand on their limp backs and loved them. Instantly she looked at the word "love", which her palm, feeling delight at the contact, had chosen, and said to herself: Now it's enough, it's time for me to go in.

— from "Dialogue," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

Do you know this feeling? I've been living it for months. There are days I think I must be going crazy. This sense of well-being — it's completely unreasonable. I can't say it has anything to do with love, exactly, but the same could be said of this story's nameless protagonist.

(A few weeks back, a woman caught my attention in the metro. She was smiling, near laughing, to herself. A happy relief from the usual blank stares of the daily commute, but also unsettling, unnatural. I realized that most days I'm just like her.)

How reassuring to find someone who knows exactly how I feel, even though she be a figment of Doris Lessing's imagination.

I am swimming through this collection of stories, and indeed, each next one is better than the last.

(Have you read "To Room Nineteen"? Oh, my god!)

The Golden Notebook Project is under way, by the way, and though I won't be reading along, I do intend to follow the commentary.

Go read some Doris Lessing.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Helena is in chess club.

Chess is not part of her regular curriculum but is offered as part of the after-school program:

The "Challenging Mathematics" program is based on extensive research and field-testing. It focuses on problem-solving as a strategy for developing an understanding of mathematical concepts.

The goal of the series is to develop judgement and the ability to reason in children, to foster an ability to explain why and how when it comes to their solutions to problems and to develop their self-confidence as well as their own efficient strategies for solving problems.

[Source: Chess'n Math Association, Canada's National Scholastic Chess Organization]

I hesitated to sign her up, thinking it might be too demanding, and too early to be cultivating her geek factor. But it's never too early to learn to solve problems! She is joined by a boy from her class, and their instructor seems well-equipped to inspire a kind of discipline in them. (My own efforts to show Helena the actual starting positions of all the pieces always ended up in a procession of Helena's devising, of characters greeting the king and queen and riding away on horseback, in an orderly fashion.)

It is by far the most (academically) challenging aspect of the kindergarten experience, and the only one that demands homework. We have problems diagrammed on paper that we transfer to a board in front of us. (Initially identifying the pieces out of order. Now testing the rules of the moves: in a given diagram, how many pieces can a given piece capture, or how many squares can it safely move to.)

She wants to play a game proper. I know it will be only a few moves before she feigns disinterest in order to disguise her frustration. She will pack it in and silently resolve to be better prepared another day.

We open.

I blink and she's in tears — deep, sincere, sad sobs. "C'est pas juste!"

That she's only 5? doesn't know all the rules? that we're unfairly matched?


That the pawn can move only straight ahead, one slow square at a time. The pawn advances to the end, and for what? It's not fair, when others can move farther, in different directions. Poor, stupid pawn! What good is it?

It's a weird and proud moment for me, to see in my daughter this glimmer of existential speculation, social injustice.

I try to rationalize. The pawn is important to the security of others. If it is smart enough to survive, to endure the journey to the other side, the pawn can be anything you want it to be.

We are laying the groundwork for the battles ahead.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

One surely ought to stay in character

More stories. I can't get enough of these stories. Just one more, I think, before I return to some of the weightier tomes I have on hand, but just one more leads to another, and then another. And each next one is my new favourite.

Doris Lessing is amazing! Clever, but not too clever. Simple and very complicated at the same time. Real, very real, yet that stark reality is expressed and framed in imaginative ways.

Here's another snippet that struck me:

A mutual friend, Betty, had been given a cast-off Dior dress. She was too short for it. Also she said: "It's not a dress for a married woman with three children and a talent for cooking. I don't know why not, but it isn't." Judith was the right build. Therefore one evening the three of us met by appointment in Judith's bedroom, with the dress. Neither Betty nor I was surprised at the renewed discovery that Judith was beautiful. We had both often caught each other, and ourselves, in moments of envy when Judith's calm and severe face, her undemonstratively perfect body, succeeded in making everyone else in a room or a street look cheap.

Judith is tall, small-breasted, slender. Her light brown hair is parted in the centre and cut straight around her neck. A high straight forehead, straight nose, a full grave mouth are setting for her eyes, which are green, large and prominent. Her lids are very white, fringed with gold, and moulded close over the eyeball, so that in profile she has the look of a staring gilded mask. The dress was of dark green glistening stuff, cut straight, with a sort of loose tunic. It opened simply at the throat. In it Judith could of course evoke nothing but classical images. Diana, perhaps, back from the hunt, in a relaxed moment? A rather intellectual wood nymph who had opted for an afternoon in the British Museum Reading Room? Something like that. Neither Betty nor I said a word, since Judith was examining herself in a long mirror, and must know she looked magnificent.

Slowly she drew off the dress and laid it aside. Slowly she put on the old cord skirt and woollen blouse she had taken off. She must have surprised a resigned glance between us, for she then remarked, with the smallest of mocking smiles: "One surely ought to stay in character, wouldn't you say?" She added, reading the words out of some invisible book, written not by her, since it was a very vulgar book, but perhaps by one of us: "It does everything for me, I must admit."

"After seeing you in it," Betty cried out, defying her, "I can't bear for anyone else to have it. I shall simply put it away." Judith shrugged, rather irritated. In the shapeless skirt and blouse, and without make-up, she stood smiling at us, a woman at whom forty-nine out of fifty people would not look twice.

— from "Our Friend Judith," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

The Golden Notebook Project starts November 10, an experiment in close reading, from The Institute for the Future of the Book. It's not so long ago (3 years?) that I read The Golden Notebook for the first time myself. In its way, it was the subject of my own experiment in close reading, and quite apart from the power of its content, The Golden Notebook changed the way I read.

(It also has the distinction of being one of only two books not properly shelved or stacked, sitting in my desk drawer, unless you call that an organizational class of its own, because it's still waiting for me to deal with it.)

Barack Obama lists it among books significant to him. Surely he is staying in character to say so. (What does that say about the man? That he's a feminist? He understands what it is to have a romanticized vision of a political life? That he understands what it is to compartmentalize the facets of one's being, to be fragmented, and sees the necessity, and the way, of consolidating the whole?)

Many people are daunted by the novel's reputation. I was. But it's brilliant.

Read it when you're ready for it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend Doris Lessing's Stories.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Some dumb poem

[Here's some dumb poem I wrote months ago and carelessly stashed in a dark closet full of neglected writings (the Drafts folder) and stumbled across quite recently while cleaning my electronic house, and which I can actually stand to reread. (So, it's finally come to this!?: me, posting my third-rate angst-masquerading-as-verse on the Internet...) It makes me smile, even. Ahem.]

I encountered Poetry years ago, in my youth,
but we didn't much hit it off
— we saw the world in a very different light.

I ran into Poetry again this summer,
and there was a spark between us.
We've been inseparable,
rain or shine.
Poetry's with me when I go for ice cream
and when I do my laundry.

Some days I wish Poetry would let up a little,
but I give in to Poetry's exhaustive demands:
you're going the wrong way,
look harder, read this, try playing some music,
look up, way up,
"You gotta shake it up a little."

There are days Poetry drives me crazy
and I wish Poetry would leave me alone.
But then Poetry whispers in my ear

Simpling and sapping

It suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at the whole phenomenon quite inaccurately. My (or perhaps I am permitted to say our?) way of looking at it is that one must search for an A, or a B, or a C or a D with a certain combination of desirable or sympathetic qualities so that one may click, or spontaneously combust: or to put it differently, one needs a person who, like a saucer of water, allows one to float off on him/her, like a transfer. But this wasn't so at all. Actually one carries with one a sort of burning spear stuck in one's side, that one waits for someone else to pull out; it is something painful, like a sore or a wound, that one cannot wait to share with someone else.

I saw myself quite plainly in a moment of truth: I was standing at a window (on the third floor) with A and B (to mention only the mountain peaks of my emotional experience) behind me, a rather attractive woman, if I may say so, with a mellowness that I would be the first to admit is the sad harbinger of age, but is attractive by definition, because it is a testament to the amount of sampling and sipping (I nearly wrote 'simpling' and 'sapping') I have done in my time . . . There I stood, brushed, dressed, red-lipped, kohl-eyed, all waiting for an evening with a possible C. And at another window overlooking (I think I am right in saying) Margaret Street, stood C, brushed, washed, shaved, smiling: an attractive man (I think), and he was thinking: Perhaps she will turn out to be D (or A or 3 or ? or %, or whatever symbol he used). We stood, separated by space, certainly, in identical conditions of pleasant uncertainty and anticipation, and we both held our hearts in our hands, all pink and palpitating and ready for pleasure and pain, and we were about to throw these hearts in each other's face like snowballs, or cricket balls (How's that?) or, more accurately, like great bleeding wounds: 'Take my wound.' Because the last thing one ever thinks at such moments is that he (or she) will say: Take my wound, please remove the spear from my side. No, not at all; one simply expects to get rid of one's own.

— from "How I Finally Lost My Heart," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.