Saturday, October 31, 2009

The museum

So the effect of that moment I was living was of something I was remembering. Visitors to my Museum of Innocence must compel themselves, therefore, to view all objects displayed therein — the buttons, the glasses, the old photographs, and Füsun's combs — not as real things in the present moment, but as my memories.

Here is an incomplete inventory of the objects on display:

- the shop sign that had once hung on the door where she worked (p 5)
- school photograph of maternal grandfather (p 8)
- an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin from Fuay, a European-style restaurant (p 12)
- the newspaper advertisement, the commercials, and bottles of strawberry, peach, orange, and sour cherry flavors of Turkey's first domestic fruit soda, Meltem, in memory of our optimism and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the day (p 26)
- Füsun's fuchsia dress (p 27)
- one of Füsun's earrings (first exhibit) (p 28)
- floral batiste handkerchief, as a symbol of solicitude (p 30)
- mother's crystal inkwell and pen set, symbolizing refinement and fragile tenderness (p 30)
- belt with oversize buckles, as a symbol of melancholy (p 31)
- photographs and postcards (p 41)
- pictures of movies stars form Zambo (p 45)
- cigarette, usher's flashlight, Alaska Frigo ice cream, symbolizing the desire and solitude of youth (p 47)
- Spleen cologne, from Paris (p 49)
- cigarette packets, teacup, glass, seashell to evoke heavy, draining, crushing atmosphere; girlish hair clip to remind us the stories happened to a child (p 55)
- painting, commissioned; view of Füsun's apartment, with chestnut tree (p 67)
- small collection of funeral photographs (p 83)
- plaster bust of his father, with plastic mustache (p 87)
- postcards of Istanbul Hilton (p 102)
- photo with Ship-Sinker Güven (who ran an insurance company); photo with gentleman banker (p 128)
- clock, matchsticks, matchbooks (p 146)
- depiction of internal organs of human body, from ad for painkiller (p 148)
- picnic basket, with thermos with tea, stuffed grape leave, boiled eggs, soda bottles, tablecloth (p 152)
- painting by Melling, of view similar to picnic view (p 152)
- door chime (p 161)
- stapler, ashtray with company logo (p 171)
- menus and glasses from Fuaye (p 174)
- letter to Füsun (p 179)
- newsclipping, with Ceyda's official beauty contest photo (p 180)
- collar of father's pyjamas, one of his slippers (p 182)
- items from mother's drawers (p 188)
- telephone token (p 201)
- hotel key, headed stationery, replica of sign (p 210)
- enlarged photo of father's toes (p 224)
- bolt of bathroom in Füsun's apartment, but not her lipstick (p 242)
- oil painting, commissioned; view of main room in Füsun's house from point of view of canary (p 250)
- little tin spoon, saltshaker, half-eaten ice cream cone (p 256-7)
- ticket stubs from summer cinemas, lobby photographs, advertisements (p 260)
- Meltem soda bottle (272)
- slender Buren wristwatch (p 288)
- model of Füsun's apartment (p 298)
- picture of view from window in back room (p 300)
- tombala set used for eight consecutive years at Füsun's house (p 322)
- 4,213 of Füsun's cigarette butts, each with its own soul (p 395)
- a pair of optical illusions (p 421)
- blue bikini (p 436)

Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilization will be aware that museums are the repositories of those things from which Western Civilization derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world, and likewise when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard. When their first pieces passed into their hands, the first true collectors — who would later exhibit, categorize, and catalog their great collections (in the first catalogs, which were the first encyclopedias) — initially never recognized these objects for what they were.

This is an excruciatingly lovely book, this book being The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Through all these objects, these simple objects — some conventional mementos, others ridiculously banal — a love story is told, and more.

As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that, like the tales of Leyla and Mecnun or Hüsn and Aşk, this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.

It is a book in 3 parts, the first section being about Kemal's relationships and how he sabotages them. It is very much about the nature of relationships, traditional versus modern, and, in particular, the issue of a woman's attitude to her own virginity. To be a modern woman in 1970s Turkey is a complicated, contradiction-laden thing. And it's evident that Kemal doesn't fully understand it either. Kemal is engaged to Sibel, a beautiful socialite, but he has fallen in love with Füsun. We see Kemal grapple with social conventions and learn his own mind. He makes choices and deals (or not) with their aftermath.

The second section is the meat of Kemal's obsession. It is a meditation on time and memory, and love, of course. This is the story of courtship, in a way. Kemal's grand romantic gestures are comprised of countless trivialities that finally are seen to sum up to something greater than its individually insignificant parts. And yet, it is in those discrete acts that everything is contained.

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death. As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning — a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore — we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the "present" can bring us enough happiness to last a century, [...]

The third section is quite short and is really more of a postscript. I'm not sure what purpose it serves to the novel as a whole... It allows Pamuk to insert the character of an author named Pamuk, commissioned by Kemal to write his story, as a guide to the museum. So that's a neat trick. Apart from that, I suppose it allows a couple points to be cleared up, things the narrator couldn't've known, and a few things are reported as being said, and I can see that it would've been difficult to have characters say these things naturally within their own narratives. Also presented here is a kind of philosophy of museums. But the astute reader would already have understood these things. Their reinforcement here is superfluous. The story by this time is essentially over. I almost wonder if the novel might be stronger without this section.

Similarly, the book contains an index of characters, absolutely useless to the average reader, but it is in keeping with the philosophy of museum: that it is not directed to the casual visitor, but it takes on import only from the perspective of the subject under examination (the museum's reason for being). The list acts as an acknowledgement of contributors.

It's kind of a disturbing book, actually. (It feels at times a little uncomfortably like Nabokov, for reasons I can't pinpoint but generally to do with the nature of obsession.) I don't know if our narrator is particularly sympathetic. It's not that he treats women badly, but he does some stupid things regarding women and he's such a guy about it. (I mean, he lies to Füsun! He actually thinks it's the right thing to do, he must believe he can get away with it, but he's kind of a jerk about it.) So it's a weird thing to get all wrapped up in his obsession: I don't think we're meant to fully understand it as we go along, it is the point of the novel to make us come round to understanding it.

We're led through this museum of a book, waiting to be told how it came to be. To what tragic end did this love come? You just know — the tone, the verb tenses — that all this, this love, is over. But the obsession continues.

The weirdness is amplified by the fact that we don't really know the object of Kemal's obsession. We know Füsun only through his eyes, and there are times we must question her innocence — is she playing her own game, is she acting out of anger, spite, revenge — we don't really know her at all.

This love is not innocent, nor are the parties to it. So I'm not sure about the innocence:

Main Entry: in·no·cence
Pronunciation: \ˈi-nə-sən(t)s\
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 a : freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil : blamelessness b : chastity c : freedom from legal guilt of a particular crime or offense d (1) : freedom from guile or cunning : simplicity (2) : lack of worldly experience or sophistication e : lack of knowledge : ignorance
2 : one that is innocent
3 : bluet

Chastity (as abstention from intercourse) is a factor, but I don't think it is central, except insofar as it leads to a chastening of character. Perhaps the museum is less a tribute than an attempt at absolution from guilt.

This is a gorgeous novel. I don't think it's as important as Snow, but I suspect it's more accessible, with a kind of quiet, noble beauty about it. It's about this timeless thing called love, after all, dwelling on all its elements in Proustian detail. And happiness! Have I mentioned happiness? No matter how tragic its end, there's a lot of happiness in love.

Excerpt: Kissing.

Jeremy is reading The Museum of Innocence and blogging about it as he goes. (I love this approach to reading/blogging, where reactions and associations are more immediate. I wish I did more of this, managed my time better, instead of saving it all up for a binge.)

Washington Post: "And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?"

The National (Abu Dhabi): "But The Museum of Innocence is far more ambitious than it might first seem; before long, Pamuk spins his love story into a damning social history of Turkish taboos and traditions."

New York Review of Books (Pico Iyer): "Every detail, in short, speaks of a culture of quixotic aspirations."

The Harvard Crimson: "The museum-like quality of novels is about preservation, conservation, and resistance to being forgotten."

Norton Lectures:
Excerpts from "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist," delivered by Orhan Pamuk.
Summarized in Harvard Magazine.

International Festival of Authors

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blue Met 2010

The winner of the 2010 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix, recognizing a lifetime of literary achievement by a writer of international reputation, has been announced.

Novelist Dany Laferrière will receive the prize at the 12th annual Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, which will take place April 21–25, 2010.

"I am thrilled that Montreal author Dany Laferrière has accepted our invitation, and especially delighted that a long-time friend of the Blue Metropolis Festival will be recognized for the great quality, the audacity and wit of his work in several different genres," said Linda Leith, President and Artistic Director of Blue Metropolis Foundation.

Laferrière is probably best known for his first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Today I am sick, with aches and intense sinus pressure and a very sore throat.

We had a whirlwind weekend, in Toronto, celebrating an aunt's 80th birthday, with probably near 80 family members, family friends. It made me proud to bring J-F more fully into the family fold, meeting cousins he'd never met. It made me proud that Helena was bright-eyed and sweet as ever, and that my mother could show her off before the clan.

Helena was a bit overwhelmed. "They love me so much. And everybody wants to give me presents!"

I slept most of the drive home yesterday. All I wanted was a Neo Citran and a blanket.

It didn't take much convincing this morning — J-F told my I should stay home today, and I said OK. Today, I'm a little bit glad to be a little bit sick, that I could nap and read and nap some more, and finish The Museum of Innocence (which is absolutely exquisite and highly recommended), that I could hang out with my cat.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Kissing Füsun was no longer a provocation devised to test and to express our attraction for each other; it was something we did for the pleasure of it, and as we made love we were both amazed to discover love's true essence. It was not just our wet mouths and our tongues that were entwined but our respective memories. So whenever we kissed, I would kiss her first as she stood before me, then as she existed in my recollection. Afterward, I would open my eyes momentarily to kiss the image of her a moment ago and then one of more distant memory, until thoughts of other girls resembling her would commingle with both those memories, and I would kiss them, too, feeling all the more virile for having so many girls at once; from here it was a simple thing to kiss her next as if I were someone else, as the pleasure I took from her childish mouth, wide lips, and playful tongue stirred my confusion and fed ideas heretofore not considered ("This is a child," went one idea — "Yes, but a very womanly one," went another), and the pleasure grew to encompass all the various personae I adopted as I kissed her, and all the remembered Füsuns that were evoked when she kissed me. It was in these first long kisses, in our lovemaking's slow accumulation of particularity and ritual, that I had the first intimations of another way of knowing, another kind of happiness that opened a gate ever so slightly, suggesting a paradise few will ever know in this life. Our kisses delivered us beyond the pleasures of flesh and sexual bliss for what we sensed beyond the moment of the springtime afternoon was as great and wide as Time itself.

— from The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The stack

Pictured in random order, but described in a particular order according to a logic I couldn't possibly begin to explain to anyone.

(I've already actually read a couple of these, but they're still in the stack as books I have to contend with (write about, shelve, pass on to someone else). It may not look like much of a stack, but it's enough to make me feel daunted — I've gotten pretty good at not acquiring books I don't actually mean to read fairly immediately. Sure, I have a shelf of book I haven't gotten to in years, but I do my best not to let it grow.)

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story, by Hanan Al-Shaykh. This was a review copy and I'm not sure why I accepted it because it didn't sound like the sort of thing I would ordinarily read. But! It was captivating! I was not familiar with the author's name, but apparently she's quite revered for her short stories. I was a bit put off by the prologue, which sets up how this book came to be; there was a lot of ego (both Hanan's and her mother's) and little humility. But I guess it speaks to the author's skill that she took me past that and so convincingly channeled her mother's story, about growing up as a woman, and a free-spirited one, in Lebanon in the middle of the last century, with fairy-tale-like exuberance. (Here's a great review.)

The Mystery Guest: An Account, by Grégoire Bouillier. Along with the Greene and Mann below, these are books I ordered for myself just because I really wanted them, and I'd put it off long enough. (The trailer for this book is among the first I ever saw, and still my favourite.) It's a kind of memoir, about a guy who overthinks the significance of every single social gesture or nongesture, particularly as relating to the girl who dumped him with no explanation (I'd've dumped him too). See this review for more details. The book is charming and funny, even while the narrator is a bit of a weenie. At 132 pages it makes for a great read on a rainy Sunday afternoon (which it did this past weekend, between turkey cooking and card-playing).

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. I hear it's devastatingly good, and I quite liked Brighton Rock this past summer.

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. This is my own personal next project as a close and careful read, or as much like it as I can muster. I've been wanting to get to it for some time, as I myself have a tale of a magic mountain. I've been even more keen on Mann since coming across (via Maud Newton) this quotation from a 1955 interview:

The basic theme on which I've tried to play all my variations is the problem of the artist, the contrast between the excitement of beauty and the demands of life; between, if you will, the ab- or super-normal poetic vision and the normal necessity of catching the eight o'clock bus. My theme is also the paradox that the vision could never live without the opposing necessity since it must be inspired by it.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. I picked this up at our fundraising book sale at work. I'm certain some bloggers have raved about this book in the past, but I can't remember who. Was it you?

Wake, by Robert J Sawyer. I won this book about a week ago (and so far, this is the best reason I can figure to join Twitter: the contests). I find Sawyer has his ups and downs; the ideas in his novels can be awesome, but the writing at times brings it down. In some books, the dialogue was hopeless, and the characterization of women and relationships was less then believable; but he fares better than many genre writers. I've read a few chapters already — while I'm not convinced that Sawyer has the voice of a 15-year-old girl down, the story has a cool concept and I do want to know how it turns out.

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. To be released October 20. I have a review copy. For which I am dropping everything. First sentence: "It was the happiest moment of my life, thought I didn't know it."

Monday, October 12, 2009


When I first saw this artwork a few days ago, I couldn't help but be reminded of Archimboldo, though Archimboldo's compositions are built of more organic elements.

Genesis P-Orridge — now there's a name that takes me back — has an exhibition on at New York's Invisible-Exports Gallery until October 18, 2009. In an interview for The Morning News, Genesis P-Orridge cites his (and I use all pronouns herein loosely) discovery of Max Ernst and the art of cut-ups as kind of an epiphany.

(He talks also of a Sacred Geometry, which also brings to mind certain aspects of 2666. I wonder if one could assess 2666 in terms of cut-up or collage art...)

I can't say I'm particularly impressed by the art in this exhibition, but it's the intro to the interview that brought some hazy, near-20-year-old memories into focus. Apparently Genesis isn't a big fan of email interviews, as they take on the semblance of school assignments, so we are treated instead to about 3000 words explicating his concept. I recall Genesis having a peculiar attitude toward live interviews as well.

It was when Chris came up to see me for a couple days, and he brought his girlfriend, which was a bit odd, cuz I thought he liked me, but I guess this meant he didn't, which was for the best really. And it was all very spontaneous and all because of the Psychic TV show that night. The show had played the night before in Kingston — Chris had seen them and wanted to get an interview for his radio show, but he hadn't managed, so he came up to Ottawa looking for another chance. So Chris and — oh, I can't for the life of me remember her name...

Anyway, they show up on my doorstep mid-afternoon, (was I even working then? I couldn't've been studying... was it summer?) and I had a ticket for the show already (and I am so psyched — I'd had a ticket for their show the year before, but they cancelled), and the venue was just a 5-minute walk up the street, so we check it out straight away but nobody comes to the door and we can't figure out the back way, so we go for a beer across the street. And then we cross back over — it's still late afternoon, and it's really sunny — and we bang on the door, and then we bang on the door some more, and we ask around in the groundfloor bar (a separate and distinct establishment from the concert venue) but the inner adjoining door shows no signs of opening, so we go back out to the door on the street and bang some more, and after about 10 minutes someone comes to see what the racket's all about. Chris asks about the band, has the band arrived?, he'd love to get an interview, do you think he could have an interview? The guy tells us to hold on, he'll be right back. And a couple minutes later, Genesis P-Orridge opens up the door, and Chris tells him he loved the show in Kingston last night and does he have a few minutes for an interview. And Genesis says, no, he doesn't really feel like an interview, what he really feels like is a cheese sandwich, and the late afternoon sun is shining straight in his eyes, and his head is all fleshy and wet. And he thinks about it for a few seconds and tells Chris he'll give him an interview if he can bring him a cheese sandwich, and he closes the door and the three of us just stand there, not quite sure what to make of this.

And then their eyes turn on me, because I live there, and if anybody would, I should know where we could get a cheese sandwich. But when's the last time I ever had a cheese sandwich? So we check the adjoining bar, but the only food they have is those little packets of potato chips. We go back across the street to the pub, and the waitress says, do you mean like a grilled cheese? We just stand there looking at each other, we don't know, and we start to dissect our encounter; if Genesis P-Orridge meant a grilled cheese sandwich he would've said a grilled cheese sandwich, but then too, he's British, and we wonder whether the default semantics of a British cheese sandwich implied that it was grilled. I don't know why exactly, but we finally decide, no, he couldn't possibly want his sandwich grilled. I suggest we check out the bistro café on the corner — they serve a lovely bacon-tomato-cheese melt, but there's that melt factor again, which while it doesn't strictly speaking mean "grilled," it deviates from the default semantics we've already settled on. Besides which it was on a croissant, and we're all agreed this was an error on the side of too fancy and wouldn't do at all.

I run down the list of possible eateries on this stretch of street. There's the Spanish place, Indian, Moroccan, another pub, there's a Greek place too but that's already drifting further off than we'd like, and I can't think of anything appropriately deli-like, apart from the place in the market that I reserve for a Saturday afternoon excursion; that is, for this here and now and with our pressing need, it's too far away. I shrug my shoulders, why don't we just pick up some stuff at the grocery? it's just on the next corner.

So we pool our cash and pick out some nice fresh kaiser rolls, and some kind of wheat bread, and a slab of cheddar, some camembert, and some spiced gouda, and a head of lettuce, and a jar of pickles, and some paper plates and napkins, and a knife, and one of them say we need butter too but I don't understand why anyone would put butter on a cheese sandwich. And we head back to the hall and bang on the door some more. The same guy finally pokes his head around, we exclaim happily that we have cheese sandwiches! or at least the makings thereof! And he should let us in cuz Genesis P-Orridge said it was OK. So he does, and we bound upstairs, say hi to the band and spread out our bounty on the first table that presents itself. Genesis's face (and we all feel we're on a first-name basis now) radiates glee, and someone offers us a beer. Chris sets up his tape deck and I set about making sandwiches, I don't know what Jen's doing (that's her name — Jen!) but she's all tough and cool, pierced and tattooed, I think maybe she just starts making out with one of the guys, I don't know, and before you know it we're all really — I mean really — stoned and pretty happy about the whole thing, especially the wondrous and varied cheese sandwiches.

The show itself was pretty anticlimactic, although we did all get to dance onstage, toward thee infinite beat.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The part about Archimboldi

2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is difficult. It's rich with imagery and ideas, most of which feel connected but which connections are near impossible to describe meaningfully. To offer any kind of summary is like saying, Here's this stick figure I drew of the Mona Lisa. By which I mean to say that 2666 is a masterpiece, but not at all like the Mona Lisa — more like Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Or something from Archimboldo.

This fifth and final part of 2666, The Part about Archimboldi, reads like part fairy-tale, part dream, with bits of nightmare and dark myths thrown in.

I basked in the beauty of this section, but it's taken me quite some time to come to the realization that in fact I did not like Archimboldi. From the outset there is something creepy about him. I thought for a while that this impression was merely a lingering effect of all that came before, the 600 plus pages of sinister mood. But with a little distance, and upon closer examination of some sections and my reactions to them, I'm quite confident in pronouncing: I do not like Archimboldi. I do not find him sympathetic.

Is he a hero? He is the character that figures most prominently in the book. It starts with him (though he is never on stage, he is undeniably central) and ends with him (the whole last section is devoted to his biography), and there are several references to him in between. One might argue that he overcame great adversity to achieve his status as a critically acclaimed obscure author — his family circumstance, his physical oddity, an inability to communicate, war, war, war, hard times, etc.


1. I don't believe he was active at all in putting all this behind him. He simply let things happen, and he came out on the other side. (Is he a hero of inaction?)

2. His status and the merit of it are entirely questionable. Bolaño posits artist as hero throughout the novel and if he had a definitive stance on the issue it is a contradictory one. If the artist is a vessel through which the divine is manifest, or if he is naturally talented, how much can the artist take credit? The toil of mediocrity is more commendable a virtue. And I rather think Bolaño did fashion Archimboldi as a vessel.

(Note: For those who haven't been reading along, Hans Reiter takes the pen name Benno von Archimboldi, inspired by Benito Juárez and painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.)

Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone. Hans Reiter was an exception. He feared neither the healthy nor the diseased. He never got bored. He was always eager to help and he greatly valued the notion — so vague, so malleable, so warped — of friendship. The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man's sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then, too, then, too, then, too.

This (p 661) feeds my sense that Hans is not fully healthy, or he would flee the diseased. And if he is somewhat diseased, his words — his literary work — is worth something, or so goes the argument by Bolaño’s logic. What is this "diseased man's sense of time"? Is it time more palpable, more real, when framed by mortality? (Did the diseased Bolaño's sense of time make him a better writer?)

But Archimboldi often finds himself outside of time (p 662):

They seemed suddenly to freeze, lose all sense of time, and turn completely inward, as if they were bypassing the abyss of daily life, the abyss of people, the abyss of conversation, and decided to approach a kind of lakeside region, a late-romantic region, where the borders were clocked from dusk to dusk, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die, like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die, who understand that more time isn’t more eternity and nevertheless wish with all their souls for more time, and their wails are birds that come flying every so often across the double lakeside landscape, so calmly, like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats. Then, naturally, the three men would emerge stiff from the silence and go back to talking about inventions, women, Finnish philology, the building of highways across the Reich.

(Doesn't that just take your breath away?!)

(In the desert of boredom, this oasis of debauchery — I return to the novel's epigraph from Baudelaire. Is Archimboldi a horror? The abyss as an oasis, revelry in mortality.)

That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi's only wish was never to inhabit either. [p 800]

Then there's this whole discussion (p 664-6) about the 4th dimension and how it is expressible only through music. Which brings us to the 5th dimension and how the perspective from the 5th of the 4th would to denizens of 4 dimensions be beyond their ability to conceive let alone fathom. All of which reminds me of Flatland. And Infinite Jest, which also references Flatland, with its problem of the wraith and at what speed he exists and how he processes time or whether he is outside time.

("[F]ive pairs of eyes lacked spatiotemporal coherence" (p 782) — there should only be three pairs. Who belongs to the other eyes?)

My very favourite passage of this section (p 704), a propos of nothing, really, though it too describes an abyss of sorts:

One night, in the trenches, Reiter rose up to his full height and gazed at the stars, but his attention, inevitably, was diverted toward Sevastopol. The city in the distance was a black mass with red mouths that opened and closed. The soldiers called it the bone crusher, but that night it didn't strike Reiter as a machine but as the reincarnation of a mythological being, a living creature struggling to draw breath.

Why is young Reiter's speech garbled (p 646)? Does the tourist simply not understand the local dialect? Or is there a communication problem?

(Was Reiter struggling to draw breath? He twice almost drowns. He swims, is at home in the water — breath would be a struggle. Is Reiter, then a mythological being? Or does he picture himself as one? Is he condemned like Sisyphus, only to the abyss of daily life, keeping Thanatos in chains, so men might live free of the anxiety of time (p 821)? Reiter recreates himself as Archimboldi, who become a myth.)

Later in Ansky's farmhouse, when he recognizes himself in the mural (who could've painted it? why would Reiter figure in it?), Reiter remembers "that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice" (724), having been shot in the throat.

What about Ansky's seaweedlike extraterrestrial (p 719)? (Is this Reiter? Did he appear in the past, by means beyond our current understanding of the physical world, and inspire this character? Or is he retroactively inserting himself into the text, as any reader might relate to a character?) The conversation he has with the boy is often unintelligible.

Ansky's characters also seem to travel through space and time in a manner that defies physics.

(There are many examples of "supernatural" communication throughout all the parts of the novel. Telepathy in various forms, dreams, a seer, communication via the whisper of leaves, a book on a clothesline airing its contents. All these ideas floating around in the ether (some of them evil) — they have to settle somewhere.)

What is culture, the Germans debate (p 683). General Entrescu claims it is life, that art "couldn't hold a candle to the dream of a single illiterate Romanian peasant." He knows this because he knows his men:

"I steal into their dreams," he said. "I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I'm in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all of this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion."

How does he do it? Is this why his men crucify him? Is he a demon or a saviour?

Reiter argues that "Sammer was just a civil servant of no consequence" (p 776). Then why did he kill him? (Is this the act of a hero?) Or else he is lying.

After much thinking about the concept of semblance, as Ansky had put it forward, Reiter concludes (p 741) that "Only Ansky's wandering isn't semblance, he thought, only Ansky at fourteen isn't semblance. Ansky lived his whole life in rabid immaturity because the revolution, the one true revolution, is also immature."

I think we're meant to see Reiter as immature also, emotionally immature, or emotionally distanced, or un-self-aware.

He remembered that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice. He also remembered that in those days he had ceaselessly read and reread Ansky's notebook, memorizing each word, and feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky. And he accepted the guilt and happiness and some nights he even weighed them against each other and the net result of his unorthodox reckoning was happiness, but a different kind of happiness, a heartrending happiness that for Reiter wasn't happiness but simply Reiter. [p 742]

I am certain (how can I be certain?) that Reiter/Archimboldi plagiarizes Ansky. He memorized his notebook we’re reminded (p 796), and Ingeborg notes the speed with which he writes. His authenticity is called into question. It is kinder perhaps to say he gives Ansky’s notebook a voice. But does he do so with any motivation other than to defeat boredom?

In Ansky's view, Archimboldo's painting technique was happiness personified (p 734), even though he produced a couple what could be described as horror paintings.

There are several Archimboldo-esque descriptions throughout the novel, starting with those of seaweed and culminating in this, recognizing a family resemblance (p 866):

One night Lotte saw shadows listening to the radio. One of the shadows was her father. Another shadow was her mother. Other shadows had eyes and noses and mouth that she didn't recognize. Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes.

I keep thinking of Archimboldo paintings, and the seaweed image, as something organic, but not fully sentient.

When Lotte reads parts of Archimboldi's The King of the Forest to him, why does Klaus's expression change (p 888)? What does he recognize? Klaus who demonstrated some affinity with the Flora's book. It was Flora who was reminded of the shepherd boy Benito Juárez (p 431), before he was a great man and Archimboldi borrowed his name (p 809). Facing boredom head-on was an act of bravery and Benito Juárez had done it (p 433). Had Archimboldi done so? By taking up writing?

There's so much more to say. But I don't know what else to say.

Excerpt (part 1): Separate and interminable suburbs.
Part 1: The part about the critics.
Part 2: The part about Amalfitano.
Excerpt (part 3): A walk on the beach.
Parts 3 and 4: The parts about Fate and about the crimes and a vast introductory digression in which I compare and contrast 2666 and Infinite Jest.

Consult the list of other readers who've posted thoughts on this book.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Claire and Stefanie win The Savage Detectives and 2666 respectively, both books by Roberto Bolaño. Email me with your snail mail addresses and I'll get these books out to you as soon as I can.

I did finish reading 2666 a few days ago, but I'm having a hard time carving out the mental space to write about it. It's a bit anticlimactic, to have finished. I've been refraining from reading other people's thoughts on the final part, so that my own impressions remain unadulterated, but I'm thinking now it may help catalyze my ideas.

I started reading (and am almost finished) The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story, by Hanan Al-Shaykh, and it's very romantic and exuberant and easy to be swept up in.

Life is kind of weirdly busy recently, and I'm having a hard time keeping up and staying focused.

More as it develops...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Remembrance of things Proust

It's a hundred years ago about this time of year that Marcel Proust holed himself up in a cork-lined room to begin writing A la recherche du temps perdu.

I have little to remember of Proust, as my copy of Swann's Way lies (mostly) unread under my bed (though I did read the first 30-odd pages about 20 years ago (and I don't remember them)).

But last week I received in the mail an unsolicited review copy of Marcel Proust's Search for Lost Time: A Reader's Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past, by Patrick Alexander, which has me thinking I should hole my own self up in a room to write a masterpiece. Or at least maybe I should consider finally reading what Proust came up with.

The Guide is somewhat meaningless to me at this stage, but from this side of the memory of an experience I haven't had yet, it looks like it might be useful: apart from the requisite section summaries, there are character lists, plenty of photos, a history of France (or the relevant bits anyway), and a map.

I hereby pledge to follow this Guide when the time comes to actually read Proust, quite possibly in the new year. (I'm afraid my dance card is pretty full until then.)

In the meantime, I'll be warming up to the reading of the book itself with the following activities:

Proust101: A one week course on all things Proust, free, via Twitter, starting October 1, 2009, and being repeated October 8, 2009. I am subscribed — I'll let you know if I learn anything.

ProustLive: The masterpiece will be tweeted, starting October 15, 2009.

And there's always the Proust Questionnaire, which I've been meaning to try out on a friend or two.

To learn more about the Guide, or read about how it came to be, or for hordes of Proustian resources, visit the website.