Thursday, November 26, 2009

People are animals

New York is part of the natural world. I love the city, I love the country, and for the same reasons. The city is part of the country. When I had an apartment on East Forty-eighth Street, my backyard yielded more birds during the migratory season than I ever saw in Maine. I could step out on my porch, spring or fall, and there was the hermit thrush, picking around in McEvoy's yard. Or the white-throated sparrow, the brown thrasher, the jay, the kinglet. John Kieran has recorded the immense variety of flora and fauna within the limits of Greater New York.

But it is not just a question of birds and animals. The urban scene is a spectacle that fascinates me. People are animals, and the city is full of people in strange plumage, defending their territorial rights, digging for their supper.

— E.B. White, The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

I love this take on wildlife in the city. Being an urban animal myself, I often find myself in the position of having to defend my choice to live in the city against suburbanites. What they fail to see is how much more natural an environment it is than their cookie-cutter houses and manicured lawns.

(Full interview available.)

I finished reading one interview, but it wasn't my stop yet, so what to read next? The interview I was planning to read next is in another volume.

Well then why not a talk with the man behind the slim little volume I was consulting today? I spent my morning grappling with, for example, the nuance between "accord" and "afford," so I spent a portion of my afternoon with The Elements of Style, regaining some perspective.

I know nothing about E.B. White other than that I loved The Trumpet of the Swan when I was a kid, and, yeah, the other kids' books too. And I knew that he'd reworked the stylebook that is the beginning and end of all stylebooks.

The interview proves him to be a charming man, down to earth, matter-of-fact, realistic, sensible, perceptive. This comes as no surprise and as a wonderful reassurance.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Slowly, like an ant

[A] novelist is essentially a person who covers distance through his patience, slowly, like an ant. A novelist impresses us not by his demonic and romantic vision, but by his patience.

— Orhan Pamuk, The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

I won a publisher's contest some time ago and was so very pleased to find the prize on my doorstep last week: The Paris Review Interviews (Boxed Set) I-IV. (The corners are smushed and one face is thoroughly gouged, but it still functions perfectly well as a slipcase. The books are fine, and their contents are priceless.)

I've read some of the interviews online, of course, but I expect the books to serve as a sometime reference and serendipitous source of inspiration, there when I need it.

(Here's an excerpt from the Pamuk interview. I remember being struck by a habit he told of, when working in the same space as he was living, of leaving home in the morning as if were going to work, walking round the block, and returning to sit down to work. If ever I find myself working from home again, I mean to try this strategy.)

I'm not really sure how to read this collection of interviews. It's not the sort of thing to be read cover to cover. Although, I'm discovering that a single interview makes for excellent metro reading, and I think I'd be wise to leave a volume in the bathroom.

I've decided to let my reading lead me through them. Since I've recently read novels by Orhan Pamuk and Graham Greene, I thought I'd check out those interviews first. I have Haruki Murakami on my shelf and I'm planning to get to it next month; then I'll read the interview to complement the novel.

Sometimes a reader too must move slowly, like an ant.

I can entertain no doubt

First published 150 years ago, on November 24, 1859:

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained — namely, that each species has been independently created — is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

— from the introduction to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin.

See also: Darwin vs. Genesis, a literary smackdown (via).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The alternative

I'm trying more poetry on for size.

I've been browsing Easy, a new collection from Marie Ponsot. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that it is rather easy. These are not esoteric expressions of indefinably poetic moments. These poems are anecdotes.

"We Own the Alternative" is one such piece, conversational in tone. Here's the first bit:

"Mere failure to be young is not interesting,"
our host says, "Here we are free to be not young,
not bound to evaluate everything,
ready for Tuesday's flimsy shift to be flung
over Friday's shoulder, or for it to cling,
a comfort when cold winds make comfort disappear.["]

Having just turned 40 this weekend, I'm not ready to claim old, it's merely the late Wednesday of my life, but I refuse to fail to be young. Easy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My, how we've grown

The freshly-turned-7-year-old kid with the approximately-just-more-than-7-month-old cat:

(Compare months ago.)

Happy birthday, Kid!

May all your wishes come true.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The space between what’s promised and what’s made

For days I've been gearing myself up for (dreading) a cupcake-baking extravaganza this evening. Today I read this delicious article over lunch (tomato-artichoke salad with the bacon-olive pizza I doggie-bagged home from a trendy lounge last night).

[I]f the first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes, the second is that a space exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets. It is partly that the steps between — the melted chocolate's gleam, the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar — are often more satisfying than the finished cake. But the trouble also lies in the same good words that got you going. How do you know when a thing "just begins to boil"? How can you be sure that the milk has scorched but not burned? Or touch something too hot to touch, or tell firm peaks from stiff peaks? How do you define "chopped"?

The thing is: I think I secretly love cooking. I would love to spend my days figuring it out, the chemistry of it, experimenting with proportions, tasting exactly how much salt does to meat.

[I]s learning how to cook from a grammar book — item by item, and by rote — really learning how to cook? Doesn't it miss the social context — the dialogue of generations, the commonality of the family recipe — that makes cooking something more than just assembling calories and nutrients? It's as if someone had written a book called "How to Play Catch." ("Open your glove so that it faces the person throwing you the ball. As the ball arrives, squeeze the glove shut.") What it would tell you is not that we have figured out how to play catch but that we must now live in a culture without dads. In a world denuded of living examples, we end up with the guy who insists on making Malaysian Shrimp one night and Penne all'Amatriciana the next; it isn't about anything except having learned how it's done. Your grandmother's pound cake may have been like concrete, but it was about a whole history and view of life; it got that tough for a reason.


Unsupported by your mom, the cookbook is the model of empty knowledge.

This evening I will discover the exact proportion of lemon juice required for perfect icing, and I will note it in the recipe book I'll be consulting. And both my mother and my daughter are going to hear about it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A doctor for the world's pain

Michael Moorcock is writing a Doctor Who novel (via). We won't see it for another year or two. But. Wow!

I kind of love Michael Moorcock. Well, not really, but I had a really big crush, in grade 8, on a guy who was a fan. So I went ahead and read a couple dozen Moorcock books over the ensuing years.

The "straight-up" fantasy was a good enough read. Looking back I'm realizing that The Jerry Cornelius Chronicles and Gloriana were probably not the wisest choice of reading material for an impressionable teenage girl, but what did I know. For all the trippy sex, drugs, and time travel, these books helped make me what I am.

Come to think of it, the regeneration concept of the Doctor has Moorcock written all over it.

Can I just say?: I love The War Hound and the World's Pain. I first read it more than 25 years ago, and I still think it's one of the coolest books I ever read. It bears the distinction of being the rattiest looking paperback on my shelves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The naïve and the sentimental novelist

Excerpts from The Norton Lectures, delivered by Orhan Pamuk:

"Being a novelist is the art of being both naïve and reflective at the same time."

"The reader and writer can never agree on the fictionality of the novel[...] In a corner of our minds we know that this lack of perfect agreement between the reader and the writer is the driving force of the novel."

"The art of the novel is the knack of being able to speak about ourselves as if we were another person and about others as if we were them."

"We feel that we sometimes think with words and sometimes with images. Often we skip from one to the other."

"I too enjoy reading a novel that no one else appears to be interested in with the feeling of having discovered it myself."

Pamuk is both naïve and sentimental in The Museum of Innocence, and it is to his credit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not for nothing

Helena was upset coming home from school Friday. It'd been a rough week on all us, in different ways.

She was home "sick" the first 3 days of the week. The school has been hypervigilant regarding H1N1. Had she gone to school with a touch of fever and light cough, she would've been sent home. The secretary called regularly for news of her symptoms. I dared not tell her Helena was dancing around like a rock star. Meanwhile, I fell behind on meeting some work deadlines because I was helping her accomplish a videogame mission.

She returned to school on Thursday to a substitute teacher and with her chess club assignment incomplete, much to my surprise and contrary to my instruction when I went into the office Wednesday finally to get some peace and quiet (J-F stayed home with her that day). Friday was her first day to see her regular teacher, Marilyne, in a week, and she was still hoping for the sticker that had been promised but forgotten last Friday.

But Marilyne saw fit to award her "yellow" status at the end of the day, down a couple notches from Helena's usual happy green, for disturbing the class (and quite likely being a bit cranky about it), but not slipping into red. It wasn't Helena's first yellow (that was traumatic), and I'm sure it won't be her last. I guess we're averaging one a month.

But she takes these things seriously. At home, she took me aside to tell me the story of the yellow, and she cried and she cried and she cried.

Apparently she has a chatty deskmate. We'll mention it to the teacher when we meet in a couple weeks; we'll get more of the story then. Maybe Helena was lured into transgression, or maybe she was just having a bad day. No big deal either way.

But I cannot doubt the sincerity of my daughter when she exclaims, "I don't go to school for nothing, you know. I go to learn!"

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What weekends are made of

Sleeping in on a weekend morning. I wake to find the girl perched at the foot of the bed painting my toenails. I don't know whether I'm more amused or disturbed.

I've devoted far too many hours to considering frosting. The girl's birthday is in a couple weeks, and we decided that it'd be nice to take cupcakes to school to celebrate with her friends. I've never made cupcakes. I found a simple recipe and we did a trial run. The cakes are delicious, but we all concur that the frosting (a pretty standard buttercream) is horrendous. (Yes, the butter was fresh!) The original batch got modified, then I tried something else. Three frosting failures so far. What are we going to do!!?!

I am really, really, really annoyed about the clementines! They have pits! Not just the occasional 1 or 2 per orange. Lots and lots of pits! I'm talking 4 or 5 per segment, every segment! It's taken all the joy out of clementines. And I love clementines! Just not like this! If this continues, I may have to stop eating them. Oh my god, what if I get scurvy!!?!

The last of the balcony-garden tomatoes are finally harvested. The geraniums have been brought inside to winter.

Am I finally ready for Mann's Magic Mountain? No, I decided. I wanted something small and modern first, as a palate cleanser. So I started The Last Supper, by Paweł Huelle (pronounced "hyoo-la" I've finally learned, in an entirely un-Polish way). Coincidentally, Huelle wrote a kind of prequel to The Magic Mountain, but this novel isn't it. This one's all about Art and Religion — a couple of my favourite subjects — but we're off to a shaky start.

The first chapter is a dream sequence, I found out by accident (looking to see where the chapter break was), and I'm glad I did, and I'm doing you a service by telling you so, because it allowed the chapter to make some kind of sense finally. It's all very frenetic, maybe the more so for having just come off a couple books with intense emotional focus.

On some level I must be hoping to reconnect with my Polishness, or to learn something about Poland today. I still think that Polish literature of the early to mid 20th century is one of the world's best kept secrets. And I'm glad to get, for example, the Mrożek reference (he's like the Polish Ionesco). And I'm glad to have a first-hand recollection of the Gdańsk terrain, physical and cultural. But I don't feel like I'm connecting yet...

The Tudors! We'll finish with season 1 tonight. Somehow I never did get to watch a full episode while it was airing, so I borrowed it from the library. Full of sex and God and war and intrigue!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

That strange mathematical point of endlessness

So I've finished reading Graham Greene's The End of Affair, and it's not at all what I expected. This guy sets about sabotaging his relatively long-term relationship with this married woman, and the affair ends, and we spend much of the book wondering how and why it ends, and the guy sure doesn't have a clue about the why, and years later he's still a bit upset about it, but the book's not even really about that. It's about her, developing a relationship with God.

There are some pretty complex human dynamics at work here, and Greene put them to paper seemingly effortlessly. "The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness," he writes (and I think Tolstoy would agree — that's where the story lies). The narrator is dripping with anger, hate, frustration, confusion, spitefulness, pride (masquerading as indifference), and, yes, even love (on occasion appearing as lustfulness) — everything but happiness.

I felt that afternoon such complete trust when she said to me suddenly, without being questioned, "I've never loved anybody or anything as I do you." It was as if, sitting there in the chair with a half-eaten sandwich in her hand, she was abandoning herself as completely as she had done, five minutes back, on the hardwood floor. We most of us hesitate to make so complete a statement — we remember and we foresee and we doubt. She had no doubts. The moment only mattered. Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space. What did time matter — all the past and the other men she may from time to time (there is that word again) have known, or all the future in which she might be making the same statement with the same sense of truth? When I replied that I loved her too in that way, I was the liar, not she, for I never lose the consciousness of time: to me the present is never here: it is always last year or next week.

She wasn't lying even when she said, "Nobody else. Ever again." There are contradictions in time, that's all, that don't exist on the mathematical point. She had so much more capacity for love than I had — I couldn't bring down that curtain round the moment, I couldn't forget and I couldn't not fear.

The narrator, Bendrix, is, for the most part, a spiteful little shit. It's odd that he should invoke Sarah's capacity for love here — he spends so much energy on denying it, disbelieving it, and trying to disprove it. But he recognizes it. It's this capacity and this being outside time that, if they don't make her saintly, bring her closer to God.

What is love, anyway? Does Sarah make her sacrifice out of love? Or is it fear? Her keeping her contract with God — is that for love of God, or love of Bendrix, or indifference toward Bendrix? Is it selfish or selfless?

Who's the hero then? Bendrix is nasty and petty — not exactly sympathetic — hardly the makings of a hero. Or is it him after all, for raging on? Certainly not the cuckold Henry. The rationalist? But he fails in his argument against God, creates a convert even. Could it be Sarah, slut turned saint? (Apart from acknowledging that she's been a bitch and a fake, I'm not convinced that she's evolved much as a person.) Perhaps it's God Himself, having the last laugh on the lot of them, for all they would lose in His name, whether willingly sacrificed or not of their own agency.

Maybe it's simply that religion makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that's why I find this to be an excruciatingly painful and difficult little book. And it boggles me (as it does Bendrix) that someone could love God more than a flesh-and-blood person.

On a side note, Emily in writing about St Augustine's Confessions called out that "he depicts his relationship with God in language modern readers will recognize from the subsequent literature of erotically-charged romance." I immediately recognized that something similar is at play in Sarah's diary entries. Greene even reinforces this: "The words of human love have been used by saints to describe their vision of God."

There's some compelling writing in this book, capturing perfectly the underlying tensions in a run-of-the-mill conversation.

Halfway through, I'm thinking, he reminds me of someone, the way he does that, the way a banal conversation explodes with meaning. Some may think it blasphemous of me to say, but: Doris Lessing. (By some, I mean Maud Newton, who, if I've got it right, loves Greene and hates Lessing.) I'm thinking specifically of Lessing's short stories, and The Golden Notebook. Not sure this quality is so present in her other novels.

Anyway, the narrator is a writer, and it's hard to know how much is fiction and how much is Greene himself. The novel is, after all, allegedly based on a real-life affair. He writes in the morning ("A love affair had to begin after lunch"), setting himself a daily quota. Most of the work of writing is done in the subconscious. "So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days," so that the unconscious is freed up to work out the problems of the fiction. Stories aren't invented, they're "remembered"; but they still require intense research.

It seems that Greene himself was ambivalent toward this novel. It is raw and weird, but, to my mind, this perhaps heightens its power and may offer more authenticity than a "well-crafted" piece.

From a 1951 New York Times review:

His juxtapositions of love and hate, envy and admiration form the high level of his drama and are reinforced by the stylistic contrasts of the characters and scenes which give them flesh. When we come to his shifty money-changers, private investigators and race-track touts, Government officials and garden-party ladies we hear the tape recorder at its accurate work. In "The End of the Affair" the splendidly stupid private detective, Alfred Parkis, and his apprentice son, and the maudlin grifter who is the heroine's mother, equal the best of the seedy supernumeraries of his other novels. It is savage and sad, vulgar and ideal, coarse and refined, and a rather accurate image of an era of cunning and glory, of cowardice and heroism, of belief and unbelief.

Read this book before you die.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The sharp edge of a razor

A novelist must preserve a child-like belief in the importance of things which common-sense considers of no great consequence. He must never entirely grow up.

— W Somerset Maugham

I'm so glad to see a resurgence of interest in Maugham of late. People tend to think of him as a B-list writer; he was too popular in his day to be considered seriously. Graham Greene's narrator in The End of the Affair assesses his own literary worth to be a notch above Maugham's (with EM Forster sitting a level higher).

I first read Maugham the summer I was 15. I was staying with my sister in Ottawa for a time, and The Razor's Edge was making the rounds through her circle of friends. The world clearly consisted of these character types. "He's such an Elliott," they might say.

Of course, I fell in love with Larry. I wanted to be him. Twenty plus years on, I've become adept at recognizing the inner Larry in a healthy proportion of everyone I encounter.

Because of this book, I have an unreasonable fondness for Newhart and Żubrówka. More than anything, I believe this book was my gateway to becoming a reader who knows how to read.

(But I'm still looking for salvation.)

I went on to read everything of Maugham's I could get my hands on, and for the ensuing decade it was something of an obsessive quest. It's been years since I read one of these books, but I won't part with my stash — a couple dozen well-worn paperbacks.

The Skeptical Romancer (Everyman's Library), a collection of Maugham's travel writing, with an introduction by Pico Iyer, is now on my wishlist.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Think of Troilus

Jealous lovers are more respectable, less ridiculous, than jealous husbands. They are supported by the weight of literature. Betrayed lovers are tragic, never comic. Think of Troilus.

— from The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.

(I'm only about 50 pages in. The above is from page 17, and I think there's something beautiful and true about the statement.)

This novella is nothing like what I expected. It seems that the story of the affair is recounted in a series of flashbacks, with the cool detachment time allows. It feels absolutely uncomfortably voyeuristic; the narrator's a bit spiteful — we're allowed this glimpse of intimacy without being fully welcomed into it.

There's also a surprising lot about the process of writing in here, the discipline of it, the research and inspiration. The narrator raises the problem of weighting a scene with unspoken meaning, and magically Greene is meanwhile weighting the scene with unspoken meaning.

But I don't know anything about Troilus.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ninja girl

Confession (and further proof of negligent parenting): We've never actually taken the kid trick-or-treating. Except for that time when she was 2 and we were visiting my mom and we went to all of 3 houses, and this was less for the joy of trick-or-treating than for the joy my mother took in showing off her cute granddaughter to the neighbours.

Our urban neighbourhood simply isn't condusive to it. We've never once had trick-or-treaters at our door, at this address or in our previous apartment. I've never seen any in the streets. Which I don't fully understand — I know kids live around here, there's a school at the end of the street, and the playground a couple blocks over even this time of year is full of them. Helena tells me some of her classmates partake in this tradition — I have yet to determine if these are kids who live nearby or out of zone. It's all very mysterious.

But I don't think Helena minds much. There have always been plenty of activities, and candy, at school (and daycare before that) to keep here happy.

With yesterday's crappy weather, she was more interested, thankfully, in preserving that other grand Halloween tradition: the watching of scary movies.

Google "scary movies for kids" and you'll find parents like me wondering what's too scary. You'll also find lots of outraged parents wondering why on Earth we would want to scare our precious youngsters. Well, because it's fun.

Obviously individual sensibilities must be taken into account, but this kid's made of pretty tough stuff (although ironically, the older she gets, the scarier she thinks Doctor Who is, her fear growing proportionally with her comprehension). She's been reminding me for weeks that we need to find a scary movie. And not a cartoon.

Last year we watched The Birds. She watched less than half before opting for bed, but it made a memorable, nontraumatic impression, such that we can refer to this cultural touchstone when we encounter vicious swarms of seagulls in parking lots and have a good laugh over it.

This year: The Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee. Helena tells me it wasn't scary at all (don't tell her I told you, but I saw her jump twice). It's just biting people, and she shrugs her shoulders. Although, she clarifies, if Dracula acually came to bite her, yes, she'd be scared, but he's biting other people so it's no big deal. But now at least she knows how to kill a vampire.