Thursday, April 29, 2010

An acute and strange kind of staring

Daddi, after he'd got back from his holiday in the country, had appeared to all of them like someone completely dazed. It was as if he were somehow outside himself. He'd look at you with an empty smile on his lips, his eyes dull and glazed. He wasn't really looking at you, as was obvious when anyone called him. Then that astounded look had disappeared and been transformed into an acute and strange kind of staring. First of all, he'd stared at things from a distance, obliquely. Then, gradually, as if attracted by certain signs which he thought he could observe in one or other of his most intimate friends — especially in those who most assiduously frequented his house — highly natural signs, for everyone was thrown into a state of utter consternation by that sudden and extraordinary change. It was so completely in contrast with the usual serenity of his character. Gradually, he'd come to watch them attentively from close to, and in the last days he'd become downright unbearable. He'd suddenly plonk himself in front of now one, now another of them, place his hands on the man's shoulders, look into his eyes — deep, deep down into them he'd look.

— from "In the Abyss," by Luigi Pirandello, in Short Stories.

Thank goodness Life A User's Manual is indexed! Daddi is mentioned only 3 times. Indeed, the fifty-first chapter (page 163) lists "124 The single mother reading Pirandello's story of Daddi, Romeo" — which synopsis is fleshed out (a tiny bit) on page 19: the Pirandello story "telling the tale of how Romeo Daddi went mad" is noted as being included in the revue carried toward the bathroom by the girl in the Foulerot apartment.

I'm sure it's no more meaningful than any other allusion Perec makes, but it sang to me: Romeo Daddi! What a name! And he went mad! And so I had to find out more.

Now, I just happen to have a collection of Pirandello's short stories on my shelf, so when Perec referenced this story, I was quick to pull down the volume and check it for clues, as if this were another piece of the puzzle.

Later (page 215) we learn that Geneviève Foulerot is perhaps (Why perhaps? She was selected. Has she not made up her mind about it yet?) to star in a TV adapatation of the story, as "Gabriella Vanzi, the woman whose glance, direct and depraved at the same time, drove Romeo Daddi mad."

But that's not quite how the story goes. It's not so simple.

Daddi's friends have a theory (but they don't know about any woman):

Because you and I alike still have that little machine known as civilization in good working order inside us; so we let the whole bang shoot of all our actions, all our thoughts, all our feelings sit there, hidden, at the bottom of our consciousnes. But, now suppose that someone, whose little civilization machine's broken down, comes along and looks at you as I looked at you just now, no longer as a joke, but in all seriousness, and without expecting it removes from the bottom of your consciousness all that assembly of thoughts, actions, and feelings which you've got inside you. . . .

Gabriella Vanzi is a friend of Daddi's wife, and she says herself she went a little bit mad the day it happened, and she alone did not drive him mad (I can't believe her "civilization machine" is impaired), but it is the circumstance of them together that unleashed some force, but even that is not the madness, or the source of the madness.

In fact, it has a lot to do with consequences of the kind of zipless fuck that Jong's Isadora so hungered for. It's a kind of a breakdown in our social contract and, more importantly, an assault on the bonds of love. The madness comes from the realization of the meaninglessness of people's actions, despair in the awareness of our capacity for remorselessness regarding our actions. And maybe Gabriella is evil, maybe she really is to blame.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fear of being honest

When Erica Jong's Fear of Flying appeared on David Foster Wallace's list of top ten books a few years ago, along with several other books of suspect reputation, nobody knew if it was meant to be taken seriously, or whether it was some ironic commentary on the nature of such lists, or what.

It's with this in mind that I picked up Fear of Flying for myself last week, after some blog conversation or other about the subject matter Jong deals with, or the tone with which she deals with it, or something. (And it seemed like the perfect break from that ~600-page experimental French novel I'm reading.)

First, let me say: It's not at all what I expected it to be. It's not smutty. It's not just so much overwrought emotion and pop psychology. It's not chick lit. It's not the kind of book to be embarassed about being seen reading it in public.

What it is is an immensely compelling read.

There's a hint of Sex and the City about it, only rawer and without the shoes. Loads of literary allusions too.

Henry Miller compared it to his own Tropic of Cancer. I think it's bigger and better than that. "Because sex is all in the head." So we have to get inside Isadora's head to appreciate how sex fits into her life. And to get inside her head means to come to terms with her family and her Jewishness and her education and her string of boyfriends; her personal history and her cultural history; everything that goes on in her head. It's more than just about a zipless fuck.

Now, I'm not Jewish, this isn't the 1960s, and I've never been in therapy (though maybe I should give it a try?), never married (technically) or divorced, but I found a lot to relate to. I am a woman, after all, and (the patriarchal) society still has expectations regarding how we should look and act. I spent a good portion of my weekend being angry at men, but this novel shouldn't be dismissed as some nutcase feminist diatribe either.

What it is is intensely honest. And this is why I can imagine that David Foster Wallace listed this novel among his top ten in earnest. It is completely genuine. Isadora is no goddamn phony. I don't know how you can tell, there are no specific criteria to check off; it's something you just know, you feel it in your gut.

"I'm the only man you've ever met you can't categorize," he said triumphantly. And then he waited for me to categorize the others. And I obliged. Oh I knew I was making my life into a song-and-dance routine, a production number, a shaggy dog story, a sick joke, a bit. I thought of all the longing, the pain, the letters (sent and unsent), the crying jags, the telephone monologues, the suffering, the rationalizing, the analyzing which had gone into each of these relationships, each of the relationdinghies, each of these relationliners. I knew that the way I described them was a betrayal of their complexity, their humanity, their confusion. Life has no plot. It is far more interesting than anything you can say about it because language, by its very nature, orders things and life really has no order. Even those writers who respect the beautiful anarchy of life and try to get it all into their books, wind up making it seem much more ordered than it ever was and do not, finally, tell the truth. Because no writer can ever tell the truth about life, namely that it is much more interesting than any book. And no writer can tell the truth about people — which is that they are much more interesting than any characters.

It's hard to imagine this book being scandalous when it was first published in 1973. Us 21st-century dwellers, so little phases us, we've seen it all before. Almost 40 years, but really not that much has changed for women. There are things in this novel you don't discuss in polite company; they are difficult to discuss in loving relationships. It comes as a great relief to know that I'm not alone, whether it's regarding sex or body image or motherhood (and I mean in life in general, outside this novel), and thank goodness women talk more freely now and we have the internet, you've come a long way baby, but it's still impossible to get inside someone else's head, it's what makes us all feel so lonely.

Toward the end, I must admit I found the narrator's voice a bit tiresome. The story dragged on a bit, but I do find myself wondering how Isadora's life turned out and I may look up the sequels.

If you're a woman and you ever think about sex or relationships, or if you're a man looking for some idea regarding what women might actually want, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. Maybe you won't get as much out of it as I did, but I think it's worth something, if only as historical artifact.

Reading guide.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

What I mean when I say Rilke speaks to me

I found in my inbox today, courtesy of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, this poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke:

You don't know nights of love? No
petals of soft words float on your blood?
No secret places on your body
throb with memories, like eyes?

And it just makes me gasp and blush and sets my head aswirl. Is it just me?

I don't, as a rule, get poetry. So why this poem? Why does Rilke speak to me, while others hear Keats and Shelley? What is it about Rilke, and about me, that we have something to say to each other? Something other people aren't privy to — it's not for their ears. This is between Rilke and me.

Friday, April 23, 2010


A moment's consideration for the copper-toned slingbacks, worn this week after months of hibernation (with the exception of that romantic little vacation break) — my favourite shoes ever! — now on their last legs. (Pictured here in happier days.)

I loved your subtle points, the way you swooshed sexily around my ankle. You were the perfect height, your heel slender yet solid. Your flexible sole carried me along through some difficult times. You fit me like a glove.

Almost three glorious years we've had! We had a rough patch in our second summer, when your heel needed mending and I couldn't be sure it was worth the cost. Forgive me! It was such a small price to extend our time together.

Remember that time on the beach in Varadero? Our last great adventure. Today you let spill a few grains of Cuban sand from your seams, and it brought a smile to my face.

It's been a difficult week for footwear. These are days in which there are sightings within minutes of each other of both fur-topped boots and flip-flops. But you handled the situation perfectly and with finesse.

I need to replace you, but this year's model is a little too tall, too flashy, bares a little too much toe. I can't bear to be parted from you just yet. Please, one more walk together...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things that are driving me crazy in the user's manual for life

Users' manuals are hard to write. (I know — I've edited translations of some.) Their point is to clearly and simply describe (not necessarily explain) an often complicated and technical process. The more complex the process, the bigger the challenge to present the material unambiguously.

It's not unusual in, say, telephony manuals, to stumble across apparently contradictory instructions or passages of unclear agency.

So it comes as no surprise that in a manual concerning itself with the process of life as it coalesces at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier there should be a few trouble spots.

I'm a little over halfway through Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, and I've identified 4 things that are driving me crazy.

1. The preamble is repeated in chapter 44. It would be reasonable to assume that these paragraphs were singled out after the fact (Or perhaps they were written first. The passage does after all fairly succinctly pin down the point of the whole book.). The only difference between these passages is that the preamble gives one more diagrammatic example in each of the categories of jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the diagrams are very slightly different. Why, why are these different? If the preamble and chapter 44 are the same, why not let them be the same?

2. I'm a bit put out by the lack of symmetry. The fifty-first chapter is special. Note that it is not "chapter fifty-one," in keeping with how the other chapters are labeled; it's "the fifty-first chapter." It is the kernel. Perec has painted himself into Valènes's room; the self-referential painting itemizes the book's contents. The rest of the novel serves only to flesh out what's listed here. However, it is not the precise physical center of the book (unless it is so by page count? but I can't imagine this holding across translations). In a book of 99 chapters, chapter 50 is the middle one. If we include the missing chapter for the ghost cellar (see below), chapter 51 still would not be the centre, but merely would begin the second half. (Why am I so stuck on this chapter, that it necessarily should be physically, structurally central as well as meaningfully?)

3. Perec's knight's tour — the route by which he leads us through the apartment block — is faulty. Was it a mistake he noticed too far along in the process which he never bothered to rectify? I can't believe it went unnoticed! Was it deliberate? It must be deliberate, but why? What happens between chapters 65 and 66? What makes their relationship unique in this building? (I'm not quite there yet. Hopefully I'll be reading these tonight.) Why does Perec skip over the bottom left cellar, which would've satisfied the knightly condition?

4. All the hexagons! What's with all the hexagons?! There are hexagonal red tiles (page 20); a low table, made of a pane of smoked glass set on a polyhedron of hexagonal cross-section (28); hexagonal vignettes (94); glazed red hexagonal tiles (120); glazed ochre-yellow hexagonal tiles (152); a hexagonal fireplace (191); small brownish hexagonal tiles (191); a hexagonal quartz brooch (219). Hmm, perhaps there aren't as many hexagons as I'd thought. (Maybe I missed some? Why'd I think there were so many?) Actually, there's a lot of geometry: circles, trapezoids, spheres, diamonds, squares, cubes, pyramids, rectangles, lozenges, cylinders, octagons, chevrons, kidney shapes. (And colours!) But for some reason the hexagons stand out for me. Perhaps emphasized by the bees, beeswax, honeycomb. Perhaps I've lived in too many apartments with hexagon-tiled bathrooms.

The precision of detail (falsely?) leads one to believe there is significance in it.

(Borges's "Library of Babel" consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms. The "Crimson Hexagon" contains a perfect catalog of the libray. The fifty-first chapter is Life's crimson hexagon.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Today was a good day

I walked to work this morning, and it was a glorious morning. One hour from my front door to my desk, including dropping off the girl, picking up some cash, and thoroughly washing my hands of all the city grime that had settled on me in that time. One hour watching The Main wake up.

At lunch I went to see a chamber orchestra perform Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the church down the street. And it was glorious.

Walking to work would be a good habit to cultivate, I've been thinking, for the exercise and the air — a good way to start the day, in an otherwise underused timeslot, provided I'm sufficiently organized in the morning. However, it does mean losing about 15 minutes of reading time on the metro.

I managed to make up the time today; I left work early (shhh! don't tell my boss), to pick up the girl early ("that way we can spend more time together", she'd suggested). I caught up with her after-school group at the park. She played a bit longer, I read on a swing, and we had a wonderful time.

Spring may finally be here. This may merit a new pair of walking shoes.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The lovely, eclectic selection of books published by New York Review Books is meant to be read, of course, but the colours, the texture, the look, the feel lead me to believe NYRB books are designed to be fetishized.

Maylin of The Dewey Divas and the Dudes recently shared a little NYRB love with me (thanks for the ARCs!), so I thought I'd do my part to spread a little NYRB enthusiasm.

First off, check out Maylin's NYRB challenge, to read 50 NYRB Classics within the year. It's this series of posts that made me sit up and take notice of them and learn to focus my book-fetishizing tendencies.

Spotlight Series will be featuring NYRB Classics during the week of May 16, 2010, and you can sign up to participate by reviewing an NYRB Classic (maybe I will).

I haven't purposely embarked upon an NYRB challenge myself, but it seems I'm amassing quite a collection of them. I'll try not to let the acquisition too far exceed the consumption.

Here's a list of those I now own, with links to reviews where applicable:
Let me mention also a couple favourites, even though I don't own the NYRB editions (my reading predated their release):

And a couple more I'm dying to own:
The New York Review Children's Collection also has its charms:
The NYRB Classics blog: A Different Stripe.
And follow @nyrbclassics on Twitter.

Is there a particular NYRB title that you have your eye on? Or one that you especially recommend?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Music to read Perec by

I was relieved to find that Life A User's Manual is about 100 pages shorter than I thought, if you think it's OK, and I do, to subtract all the varied backmatter: index, chronology, checklist, translator's notes. Also, I found a very useful map on page 569, which, while included in the table of contents, could've been more clearly labelled, like, as a map.

I was early trepidatious of reading reviews or explanations or theories, of encountering spoilers. But quite by accident in an early Saturday morning pre-coffee haze I became better acquainted with my paperback, and I'm glad I did. Nothing to be afraid of! And a map! From chapter 3 I'd been toying with the urge to map out the apartment block for myself, but now I wouldn't have to. I've looked deep inside myself and can admit that I could never hope to decipher all of Perec's tricks, that figuring it all out for myself is unrealistic, and there's only a richer experience to be gained by being open to background information from varied sources. So, bring it on!

Now, I'm struggling with background music. Some books scream out for a soundtrack. I think this is one of them.

This is tough. French. Experimental. I thought Satie. But it's a little early, and not all that adventurous. But nothing too dada, too obvious. I thought 60s-70s, and so yé-yé, like Serge Gainsbourg, but maybe that's a little too pop and also a little too sexy, but then, I haven't read the book yet, so how can I know?

The experiment with form begs for jazz, but by 1975 jazz is a little vast — where to start?

The puzzle of it, its mathematics, suggest Philip Glass.

I find that Perec worked at one point with musician Philippe Drogoz. I can't find much information about Philippe Drogoz, and my sight-reading is a little weak to get a feel for the scores available online. I find a reference to a piece of his being based on Beethoven's Violin concerto, op. 61. So that's what I listened to for a while. Classical, and classic.

Then I remembered. Madame de Beaumont's concert grand has something on the stand (page 7). "Gertrude of Wyoming" by Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Well, it turns out this isn't easily listenable. Arthur Stanley Jefferson was the real name of Stan Laurel — funny guy, but not exactly a song writer. "Gertrude of Wyoming" does exist as an epic poem by Thomas Campbell, about the massacre in 1778 of American revolutionaries at the hands of Loyalists and Iroquois. But to my knowledge (and Google's), it was never set to music.

In a still life (page 15) is The Unfinished Symphony: A Novel, of which the author cannot be deciphered. That's not much to go on. The world has seen countless unfinished symphonies...

Vera Orlova makes her appearance with Schoenberg and Sprechgesang.
Lieder by Schumann and Hugo Wolf. Songs by Mussorgsky (which sound dark and melodramatic). I'm sampling all of these.

She sang the role of Angelica in Arconati's Orlando, with the famous last line: "Innamorata, mio cuore tremante voglio morire." There are some operas telling the stroy of Orlando (notably by Handel and Vivaldi), but Julio Arconati (1828-1905) appears to be a fictional invention inspired from Jules Vernes' Le Château des Carpathes. The imaginary opera is clearly based on the poem "Orlando Furioso" by Ludovico Ariosto, which was never set to music outside of these fictions.

Perec is creating an imaginary aural sculpture.

There used to be an opera singer in #3. When the building's first occupants moved in, us among them, she sent everyone a notice that she rehearsed regularly between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, apologizing in advance for any disruption it might cause and willing to accommodate anyone who might feel put out. I worked from home in those days; I know she toured often, but not once did I hear her; #3 spanned the front of the building, and my workspace was in the back. I sometimes felt sorry for this, for the fact that I never passed her on the stairs, that, since we live in #1, just inside the building's entrance, I never had opportunity to walk past her door and possibly overhear the strains of heaven.

What music do you recommend for reading Perec?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Danse macabre

Der Zauberberg! I'm halfway up the mountain! I give you here some of my thoughts on the remainder of chapter 5 of The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, after Hans bought a thermometer and saw his x-ray (a copy of which he carries in his wallet).

Let us note that I have yet to discover what is magic about it — the book's magic is undeniable, but that of the mountain itself is still not clear to me. Certainly it does not restore to vigour the bodies that come for repose there, though its effect on Hans's spirit may be seen to be restorative. He seems to have awoken from a slumber — he has achieved a kind of freedom from the life below; others may call his general demeanour slightly fevered.

The magic most in evidence is the distortion of time. It's kind of appropriate that I left off from this book just after Christmas at around the sanatorium's Christmas celebrations and now after a few days of intense reading at Easter I'm all caught up to Easter (beginning of chapter 6).

Time passes, time passes, and Hans is completely enamored of Madame Clawdia Chauchat, much as her door-slamming continues to rile him. It excites him now beyond reason.

Hans sits on the veranda, chatting with other women, hoping to catch her attention. It's all very ridiculous because we know he wants to make Clawdia jealous, make some impression on her, and we know it's a feeble plan and we know it's the sort of thing that Clawdia would never fall for.

Hans follows up on the rumours he's heard that Doctor Behrens has painted a portrait of Clawdia, and he contrives to be invited to see it. The doctor is modest: "Well, I know her more internally, subcutaneously, if you get my drift. From her blood pressure, tissue firmness, and lymph circulation." Hans ensure the portrait stays close as they have their coffee. They (with cousin Joachim, of course) discuss beauty and physiology. The coffee mill is of an erotic design. The doctor explains the physiological processes behind blushing and goosebumps.

Hans takes to studying anatomy, biology, etc. He meditates on the miracle of life, and of the nervous system.

Christmas comes and there is a death among them, and Hans, in defiance of the usual practice, wants to know everything about it. With complicated motives, he resolves to bring about a moral revolution; he will bring flowers and birthday greetings and conversation and diversion to those who are seriously ill, the ghosts of the sanatorium. It's a kind of spiritual cleansing he claims, but it's also perverse and gruesome, the details of disease he embraces, the intensity with which he now dances with death.

Herr Settembrini marvels at Hans; this charity wasn't to be expected from "one of life's problem children," who himself needs looking after. And then it is Mardi Gras, or Walpurgis Night (as this section of the chapter is titled), or both, and carnival is upon them. Settembrini describes Madame Chauchat as Lilith (that is, he calls her Lilith and explains the Hebrew reference to the boys, but it's not clear whether she herself defines herself this night as Lilith). I sense there must be some witchly treachery about her.

There are games, and Hans needs a pencil, so he asks her, and this is only the third (or maybe second?) occasion on which they've actually spoken. The elaborate dance of their flirtation escalates. She tells him she'll soon be leaving the sanatorium. I suppose he feels he has nothing to lose.

The bulk of their conversation is in French; Russian would be out of the question for Hans, and she's simply not comfortable in German, nor are the evening's festivities conducive to it. So Hans accommodates her in the language of love. Everything is translated into English in my version, but their French is rendered in italic type, and I think even the look of it, its slant and flow, contribute to a certain crazy frenzy, the feeling of being carried away.

Their exchange, or at least Hans's part in it, is weird, extremely intimate, and, dare I say, erotic, in a macabre, fleshly, sort of way.

What an immense festival of caresses lies in those delicious zones of the human body! A festival of death with no weeping afterward! Yes, good God, let me smell the odor of the skin on your knee, beneath which the ingeniously segmented capsule secretes its slippery oil! Let me touch in devotion your pulsing femoral artery where it emerges at the top of your thigh and then divides farther down into the two arteries of the tibia! Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down — oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!

When finally they parted, I wanted a cigarette.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

This, that, the other thing

I was all excited about returning to the arms of Thomas Mann after having set aside The Magic Mountain back in January, and I had a wonderful few days with him, and I made it past the midway point. But now I'm distracted again.

Boy! was I glad to be working from home today as Life A User's Manual, by Georges Perec, was delivered to my door. I hadn't intended to commit to any kind of readalong so soon (after last year's glut — Infinite Jest and 2666), but finally I couldn't resist the prospect of sharing in this book with a number of fine people (Claire, Emily, Frances, Richard, and Sarah), and in particular these impressions made an impression on me. I'm a little daunted, though, now that I see how big it is.

Also arrived in today's post: Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner, which I'd never heard of before its inclusion on the WSJ's list of novels of ideas. I love medieval incestuous monks! So much to look forward to!

I recently zipped through Robert J Sawyer's Wake, the second in his WWW series. I really can't stand this guy. I love his books though (and love to hate parts of them too). But then there are bits of the Author that seep into the text — the geek who tries too hard to impress girls, to prove he's an enlightened, sensitive male; the guy who blows his own horn just a little too loudly or in the wrong places. One of his characters was noted to have been watching Flashforward the other night fer chrissake (Robert J Sawyer wrote the novel (which I thoroughly enjoyed) on which the TV show is based, and is a consultant to the program). And there's something about him writing about a 16-year-old girl's sexual awakening which is downright creepy. I can't put my finger on it.

Yet, for all their flaws, I can't put down his books (usually — I never made it through Hominids, let alone the rest of the trilogy). I mean, sure I insult them, but I gobble them up. The man has great ideas. But the writing... Oh, it could just be so much better. Dialogue is stilted, though Sawyer's made tremendous improvement over the last decade. There are some weird, misplaced (in my view) cultural references: Do kids today even listen to Robert Palmer? Sure it's in the context of the 16-year-old's dad, but it seems awfully indulgent to give this minor character a whole parody. As for the intended audience, while this ref would work for geeky oldtimers, for most of the rest of the book they would probably feel very much talked down to. It's preachy about things barely relevant (mmm, no, not at all relevant) to the story (for example, gay marriage). And some relatively simple concepts (whether in AI, game theory, or ethics) felt over-explained.

I have to say: it's one of the nicest ARCs I've ever received (won in a contest) — the glossy cover, the binding, the paper quality. And, I can't wait to read the next book in the series. Be advised, they don't really work as standalone novels. I highly recommend this series as "starter sci-fi" for teenagers. Grown-ups would do better with The Terminal Experiment — the first Sawyer I ever read, as a direct result of hearing him (he can't have been that annoying) in interview with Peter Gzowski, and one of my favourites. If you really want to know more about Sawyer, you can check the entry in Wikipedia, which I'm sure he's edited extensively.

Phew. I feel better now.

I'm off to read Perec, tout de suite. It's a self-help book, right?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Sick with longing for it

I was a bit slow to start liking this book, by which I mean it took about 7 pages to realize I was reading something not lofty and poetic but actually beautiful, but about 70 pages to realize that this book was just what I needed. It's The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels. And in it I found a much-needed oasis of stillness amid my otherwise chaotic life and frenzied reading habits of late.

[Really. Frenzied. Like I have this compulsion to read this one book, and then another, and another, and I want to, really, but as much as I devour them I feel like they also devour me, and this makes me feel anxious and tired and confused.]

It's 1964, and Jean has accompanied her husband Avery to Egypt, an engineer working on the relocation of the temples of Abu Simbel, as necessitated by the construction of the Aswan Dam.

Now, this is an amazing, jaw-droppingly complex feat of engineering that actually happened. Understand that these temples are old. They lay buried under sand for a couple millennia, completely forgotten. So they're rediscovered in the early 1800s, and about a century and a half later, the powers that be decide to up and move the whole thing, plus the villages in the area. And they do. They cut apart the whole thing, block by tremendous block, with all parts mapped and labeled, and shift it to a more convenient location, away from the waters of Lake Nasser, created to accommodate the rising waters that would result from the new dam across the Nile.

Avery has an architectural sensibility, so his thoughts focus on how we define space, in a man-made way.

Jean's a botanist. She's a lot more organic. For her, space is defined in more intangible ways. Space itself is more intangible; space is interior.

[Here there's a little conversation going on between a few of my recent reads. "Do you belong to where you come from or to where you're headed?" asks The Forty Rules of Love. Jean would say, both, I think. "The future casts its shadow on the past." It shifts, you carry both with you, they're tempered by the wind, and they change each other. Nikolski wants to map her experience on planes of space, time, and culture, and through plants and memories and their seeds. "First gestures contain everything; they are a kind of map."]

Then there are the Lost Villages. Avery was also involved in this operation in 1957, flooding the shore of the St Lawrence in preparation for the Seaway. Ten communities were submerged, or relocated.

Back in Toronto, Jean meets Lucjan, who tells her about Warsaw. Warsaw was razed by Germans in 1944. It was rebuilt, of course, but what's unsettling to my mind is that it was rebuilt to be exactly as it was before. Using the same bricks whenever possible. So the Old Town market square was rebuilt to look old. It was only about 40 years since reconstruction when I was there, but it looked centuries older. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But I tell you, it felt weird, like something was off-kilter. Is it old, or isn't it? Can any part of it really be the same? Has its essence been disturbed?

These three examples are quite extreme, but one has to wonder what degree of shift, of relocation, changes a thing. So Jean's whole sense of identity is awash.

Late in the course of events she encounters a jazz band, and this is the point at which, to this reader anyway, Egypt and her mother's garden and Warsaw and her relationship with her husband and all her ghosts come together:

The Stray Dogs took each song apart, dismantling the melody, painstakingly, painfully, sappers dismantling a lie, and then turned each single component around so many times it disintegrated. Then they put it together again from nothing, notes and fragments of notes, bent notes, and breaths, squawks on the horns and the reeds' empty-lidded beating of keys. By the time the melody reappeared, one was sick with longing for it. [...]

The first time Jean heard the Dogs, they were rehearsing at Paweł's café, after hours, a broken-down dirge. It tormented the air with its clockwork irregularity, a mechanical breakdown of stops and starts, notes grinding, grating, surging, limping. It was the music of revellers too old to be staying out all night, too dwindled to walk another step. Impatient and sad. A tonal meagreness. One by one the players dropped away until there was silence. Jean listened, mesmerized, the way one watches a fallen bowl circle round and round on the floor, waiting for the inevitable stillness.

She thought of dangerous rocks cascading intermittently down a slope, of stalled traffic, of conversations that stop and start not lazily, but instead signaling the end of everything.

[There's the stillness. In the bowl.]

All of this deconstruction and a reconstruction is, of course, a metaphor for Jean's relationship with Avery, and it's further echoed in her sense of identity.

Jean's journey is a deeply emotional one. It's hard to imagine how so much turmoil and so much stillness could coexist, but she embodies both. Still waters.

The Poles argue over things like: "Language is only approximate; it's violence that's precise." Michaels' language is quite precise — quite approximately perfectly indirect, a building of words that gives shape to an empty space — in evoking the violence done these places and spaces and memories too.

Edited to add:
By the way, this book first registered on my radar when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and I read reviews at The Mookse and the Gripes and KevinfromCanada.