Thursday, January 27, 2011

A girl and her cat

"No one has any idea, do they, until they have children, what it means. It's all I can do just to keep up with the rush of things, the meals one after another, the food, let alone giving the children the attention they should have. I know that Emily is ready for more than I have time to give her, but she is such a demanding child, so difficult, she always has taken a lot out of me, she want wants to be read to and played with all the time, but I'm cooking, I'm ordering food, I'm at it all day, well you know how it is, there isn't time for what there has to be done, I simply don't have time for the child. I did manage to get a girl for a time last year, but that was really more trouble than it was worth, really, all their problems and their crises and you have to deal with them, she took up as much of my time as Emily does, but I did get an hour to myself after lunch and I put my feet up for a bit, but I did not find I had the energy to read, let alone study, no one knows how it is, what it means, no, children do for you, they do you in, I'm not what I was, I know that only too well I am afraid."

The child on her knee, two or three years old, a heavy passive child dressed in white wool that smelled damp, was being jogged faster now; his eyes were glazing as the world bounced up and down around him, his adenoidal mouth was open and slack, the full cheeks quivering.

The husband, passive but really tense with irritation — with guilt — smoked on, listening, frowning.

"But what can you give out when you get nothing in? I am empty, drained; I am exhausted by lunchtime and all I want is to sleep by then. And when you think of what I used to be, what I was capable of! I never thought of being tired, I never imagined I could become the sort of woman who would never have time to open a book. But there it is."

She sighed, quite unselfconsciously. She was like a child, that tall, solid, confident woman; she needed understanding as a child does. She sat looking inward into the demands of her days and her nights. No one else was there for her, because she felt she was talking to herself: they could not hear, or would not. She was trapped, but did not know why she felt this, for her marriage and her children were what she personally had wanted and had aimed for — what society had chosen for her. Nothing in her education or experience had prepared her for what she did in fact feel, and she was isolated in her distress and her bafflement, sometimes even believing that she might perhaps be ill in some way.

— from The Memoirs of a Survivor, by Doris Lessing.

This is a very weird little book. The Memoirs of a Survivor is described as a dystopia, and by Doris Lessing herself as "an attempt at autobiography." It reads like part fairy tale, part tract, a report from another time and place, not quite like a confessional diary as one might expect from the title.

It is never entirely clear what it is that's being survived, or who is surviving it. There's the girl, Emily, and the woman, the narrator, on whose doorstep she turned up, charged with being responsible for her. And Emily's cat.

While it's the girl who thrives in the outside world, the anarchic, back-to-basics conditions where she establishes herself as a kind of leader (or, at least, a leader's girlfriend), it's clearly the woman who's a survivor of Emily's puberty, teenage years, sexual awakening.

The girl and the woman are incomprehensible to each other, yet also the same. They're at a bit of a standoff. The narrator very sagely recognizes that we too were once children, once young and in love. Yet it's somewhat unsettling, however reasonable, for her to stand back, so detached, and watch Emily grow up, let her grow up all by herself.

Meanwhile, there's the world falling apart outside, we know not why, and the walls of the woman's apartment melting away to show her other realities, past and future. (We know Emily's mother, as excerpted above, only through these glimpses through the wall.)

If you've never read Doris Lessing, I don't recommend this novel as an introduction to her. But even though this novel is kind of all over the place, there are some lovely thought-provoking bits, about children, about growing up, gender politics, etc.

New York Times review, 1975.

I almost think this book's really about the bond between a girl and her cat. Which makes for a pretty remarkable story, really. (I say this as someone who has lately enjoyed a good deal of quality time with her cat; it feels like she's finally chosen me to be hers — we have an understanding, she and I.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The mountain and the shortcut

The path was clear. From the metro station exit, around the corner, down the street, across the parking lot, through the alley, and it's the next building down, across the street. Then it snowed.

Since the first big snow back in December, I've had to cross a mountain to get to work. When they cleared the parking lot, they piled the snow in the back corner, blocking access to the alleyway.

That first day, I wasn't sure it was passable. But I found a path that had been trodden before me. Up and over.

The second day, I met someone coming the other way. Giggling and carrying a plate of cookies. High, I thought. I backed up a couple paces to let her pass and we exchanged some pleasantry. At last I came down on the other side, full with the uncertainty of fresh snow and giggling myself. Silly, slippery snow mountain.

The mountain has changed. The path is now a deep furrow, so narrow that, ironically, it's much harder to get a solid foothold. There is no longer a steady incline. A parking space has been reclaimed by carving into the slope. The way across is a plateau, but the step up to (or down from) it is treacherous.

This week in some stupid -30° weather, a colleague on the way out of the building asked if I knew about the "shortcut." Somehow, after 2 months of employ, I was finally deemed worthy of this secret knowledge, or maybe she just took pity on me in the cold.

Quick across the street and in through an unmarked industrial door beside a loading dock. Two levels of parking, eerily quiet given that most of the city is knocking off work at this hour. A stairwell and a narrow hallway wending back and forth. We exit beside a bank of elevators at the main front entranceway to the building. It's only appropriate that the occupant of the building be a major producer of video games.

Outside across a different parking lot, and now into the stock exchange building. More stairways before hitting the tunnels that join up to the metro.

I don't think it was shorter, but it was warmer for the length of two short city blocks (broken up by a block of the brisk outdoors).

No matter which path I choose on my way to and from work, it seems I choose my own adventure.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Today we went to the bookstore, me and the kid. Some ridiculous -20° outside, but we made this plan over a week ago, and and we've been looking forward to it.

I've long since (mostly) come to terms with the fact that Helena is not the sort of reader I hoped and expected a daughter of mine to be.

Confession: We do not have regular bedtime stories, and haven't had for years. If it wasn't fun, there didn't seem to be any point to it — more trouble than it was worth. There may not be a lot of support for this sort of strategy in the parenting books (although, I wouldn't know, not being the type to consult that kind of reference), but I think she's growing up to have a reasonable appreciation for books all the same.

We have the occasional evening or weekend afternoon, some spontaneous, some planned, full of books, mine and hers, and often cocoa, on my bed, and it is comfort and joy. And if she does not read every day, I think at least she remembers to make a special time for it.

Helena received a gift card for the bookstore for her birthday some time ago, and just last week was lamenting the fact that she didn't get the one book she really wanted for Christmas. So we made the plan to acquire it.

What's cool with second-graders these days and new on our shelf today: Geronimo Stilton: Le secret du courage!

Friday, January 21, 2011

There are days

As much as I love my new job, there are days... There are days I'd rather stay in bed. When it's cold, when the world outside is blanketed in snow, just a day, to rest and replenish myself.

"Momma," she exhorts, "go back to bed. Just look at it outside. You're in no condition for that. You're tired. You deserve to rest. You don't need to worry about me. I can take care of myself. I can go to school by myself. You should stay home today. In bed."

I smile. That kid can be really sweet.

"You deserve a day off, Momma. Really, go back to bed. Don't worry about a thing." She drives her argument home: "I've already arranged everything with your boss."

And for a moment, just a moment, my hopes are raised. For a moment I let myself think, Really?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

About enough

"An attentive reader will always learn more, and more quickly, from good authors than from life. "

I thought I should say a few things about Enough about Love, by Hervé Le Tellier, set for publication in February. My review copy (in e-book format!) has already long since vanished into the ether. I read this back in October, and enjoyed it immensely.

Do I have anything more to say about it? It's proven to be mostly forgettable, but that shouldn't diminish the enjoyability factor. Reminds me a lot of Kundera — kind of philosophy lite, in a relationship-y context. The many reference to weightier works (including none other than Madame Bovary, which I was reading at the time).

[Of her husband, "Anna wants him to be more outgoing, more dazzling. She is actually less eager for him to be successful than for him to want to be successful." It's Emma and Charles all over again!]

On the extensive bookshelves against the far wall, literature rubs shoulders with psychoanalysis in peaceful conflict. Joyce mingles with Pierre Kahn, Leiris is shoehorned against Lacan, a book by Queaneau which has been put back in the wrong place — a good sign for a book — leans up against a Deleuze.

That's a lot of name-dropping. I won't pretend to know the first thing about half the figures Le Tellier mentions. He seems to do so with purpose, and the references do seem to bear some relationship on the plot and character issues at work, whether the nature of love, power politics, creativity, identity, destiny, whatever.

Thomas shakes his head. In these few minutes of his life, he can see a fork in his own destiny. That was the word Anna used in her last session, when she said, "I don't know whether Yves is my destiny." Coming from Anna, the word is ambiguous, somewhere between freedom of choice and the inevitability of fate.

Thomas does not believe in fate. He would have the power of speech and actions shape our lives. To him, that is the point of psychoanalysis, giving the analysand the strength to become the driving force in his or her own life. If the accident just now had actually happened, he likes to think that, against all the odds, he would have known how to play it right, to become one of the people Louise would lean on.

As a teenager, he had endless discussions about the elasticity of individual fates and History (with a capital H, as Perec used to say). The budding Marxist confronted trainee Hegelians. If Hitler had died in a car crash in 1931, would some inertia in the powers that be have doggedly set the war and the Holocaust back on track? Was Stalinism conceivable with a different Stalin? Who could have replaced Trotsky?

Other questions hover. Where did he stand in Louise's story? Did a lover have to turn up at this particular point in her life? Was he interchangeable? Thomas has no idea.

See the review at The Complete Review for a fuller notion of what's going on in this book, and this passionate endorsement.


It's a romance novel, but with a very mature approach to love as it is among very real, and very smart, grown-ups. I can see myself picking up this novel again.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Simenon's bedrooms

So here finally is a Simenon novel I found less than enthralling. Three Bedrooms in Manhattan doesn't have any criminal elements to speak of — it's more of a romance — and I suspect this has a great deal to do with the fact that this novel on the whole just didn't work for me.

Why did he keep thinking about her? Why had he gone out? He had promised himself that one morning he'd be there in the hallway or on the stairs when she left. But every time, she managed to get up at seven sharp. She didn't need an alarm clock. She didn't bother to wake her friend. Combe never heard them talking in the morning.

Stray sounds from the bathroom, perhaps a kiss on the forehead for the man lying asleep, then she opened the door and slipped out. He imagined her searching briskly for a taxi to take her back to the station.

What did she look like in the morning? Could you make out the night's traces on her face, in her sagging shoulders, her hoarse voice?

That was the woman he wanted to see — not the one who got off the train, brimming with self-confidence, who then showed up at the studio as if she was just dropping in on some friends.

He wanted to see the woman at daybreak, when she went off alone, leaving the man asleep, selfish, stupefied, his damp forehead grazed by her lips.

He came to a corner that seemed vaguely familiar. A club was closing. The last customers were out on the sidewalk, waiting in vain for a taxi. On the corner two men who'd been drinking were finding it hard to say good-bye. They shook hands, pulled apart, then immediately turned back for a final confidence or renewed protestations of friendship.

Combe, too, looked like he'd been in a bar, not like someone who'd just gotten up.

But he hadn't been drinking. He was sober. He hadn't been out listening to jazz. He'd spent the night in the desert of his bed.

All this in considering the unseen woman who visits his neighbour. There are some lovely, moody, poignant bits (I mean, "the desert of his bed"!), and that spare, clipped language drew me forward, but I found Franҫois Combe to be completely abstruse. I don't understand him at all, and I can't believe the character was designed in this way to be so deliberately opaque. And I can't imagine any woman falling in love with him.

It's said that this novel is quite autobiographical; maybe my distaste for Simenon the man is colouring my reading. Perhaps Combe is not so different from Simenon's other (anti)heroes, but without the focus (or perhaps distraction) of some criminal or seedy element, some genuine evil or real meaninglessness (none of this lovelorn bullshit), he is less easy to bear. Less culpable, but less sympathetic. I just didn't get Combe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An almost cosmic sadness

Despite the mildness of the air, he felt cold inside, and he searched fruitlessly for his tweed jacket or his raincoat. He had another lighter jacket in his suitcase. Going around to the back of the car, he opened the trunk, and his expression became one of stupefaction and dismay.

He was filled with a vast sadness that morning, an almost cosmic sadness. The suitcase was gone, but before its removal Nancy's things had been taken out of it — underclothing, sandals, and a swim suit lay scattered among the tools. The toilet kit, which contained among other things his comb, toothbrush, and razor, was also gone.

He did not attempt to think. He was just sad, and would have given a great deal to have things turn out less squalidly.

— from Red Lights, by Georges Simenon.

It's impossible for me to rank these books. Just when I think I've read the best Simenon ever, I read another one that's just as good.

So this one's a little different because of the American setting. There's an undeniable American feel to it: quintessential late-summer American suburban domestic. And Steve's a bit more of a jerk than the characters populating the other novels. Maybe this makes him more tragic too?

In brief, Steve and Nancy head out from New York to Maine, to pick up their kids from summer camp. Steve wants to stop for a drink (and then another) but that doesn't go over too well with Nancy. (Although, a lot of the not going over well is blown beyond proportion in Steve's head — she really doesn't say all that much. Steve gets the vibe from her presence, her look — from working himself up.) Steve's basically picking a fight with her, and being a big jerk about it, after building a case against her in his unspoken thoughts addressed to complete strangers, and in defense of a man's got a right to have a drink now and then if he wants.

Steve makes yet another stop, but when he comes back out from this roadside bar, Nancy's not in the car. And now things spiral totally out of control. Really. There's an escaped convict, and also a nosy telephone operator. Gripping stuff.

It's less a mystery than a psychological study of this couple with their petty squabbling. But Steve has issues too. For example, that his wife works and is relatively successful. (It's worth noting also that she would be less valuable as a wife if she were less good-looking.) He's emasculated, and drinking is one way to assert his manliness. But it all goes so horribly wrong.

But then there's redemption! (Of a sort, for Steve.)

We experience the goings on from Steve's (in my opinion warped and unhealthy) perspective, but I would love to read Nancy's side of the story! I can't decide if she's mature and realistic and at terms with her life, or pitiful. Someone should write that novel for me please!

Monday, January 10, 2011

On the shore

"What is it?"

"It's not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can't express."

"There you go," Sada replies. "Exactly. If you can't get it across in words then it's better not to try."

"Even to yourself?" I ask.

"Yeah, even to yourself," Sada says. "Better not to try to explain it, even to yourself."

I won't try (too hard) to explain it (much). I read Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore over the holiday season, finally and having made some false starts on it over the last few months. I find reading Murakami demands a certain state of mind — sometimes the willed reading of him might bring this state into being, but sometimes it doesn't come so easy. That said, once I was in it, I loved it.

Murakami's not exactly a prose stylist, at least not in translation, but he does have the occasional way with words ("Her smile steps offstage for a moment, then does an encore"). He's more an idea guy. Thing is, I'm not really sure what the idea is.

Now, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles was pretty mind-blowing. Dream-like and trippy. But now that I "know" Murakami, his style of slipstream is a literary normal that I'm perfectly accustomed to. I mean, this being the fourth Murakami I've read, the edge is gone; it's no longer weird.

It's a lovely feeling, to be swept up in this surreality, the strange interconnections. I kind of wish I'd discovered Murakami decades ago — as a university student I'd have peed my pants with excitement to get my hands on his latest. But now, as much as I enjoy getting lost in Murakami's world (and make no mistake: I will read plenty more, and I'm plenty excited about 1Q84), I feel like I've been tricked — it just doesn't strike me as all that deep.

I'm not entirely sure what makes me say that, and I'm not all that sure what "deep" is. But take for example this idea: "People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues." It's just thrown out there in a casual conversation. Sure, the character doesn't say this in a vacuum; there's context, there are references to Aristotle, to Oedipus. But the idea itself is the sort of thing you could write volumes about; yet there it is, for the reader to latch onto, or not, for a paragraph or two, and that's pretty much the end of the idea. It doesn't exactly weave itself throughout the novel as a grand theme (unless you work really hard at analyzing the novel that way).

I suppose this makes it deeper than the books that don't even bother throwing that kind of idea to the reader, but it makes me feel teased and short-changed. Maybe, even, there are too many ideas, and they're all over the place, touched on lightly, and this upsets some literary order I keep in my head. Not that I'm averse to doing any thinking for myself, but Murakami lulls me into believing that I'm thinking when I'm not. I finish Murakami novels with a "What just happened?" feeling, not with regard to the plot, but with a question mark hovering over the (pleasurable) immersive experience of reading a Murakami novel: Why did I love it so much? Neat trick. I don't know how he pulls it off.

Do you love Murakami? Do you think he's "deep"? Or just beautiful?

Apart from the talking cats, and that a guy carried on conversations with the cats, my favourite part of Kafka on the Shore is the digressions on music. The book should come with a built-in soundtrack. Schubert. Beethoven's Archduke Trio. Haydn. (I had to make due with other Beethoven trios.)

They say writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is hard to do well. I love that Murakami has characters talking about music, with interesting things to say about it, and naturally.

"That's why I like to listen to Schubert while I'm driving. Like I said, it's because all the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I'm driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of — that certain types of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging. Do you know what I'm getting at?"

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The catastrophe of my personality

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

— from "Mayakovsky," by Frank O'Hara, in Meditations in an Emergency.

I first heard this bit of poetry quite recently, and it's probably the first I'd ever heard of Frank O'Hara, and I'm sure it's true for many people, when Don Draper recited it at the close of an episode of Mad Men.

It's not the first time Mad Men has inspired my literary pickings, and I'm sure it won't be the last, but something about this recitation made me gasp, and cry a little, and want to know everything about Frank O'Hara and the bar he sat in while writing it.

I think this stanza did all it could do for me, and then some — one beautiful television minute, lingering and working through my bloodstream. Weeks since I first saw it, I think about it every day.

But I ordered this collection for my sister straightaway (happy birthday Ivonna!), because, well, I don't know why. There is no emergency, no urgent need for meditation, not beyond the daily emergency of life. Not for her, I don't think, and not for me. It may be the coldest day of the year, that's all, and we should meditate some.

I think about becoming myself again.

Friday, January 07, 2011

New year, new books

Working my way through Simenon's romans durs, one by tragic one. Ordering them one by one, on an as-needed basis; otherwise, I fear I would glut on them, not sleep at all, perhaps drink myself to death, or just leave. Greatly relieved to discover that NYRB is issuing another one this year, so I don't yet have to fear running out.

Treated myself to Aurorarama, by Jean-Christophe Valtat, because it sounds breathtakingly lovely and weird, and I'm particularly enamored of the possibility to confront for myself the copyeditor's dilemmas therein. Seems I'm not yet in the mood for it, though.

After talking up the brilliance of China Miéville and of The City & the City in particular to various coworkers, I'm all in a lather over when there might be something more for me to read, and lo! Embassytown! Sounds like a sequel! But no! it's something entirely new!

Resolving also to finish The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) before the winter is through.

That is all.