Thursday, September 29, 2011

It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful

Every day that passed nibbled away some of my meager capital of happiness. That isn't the right word, but as I can't find another, and as people are always talking about happiness, I am obliged to make do with the word myself.

The Train, by Georges Simenon, has been nibbling away at my conscience since I put it down over a week ago.

It turned out not to be the book I expected it to be, and it is all the finer for it.

I had expected some kind of psychological suspense, some small mystery — the sort of thing I've come to expect from Simenon. Man walks away from his ordinary life, to finally really start to live. And on the other side of the tracks he discoveres life with prostitutes and other criminal elements; he may become involved in crime, even murder, himself. What the reader generally discovers is the seedy side of of an ordinary mind. It's what happens when you give in to impulse, desire, your baser instincts; when you let the monster of existential dread crawl out of a tiny crevice in your brain, the monster sets up house and governs your affairs.

That's what most Simenon novels feel like (his romans durs).

Early on it dawned on me that The Train was not a typical roman dur. It was some kind of war story, and potentially, since Marcel is riding a train going god knows where, and his story becomes entwined with that of a Jewish woman, a story about the Holocaust — not the sort of thing I like reading about, although far more horrific than any "horror story" in the conventional sense.

But the book isn't that either.

Altogether my impression, when war broke out, was that fate was playing another trick on me and I was not surprised for I was practically certain that was going to happen one day.

This time it wasn't a microbe, a virus, a congenital deformity of heaven knows what part of the eye — the doctors have never been able to agree about my eyes. It was a war which was hurling men against one another in tens of millions.

The idea was ridiculous, I realize that. But the fact remains that I knew, that I was ready. And that waiting, ever since October, was becoming unbearable. I didn't understand. I kept wondering why what was bound to happen didn't happen.

What was bound to happen didn't happen.

Marcel is not led to his death. He does not commit murder or consort with prostitutes. In fact, he doesn't even walk away from his life — at least, not in a very deliberate way.

The story: As Nazi tanks approach, Marcel's family takes the decision to leave, or rather they go with the flow, and end up leaving, just like everybody else. They board the train, but Marcel is separated from his pregnant wife and his little girl. And Marcel doesn't seem to know how he feels about this. And when Anna boards the train, Marcel starts to feel a little differently.

Anna's mysterious and exotic, and maybe a little dangerous. But she is also a very sympathetic character, for whom the cicumstances may be consequential.

It's a distressing novel because it's about doing the right thing, and it forces you to consider what the right thing is. How often when we do the right thing is it the socially expected thing, the socially accepted thing? Doing right is an adherence to social norms and standards; it has very little to do with being good. Often, "right" and "good" coincide. But it's devastating when they come into conflict.

The horror in this novel is subtle. It has very little to with Nazis or with war, although both contribute to the circumstances in which this particular horror thrives, when man forgets his social contract and his actions are less than human. It's somewhat understandable that when you know the Nazis are coming, your social order starts to fall apart, but the savage animal acts, man against man, are not made more agreeable by acknowledging their source.

So. Here I am talking about brutality, but the novel doesn't really show much evidence of it. It's subtle. Simenon's subtle. It's like this. For example. The train is packed with people wanting out, some have tried to bring all their belongings, others have brought the wrong belongings. And the barmaid favours someone with her favours, and under cover of dark they have sex, right there on the train, inches away from everybody, and really, aren't there more important things toward which to be directing one's attention and energy. The scene (and this sort of behaviour recurs) is not particularly long or lurid, but it's somehow... indecent. And even though it registers on Marcel as such, he starts not to care. And so the slip into something less than civilized.

"Even so, we shall probably never see anything we leave behind again..."

The idea didn't upset me. On the contrary, it filled me with a sort of somber joy, like that of destroying something you have patiently built up with your own hands.

Marcel was a sickly child, till he grew into a sickly youth. He spent years in a sanatorium, and somehow survived to become a weak man. He sheds his home, his material possessions, his family, and his dignity. The thing he clings to and protects with the most fervour is his spare eyeglasses, but one day he stops caring about even that.

I am not ashamed to say that I was happy, with a happiness which bore the same relation to everyday happiness as the sound produced by passing a violin bow across the wrong side of the bridge bears to the nomal sound of a violin. It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful.

But perhaps that is also the day he truly loses sight of his life. He is unable to discern what is right, what is good, what is happiness.

Somehow, everything lost comes back to him. (The compass he never had remains lost to him.) When the novel ends, Marcel has "a wife, three children, a shop in the Rue du Chateau." And such an ending was devised to leave a very bitter aftertaste. It's all wrong, but other choices would've been wrong too. All those savage, inhuman acts are still there — when the war is over we are not better people; merely we can manage to apply a shinier veneer.

Maybe Marcel should've lived a different life, maybe he would've been happier then, truer to himself — but probably not. Contrary to the publisher's blurb that Marcel confronts "a blood-chilling choice," rather it is existential spleen–chilling.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. Had I known more about the story I'd've seen that it doesn't really fit my idea of a chilling autumn read. However, the story is psychologically, morally disturbing, and a very powerful read.]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Out of print

I'm not what you'd call an impulse shopper. I've wanted one of these t-shirts forever, but which one? It had to be a design I liked and a book I loved. Something that expressed something about me. Finally, a day came when I felt I deserved a little something, and about a year and a half after first hearing about these tees, I decided. The Master and Margarita.

The shirt is thin, but it's a good-quality print, and the cut and the feel make for a remarkably comfortable fit. I love it.

(I'm fairly certain now that I want to dress my daughter in Darwin's Origin of Species, but I'll have to think on this for another month or two.)

And, for every purchase, a book is donated to a community in need.

I did in fact read The Master and Margarita (by Mikhail Bulgakov), but it must've been a lifetime ago. I remember Pontius Pilate and the politics of the crucifixion, and something about a cat, bearing some resemblance to my actual cat, but little else. I've been wanting to reread this for several years now, and now I'm really going to have to, so as not to appear a fraud.

An e-version of the translation by Richard Pevear is widely available under a creative commons license.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret

I got kind of excited last month about there being a new Ondaatje. I got caught up in the hype, and I think I even said, "Ooohh, a new Ondaatje!" But then I thought, wait, do I even like Ondaatje, I don't remember. So by the time I actually picked up The Cat's Table, I had mentally prepared myself for disappointment. It took but a few pages before I was all, oh, Ondaatje, I remember, he's good.

The cat's table is that table in the dining room positioned furthest away form the Captain's table, reserved for those passengers of least consequence. And this is where 11-year-old Michael gets to sit during his 21-day journey from Ceylon to England.

[My mother would've made a similar journey, but she would've been a few years older, a few years earlier. I must ask her about it.]

There's not much happpening in this book. It is a novel — a voyage — of discovery: of passing the time, hearing stories, and plotting adventures, of fast friendships, unknown territory, and gossip. (It's a lot like how I remember camp to be: bonding intensely with a group of strangers over a relatively short period, and making your own fun.) As readers we overhear the passengers' stories and see certain events and have to piece them together much as Michael does.

[O]ur table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.

The thing I take away from this novel is how children's experience of things, of life, is always somewhat removed from anything like an adult reality. There. That was a hard sentence to write. I almost said a child's experience is childish, or naive, or incomplete, and that's not exactly true. It's still a perfectly full and true and valid experience, just different.

I think The Cat's Table has this in common with The Fragile Mistress, which I read earlier this summer. In both cases, the "children" are exposed to situations that are beyond their ability to understand them, not because of their age exactly, but because they're not privy to the whole story and have to fill in the blanks by themselves, and the logic drawn upon to smooth over the gaps varies if you're 8, 11, 14, or 39.

You have to be careful with these things. See, I was once a child myself, and there's some stuff I remember, and some stuff I learned. I remember overhearing someone say, about me, you can't expect her to understand, she's just a child (I was almost 8), and I remember being very angry about this. I learned that grown-ups often underestimate children, at least in terms of their capacity to grok. So now I try very, very hard not treat children like children.

[Just this weekend my daughter did something crazy, but I maintained my composure. I heard their voices, her and the girl from a neighbouring cottage, coming through the trees. I didn't know there was a path through these woods, I thought you had to go by the road to access her cottage. Maybe they're coming along the shore, rock-jumping — tricky, but doable since the water level's low. Then I see them, paddling their canoe up onto our tiny shore. And I was horrified! that someone let them — an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old — paddle themselves across the lake. Of course, nobody let them — the canoe was there, and inspiration struck. And then I saw that the both of them were life-jacketed, and the 10-year-old actually seemed to know what she was doing, handled the canoe with more ease than I could, and was very confident in instructing Helena on what to do. So I plastered a smile over my horror, and deep down felt a little proud, happy for her for embarking on her own adventure. Then they paddled out to where J-F was fishing before returning the canoe to its point of origin.

What was my point? Oh, yes. To the 8-year-old mind, canoeing across the lake seemed very reasonable. It is a valid and beautiful experience, and Helena will remember it very differently from how I will.]

The Cat's Table is by far my favourite of the few Ondaatje novels I've read. While the language of the others was more beautiful, more poetic, it also sometimes works to keep the reader at a distance. The Cat's Table, however, is a straightfoward exercise in storytelling, and I was charmed by it. There's nothing pretentious about it, and I recommend it as an entry point to Ondaatje's work.

You might like to give a listen to Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Michael Ondaatje. I met Michael Ondaatje once, at a fundraiser for world literacy — he was a notable attendee, and there were signed copies of The English Patient up for auction. (Come to think of it, Jian was there too, but I didn't meet him, he was the musical entertainment.) Someone actually introduced us while we were milling around near the bar. I had not read anything of his at this point. We made small talk — the weather? travel? — while we drank our drinks. We didn't talk about books at all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Late at night, after the specially invited First Class passengers had left the Captain's Table, and after the dancing had ended with couples, their masks removed, barely stirring in each other's arms, and after the stewards had taken away the abandoned glasses and ashtrays and were leaning on the four-foot-wide brooms to sweep away the coloured swirls of paper, they brought out the prisoner.

It was usually before midnight. The deck shone because of a cloudless moon. He appeared with the guards, one chained to him, one walking behind him with a baton, We did not know what his crime was. We assumed it could only have been a murder. The concept of anything more intricate, such as a crime of passion or a political betrayal, did not exist in us then. He looked powerful, self-contained, and he was barefoot.

Cassius had discovered this late-night schedule for the prisoner's walk, so the three of us were often there at that hour. He could, we thought among ourselves, leap over the railing, along with the guard who was chained to him, into the dark sea. We thought of him running and leaping this way to his death. We thought this, I suppose, because we were young, for the very idea of a chain, of being contained, was like suffocation. At our age we could not endure the idea of it. We could hardly stand to wear sandals when we went for meals, and every night as we ate at our table in the dining room we imagined the prisoner eating scraps from a metal tray, barefoot in his cell.

— from The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A cat's life

I've been working from home quite a bit over the last month, for various reasons. As with any situation, it has its pros and cons. The drawback that most perturbs me is the paranoid feeling that the second I leave my post — whether the chosen premium location of the day be the bed, the sofa, or the kitchen table — I am usurped.


The feline section of this article on Literary Pets is slight, but I am delighted to learn that Alexandre Dumas had a cat who "each day greeted him in the street as he returned from work." I had a cat who used to do that.


I'm currently reading The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. It is enchanting, like your grandfather recounting his childhood adventures (or so I imagine). "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Men of honour

I did it. I finished something by Conrad (The Duel).

Colonel D'Hubert himself, hardened to exposure, suffered mainly in his self-respect from the lamentable indecency of his costume. A thoughtless person may think that with a whole host of inanimate bodies bestrewing the path of retreat there could not have been much difficulty in supplying the deficiency. But to loot a pair of breeches from a frozen corpse is not so easy as it may appear to a mere theorist.

Even though I thought it quite funny in spots, there were times I thought this novella dragged. I don't think I'll be trying Nostromo anytime soon, but I believe the curse is finally broken.

This ebook includes a lot of supplementary material, about this story and about duelling. I haven't worked my way through all of it, but I was delighted to discover that the historical duel on which Conrad based his story took place between two French officers, Fournier and Dupont. Being that I live with a Fournier, upon learning this tidbit I can better appreciate the grandiose sense of honour and justice that might lead to the sort of decades-long standoff Conrad described.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A trick of the light

A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny, was a wonderful discovery for me, and the perfect first read for me of RIP VI. It's a detective novel with lots of traditional elements: a sleepy village, eccentric characters, a troubled police inspector (well, they're all troubled, aren't they? — and this one may be less tortured than many). It's not exactly a locked room, but the list of possible suspects is limited to a fairly small group. And there's a big reveal at the end, on a stormy night.

The story: A body's found in Clara's garden, the morning after the big party celebrating Clara's art show. That's pretty much it, but you don't need anything more.

Clara's an artist, so it's natural that she should be surrounded by other artists. And critics and art dealers and a poet. It makes for some wonderful digressions on the nature of art, how much of it inspiration versus hard work, the subjectivity of its value.

One clue leads to an AA meeting, and the cast is then filled out with alcoholics. That leads to some interesting discussions about finding your happy place, whether it's possible for a person to change, and when are people really themselves. And forgiveness, and doing things for the right reasons.

While most of the story takes place in the fictional village of Three Pines (it almost makes me want to take a drive through the Eastern Townships to pinpoint it), Chief Inspector Gamache does have to come into the big city, Montréal (avec un accent), to take care of some business. I do get a kick out of encountering familiar stomping grounds in fiction. (I figure I live about halfway between the Inspector's place edging Outremont and the victim's apartment in the Plateau.)

The thing about this book: it made me feel very smart. Not in a look-at-me-I'm-reading-War-and-Peace kind of way. And not in a I-figured-out-whodunnit-by-page-23 way either. (I've always been really crap at figuring out whodunnit.) But in the way I recognized clues, the way my mind wandered down certain paths. The thing is: I know I was led down these paths, in the way clues and characters were smoothly, elegantly revealed.

The reader may guess, but the reader won't figure it out, as some vital information is withheld. But this does not detract from the pleasure of reading this novel.

I don't have many benchmarks when it comes to mysteries. This book feels a little like Agatha Christie, but not so dated. It doesn't have the verbal flair of Fred Vargas — the conversations and observations here are just as philosophical, but toned down, more natural — but then it doesn't get carried away either with the unbelievable, sensationalistic, or just plain weird plot stuff that Vargas gets away with. It is exactly what it sets out to be, and that's more than can be said for some other mystery books (for example, Erasing Memory, by Scott Thornley, which I read earlier this summer) that veer off into thriller territory or gawd knows what.

A Trick of the Light proved to be very comfortable and very comforting.

Agent Lacoste was exhausted. She wished she could take her bowl of café au lait and a croissant, and curl up on the large sofa by the fireplace. And read one of the well-worn paperbacks from Myrna's shop. An old Maigret. Read and nap. Read and nap. In front of the fireplace. While the outside world and worries receded into the mist.

A Trick of the Light is Penny's seventh book in a series of mystery novels featuring Chief Inspector Gamache. Let me assure you that it stands perfectly well on its own, but it does refer to previous cases and it's evident the characters are evolving. I'll be looking up her previous books. If A Trick of the Light is any indication, they're the perfect thing to have on hand for a rainy day.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Altogether loud and sensuous, almost phonetic

This month's issue of Words without Borders includes a fresh bunch of Polish poetry:

only i am, Justyna Bargielska
Alterity, Jacek Dehnel
I Wish I Had a Master, Julia Fiedorczuk
Old-Fashioned, Edward Pasewicz
Adjectival Poem, Piotr Sommer
Bugging, Piotr Sommer
Utensils Shrink, Piotr Sommer

These poets are new to me, with the exception of Sommer, who is fast becoming a favourite.

This from "Bugging" (in the sense of eavesdropping; I would've translated the title differently, maybe "What's Overheard," or "The Overhearing" to preserve the nounishness, but hey, I passed on the poetry translation career option years ago):

Bah, wires can chirp almost as well,
so it's easy to confuse them. It's altogether loud
and sensuous, almost phonetic.
And no way to avoid the brown-eyed gaze of the pansies,
which have all but disappeared now from the flower beds,
forced out by nasturtiums and marigolds. No flower beds either.
All the hazel eyes are rotting now underground.

Monday, September 05, 2011


It's been a few years since I followed along with Carl's annual autumnal Halloween-mood-based challenge, Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP). The goal is to celebrate books that might be classified in the following genres: Mystery. Suspense. Thriller. Dark fantasy. Gothic. Horror. Supernatural.

I'm pretty noncommittal with respect to reading goals, but sometimes it just feels right.

Having just come off 5000 pages of political romance, I'm looking to switch gears and clear my way through some of the books that inadvertently got set aside. As it happens, a number of them fit the above-mentioned categories.

A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny. Mystery (of the cozy variety). I was drawn to this book by the Montreal backdrop.

The Train, Simenon. Psychological suspense. Because I think Simenon's amazing.

The End of the World in Breslau, Marek Krajewski. Noir mystery thriller. I read the first of this series a few months ago and was struck by the unique setting — 1930s Nazi-run Wrocław.

Eyes to See. Joseph Nassise. Creepy supernatural suspense horror thriller. This one's a review copy. Heck, I'll give anything a try. And the cover looks pretty demonic.

And this might be the year I pick up Shirley Jackson's classic, The Haunting of Hill House.

Fire and ice

"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one."

This series of books alone, with its vast array of characters, offers a reader hundreds of lives: lords, princes, queens, whores, fools, pawns, swordsmen, witches, holymen.

I've finished A Dance with Dragons, book five of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice. This series has been quite the unexpected 5000-page diversion for me these last few months. I'd planned on reading all sorts of things this summer. Instead I found myself embroiled in the politics of Westeros.

I've been reading it sunny days on the boat, rainy days curled up on the sofa, late into the night, with my morning coffee. Sure, I read a few smaller novels alongside these, but the world of A Song of Fire and Ice has sprawled across my summer.

The standout book for me is book three (A Storm of Swords), but each of them has its key events and players and shifting tides.

A Dance with Dragons had a lot of hype to live up to. I'm disappointed that this book had almost nothing about Arya, whose storyline and current circumstances I find most intriguing. There's little about Cersei and Jaime, nothing of Sansa or Sam. But instead Martin returns us to Tyrion and Jon, whose respective stories had been ignored in book four. One thing I dislike about this book is the new trick of naming chapters coyly (for example, The King's Prize, or The Blind Girl) instead of owning up immediately to the character perpective being taken as has been the tradition so far. But I guess the suspense ultimately pays off.

I'm devastated that certain people die.

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. Summer dug up a severed arm, black and covered with hoarfrost, its fingers opening and closing as it pulled itself across the frozen snow. There was still enough meat on it to fill his empty belly, and after that was done he cracked the arm bones for the marrow. Only then did the arm remember it was dead.

This series is addictive. The world is detailed, the characters (most of them) are fully three-dimensional. Life here is ethically complicated. There are bits that drag, but Martin always kept me wanting to know what happened next. I'm already looking forward to The Winds of Winter.