Sunday, September 29, 2013

The aura of places

In my first days in Jerusalem, I thought about the secret of pilgrimage and asked myself what drove me out of my native country and brought me to this holy spot. Could I not have touched the essence of holiness in my soul while secluded in the desert close to my homeland? If a place can reveal what is inside us, and travel can bring that to light from the depths of our being, is it not possible that humility, chastity, the monastic life, and constant prayer and glorification of the Lord can bring to light divine grace and the saintliness that is latent within us? Where then lies the aura places? Is the aura a secret inside us that pervades places when we reach them after travelling with impatient zeal? The awe I felt when I reached the walls of the Church of the Resurrection, did it arise from my sense of the imposing building, or was it from the meaning implicit in the event of the resurrection itself? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? As God, how could he die at the hands of men? Is man able to kill and torment God, and nail him to a cross?
— from Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan.

I expect the coming weeks to be a time of slow reading, much needed; some reflection to still my mind. I have begun reading Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan. It reads very fluidly, but it is packed with history and religious doctrine, neither of which I'm particularly well versed in.

The monks and priests who serve the Church of the Resurrection are good and simple, and most of them warmed to me when they learnt that I practise medicine and the art of healing. They were not interested that I was a poet.

I'm hoping that this slowdown in reading will afford me the mental space to catch up on some writing — I've read plenty of books recently and I've yet to discuss some of them here.

Also, the class I signed up for on Coursera — Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity — starts next week. (You can sign up too!) The reading assignment for the first week consists of selections from Plato's Euthyphro and The Apology. No doubt I will be noting interesting passages here on this blog along with commentary as it occurs to me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

And no birds sing

Famous men read famous poetry.

I am partial to Ben Whishaw's reading of La Belle Dame Sans Merci:

Other standouts on BlackBook's list are Dennis Hopper and Bono.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sleep is a divine gift

Sleep is a divine gift without which the world would go raving mad. Everything in the universe sleeps, wakes up and sleeps again, except our sins and our memories, which have never slept and will never subside. Today I awoke from a sleep full of dreams so strong they seemed like reality, or perhaps it is my reality that has collapsed and faded until it has turned into dreams?

— from Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Intimacy changes the scale of the universe

Yes, she thought, this is one reason I always come back to these beds, because intimacy changes the scale of the universe, folding down the vast and overwhelming horizon until there is only the small world that is my body, upon which toothsome storms, sweating floods, and soulful earthquakes break their might forces, and I lie ravaged and raw and blissfully alive.

It starts with a witch, Zoya, and her paramour prey.

Another plotline follows Will and the misunderstanding that ensues when he confirms that he works for "the agency."

These stories are joined by love, of course, and the police investigation into the gruesome end of Zoya's victim (even while the chief investigator is turned into a flea) threads them together.

Babayaga, by Toby Barlow, is a fairly impossible sounding novel. Part fairytale, part police procedural, part madcap comedy, part love story. And all Paris.

It should be noted that George Plimpton is the inspiration for one of the characters central to Will's comedy of errors. George Plimpton, who cofounded The Paris Review 1n 1953 Paris, was also known as an agent of influence for the CIA, who funded the Review through the Aga Khan, as it was used as a cover for agency activities. Really. I'm not making this stuff up. And neither is Toby Barlow. If I hadn't known better, I might've thought this plot was stretched a little too far.

The witchy part of the novel draws on Slavic folklore for inspiration, and we follow Zoya and her elder through parts of Russia and Poland. But witches are not born; they are created. By men, one might say. There's a feminist bent to their power.

When doubts arose in Zoya's heart, and over the years they intermittently did, Elga seemed to have a knack for showing up by her side, consoling Zoya with blunt woodland wisdom, explaining how it was all righteous, even merciful. "It is only fair and only just," Elga would say. "Men have dragged us by our hair through the ages, and whether they give us crumbs or bright, shiny rocks, they truly give us nothing at all. If you have not opened your legs for them so that they could crawl out as babies or crawl in as men, then they will leave you to starve like a dog on the street. So now we are done playing the way they want us to play. Now we are moving to music they cannot hear, to a rhythm they cannot understand. They call it madness and we call it truth and find me the magistrate you can trust to judge between the two? Bah. So we dance on, we dance on."

Though they are clearly criminals, it's hard not to feel sorry for them in their circumstances — Zoya for being a (relatively) young and naïve romantic, and Elga simply crazy from age and the horrors she's lived. Zoya's motivation is not always clear, but we love her as much as Will does, and all is forgiven.

There are several (twelve) witches' songs that interrupt the text. This element didn't work for me at all. They suggest neither rhythm nor tune, too cryptic and disordered to work as ballads, too specific and banal in their lyrics to feel like laments, nothing incantatory or enchanting about them. Clearly they are songs sung by witches, but they don't settle on a perspective — witch or human, inner or all-seeing. They neither bring insight nor cause intrigue. They have no charm. (These songs have quashed any temptation I might've had to check out Barlow's werewolf novel, Sharp Teeth, written in free verse.)

Witch songs aside, it's a fun book, a quick read, that tugged at my heart strings to rip my romantic streak a little wider.

A sentence I love: "There, finally, she spotted the police car, parked like a turtle sleeping in the sun, waiting to be cracked open for its meat."


Los Angeles Times:
"The blend of James Bond, folk tale, Gogol's humor and surrealism with a corny French detective and a young man's love story all improbably works."

Washington Post:
"Toby Barlow's Babayaga is a novel that asks not to be taken too seriously. This is its most fundamental mistake."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Supreme creature that he is

The first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds I was a teenager, and I saw it at the rep cinema, on a big screen. It terrified me.

I remember the crows from when I was little. An old neighbourhood — century-old homes — downtown. From our front porch, we could see the length of Woodland, which ran perpendicular to our street. And the agèd trees were shrouded in black, so the street bore a thick feather canopy absorbing any remaining daylight before it could reach the ground below. Thousands of them, cawing their hoarse insults and threats at us. Some years were worse than others.

The rook, supreme creature that he is, can find all the food he needs in a couple of hours a day and consider the rest of his time leisure.

What does the rook do with this leisure time?

1. He tells jokes and gossips.
2. He engineers handy, throwaway tools.
3. He learns to speak foreign languages. The rook can imitate the human voice, a logger's crane, the crash of broken glass. And if he wants to really make fun, he can call your dog to him — with your own whistle.
4. He enjoys poetry and philosophy.
5. He is an expert on rook history.
6. He knows more geology than you do — but since it is knowledge passed down through the generations from his ancestors he calls it family anecdote.
7. He has a good grounding in mythology, magic, and witchcraft.
8. He has a keen passion for ritual.

In essence the benefits of having the key to world's larder are that rooks have the time to think, the brain power to remember — and the wisdom to laugh.

— from Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield.

I am loving Diane Setterfield's new novel and stayed up way past my bedtime to read it last night, but fell asleep before I could finish.

There are crows in this book, or ravens or rooks. Also, there are some interludes — avian facts and anecdotes. I cannot tell the difference between these birds, but I spent much of the weekend reading up.

Setterfield also informs us of many of the collective nouns used for these birds, and I have discovered several others.

A murder of crows, a hover, a muster, a parcel, a storytelling. An unkindness of ravens, an aerie, a conspiracy. A parliament of rooks, a building, a clamour, a congregation, a parish, a shoal or a wing.

A storytelling...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Down in the tub, man, you know who you are

"You know what I like most about this city?"

"What?" Will asked.

"The tubs," Flats said.

"The tubs?" said Kelly.

"Yeah, the bathtubs," said Flats. "See, when I was growing up down South, we didn't have any kind of proper tub or shower or bathroom, we were, you know, what's the word for it?"

"Poor," said Red.

"That's right. That's the word. Flats smiled. "We were poor. Dirt poor. So I won't even tell you how we washed up back then. But in the army, they put us in those big shower rooms with all the other men. It was all right, but it was the military, so how good could it be? But now, here, in my little flat, I have got this white Parisian-style tub, and I tell you it fits me like a glove. I dig getting in there, crouching down and scrubbing in all my nooks and whatnot. I tell you, it keeps me familiar and intimate with every bit of myself. You take a shower, your head is up, far away from everything, lost in the clouds, but down in the tub, man, you know who you are."

— from Babayaga, by Toby Barlow.

I read about a book a week. Compared to many book bloggers, that's not a lot. But given that I am not involved with the book publishing industry in a professional capacity, many people, namely several of my coworkers, are blown away by the volume of books I consume.

But let's take a page average: say, 350 pages a novel. That's 50 pages a day. I manage maybe 10 pages per commute — I have a relatively short commute, but factor in a couple minutes of platform waiting. Another 10 pages in the morning, relaxing with coffee or while waiting for coffee (why would I choose instead to confront the news of the day, reality, bleary-eyed?; I have the rest of the day for that), or in the bathroom (gasp!). Some 20 pages in bed before I drop of to sleep.

Weekends take away commute reading, but allow for a little bit of lying in. Also, reading while waiting for the laundry cycle to end, or while supper simmers. Rainy days are even better, allowing for longer guilt-free stretches of reading.

And I have recently rediscovered the joys of the bubble bath. More time to read, of course.

I have a family. I even have a social life, occasionally, though a quiet one (let's say that for the most part, my family is my social life; I like hanging out with them). I still watch television and movies, maybe a little less than some people. The time I spend online is fairly limited and controlled (that is, I don't surf randomly; I have particular destinations in mind).

Yes, I consume books at such a rate that sometimes I don't retain plots beyond a few days. Sometimes books are a simple entertainment. But for this, I have time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nobody paused to notice

Vidot made a small tsk-tsk sound. He never liked to share information about cases he was investigating. He was relieved that the tale of the Parisian man impaled impossibly high on the irons about rue Rataud, had so far, miraculously, not appeared in the local papers. He did not need the attention. He would have thought an incredible death like that would have headlined as the crime of the year, but Mitterrand's scandal, Cuba's charismatic young Fidel Castro, and the ongoing unrest in Algiers continued to eat up the headlines. Vidot thought these were indeed amazing times, when a man could be hung high on the street with a spike through his neck and nobody paused to notice.
— from Babayaga, by Toby Barlow.

The past several weeks I've been enjoying a free subscription to a national newspaper. I don't usually go in for sales pitches for this type of product, but: free! and no commitment! Besides, I've always admired people who manage to read the paper daily (my other half among them). I've never considered myself sufficiently well informed on current events (adequately, perhaps). So, I thought, I would read the newspaper and become smarter.

I have realized a few things these past weeks:
  • I know more than I think I do. It seems that through osmosis and the generally passive process of clicking through on random assortments* of links (i.e., in my non–newspaper-reading life), I learn more than nothing.
  • Print newspapers are full of ads. They are not as annoying as online ads, however, and sometimes they are interesting to read. They also contribute to bulking out the page count and the sense of accomplishment for having plowed through it all.
  • Print newspapers have more contributions from the community than I remember, beyond letters to the editor. They solicit personal essays, reviews, and opinions. They are often as pointless and as poorly written as the commentary the online world is reputed to have.
  • "This day in history" qualifies as "news," worthy of page 2. I suspect there is a long tradition of this, with the intent of educating the public or fuelling water cooler discussion by providing a common touchpoint. But, really?
  • It is enjoyable to read the newspaper with my morning coffee, but no more so than doing a crossword puzzle with my morning coffee, or checking my email and online news with my morning coffee.

While not especially witty or significant, the above passage (Babayaga: a tale of spies, Paris, and witches!) stands out for me.

What qualifies as news? What gets lost amid the din? Amazing times indeed.

*Random assortments tend to be in fact vaguely directed, given that I gravitate toward certain websites, and within those sites only certain items on certain subject matter will capture my attention, etc. In general, I do not play dice with the Internet.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night

So begins Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. "It was a dark and stormy night." What kind of deprived childhood did I have that I'm reading it only now?

It's touted as a classic, and I'd picked up a copy this summer thinking it would make for perfect mother-daughter bedtime story reading. I hadn't read it, and I figured I could force it into Helena's perfect childhood, or rather, with this act I would perfect her childhood, and right my own.

(Also, she reads at this level comfortably in French, and readily picks up whatever her peers deem the cool livre du jour. She's not exposed to English books much except through me, and I continue to find it tough to inspire her with anything other than comic books and compilations of weird facts [not that there's anything wrong with that]. This novel seemed likelier than some.)

So we started. And she fell asleep. A few nights later, we decided to continue. Only she didn't remember anything, so we went back to the beginning. And she fell asleep. And some nights after that... Lather, rinse, repeat.

I know chapter 1. I know every square inch of Meg's attic. I can picture every shelf of the pantry. I know intimately Mrs Whatsit's socks. (Helena has not yet had the pleasure. Or at least, she doesn't remember it.)

One dark and stormy night this week I'd had enough and stormed off to read the rest on my own.

Suddenly she was aware of her heart beating rapidly within the cage of her ribs. Had it sopped before? What had made it start again? The tingling in her arms and legs grew stronger, and suddenly she felt movement. This movement, she felt, must be the turning of the earth, rotating on its axis, traveling its elliptic course about the sun. And this feeling of moving with the earth was somewhat like the feeling of being in the ocean, out in the ocean beyond this rising and falling of the breakers, lying on the moving water, pulsing gently with the swells, and feeling the gentle, inexorable tug of the moon.

Beautiful! And it reminded me of something else I'd heard by a fellow also familiar with time travel.

Do you know like we were saying? About the Earth revolving? It's like when you're a kid. The first time they tell you that the world's turning and you just can't quite believe it 'cause everything looks like it's standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go... That's who I am.

Verdict: utterly charming. Space travel, time travel. A showdown between good and evil. A two-dimensional planet. Alien music. A dystopian planet with some semblance of a hivemind but controlled by an evil intelligence. Furry, tentacle creatures of wisdom. What's not to like? The religious references felt a bit heavy and unnecessary, but really, I didn't mind. I think Helena would like it.

Oh, and! Tesseract! And lots of useful quotations in various languages! And a general appreciation for math and science and history and words.

"In your language you a have a form of poetry called the sonnet." [...] "It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?" [...] "There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?" [...] "And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?" [...] "But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn't he?"


"You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"For most people hindsight only works backwards"

The most ridiculous thing I read this summer was a Doctor Who book. And it wasn't even a "proper" Doctor Who book. The Angel's Kiss: A Melody Malone Mystery.

It's written by Justin Richards channelling Melody Malone, who wrote the pulp mystery novel the Doctor was reading in "The Angels Take Manhattan," and Melody Malone turns out to be the pen name of River Song, back in time. It's not actually the same novel that was worked into the plot of that episode, but it's all River à la femme fatale.
Evening was drawing in and the cars had their lights on, cutting through the inevitable rain. I watched the drops paint clear lines down the grubby cab windows. We drove in binary fashion — either stop or go. Go was fast, and stop was sudden. The journey was punctuated by a liberal use of the horn, presumably to make up for the complete avoidance of the indicator lights.

Finally the cab drew up at the kerb with a jerk. The jerk stayed behind the steering wheel as I eased myself out.

"You need a ride later?" he asked, apparently serious.

I found the exact fare and told him: "Oh, I hope not." If he wanted a tip, then I was ready with: "Stop for red lights."

It's a short book, short for a novella even, and it's not exactly big on plot, though there is one. It makes up for all that in attitude.

It made me laugh — and I was guffawing loudly at its awful punniness more than chuckling lightly at its charming wit.

Much of the humour is pretty sexy, "buttoned and unbuttoned in the best places and pointing in the right direction." Nothing I wouldn't let my 10-year-old read, but the flirtation would be entirely lost on her. Too much River. Not enough Cybermen, or Daleks, or Weeping Angels. Hell, the Doctor's not even in it. The kid would be bored to tears.

I, on the other hand, am old enough to know better. I love the Doctor and science fiction, River and noir. And it's easy, and thrilling, to imagine this story being purred to you in the voice of River Song herself.

Ridiculous, but such fun!

Have you read anything embarrassing lately?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

How the light gets in

I spent the better part of the weekend in bed reading Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In. Most of the other part of the weekend I spent curled up on the sofa or at the kitchen table reading Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In.

I have been reading this series of Chief Inspector Gamache novels out of order. So while some readers gush about the overarching story development, I'm not qualified to comment — I've been exposed to several pieces, but I'm still not seeing the full picture.

However, I'm here to tell you that this novel stands perfectly well on its own. An appreciation of the magical village of Three Pines and its eccentric inhabitants would no doubt be enhanced by having read one or two other novels set here, but I think that would be true no matter what order you read them in.

The case Gamache is on in How the Lights Gets In is related to the death of a quintuplet and delves into a fictionalized historical past inspired by the real-life Dionne Quintuplets. It raises some interesting questions about living life under public scrutiny, the life of celebrity, public versus private, the fabrication of reality for public consumption, the branding and commodification of people.

What non-Quebec readers may not be aware of (and certainly there's been no mention of it in the reviews I've read) is how much the rest of the novel, those supplementary plots that belong to the series-spanning story arc of corruption at high levels, is also based in fact.

This novel starts in the Ville-Marie Tunnel of Montreal. As Audrey drives through, she fears that it, and the city above, may crash down on top of her.

Anyone who lives in Montreal could not but recall the collapse of said tunnel two summers ago. Miraculously no one was hurt, but everyone was afraid.

It is one of the events that led to the establishment of the Charbonneau Commission, an ongoing inquiry into corruption with regard to public construction contracts, implicating organized crime and the mayoralty of Montreal (and other players).

I'd love to know from other readers to what extent you find this aspect of the story — regarding collusion among the powers that be in the Ministry of Transportation and other government departments — believable.

The story of the quintuplet is certainly interesting enough, but it's not as compelling as some of Penny's earlier mysteries. It's thoroughly overshadowed by the other events of the book. The corruption on the force and the mystery as to how far it spreads is by far the stronger storyline in this novel, and I say this without complete knowledge of all that's come before. That is, the novice Penny reader should start with a different book.

Now that Penny is garnering an international reputation, I wish she'd have a little more local recognition for her insightful depiction of life in Montreal and environs.

There's something so perfectly cozy about these cozy mysteries, especially at this time of year. I can see myself reading through the rest of Penny's back catalogue before Christmas. And I'm inspired to get out to the Eastern Townships for a little visit...

(Check out what peril other readers are imbibing this season.)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Bulgakov and the case of the missing galoshes

"Yes, a rack of galoshes. I have been living in this house since 1903. And from then until March 1917 there was not one case — let me underline in red pencil not one case — of a single pair of galoshes disappearing from that rack even when the front door was open. There are, kindly note, twelve flats in this house and a constant stream of people coming to my consulting rooms. One fine day in March 1917 all the galoshes disappeared including two pairs of mine, three walking sticks, an overcoat and the porter's samovar. And since then the rack had ceased to exist. And I won't mention the boiler. The rule apparently is — once a social revolution takes place there's no need to stoke the boiler. But I ask you: why, when the whole business started, should everybody suddenly start clumping up and down the marble staircase in dirty galoshes and felt boots? Why must we now keep our galoshes under lock and key? And put a soldier on guard over them to prevent them from being stolen? Why has the carpet been removed from the front staircase? Did Karl Marx say anywhere that the front door of No. 2 Kalabukhov House in Prechistenka Street must be boarded up so that people have to go round and come in by the back door? What good does it do anybody? Why can't the proletarians leave their galoshes downstairs instead of dirtying the staircase?"

"But the proletarians don't have any galoshes, Philip Philipovich," stammered the doctor.

"Nothing of the sort!" replied Philip Philipovich in a voice of thunder, and poured himself a glass of wine. "[...] Nothing of the sort! The proletarians do have galoshes now and those galoshes are — mine! The very ones that vanished in the spring of 1917. Who removed them, you may ask? Did I remove them? Impossible. The bourgeois Sablin?" (Philip Philipovich pointed upwards to the ceiling.) "The very idea's laughable. Polozov, the sugar manufacturer?" (Philip Philipovich started to turn purple.) "Why on earth do they have to remove the flowers from the landing? Why does the electricity, which to the best of my recollection has only failed twice in the past twenty years, now go out regularly once a month? Statistics, Doctor Bormenthal, are terrible things."

The Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is a little weird and hilarious. Philip Philipovich has brought home a stray on which to conduct a medical experiment. The doctor transplants the testes and pituitary gland of a dead man into the dog. He and his associate observe and document the dog's progress, his gradual transformation into a human.

While medically speaking the experiment might be said to be a success, it doesn't go so well at all on a social level. The humanized dog is a lazy but subtly scheming drunken lecher (much as we assume the donor of his human parts must've been). Attempts to educate and cultivate him become hopeless. When the doctor risks losing more of his rooms to the proletarians invading his house, he decides there's nothing do but to turn the dog back.

Translator Michael Glenny in his foreword (reprinted in the new Melville House edition with the fabulous cover art) argues that it can be read as a parable, that the doctor represents the Communist party and his operation is the revolution. "The bitter message is that the Russian intelligentsia, which made the Revolution is henceforth doomed to live with — and eventually be ruled by — the crude, unstable and potentially brutal race of hominids — homo sovieticus — which it has called into being."

I rather see Philip Philipovich as wholly unsympathetic to the cause and wanting to inject a counterrevolutionary element, a better human. But Sharikov (he needs papers, after all) eschews betterment in favour of "behaving naturally," proving a kind of fatalism — that people, or dogs, are what they are, despite the accoutrements of class or, on the contrary, the attempts to annihilate it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

How a sigh might look

Had the Chief Inspector been blindfolded he could have described the familiar shop. The walls were lined with bookcases filled with hardcovers and paperbacks. With fiction and biography, science and science fiction. Mysteries and religion. Poetry and cookbooks. It was a room filled with thoughts and feeling and creation and desires. New and used.

Threadbare Oriental rugs were scattered on the wood floor, giving it the feel of a well-used library in an old country home.

A cheerful wreath was tacked on the door into Myrna's New and Used Bookstore, and a Christmas tree stood in a corner. Gifts were piled underneath and there was the slight sweet scent of balsam.

A black cast-iron woodstove sat in the center of the room, with a kettle simmering on top of it and an armchair on either side.

It hadn't changed since the day Gamache had first entered Myrna's bookstore years before. Right down to the unfashionable floral slipcovers on the sofa and easy chairs in the bay window. Books were piled next to one of the sagging seats and back copies of The New Yorker and National Geographic were scattered on the coffee table.

It was, Gamache felt, how a sigh might look.

— from How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A stationmaster of words

Polish poet Tomasz Różycki is featured in Words without Borders' Black Markets issue.

Paweł Huelle writes "A Letter to a Young Poet: On Tomasz Różycki":
At last I had found the missing link of a language that could name and describe that which I was not able to express. And that which was an important, significant event in my memories of childhood, of vacation trips south, to my grandmother Maria's house in Mościce near Tarnów. Suddenly — and unexpectedly — Tomasz Różycki became a participant in them. A stationmaster of words. An interpreter of memory's labyrinth. An important poet. Very important.

Huelle draws a line to Różycki from the Polish renaissance and through Młoda Polska, brushed by Stefan Grabiński and T.S. Eliot, tracing Rilke.

Here are a few choice lines from the Różycki translations published in Words without Borders:

"The Guy Who Bought the World"
The guy who bought the world is out for a walk
down Thirty-seventh Street. No one in the least
suspects that the deal just took place and the stock
exchanges keep noting each little increase,

"In the Evening, Love"
Oh, how he likes it: the glass warming in hand,
the arrangement of object in an order
readily apparent only from a certain
height. Go ahead and solve the code for romance.

"This Is My Room"
Columbus was wrong. There’s no earth whatsoever
after sunset, a boat sails into the dead
of night and goes on and on forever:

Różycki recites his poetry in this clip from the Poetry Center Archives:

Monday, September 02, 2013

An event mingling the beginning of worlds and their apocalypse

Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, is a massive, sprawling monster of a book. I have been reading it since March, and I'm finished.

It's 832 pages, and I read most of it on my phone (for various reasons, and that may have been a mistake). For all it's length, the reviews of this book are remarkably short. Most of the reviews call this novel subversive. I'm not sure I understand how.

I found this to be an incredibly difficult read (perhaps in part because I was reading it on my phone). I won't say it was rewarding, but it was certainly entertaining and for the most part engrossing.

He stuck the wax tip of the tube in one of his nostrils; when the shaman blew down it, he was immediately thrown back on the stretcher. After a few seconds of an intense burning sensation spreading through his sinuses, Dietlev had the very clear impression that the right side of his brain had frozen with no hope of it ever unfreezing. Opening his eyes, he was alarmed to see the sepia tones of the forests: the harmony of an old photo abruptly torn apart by sudden flashes of lightning, revealing incredible perspectives in which amber and mauve shaded into infinity. A Piranesian delirium, architectural tumors ceaselessly proliferating. He could hear the slow grinding of icebergs, the overthrust of continental plates. Distant whirlwinds started to stir up space with their spirals, cracks appeared all over the earth, which opened up like a round loaf under the irresistible force of the mountains. Stones rose in the air! Before he lost consciousness Dietlev was award he was witnessing something grandiose, an event mingling the beginning of worlds and their apocalypse.

The reviews identify several (five? seven? more?) narrative threads. Myself, I note three of consequence: the manuscript Eléazard is working on (i.e., the story of Athanasius Kircher), the story of Eléazard's ex-wife traipsing through the jungle on some esoteric archeological pursuit, and that of their daughter experimenting with sex and drugs on the beaches of Brazil. Yes, there are a couple other storylines, but they don't get the page-time these do, so while I think they're meant to have more weight, they are weaker and out of balance.

These three threads could almost stand on their own as separate novels. (Certainly, they're long enough.) Apart from a couple plot points, I fail to see how they fit together, or how they need each other thematically. I don't see the necessity for the sprawl.

However, I absolutely loved reading about 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher.

This novel feels Important. It also manages to make me feel dumb. I don't understand who the tigers are supposed to be, or where they are. I mean, there's some great story in it, but it doesn't hang together for me — I just don't see the point.

Thoughts and excerpts
No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity
A slap in the face from fate
We haven't got anywhere yet
Returning to the bosom of obedience
Looking for the amazing
List of minor Chinese officials

Three Percent Review
[T]he various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.
In the fictional biography, Kircher is an audacious blend of Don Quixote, Baron von Munchausen, Sherlock Holmes and Buckaroo Banzai, with a ravenous "taste for the fantastic, the extraordinary, the mysterious."

The friction Blas de Robles creates between facts and nonsense highlights one of his novel's primary themes: the fluidity of identity and history; the elusive solidity of reality; the uncertainty of veracity.

You hate the proletariat

"I want to ask you" — here the woman pulled a number of coloured magazines wet with snow, from out of the front of her tunic — "to buy a few of these magazines in aid of the children of Germany. Fifty kopecks a copy."

"No, I will not," said Philip Philipovich curtly after a glance at the magazines.

Total amazement showed on the faces, and the girl turned cranberry-colour.

"Why not?"

"I don't want to."

"Don't you feel sorry for the children of Germany?"

"Yes, I do."

"Can't you spare fifty kopecks?"

"Yes, I can."

"Well, why won't you, then?"

"I don't want to."


"You know, professor," said the girl with a deep sigh, "if you weren't world-famous and if you weren't being protected by certain people in the most disgusting way" (the fair youth tugged at the hem of her jerkin, but she brushed him away), "which we propose to investigate, you should be arrested."

"What for?" asked Philip Philipovich with curiosity.

"Because you hate the proletariat!" said the woman proudly.

"You're right, I don't like the proletariat," agreed Philip Philipovich sadly [...]."

— from The Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov.