Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading made me feel as if I were the center of the universe

I had always liked reading, but lately I had started reading in a different kind of way. When I opened a book now, I was seized with desperation. I felt as if I was madly in love. It was as if I were in a confession booth and the characters in the book were on the other side telling me their most intimate secrets. When I read, I was a philosopher and it was up to me figure out the meaning of things. Reading made me feel as if I were the center of the universe.
— from Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it

A book is a collaboration between the one who reads and what is read, and at its best, that coming together is a love story like any other.
The Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, was not at all what I expected it to be; it pales against my memory of her What I Loved (which I consider to be one of the best books I've ever read), as well as against my personal expectation of the liberation that an actual summer without men might entail.

It definitely leans toward angry feminist rather than ditzy chick lit. The narrator seems to hold that you have to act like a man — in work, love, whatever — to make it in a man's world. But perhaps by the end of the summer she learns that women can assert themselves in much more effective, subversive ways.

This is the summer of Mia, whose husband of 30 years is taking a Pause from their marriage, in the form of a bright young French thing.

At this news, Mia suffered a breakdown:
Insanity is a state of profound self-absorption. An extreme effort is required just to keep track of one's self, and the turn toward wellness happens the moment a bit of the world is allowed back in, when a person or thing passes through the gate.
She spends time with her mother and her cohort at the seniors' residence.
The Five lived in a ferocious present because unlike the young, who entertain their finality in a remote, philosophical way, these women knew that death was not abstract.
She teaches a summer poetry workshop to a gang of 13-year-olds. It doesn't go easily.
Perception is laden with visible differences, with light and shadow and object masses and moving bodies, but also always there are invisible differences and similarities, ideas that draw the lines, separate, isolate, identify. I was, am kinda different. Not one of the gang. Outside, always outside.
Mia has plenty of time to reflect on her marriage.
This is not the voluntary blindness of new attraction; it is the blindness of an intimacy wrought from years of parallel living, both from its bruises and its balms.
There's a shoutout to Hustvedt's real-life husband:
Correlation is not cause. It is just "the music of chance," as one prominent American novelist has phrased it.
It's a very thoughtful and thought-provoking novel.
What do we know about people really? What the hell do we know about anyone?
There are several philosophical asides, with reference to Kant and Hegel, Socrates and Kierkegaard, and Meister Eckhart.
We are not only receivers of the world; we also actively produce it.
The poetry classes are pretty terrific, rich with how the young experience their worlds, how their worlds are transformed into poetry.
It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it; it is shapeless; an inchoate procession of words and things, and let us be frank: We never recover what was. Most of it vanishes.
It's a well-crafted novel, but for all its interesting bits, as a whole it's a little clinical. Told by Mia, the academic poet, it's fairly emotionless; the tone could be read as being consistent with Mia's character. Mia's poetry, scattered throughout, is pretty awful.

I read on, but more to see what else there might be on Rilke, what more of one old lady's secret embroideries, or what else the adolescent poets might devise, rather than out of any feeling for Mia and how her marriage might turn out.
I didn't move for a few minutes. I stood there with my bare feet in the warm grass and felt immeasurably sad. All at once, I felt sad for the whole lot of us human beings, as if I had suddenly been transported skyward and, like some omniscient narrator in a nineteenth-century novel, were looking down on the spectacle of flawed humanity and wishing things could be different, not wholly different, but different enough to spare some of us a little pain here and there. This was a modest wish, surely, not some utopian fantasy, but the wish of a same narrator who shakes her red head with its slices of gray and mourns deeply, mourns because it is right to mourn the endless repetitions of meanness and violence and pettiness and hurt. And so I mourned until the door opened, and my three neighbors emerged from the house and came across the lawn, and I took them in.
Read an excerpt.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Death will not correct a single line of verse


Death will not correct
a single line of verse
she is no proof-reader
she is no sympathetic
lady editor

a bad metaphor is immortal

a shoddy poet who has died
is a shoddy dead poet

a bore bores after death
a fool keeps up his foolish chatter
from beyond the grave

— Tadeusz Różewicz
(translated by Adam Czerniawski)

Tadeusz Różewicz, Polish poet and playwright, died April 24, 2014.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lullabies for white trash

I'm reading Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals, in anticipation of seeing the author next week. I'm only halfway, but I highly recommend it. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

The worst is, she names streets that I know, and I picture myself walking along them with my daughter, who's just about the age of the novel's narrator, and, well, I well up, and I think how lucky I am.

A selection of Heather O'Neill's writing is available online:

The End of Pinky
Johnny really was a gorgeous thief. Tonight he was wearing a black fedora over his dirty blond hair, and his blue eyes peeked out from underneath. He had a tattoo of a swan on his fist. He had survived his father trying to kill him three times. Once he had held him under the water in his bubble bath for a whole minute. Another time he had thrown Johnny off the balcony, and he landed in a pile of snow in just his underwear. Once his father sent him to talk to a stranger wearing a trench coat with nothing on underneath. As a result, Johnny didn’t fear death at all and he had no morals, which gave him the wickedest smile on the strip. It was as though each homicide attempt had only made him more beautiful.
And They Danced by the Light of the Moon (a prequel to the events of Lullabies)
Manon liked how the word "fuck" sounded when it came out of Jules’s mouth. It was like something shiny and wondrous that lit up her whole being. It was like a little piece of dirt in the oyster’s mouth that would turn into a pearl.
Because I was from Canada, they seemed to think that I had never been exposed to riff-raff. I was like the dodo birds that lacked natural predators and so stood meekly as Europeans clubbed them to death. Listening to too much Anne Murray had made me soft.
On Deadbeat Dads
Deadbeat Dad typically wears sunglasses and leather jackets. He has long hair, even though he’s balding on top. He rides a skateboard at age thirty-five. He’s fit, and is often spotted in the playground doing chin-ups on the monkey bars. When children are with Deadbeat Dad, they always feel in the flush of a new relationship. Everything Deadbeat Dad says is a riot. He does the most exciting things. He wrestles snakes! He eats shark! He runs into Ozzy Osbourne in bars!
On Growing Up White Trash
I wrote about how the basement walls of my building were covered in licence plates and hubcaps. I thought it was beautiful, like Aladdin's cave. I wrote about eating pork chops while sitting on the sidewalk and watching a television plugged into an extension cord that ran through a window.
Poetic License: A letter from Heather O'Neill, on liberating the sixth grade.
One had compared feeling good to disco balls, one had written about a raving stepbrother who drank all the orange juice in the house, one had written about his dad letting him sleep out on the balcony in the summer.
Various stories on This American Life.

"The Little Wolfboy of Northern Quebec" on Wiretap. (There are several other stories on Wiretap, but they are not easily searchable, or findable; this one's a favourite of mine.)

Blue Met
Heather O'Neill is at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, interviewed by Shelagh Rogers, on May 2. Heather O'Neill's new book is The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

Monday, April 21, 2014

If we were his sentences

If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we'd never long for another, never wander away: where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood? Who else would robe us so richly, take us to the best places, or guard our virtue as his own and defend our character in every situation? If we were his sentences, we'd sing ourselves though we were dying and about to be extinguished, since the silence which would follow our passing would not be like the pause left behind by a noisy train. It would be a memorial, well-remarked, grave, just as the Master has assured us death itself is: the distinguished thing.
— from On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William H. Gass.

Gass writes a mean sentence himself.

[On Being Blue is the Argo Bookshop bookclub selection to be discussed at the end of May.]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mind modelling

As you may have noticed, in general members of book clubs regard the characters inside books exactly the way they regard the characters outside books. The facts that the former are made of the alphabet and the latter of muscle, tissue, and bone are of little relevance.
— from The Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt.

Science backs this up. It's the same brain centres lighting up in response to a stimulus, whether in the world or in our minds.

This is the essence of a short online course I recently completed, and it's a curious serendipity that I was concurrently reading a novel that addressed the same concept within it.

By the age of 3 or 4, we develop a theory of mind, applying the sense of our own personness, to others, real or fictional, in order to understand them, to fill in the gaps.

Real life is good experience for understanding and appreciating literature; and fiction can be good practice for real life.

Certainly the girls attending the narrator's summer poetry workshop learn this lesson.

The Summer without Men was not the book I expected it to be. Having read Hustvedt before, I knew it wouldn't be chick lit. There's some angry feminism about it, not all of which I agree with.

The narrator's a poet, an academic. As much as she references Kierkegaard, I never fully warmed to her.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Reading Gabo online

The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World
"even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination"

Light Is Like Water
"Household objects, in the fullness of their poetry, were flying through the kitchen sky on their own wings."

Tuesday Siesta
"She bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty."

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
"a Portuguese man who couldn't sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Transcendence of form

Beethoven's music is Hegelian philosophy: it is at the same time truer than this; i.e., it contains the conviction that the self replication of society as something identical is not enough, indeed, that it is false. Logical identity as the esthetic and produced domination of forms is at once practiced and criticized by Beethoven. The seal of its truth in Beethoven's music is its suspension: the transcendence of form, through with form for the first time achieves its inner meaning. The transcendence of form is for Beethoven the portrayal — not the expression — of hope.
— T.W. Adorno, as quoted in Hegel — Purpose, Results and the Philosophical Essence, by Scott Hornton, in Harper's Magazine.

I've just finished another online course, this one exploring Beethoven's piano sonatas. I've learned quite a bit about the structure of Beethoven's music, and about the historical context for all the rules he was stretching to breaking point. And I've come to some understanding about some of the elements that attract me, about why I love Beethoven so much (even though I wasn't especially familiar with his sonatas before taking up this course).

I got to realizing just how modern Beethoven is, and it got me thinking about Kierkegaard and the crisis of modernity, and I started drawing connections, and recognized an ironic stance in Beethoven's work, how self-reference can only come from self-awareness, how he could be said to be composing metamusic. Beethoven of course precedes Kierkegaard, but Hegel would've been all the rage, and Kant: "The moral law within us and the starry heaven above us!" — which Beethoven had scrawled in a notebook. The music is becoming. And Beethoven is infinite.

And in writing my final assignment, I found scattered across the internet evidence that others have thought as I have. A reassuring thing.

And I am reminded to pick up Thomas Mann again. I must read Doctor Faustus.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Life has taught me to understand books

Learning to Read

If I had to look up every fifth or sixth word
so what. I looked them up.
I had nowhere important to be.

My father was unavailable, and my mother
looked like she was about to break,
and not into blossom, each time I spoke.

My favorite was The Iliad. True,
I had trouble pronouncing the names;
but when was I going to pronounce them, and

to whom?
My stepfather maybe?
Number one, he could barely speak English –

two, he had sufficient cause
to smirk or attack
without prompting from me.

Loneliness boredom and fear
my motivation
fiercely fueled.

I get down on my knees and thank God for them.

Du Fu, the Psalms, Whitman, Rilke.
Life has taught me
to understand books.

Franz Wright

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

I am resplendent in divergence

The end is the best part. After the stop. I love the end. Sometimes I start chanting that bit spontaneously. "I am resplendent in divergence." It's a holy thing.

I've been looking for this song forever, because upon a time I owned it, on vinyl, and I think of it often, every time I encounter a new ism. Surely my vast knowledge of isms can be traced back to this song. I learned more isms than any 12-year-old ought to know. I developed a weird interest in the Great Schism, and also the teachings of Nestorius. I think solipsism may still be my favourite, though, because it was my first.

Sometimes when I hear bells, I say, out loud, "Bells! I can hear bells!"

Nobody ever gets the reference, though, with my chanting, or the bells, or the diction of various isms.

Having seen Divergent this weekend with my daughter, I am now, of course, resplendent in it.

Thank you, Internet, for restoring this divergence to me.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

We are all comic characters

Lola's eyes gleamed with pleasure and interest as she listened to my tales of the cosmopolitans, all of them true but all fictions nevertheless. Shorn of intimacy and seen from a considerable distance, we are all comic characters, farcical buffoons who bumble through our lives, making fine messes as we go, but when you get close, the ridiculous quickly fades into the sordid or the tragic of the merely sad. It doesn't matter whether you are stuck in the provincial backwater of Bonden or wandering down the Champs-Élysées. The merely sad business about me was that I wanted to be admired, wanted to see myself as a shining reflection in Lola's eyes.
— from The Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Closing the circle

The Circle, by Dave Eggers.
I mean, all this stuff you're involved in, it's all gossip. It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it's fucking dorky.

Like, smile, favorite, zing, tweet, thumbs up, vote up, recommend, pin, forward, plus, doubleplusgood.

Recommended for anyone who has ever tweeted, messaged, sent an email, answered a customer survey, reviewed, commented, posted a status update, joined a community.


Society buys into the idea that ever increasing levels of "transparency" are of ultimate benefit to all. The Circle implements what sounds like great ideas at first — politicians that wear cameras on them at all times, criminals that are easily identifiable in a crowd, children that can never be abducted because they are instantly trackable via GPS, etc., — but along the way, all personal freedoms are one by one jettisoned, and the reader is faced with seeing (literally) what it would really be like to be at all times monitored, and "known" by anyone else who wanted to observe what you were up to.

So Many Books:
The Circle was a page-turner, the horror of watching Mae get sucked into the hivemind is delicious.

Betsy Morais: Sharing Is Caring Is Sharing, The New Yorker
But even without the searing wit of "1984," the book is capable of landing on point—when it's at its most irksome. Where "1984" has the vigilant Police Patrol and Thought Police, "The Circle" has SeeChange and Clarification. Surveillance isn't a bad word; it's a gift, even a human right.

Margaret Atwood: When Privacy Is Theft, The New York Review of Books
The nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin—who famously said, "Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are"—viewed bad taste as a moral offense, and the young Circlers subscribe to this dogma: nothing gets you the brushoff more quickly than a pair of uncool jeans. Utopia, it seems, is an awful lot like high school, but with even more homework.

Ellen Ullman: Ring of Power, The New York Times
She is more a high school mean girl than an evil opponent. Perhaps this is what Eggers wants to say: that evil in the future will look more like the trivial Mae than it will the hovering dark eye of Big Brother.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Looking forward to Blue Met

The launch of the festival program is like Christmas for me. I look forward to it every year. Then I sit with my various coloured pens, marking the must-sees and the maybe-interestings, mapping and scheduling.

The 16th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, themed "The Power of Words," runs April 28 to May 4, with some pre- and post-festival events.

This year's recipient of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix is Richard Ford. (But I'm not yet convinced I need to read him.)

At my first go over the program, I've identified two standout events:
  • Thursday, May 1, an interview with Austrian crime writer Wolf Haas, author of the darkly humorous Simon Brenner books and for whom I've developed a fondness. I'm giddy with anticipation.
  • Friday, May 2, Shelagh Rogers interviews Heather O'Neill, author of the amazing Lullabies for Little Criminals. No, I haven't actually read it, but I own a copy and I know all sorts of things about it and I expect it to be thoroughly amazing. She has a new book out.
I'll be poring over the event listings in more detail in the coming days — I'll let you know what else I find. The full program is available on the Blue Metropolis website.