Sunday, April 22, 2018

We sparkled like mica in granite

Maybe because I feel twenty again, maybe because I'm in love, maybe because we are old, maybe because I hear music ringing, I'm so happy to have discovered this poem.
Thirsting

It's not that the old are wise
But that we thirst for the wisdom

we had at twenty
when we understood everything

when our brains bubbled
with tingling insights

percolating up from
our brilliant genitals

when our music rang like a global siege
shooting down all the lies in the world

oh then we knew the truth
then we sparkled like mica in granite

and now we stand on the shore
of an ocean that rises and rises

but is too salt to drink

— Alicia Ostriker
Our brilliant genitals! We're sparkling!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A new species of human being

On tree day maybe the cherry tree in the schoolyard will fall on top of me and crush me. Almost all trees are sick these days, even if they look healthy their trunks are hollow, so all it takes to make them fall over is a sight from someone standing next to them. That's why all those signs say "Do not sigh near this tree." I can see it now — a whole row of cherry tree falling like dominoes, starting with the one farthest away. I run away.
The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, is a slight novella that poetically hovers over many interesting themes without ever touching down.

I'm hard-pressed to explain what The Emissary is about. It takes place in a future, post-disaster Japan, where children are helpless and frail and wheelchair-bound and elders are robust. (Is this not the way the world is? Or is it upside down? Is it the elders or the children who have wisdom?)
Assuming he had knowledge and wealth to leave to his descendants was mere arrogance, Yoshiro now thought. This life with his great-grandson was all he could manage. For that he needed to be flexible, in mind and body, with the courage to doubt what he had believed for over a century. He'd have to slough off his pride like an old jacket and go around in his shirt sleeves. If he was cold, rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to change his body so that it would grow a thick coat of fur like a bear's. He was not really an "old man," but a man who, after living for a century had become a new species of human being, he thought, clenching his fists again and again.
Japan has quarantined itself from the rest of the world.
Having been among the first countries to withdraw from the global rat-race in which huge corporations turned underground resources into anything they could sell at inhuman speeds while ruthlessly competing to keep production costs lower than anyone else's, South Africa and India now kept to a policy of supporting their economies by exporting language alone, discontinuing all other imports and exports. The two nations had formed what they called "The Gandhi Alliance," which was gaining world-wide popularity. They got along so well that other countries were beginning to envy them. South Africa and India fought about soccer and nothing else, their positions on humanity, the sun, and language being perfectly matched. Contrary to the predictions of foreign experts, the economies of both were growing steadily. Like these two nations, the Japanese government had also stopped importing underground resources and exporting manufactured goods, but with no language it could export, Japan had come to an impasse. The government hired a linguist to write a paper proving that the language Okinawans spoke was linguistically unrelated to Japanese, to promote its plan to sell the Okinawan language to China for a good price, but Okinawa refused to let this underhanded scheme go through. They came back with an ultimatum: If Japan insisted on selling their language to China, then Okinawa would stop all shipment of fruit to the main island of Japan.
Old man Yoshiro had once written a novel, Ken-to-shi, Emissary to China, which manuscript he'd buried because there were too many foreign place names.

Meanwhile, Yonatani, the teacher, is tasked with selecting the child most suitable to be an emissary. (Emissary to where?) "All he could teach them was how to cultivate language. He was hoping they themselves would plant, harvest, consume, and grow fat on words." He has his eye on Yoshiro's great-grandson, Mumei.

The Emissary imagines a future where the past (our now) doesn't make any sense. Tawada is as playful and surreal as ever. The story, such as it is, is grounded in the intergenerational interplay, but I lost my bearings when trying to understand the big picture, Japan's place in the world, or the new human's role.
"So in another hundred thousand years we'll all be octopi?"

"Maybe so. A long time ago people would have thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all."

"In high school I used to envy people with bodies like Greek statues. I was trying to get into art school, you see. Don't know when I developed a liking for entirely different bodies — birds, say or octopi. I'd like to see everything from an optical point of view."

"Optical?"

"No, I meant octopus. I want see through the eyes of an octopus."
Reviews
Hyperallergic: A Dystopian Fairy Tale Reflects Challenges of the Present
New York Times: After Disaster, Japan Seals Itself Off From the World in "The Emissary"
Words without Borders: Yoko Tawada’s Dystopian Novel "The Emissary" Delivers a Bitingly Smart Satire of Present-Day Japan

Excerpt.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The war and the revolution are inseparable

I have no particular love for the idealized "worker" as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on my return from Barcelona. I would've liked to read it beforehand, but I realize that no matter how much time I would have given myself to process Orwell's explanations, I would be no closer to understanding the politics of that time and place. He admits that he didn't understand it himself. "The war and the revolution are inseparable," he writes, and that is as much clarity as one can hope for.

The book recounts Orwell's experience fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. While the politics is confusing, the account of his time in Spain — of life in the trenches, of hospital condition near the front line, of being shot at and being shot, of being under surveillance — is starkly vivid and insightful. It's also often funny, even in grim circumstances.
The days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming. Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabián. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evening they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.
I suspect Orwell's text if read deeply would shed light on current Catalonian struggles for independence.

It's interesting to note, also, how Orwell's experience must've informed Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of the dissemination of information, disinformation, and propaganda, how one party could be an ally in the cause one day but an enemy the next, and the dread that anyone might be an informant ready to report you for anything.

The book ends with a poignant ode to England:
And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Prescient, no? Yet we keep falling asleep.

Etext: Homage to Catalonia

See also:
Christopher Hitchens: Why Orwell Matters
George Orwell's Prelude in Spain
George Orwell's Spanish civil war memoir is a classic, but is it bad history?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

This is the kind of place to linger in

I notice that my reading and viewing material over the last week is full of suicide. This concerns me a little: Is the universe trying to tell me something? Has the universe always been trying to tell me this thing and I'm just now noticing?

About behaviour completely incomprehensible to me.

[I don't mean to suggest anything in common among these works apart from this broad subject, but 2 novels (Hotel Silence and The Zero and the One) and 2 films (The Sense of an Ending and The Child in Time) have circled round each other and brought me here.]

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, is a slight novel, about a man in the grips of midlife crisis. Perhaps "grips" is too strong a word. More like he's nudged up against some uncomfortable emptiness. Maybe this is crisis for some people. [I'd've thought that the Icelandic disposition had an affinity for emptiness.]

Though Jónas is not sensitive to it, his friend Svanur is also in crisis.
I hear him say that he suspects Aurora has started to read poetry.

"When I slipped past her through the bathroom door last night, she said that I was eclipsing her horizon."

He shakes his head.

"Sometimes I feel it's better to think about Aurora than have her beside me. She'd never understand that."
(As if poetry were some kind of disease!)

Jónas buys a one-way ticket to an unnamed country in the aftermath of war, the perfect setting for the act he intends to commit, ostensibly to spare his daughter the trouble of finding his body. But Jónas unexpectedly finds himself outside his own head.
"Will you be gone? In ten days' time?" she asks with feigned nonchalance.

I reflect on this. In the land of death there isn't the same urgency to die.

"No, I don't expect to be gone," I say. And I think, this is the kind of place to linger in.
He doesn't exactly find purpose, but he gains perspective on his troubles and on those of others, perspective on what matters (spoiler: kindness!). (This plays into the question of whether depression is a first-world problem, but doesn't explore, or exploit, the issue — to the novel's credit, I think.)

Favourite sentence:
She slides against me and I feel her closeness grow like a full moon.
I'm somewhat surprised that this novel should have received the accolades it has. Thank goodness it steers clear of sentimentality; its stillness saves it. It's quiet, somewhat unfocused, ultimately tragic in a totally unexpected way. Perhaps like most of our lives.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Triumphs of artifice

The Zero and the One, by Ryan Ruby, is imperfect, but I loved it. It's a college novel, and a pursuit of a rare book, with a heavy dose of philosophizing. The novel starts with a suicide and the rest of the book uncovers how we got to this point, through flashbacks on the school year at Oxford and muddling through the funeral aftermath in New York City.

Obvious comparisons for The Zero and the One are Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. I'd add a dose of Patrick Hamilton's Rope. It doesn't have the emotional or moral heft of these, but I was perfectly satisfied to be immersed for a couple days in student life in Oxford and NYC, with a side trip to Berlin.

Owen (like "one") is on scholarship and is consumed by his studies, until Zach (like "zero") zooms in from America and enlists Owen's help in getting a girl. Zach gets the girl, Owen gets her friend. Zach develops an obsession with philosopher Hans Abendroth. Everyone revels in academia. Until they don't. Then Owen meets Zach's twin sister.

My favourite sentence:
A typical late winter sky, dull and grey as an oyster shell, hung like a Rothko in the window frame.
Structurally, each chapter is headed with a passage from Abendroth, who turns out to be entirely fictional. His rare collection of aphorisms, Null und Eins, is at the centre of this novel, which could be described as an investigation into the ethics of suicide. The sensibilities expressed in The Zero and the One borrow heavily from Dostoevsky.
Stupidity is not just the result of false consciousness and organized oppression. It's the natural condition of the vast majority of mankind. It's the one thing that is equally distributed among the rich and the poor. Solving our political and economic problems will do nothing to answer the question, Why bother? In fact, all evidence suggests that it will only make that question more difficult to answer.
The Paris Review gives us a biography of Hans Abendroth with an extensive extract of his work.

Some aphorisms from Abendroth:
  • Never and nowhere is man truly at home. In order to experience this all he needs to do is to return, after even a short absence, to the city of his birth.
  • Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.
  • The difference between being in the world and reading the world breaks down and woe to the man who does not recognise which story he is living in!
  • The use people make of their freedom is the best argument against allowing them to have any.
I'd be quite happy to spend many more meditative hours with this book within a book.

Review at The Rumpus: The Story Is the Concepts: Philosophizing with Ryan Ruby.

Excerpt.
Abendroth thought parks and gardens belonged in the same conversation as novels and paintings. They are all, he writes, triumphs of artifice.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The clitoral look of raspberries

The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, is a madcap romp of a mystery, Catalan-style. (Is that a great cover design or what?)

The story bounces from LA and Vegas to Barcelona and its Catalonian environs. Pepe Carvalho met a fellow Spaniard, a bigshot executive, on a flight in the States. Years later, the executive's wife asks Carvalho, ex-communist ex-CIA private investigator, to solve the mystery of his murder.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, if for no other reason than to set the mood for my visit to Barcelona in a couple weeks. I would not say the streets of the gothic quarter line this novel — that is, the city is not a character in her own right. But there's a (distinctly Catalonian?) lusty grab-life-by-the-balls spirit that envelops the book.
When Gracian wrote that "a good experience is doubly enjoyable when it's short-lived", he can't have been thinking of food. Or, if he was, then he must have been one of those intellectuals who are happy living on alphabet soup and eggs that are as hard and egg-like as their own dull heads.
This book has breasts and blowjobs (in a strangely matter-of-fact and completely incidental way), cigars, drink, and food, glorious food. Also poetry (meet Luis Cernuda) and politics. Often all these things in the same breath. It has a frenetic energy that I associate with things Spanish. It's smart and it's funny.
He enjoyed the clitoral look of raspberries, and their fleshy texture and acidity, which was less gritty on the teeth than the mulberry, and with more of a physical consistency than the strawberry.
There's the ex-con who works for Carvalho (they once shared a prison cell) — a kind of office manager sidekick. There's the friend obsessed with the idea of setting up an anti-fascist resistance movement in the mountains who acts as research assistant. The boot-black with his ear to the street.
Wide awake and relaxed, he contemplated the bookcase in the corridor, where an irregular array of books was taking up space, sometimes upright and tightly packed, and sometimes falling all over the place, or with their titles the wrong way up. He hunted out Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sholokov's Quietly Flows the Don and Sacristan's Essays on Heine. He went over to the fireplace, tearing up the books with the relaxed expertise of one who is well practised, and arranged the dismembered tomes in a little pile, on top of which he placed dry twigs and kindling wood. The flames caught at once and spread rapidly, and as the printed matter burned it fulfilled its historical mission of fuelling fires that were more real than itself.
What this book doesn't have a lot of is easy-to-follow plot. But I'll take the blame for this one — maybe it's there, I'm just too distracted of late to find it. I have no idea whodunit. Despite this, I really enjoyed my time with this book. There are some great set pieces — even if I couldn't get the thing to hang as a whole in my currently fuzzy reader brain.

I'm completely open to trying more Montalbán; I just need to find the right headspace for it.
"Poetry isn't progressive. Or raspberry-coloured. Or anything at all. It's just poetry, or it's nothing," the poet said, without anger, but with all the dignity of a Flemish burgher.
Crimespree: Review.
The Guardian: Notes from Barcelona's dark side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The words are here

Time

This line is the present.

That line you just read is the past
(It fell behind after you read it)
The rest of the poem is the future,
existing outside your
perception.

The words
are here, whether you read them
or not. And no power on earth
can change that.

Joan Brossa (translated from Catalan by A.Z. Foreman)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

To live in Barcelona is to live in Europe!

"To arrive at a bar where the principal spectacle is the clientele..."


Reading The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and getting in the mood for an upcoming trip to Barcelona...

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fight the peace with stories

Hopelessness was no impediment to hope.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is not my kind of book. Or maybe it is.

That is, I would not have picked it up on the basis of its synopsis alone. But on top of various best-of-2017 accolades, it was longlisted for the 2018 Tournament of Books and is a current Canada Reads contender, two distinctions I can really get behind.

So I reserved the library ebook and it was checked out to me before I was ready for it. I started reading it in a stressed and resentful way, but was determined to at least skim it. For this reason, maybe I missed some important bits in the early going.

The war is between the North and the South. I wasn't entirely clear on the reasons for the war or the general conditions of the state of war, but it was something to do with continuing use of fossil fuels (which apparently are still available in 2074).

In 2074, the world is a different place. Climate has changed. As a result, geography has changed. Entire ways of life have changed.

The Middle East has extended its boundaries and is now the Bouazizi Empire. That doesn't affect Sarat on a day-to-day basis, but it's a fact of the world.

This novel isn't really about the war. It's about Sarat Chestnut and her family and the hardships they endure. It is about how Sarat becomes the person she ends up being.
"The first thing they try to take from you is your history."
It is about living as a refugee, and about recruitment and indoctrination to extremist ideologies.

Says Sarat's mentor:
"I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they're fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can't call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they're fight for, they'll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I'd had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind."
Much in the early portion of the novel is made of the protagonist Sarat being a tomboy. This struck a wrong chord with me. I'd like to believe that we live in gender-enlightened times, and that in 2018 the concept of "tomboy" is already outmoded. I'd like to believe that by 2074 the concept would be meaningless. Sarat is contrasted with her fraternal twin, who wears pretty dresses and fusses over her hair. This might make sense if in wartime the only viable means of survival for a woman meant relying on her womanly wiles. But the author never builds a case for that. In fact, most of the women are no-nonsense, and do whatever it takes. So this characterization of Sarat didn't work for me and pulled me out of the story. I don't think it's necessary in order to make the rest of the story work.

Yeah, I have some petty gripes about this book, and I was grumpy about reading it.
There existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.
It's a much subtler, smarter, more accomplished book than I initially gave it credit for. I think this book came at the wrong time for me to fully appreciate it.
You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.
Listen to Omar El Akkad in conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A screw loose and tough as nails

Happy International Women's Day!
Portrait of a Woman

She must be a variety.
Change so that nothing will change.
It's easy, impossible, tough going, worth a shot.
Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,
dark, merry, full of pointless tears.
She sleeps with him as if she's first in line or the only one on earth.
She'll bear him four children, no children, one.
Naive, but gives the best advice.
Weak, but takes on anything.
A screw loose and tough as nails.
Curls up with Jaspers or Ladies' Home Journal.
Can't figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.
Young, young as ever, still looking young.
Holds in her hands a baby sparrow with a broken wing,
her own money for some trip far away,
a meat cleaver, a compress, a glass of vodka.
Where's she running, isn't she exhausted.
Not a bit, a little, to death, it doesn't matter.
She must love him, or she's just plain stubborn.
For better, for worse, for heaven's sake.

— Wisława Szymborska (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)
I spend months believing the poetry gene came from my father's side. Yesterday my mother recalls how her mother would recite epic poems by heart at bedtime.

So the poetry gene skipped a generation.

She was tough as nails.

[But that line, "A screw loose and tough as nails." In Polish, "Nie ma głowy na karku, to będzie ją miała." More literally, She has no head on her shoulders, so will have one. So maybe, An airhead, with a real head on her shoulders. Or, Where is her head, her head's on straight. Or, She loses her head, but headstrong.]

Monday, March 05, 2018

I might have read this foreign city like a text

Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them.
— from "Canned Foreign," in Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada.

"Canned Foreign" is a brilliant little story (well, it's not really a story; vignette?). I love this idea, that too-easy language is simple, inadequate, wrong. It reaffirms me in my shortcomings, my own inadequately communicative behaviour, grounding me in a comprehensive philosophy of language and theory of communication.

Clearly my reading this year is proving the inadequacy of language:
Clearly we need to read to learn to read the world. But then what? My reading is also leading me to attempt to articulate . . . something inexpressible.
Once, in the supermarket, I bought a little can that had a Japanese woman painted on the side. Later, at home, I opened the can and saw inside it a piece of tuna fish. The woman seemed to have changed into a piece of fish during her long voyage. This surprise came on a Sunday: I had decided not to read any writing on Sundays. Instead I observed the people I saw on the street as though they were isolated letters. Sometimes two people sat down next to each other in a café, and thus, briefly, formed a word. Then they separated, in order to go off and form other words. There must have been a moment in which the combinations of these words formed, quite by chance, several sentences in which I might have read this foreign city like a text. But I never discovered a single sentence in this city, only letters and sometimes a few words that had no direct connection to any "cultural content."

Saturday, March 03, 2018

How else will we read the world?

Hello, he said. What you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I'm reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
Autumn, by Ali Smith, is a joy.

There's so much joy in this book, despite some heavy matters throughout, like Brexit and dying and the inability to effect change and the absurdity of our day-to-day and how feminist icons have been dismissed by the establishment and how we forget, but Smith's writing is so light and gentle and funny, and there's hope and love and joy. And wordplay. It's about how we tell our stories. There's fear and awe (and love and joy) in discovering that people have lives quite apart from the narrow contexts in which we know them.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a lecturer in art history, and traces her relationship with Daniel, an old songwriter and art collector, her next-door neighbour when she was a little girl, who is sleeping away his final days at a care facility in the town her mother has moved to. Because Elisabeth visits Daniel regularly, she sees more of her mother too. The United Kingdom has just voted to leave the European union, and there's something in the air.

I read Winter, the second book in Smith's seasonal cycle, first. I don't think that matters — they're set more or less contemporaneously, with a small bit of character overlap. Both books brush up against Shakespearean tales. Both books describe acts of protest and resistance.

Both feature long-forgotten women artists, in Autumn's case, Pauline Boty. Many readers see the discursions on art as incidental, but I suspect they're quite central to this cycle. I think Smith is reminding us to listen to what women say through art, that it could be quite different than what you think it is, and it is important.
A great many men don't understand a woman full of joy, even more don't understand paintings full of joy by a woman.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

I'm tired

I'm tired, she says.

It's only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That's not what I mean, she says. I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful. I'm tired of animosity. I'm tired of pusillanimosity.

I don't think that's actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I'm tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
—from Autumn, by Ali Smith.

Post-Brexit novel, indeed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The farthestmost point

There's a place that as kid you called the farthestmost point — the most distant you could get, the place that when you stood there you could pretend you were the only person in the world. Being there made you wary, but it also put a kind of peace into you, a sense of security. Beyond that point, in either direction, you were always returning, and are returning still. But for that moment, even now with Whitby by your side, you're so remote that there's nothing for miles — and you feel that. You feel it strongly. You've gone from being a little on edge to being a little tired, and you've come out on this perfectly still scene where the scrublands turn to wetlands, with a freshwater canal serving as a buffer to the salt marsh and, ultimately, the sea. Where once you saw otters, heard the call of curlews. You take a deep breath and relax into the landscape, walk along the shore of this lower heaven rejuvenated by its perfect stillness. Our legs are for a time no longer tired and you are afraid of nothing, not even Area X, and you have no room for memory or thought or anything except this moment, and this one, and the next.
— from Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This is from Book 3 of the Southern Reach trilogy, about Area X. Each book is very different in tone, with a distinct kind of horror.

I'm almost at the end now. I have great admiration for this series.

I have no room for memory or thought or anything except this moment, and this one, and the next...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Words you understand but a meaning you don't

Imagine, she had told Control next, that language is only part of a method of communication. Imagine that it isn't even the important part but more like the pipeline, the highway. A conduit only. Infrastructure was the word Control would use with the Voice later.

The real core of the message, the meaning, would be conveyed by the combinations of living matter that composed the words, as if the "ink" itself was the message.

"And if a message is half-physical, if a kind of coding is half-physical, then words on a wall don't mean that much at all, really, in my opinion. I could analyze those words for years — which is, incidentally, what I understand the director may have done — and it wouldn't help me to understand anything. The type of conduit helps decide how fast the message arrives, and perhaps some context, but that's all. Further" — and here Control recognized that Hsyu had slipped into the rote routine of a lecture given many times before, possibly accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation — "if someone or something is trying to jam information insider your head using words you understand but a meaning you don't, it's not even that it's not on a bandwidth you can receive, it's much worse. Like, if the message were a knife and it created its meaning by cutting into meat and your head is the receiver and the tip of that knife is being shoved into your ear over and over again..."
— from Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This is from the second instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy, about Area X.

Annihilation was creepy, thrumming our unease with the unknown in our external world. In Authority, the creep factor stems from the unknown in our intimate world — an invasion into the places we live, the work we do, the people we know.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Something basic about language had started to escape me



Recalling what a joy The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, was to read. Weeks on, I'm fuzzy on some of the details, but still talking about it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Step by step until it is done

Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl become a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.
Award-winning, genre-bending feminist dystopia. Praised by Margaret Atwood. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. A huge disappointment.

A fascinating premise, and a book for our times, the execution was weak and formulaic, with characters I didn't care about.

What The Power does do quite cleverly is flip gender expectations upside-down.
Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep's clothing.
I'm surprised this book wasn't written before now; it's as if it were waiting for its time.

Girls have evolved to have an organ of electricity; they can channel this "power" through their fingertips like lightning. It can kill.

This sets the world on fire, with women wresting control from abusers, criminal, harassers, despots. Women take back the night, and then some.

As provocative as the ideas are in this novel, it feels like it was trying to do too many things. The cross-cutting of several perspectives, the overall pacing, the graphic nature of some scenes, the "real-life" politics (mentions of military training, UN sanctions, a play for oil) — these elements give the novel the feel of a thriller, of a genre novel. I'm not proud of myself for using that word ("genre") disparagingly here (I trust most readers recognize that I read broadly and I have nothing against genre-bending), but the novel packs all this in and more to the detriment of more meaningful plot and better realized characters. I suspect the work of a marketing-savvy editor with an eye on film rights.

That being said, The Power is a worthwhile thought experiment. Beyond the role switching, the novel questions power dynamics, the nature of power itself, and the corruption of individuals who hold it and wield it.

It also questions how we come by our basic assumptions of history, biology, and our place in the world. (This is particularly evident in the novel's frame; the story is established as a work of historical fiction speculating on the events that led to the global Cataclysm — it posits a kind of pre-history. I found the framing device really jarring, but I appreciate what it's trying to accomplish.)

In the New York Times (Naomi Alderman on the World That Yielded The Power), Alderman poses some supplementary thought experiments that are key to our being in the world:
Do you think that you are so exceptional that if you had been born a German in the 1930s, you would have understood immediately that Lebensraum was a lie? That you would have tried to assassinate Hitler? Do you believe that your ethics are so exceptional that you would immediately have rebelled?

If you and I lived in a world where women were dominant, would you be telling yourself: This is very unjust; I will fight for the rights of men?

If we lived in the world of the power, I don't think I would be magically excluded from the way the world operates. I don't think I can say I would have been the enlightened person. With or without the power, I behave the way the system teaches me to behave.
Early chapters reminded me strongly of SNL's Welcome to Hell skit, from late 2017 (viewable in Canada here).
The things you don't want to know, Roxy, those are the things that'll get you in the end.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

There is nothing more diabolical than certainty

"I am not a writer, I am an atmosphere," Lúcio Cardoso quipped. Brazilian, gay, and by all accounts larger than life.

And this book is some kind of atmosphere.

Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso, did not at first appear to be the kind of book I would enjoy. But what is bookclub for if not to push me to appreciate books I might not otherwise pick up?

The first strike against it: it's long, almost 600 pages, which I think is a little much for bookclub to demand of me.

Second, a quick scan showed it to be epistolary in nature: a collection of letters, diary entries, confessions, et cetera. Not really my thing. I find it hard to keep track sometimes of who's writing and when; I expect the author/narrator to ensure the entries are suitably "curated" — such a novel demands a strong framework (I hold it to higher standard than a "traditional" novel, and so it more likely to fare poorly).

Third, there's something florid about it. The framework contributes to the sense that this book is much older than its 60-odd years. The language is dense and musty. It feels altogether of another era.

But bookclub. What else did I have to do in the deep cold of winter?

And wow. A mere five pages in, there's a spectacular reveal. André in his diary is questioning the meaning of it all — love, life, death — and mourning his lover, Nina, a paragon of beauty and life struck down too young (although in these early pages it's not clear whether by illness or something more nefarious). It's overly sentimental. André is highly dramatic (it's not till much later that we learn he is only 16 years old).

SPOILER:

I was hooked.

Oh, the melodrama, the scandal, the sin. Chronicle of the Murdered House is a love story, a tragedy, a family drama, a morality tale, a mystery, and a horror story.

This is the story of Nina and her effect on the Meneses family (I started pronouncing them the "menaces"). When Valdo, the youngest of three brothers, brings home a young wife (well, she arrives separately), the reader anticipates a breath of fresh air, to stir up some dust in this proud family. But I was not prepared for this.

The title is inspired and it serves the story well.

Curiosity #1: The house of the title.
The title highlights a gothic element — indeed, the Chácara, the historic family home, is a strong character. The house is dim and stuffy, preserving bygone traditions. It has an army of servants. It has its own generator, with flickering yellow lights. It overlooks what was once an impressive garden, with a pavilion. The house is gradually falling into disrepair. By novel's end it is crumbling, "an abandoned skeleton." The house of course represents the family name.
"What do you think a house ruled by the power of evil is like?" (I skated clumsily over those words — the power of evil — ignoring their poverty and vulgarity.) "It is constructed very much like this one, firm in its foundations, secure in its traditions, conscious of the heavy responsibility of its name. It isn't tradition that takes root in it, it is tradition as the sole defense of truth." [...]

"It is what we could call a solidly built home." (I could not help noticing that my voice had become singularly calm.) "There is not a single crack through which heaven can enter." [...]

"Often, in times gone by," — it was my turn now to confess — "I wondered what made this house so cold, so soulless. And it was then that I discovered the formidable immutability of its walls, the frozen tranquility of its inhabitants. Ah, my friend, trust me when I tell you there is nothing more diabolical than certainty. In certainty there is no place for love. Everything that is solid and firm is a denial of love." (p 334)
With Nina's death, the windows are finally flung open.

Curiosity #2: The murder of the title.
I won't tell you who dies. Well, yes, the house — both that which physically stands and the family that presided over the land — dies. But the title supports the framework, establishing the novel as a mystery. The book is a compilation of accounts, of witness testimony, regarding certain events. (It is not revealed till the end who has gathered these documents together.) While the accounts are not obviously contradictory, they occur in different personal contexts, they focus on different aspects, they are imbued with different emotions. All of this raises the question of absolute truth. While there is no clear murder mystery as the book progresses, the structure sets up the reader to believe there is one.

Curiosity #3: The epigraph.
John 11:39-40. It links the smell of disease and decay to resurrection, or the absence thereof. Toward Nina's end, the stink is unbearable. I read with wrinkled nose. So there is no salvation in this house. "Christ is nothing but a lie" (p 573).

Curiosity #4: The summoning of the monster.
There's a scene I found utterly monstrous, horrific, Lovecraftian. Nina's lover recounts how "down my fists and my fingers ran a liquid which was neither blood nor pus, but a thick, hot substance that dripped down as far as my elbows and gave off a foul unbearable smell," (p 468) like her rotting lifeforce. It's really weird and unpleasant, but not entirely out of place. Nina is a catalyst for something, allowing the true horror (of the house?!) to manifest itself.

When she first comes the Chácara, Nina is a breath of fresh air, but she's also trouble. (I picture Nina as Rita Hayworth's Gilda.) She's also very much a victim. As monstrous as her behaviour is, I can't help but feel sorry for her. She is a creature of her body, of sensuous pleasures — as she has no moral code, it's hard to condemn her for breaking one.
What is goodness? How could one judge or evaluate it when in the presence of a blind, impulsive being like her? [...]

She was not a simple human being, but a construct, a work of art. (p 366-7)
Curiosity #5: Nina/Ana.
They are positive/negative. Nina is colour and life, Ana is dour and gray. Nina is spontaneity and impulse and laughter, Ana is deeply unhappy and deeply repressed. Ana feels the burden of sin deep in her soul. Nina drinks champagne.

Ana is married to the eldest Meneses brother, and she is one with the house. Her confessions (to an actual priest) constitute a significant portion of the testimony in this chronicle. She figures prominently enough that one may say the novel is the story of two women, a study in contrasts.

Curiosity #6: The buried family secrets.
Senhor Timóteo is the Meneses brother nobody speaks of. An obese, cross-dressing embarrassment, he is quite literally buried alive, condemned to his room to watch life pass him by from his window over the garden.

Then there's the great aunt, whose portrait was removed from the drawing room.
It was the face of a woman, there was not doubt about that, but so stern, so unemotional, so detached from any mean, everyday thoughts, that it was more like the face of a man — a man, moreover, utterly disillusioned with the vanities of this world. There was no promise of serenity, none of the greens and pinks that conceal barely suppressed laughter or the twinkle of a sudden burst of youthful spirit — no. Everything about that face was dense and mature. The colors were the grays of tamed passions and the ochers of contained violence. It wasn't the face of an old woman, but of a woman at the outer limits of herself, with nothing to cover herself but the truth itself, whose caustic effects might or might not be dangerous.
In 1959, Cardoso was giving gay culture a place in Brazilian literature.

Curiosity #7: The snake, the wolf, the revolver.
The snake completes the Biblical allegory of the garden. The wolf is an external unseen predator, possibly imagined, a false pretext for a revolver. I'm not sure what to make of the revolver.

Reviews
The Winnipeg Review
Full Stop

Excerpt.

Some jazz: "Chronicle of the Murdered House," Part 1 and Part 2, by Larry Nozero.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Complete coherence between the things he said and the turmoil of his thoughts

It's hard to explain, especially since, in the Meneses family, Timóteo was far from being its dullest or its least unusual member, on the contrary, but to describe his personality, I would have speak not so much about what he did or felt and more about the dense, unstable, electrically charged atmosphere that surrounded him — like the atmosphere you might find in certain smoky bars. Were I to describe his actions and feelings, they would be like mere supports propping up the foggy world he inhabited. He navigated his room like some splendid, deep-sea fish in the small maritime stronghold of his aquarium. What he said could seem abrupt and disconnected to those who merely heard him speak, but for anyone who understood him, there was a complete coherence between the things he said and the turmoil of his thoughts.
—from Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso.

For the rest of the book I will picture Timóteo as a tormented anglerfish.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace"

I found myself thinking about a girl from school, Meredtih Wittman who had lived on the same floor as me and Hannah and Angela, though the few times I said hi to her, she murmured something without looking at me or moving her mouth. A graduate of Andover, she carried her books in a Christian Dior bag and had once written a feature for the student newspaper's weekly magazine about Boston's salsa and merengue scene. I happened to know, because I had overheard her telling her friend Bridey, that Meredith Wittman was doing a summer internship at New York magazine, and for a moment now I reflected on the fact that, although Meredith Wittman and I both wanted to be writers, she was going about it by interning at a magazine, whereas I was sitting at this table in a Hungarian village trying to formulate the phrase "musically talented" in Russian, so I could say something encouraging by proxy to an off-putting child whose father had just punched him in the stomach. I couldn't help thinking that Meredith Wittman's approach seemed more direct.
I love this book so much. Much more than I expected to. Much more than I recall loving any other book in recent memory. I love it in a deeply personal way. It is urging me to closely consider how I judge books.

Not by the cover. It's pink, a horrific millennial shade of it. There's a picture of rock. Too literal a representation of the title. The cover is so awful, I'm starting to like it. ("You can't just tell an ache: 'Go back into the rock.'" Neruda's atom to return to blind stone.)

Not by the title. The title is not original. The author blatantly stole it from another book, a book with its own reputation that I've never read.

By the plot? Very little happens. There is no situation requiring resolution. Except maybe the element that may be called a love story, but that element fades in and out — it's barely there.

Characters. Are not fully formed. Rather, they are fully formed representations of not yet fully formed people. People come and go. We only know them as much as the narrator gives them the time of day, considers how they impact her own life. She doesn't know how most of them fit into her own narrative yet.

So here I am thinking it can't be a very great book. It is not Dostoyevskian, I don't think. But how is it that I love it so? Why do I think of it as a guilty pleasure, that it is somehow not worthy of all my love. Is it not enough that this book brings me great joy? Why would I hesitate to give it 5 stars? Can the experience of reading the book be so much greater than the book itself? Does not the book itself earn the credit for giving me this experience?

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, captures something delicate. I don't know if it is a universal experience, or a female experience, but it was my experience.

It takes me back to my first year at university, and dorm living, and the cafeteria, and poring over the course catalogue, trying to figure out more that what I wanted to study: what kind of person I wanted to be. Did I want to be the kind of person who read about the history of magic and witchcraft, surveyed obscure fine arts movements, or enrolled in 19th-century literature?

What even is love, and do I want to be in it? How do people even talk to one another?

Selin's summer teaching English in Hungary is some ways also reflects a summer I spent in Poland — my roommate was there teaching English (she didn't know any Polish, and she was ill-equipped to teach language; she was in an accounting program, I was the linguistics major), phones were complicated, boys were complicated, communism hadn't entirely worn off yet. It was exciting, and sometimes very strange.

I've read a lot of negative comments about this book, about its pointlessness. People who dislike Selin, so self-absorbed, why doesn't she just say something?
When Vivie apologized for eating slowly, Béla said that eating slowly was good: "If you eat slowly, you can feel the food."
"You don't feel food," Owen said, "you taste it."
"Yes," Béla said. "But I also mean more than to taste it."
"You enjoy it," suggested Daniel. "If you eat slowly, you enjoy the food."
"You enjoy," repeated Béla.
"You relish it," said Owen. "You savor it."
"Savior?"
"Not savior — savor. It's like enjoying something, but more slowly."
"I don't know this word," Béla said, his eyes shining.
I realized that I would never have corrected somebody who said "you can feel the food." That was how Owen would end up with students who said "savor," while I wold end up with students who said "papel iss blonk."
I wouldn't correct it either. Of course you can feel the food, why would anyone correct that?

I can't help but feel that The Idiot's naysayers are people who talk too much without saying anything substantial, who don't think before they speak; they either live in hypocrisy or their existence is charmed by self-assurance and obliviousness.

I've been thinking a lot about the kind of person I was when I was 18. I don't think I've changed much. Sure I've "evolved" — I know more stuff, I've had more experience. I form (and state) opinions more readily, because I have accumulated more arguments to back them up. I still obsess about language and figuring out what people are trying to say when they choose to say things (I do this professionally). The naysayers — I am certain I would not have liked their insufferable 18-year-old selves. I would not have liked Meredith Wittman.

The Guardian describes how The Idiot is a historical novel, set at the advent of the internet but before smartphones, so this story could not have happened at any other time. At any other time, the plot would have to be different. But I think the story would be the same, youth is the same. (My university experience was pre-email. But it was the same.)

NPR:
Teenage pretention, unlike its later incarnations, has always seemed to me to be a kind of thrilling, experimental optimism: Is this who I could be? The Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats. (Selin buys a coat because it reminds her of Gogol).
[...]
The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion that come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical: Where do people get their opinions from? "How did you separate where someone was from, from who they were?" How do I "dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life?"
Big, beautiful messy life!

Interview with Elif Batuman at The Rumpus.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

He drank his own books

In secondhand bookshops, he's sell the books he'd lovingly collected over the years in exchange for a pittance, and then he drank his own books, each day he drank one, some days as many as two, I'm drinking The Odyssey, the small change they gave me for it is disappearing down my throat, he'd tell himself, look how little I got for the paperback edition of Martin Amis's Money, he exchanged literature for alcohol, Robinson Crusoe became a bottle of Baileys, The Brothers Karamazov a bottle of Smirnoff vodka, the three gin and tonics he'd just ingested were The Life and Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes. He got his hands on an expensive bottle of Laguvulin whisky in exchange for the leather-bound copy of James Joyce's Ulysses that Ana had given him as a gift; if, on a given day, he sold Montaigne's essays for next to nothing, he would buy himself a Bordeaux red, trying to be coherent with what he drank; if he got rid of Madame Bovary, he had to try to find a potion similar to something Flaubert might have ingested, to be able to emulate him; in exchange for Italo Calvino's Our Ancestors he'd get a Chainti or a bottle of pelaverga from Saluzzo, maybe. Whoever said that literature doesn't feed us, that it doesn't comfort our spirit or our soul?
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo, Twist is published by Archipelago Books, available March 2018.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The quicksand of mental indulgence

The trees whipped past, the same trees that I had observed from a middle-aged woman's car. Now I was that woman, but I was speeding wildly and the trees flashed by so fast I felt nauseated. No limpid daughter slept in the backseat; no strange teenage girl sat next to me, stewing in her own nightmarish consciousness. (And isn't that how you become tender, vulnerable? The tissue-softening marination of your own mind, the quicksand of mental indulgence?)
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, stormed onto the literary scene last year and was unanimously highly lauded, ending up on many best-of-2017 lists. (Just look at that praise.) It's a collection of eight short stories, which, drawing on science fiction, horror, and feminist theory, I ought to love, but all of them were a little too long (and boring) for my liking.

One story, "The Resident," describes the narrator's experience at an artists' residence (or colony) (taking up residence in the artist mind, or colonizing it? she wonders). She winds up on the floor, thinking about Shklovsky's idea of defamiliarization.

Toward the end of the stay, the artists share their work with each other, and one of them accuses the narrator of indulging in "that old trope" — the madwoman-in-the-attic story, the angry lesbian. It was nice to hear a character expressing my own feeling about the narrator's work, though I would level that criticism at Machado regarding this entire collection.

I didn't know anything about defamiliarization till I looked it up on Wikipedia — "a technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar." It occurs to me that maybe Machado intended all these stories to demonstrate this technique, to enhance my perception of the ordinary. But it's mostly lost on me; I wish someone could explain it to me; I just see ordinary.

These stories have some nicely constructed images, original turns of phrase, a lot of gauzy fabric, nuggets of deep thought, but I found myself plodding through these stories, not enjoying them. They were fairly predictable. These stories just weren't for me, at least not the me in my current headspace.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A sin is almost always something very tiny

"One day, in the garden, he told me that a sin is almost always something very tiny, a grain of sand, a nothing—but that it can destroy an entire soul. Ah, Betty, the soul is a strong thing, an invisible, indestructible force. If a tiny pinch of sin—a nothing, a dream, a nasty thought—can destroy it, what will a large dose of poison do, a sin instilled drop by drop into the heart you want to destroy?"

I didn't really understand what he meant, but I stared at him in alarm.
—from Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso.

I'm reading this for bookclub. I wasn't enthralled by the first few pages, but an early sudden reveal drew me in.

I am somewhat alarmed what sin may yet be revealed.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mouths fell open like trash bags

"The Bath" is a substantial short story that starts off Where Europe Begins, a collection of Yoko Tawada's work.

Have you ever tried to tell someone what you dreamt? And you stumble for words to convey the dream logic and transitions.

"The Bath" reads like a dream, only the telling of it is sublimely fluid.

It's kind of a fairy tale, about a fish-woman, or maybe a bird with scales, who may or may not be (as things are in dreams) a simultaneous interpreter who loses her tongue, both the physical muscle and her language, and joins a freak show.
I heard the click of a cigarette lighter. Evidently someone had begun to smoke. The faces around me were flushed from the wine. When jaw muscles relax, the atmosphere becomes relaxed as well. People's mouths fell open like trash bags, and garbage spilled out. I had to chew the garbage, swallow it, and spit it back out in different words. Some of the words stank of nicotine. Some smelled like hair tonic. The conversation became animated. Everyone began to talk, using my mouth. Their words bolted into my stomach and back out again, footsteps resounding up to my brain.
A lot happens in this story, and a lot of it is dreamt. It quite possibly merits Jungian analysis, but it moves so swiftly, slippery life a fish, it's hard to know where to start.

There's the issue of the mother, and the mother's refusal/failure to (physically) recognize her daughter (or emotionally acknowledge her). There's the mystery of the dead woman, whom she begins to confuse herself with, suicide from loneliness — is this what happens to Japanese women of a certain age who choose career over marriage? ("I have no time to go out because I sleep so much.") There's the problem of the tongue, forsaking one language for another, only to have no identity at all.

She is swallowed by her own vagina.
All at once I realize that the scale-covered bird called Sarcophagus is, in fact, the woman. I push open the lid and climb out.

Sky and earth have come to an end, and before me lie desolate grasslands full of slender blades swaying in the air. I remember having felt this way when I firs left my mother's womb.

With all my strength, I embrace the cold body of the scaly bird. In my arms, each of its scales becomes a wind chime that rings. Sharp, gently, bitter, soft notes penetrated my bones, and now my bones, too, begin to ring. This ringing gradually give rise to a strength which belongs to no one.
(Inhabiting one's own skin, one's own bones, someone else's skin, someone else's bones.)

I'm delighted to learn that a new novel, The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, is to be released this spring.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

No one inhabits anyone else's skin anymore

Twist, by Harkaitz Cano, is billed as a crime novel cum political thriller. In my view, it's more subtle than that: it's a meditation on memory and guilt.

It's about being in one's skin and feeling it in one's bones.
If you were in their skin, you would be the same, the same as them and their circumstance. "I am I and my circumstance; if I do not save it, I do not save myself." The second part of that sentence by the famous philosopher is often forgotten, who knows why. But no one inhabits anyone else's skin anymore, do they? It's hard enough to withstand our own skin, why would we think of inhabiting another's. The difference is that now you're in your own bones, and not in your skin.
This novel also has a lot of ghosts. These are predominantly political and historical ghosts, but they are also personal — the ghosts of the actual dead along with the spectres of family and past relationships invading one's current course of action.
It occurs to him that the water that comes out of the taps in our houses is filled with spectra: he remembers his mother's lock of white hair, how she deliberately blocked the sink once, just so she could ask for Diego's help. Our ghosts and the ghosts we must inherit. Those who make us guilty and those who make us be born guilty.

The water that comes out of the taps in our houses is filled with spectra and we drink those spectra and introduce them inside ourselves. How many like this one. Impossible to know. Spectra that we swallow and that turns us into spectra in turn. Transparent souls. Intermittent beings.
It's also about art and literature as a means of exorcising some of our ghosts. The main protagonist is a novelist; other characters are writer, journalist, publisher, actor, theatre director, visual artist. Some plot points move through a publishing house and a theatre. Cano it clearly a booklover. There are literary digressions on Shakespeare and Chekhov and Faulkner, typography and rare editions.

Twist sprawls. It's about Basque separatism and Franco fascism and coming to terms with the past, though justice may be beyond anyone's reach. The setting is contemporary to the time of writing (2006), but reaches back to the early 1980s and the first political stirrings felt by Diego Lazkano.

In embodying Diego's mindset, the novel essentially describes his midlife crisis. ("It was all there, [...] his middle-age crisis, the evidence that such crises offer no other consolation but the option to become contemplative beings.") We wax nostalgic about Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen.

Apparently the novel was inspired by the real-life murders of Lasa and Zabala, ETA activists who were kidnapped and tortured.

In Twist, they are represented by Soto and Zeberio. It could've been Diego who was sacrificed to the cause (not having a driver's licence saved him from going out on one fateful mission; he has since refused to learn to drive); he harbours immense guilt about Soto and Zeberio's deaths. They play, in a way, in his memory, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Diego's Hamlet (Diego has father issues, too). Diego tries, in his way, to live out their lives that were cut short, perhaps to the detriment of living his own.
Nothing is more pathetic than realizing a friend you admire looks down on you with feigned deference. Actually, something is: not noticing that your friend looks down on you while your wife does.
Part of me thinks this novel is too big (528 pages), but I can't imagine cutting anything out. I loved inhabiting the many love affairs (not just Diego's) and dissecting relationships, where things are thought but not said. I loved learning to cope as the publisher went blind. I was horrified to meet up-close a collector of Nazi memorabilia. I loved the detail of the art installations. These were not about Diego per se, nor Soto and Zeberio; the plot could be made to work without these elements, but they are the life of the novel. This is what life is made of. (But read over the busy weeks preceding Christmas, I feel I still didn't give this novel the focus it deserves.)



I may have rushed past a crucial point: I don't know why this novel is called Twist.

Twist was originally written in Basque, and was translated by Amaia Gabantxo. It's set to publish in March 2018. It's the only Basque novel I've ever read — not many are available in English. I first encountered the Basque culture when I read Trevanian's Shibumi in 1985. It's been a source of intrigue — cultural, political, linguistic — for me ever since. However, an understanding of Basque issues in not required to appreciate Twist.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Beauty in desolation

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
— from Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This passage should give you an idea of why it's being called eco-horror. Annihilation is creepy, but also surprisingly beautiful.

This reminded me of a conversation in Ali Smith's Winter (the books are talking to each other again!), though it stands in stark contrast to it:
Beauty is the true way to change things for the better. To make things better. There should be a lot more beauty in all our live. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. There no such ting as fake beauty. Which is why beauty is so powerful. Beauty assuages.
...for which comments Sophia is roundly ridiculed, but she suggests they tell each other the most beautiful thing they've ever seen.

This got me to thinking. I see beautiful things often enough. But the most beautiful? Today I'm thinking it's the parking lot forest of dead Christmas trees. An act of art. Beauty in desolation.

What's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen? (Was it in desolation?)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

An exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again

Ali Smith's Winter is an easy, beautiful thing.

By easy I do not mean simple. Winter has a lot of depth, but the writing is so effortless, so at ease.

It's Christmastime. Art is committed to visiting his mother, Sophia, for the holiday. He's expected to bring his girlfriend, but they've broken up (she's holding his Twitter account hostage for control of his blog, "Art in Nature" — blogging is dead, don't they know?), so he hires someone (an immigrant) to act her part. When they arrive, they find Sophia not quite herself, so they invite her estranged sister Iris (they're polar opposites) to help.

Sophia has had a disembodied child's head following her around. She's not telling anybody about it, but she doesn't know what to make of it. It's not haunting her, but she seems haunted by it; she's shutting down.

What ensues is late-night conversations at the kitchen table: some Brexit talk, old resentments, family secrets, past love, all the related wounds, a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth ("It would be good to be full of holes, she says. Then all the things you can't express would maybe just flow out."), and a great love of Shakespeare. In other words, a perfect family Christmas.

All the deadness that so hooked me at the novel's opening turned out to be quite a clever trick. What "is dead" is Google autocomplete.
Thinking about Charlotte is also a waste of valuable energy and to free himself from it and from her he is now going to go out into the streets of this city and find, wherever he can, a handful of earth
(is dying
is divided into twenty four
is doomed
is destroyed
is dead)
so as ceremonially to hold in his hand nothing but soil, a handful of it breathing at its own rate, slow and meditative and completely itself through all the anger and the rot, earth itself, to remind him of it stilling to hard and frozen when the temperatures fall and thawing back to pliant again when they rise. That's what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten stat it brings you. So gentle Art will look for literal earth. City earth. He'll look in the places where the city trees meet the pavement; sometimes there are patches of earth round them if they haven't been rubbered in under that bouncy plastic stuff. Nature is adaptable. Nature changes all the time.
This is the first book of Smith's that I've read, and I hadn't even finished it before I placed a hold on her other novels my library carries. You don't have to read Autumn to appreciate Winter.

Nesting Stones, by Barbara Hepworth
Reading Winter was like reading Doris Lessing at her finest — just the right blend of political activism and domesticity. And art and love and feminism, a fantastical element or two, and, you know, life.

Winter is real.

Some insightful reviews
Financial Times:
Yet Smith, for all her characters' dismay at "post-truth" culture ("like walking in a blizzard all the time"), never becomes a slave to topicality. Her many-layered artistry softens rage or sorrow. These novels seek to bring our time and deep time together. "That's one of the things stories and books can do," says the sort-of-hero as, flashing forward, we glimpse him reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol to his child: "they can make more than one time possible at once".
The Scotsman:
Winter is a novel in which the cold also reveals clarity. Things crystallise. They become piercing and numbing at the same time. It is a book about being wintry in the sense of supercilious and hibernal, in its sense of wanting to shut the world out. The characters have to deal with both impulses, and deal with them in different ways. But the end result is a book that makes one think, and thinky books are rare as hen’s teeth these days.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

She has found an interstice

Ursula K. Le Guin is a wise woman. No one who has read any of her fiction could come to any another conclusion.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a collection of Le Guin's blog writings. She has been blogging since 2010, having taken up the practice after being inspired by José Saramago's blog.

She reflects on aging, leisure, anger, writing, genre, feminism, social media, opera. She has interesting opinions to share. She tells tales of her cat.
Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.
I recently ordered this book for someone as a gift; it was only afterwards that I was lucky enough to see a review copy. Because of the nature of the collection, I think it is much more conducive to print than to e-publication (somewhat ironically, given its blogly origins). It's the sort of book you flip through, let something catch your eye, settle in to mull over an essay or two. As something to read cover to cover, it's a little disjointed.

What most impresses me is the spirit of the book, which the title captures well. Don't waste time, be mindful, think things through, do something.

Some quotable highlights
"Lying It All Away" (October 2012):
I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising. That hard-minded man Saul Bellow wrote that democracy is propaganda. It get harder to deny that when, for instance, during a campaign, not only aspirants to the presidency but the president himself hides or misrepresents known facts, lies deliberately and repeatedly. And only the opposition objects.
"The Inner Child and the Nude Politician" (October 2014):
Children are by nature, by necessity, irresponsible, and irresponsibility in them, as in puppies or kittens, is part of their charm. Carried into adulthood it becomes a dire practical and ethical failing. Uncontrolled spontaneity wastes itself. Ignorance isn't wisdom. Innocence is wisdom only of the spirit. We can and do all learn from children, all through our life; but "become as little children" is a spiritual counsel, not an intellectual, practical, or ethical one.
"Belief in Belief" (February 2014):
I don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. I accept it. It isn't a matter of faith, but of evidence.

The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection — not to belief or disbelief.

Belief has its proper and powerful existence in the domains of magic, religion, fear, and hope.
Think about what matters.