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 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.

Friday, January 05, 2018

A great many things were dead

This morning it was -34°C with the windchill. Harsh, blowing snow. Tomorrow will be no better.

It's winter.

I'll be spending the weekend indoors reading, I think. What could be more appropriate than Winter, by Ali Smith.

It starts like this:
God was dead: to begin with.

And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music, disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead. Decency, society, family values were dead. The past was dead. History was dead. The welfare state was dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead. Communism, fascism, neoliberalism, capitalism, all dead, and marxism, dead, feminism, also dead. Political correctness, dead. Racism was dead. Religion was dead. Thought was dead. Hope was dead. Truth and fiction were both dead. The media was dead. The internet was dead. Twitter, instagram, facebook, google, dead.

Love was dead.

Death was dead.

A great many things were dead. Some, though, weren't, or weren't dead yet.

Life wasn't yet dead. Revolution wasn't dead. Racial equality wasn't dead. Hatred wasn't dead.

But the computer? Dead. TV? Dead. Radio? Dead. Mobiles were dead. Batteries were dead. Marriages were dead, sex lives were dead, conversation was dead. Leaves were dead. Flowers were dead, dead in their water.

Imagine being haunted by the ghosts of all these dead things. Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower. No, imagine being haunted (if there were such a thing as being haunted, rather than just neurosis or psychosis) by the ghost (if there were such a thing as ghosts, rather than just imagination) of a flower.

Ghosts themselves weren't dead, not exactly. Instead the following questions came up:
      are ghosts dead
      are ghosts dead or alive
      are ghosts deadly

but in any case forget ghosts, put them out of your mind because this isn't a ghost story, though it's the dead of winter when it happens, a bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas (Christmas, too, dead) and it's about real things really happening in the real world involving real people in real time on the real earth (uh huh, earth, also dead).
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this opening.

Of all the things listed as dead, I'd argue that twitter, instagram, and mobiles (at least in their smart incarnations) are not, though they are losing relevance quickly. And racism, not dead. (The rest I won't take issue with.) I assumed a current-day setting, but perhaps this list intends to nudge the timeframe slightly ahead.

Or dead is meant allegorically. Dead inside.

Dead of winter.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Out with the old, in with the new

I don't often post year-end stats or best-of-the-year lists, mostly because they don't really mean anything to me.

I read, on average, a book a week, and that's held steady since about the time I became the sort of person who reads a book a week, about the time I started blogging. It's just not a very large sample to draw from for a top-ten list.

Aesthetic Apparatus
Michael Byzewski
But I can't help but call out some standouts from 2017. (They may be the standouts of my century so far.)

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin.
Not a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Although it is, only with some surprising elements, like zombie plague, Mongolian pharmaceutical kingpins, and small pyramids made of some unknown substance.

Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin.
Short and thrilling. Highly original in its form as well as in its story elements. Transmigration of souls. I loved puzzling over what the hell happened. (I am wondering, though, if my enthusiasm for this short novel might wane over time.)

My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye.
This is one of the most intense reading experiences I can recall. I didn't really notice the writing on the sentence level, but proof of its effectiveness lies in how this book seeped into my consciousness. I spent the week feeling anxious, paranoid, suspicious, confused, hemmed in.

The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector.
I'd been meaning to read this one for a while. Every book has its time and its place, and this one finally had its day. Absolutely a modern classic. I tried to read this one slowly, carefully. G.H.'s confrontation with a cockroach is rich with meditation on the meaning of life, the history of humanity, her place in the world. I can see myself returning to this book in a few years.

Short-term goals
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer.
Read it before the movie hits theatres. Progress on this front: I used a Christmas gift card to finally acquire a copy.

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman.
By January 31, for New Reads book club.

Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso.
By February 7, for Reading Across Borders book club.

Catch up on The Familiar, by Mark Z Danielewski.
I have time for bingeing on Netflix serials, I should make time this literary equivalent. I started volume 2, but volume 5 has already been released.

Read more Clarice Lispector.
I have the Complete Stories at my bedside.

That's enough.

[Maybe this is the year for The Book of Disquiet.]