Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Joy is an admirable goal

Canadian cover
"Joy is an admirable goal." Juliet said. "Completely unobtainable, of course."
I was so looking forward to a new Kate Atkinson book! Transcription satisfied. It bears her trademark sense of humour: dark, unfiltered, and self-reflective.
"Do you like art?" he asked abruptly, taking her off her guard.

"Art?" What did he mean by that? She had come under the wing of an enthusiastic art teacher at school, Miss Gillies. ("You have an eye," Miss Gillies told her. I have two, she thought.) She used to visit the National Gallery before her mother died. She disliked Fragonard and Watteau and all that pretty French stuff that would make any self-respecting sans-culottes want to chop someone's head off. Similarly Gainsborough and his affluent aristocrats posing smugly with their grand perspectives. And Rembrandt, for whom she had a particular disregard. What was so wonderful about an ugly old man who kept painting himself all the time?

Perhaps she didn't like art, in fact she felt quite opinionated about it. "Of course I like art," she said. "Doesn't everyone?"

"You'd be surprised. Anyone in particular?"

"Rembrandt," she said, placing her hand on her heart in a gesture of devotion. She liked Vermeer, but she wasn't going to share that with a stranger. "I revere Vermeer," she had once told Miss Gillies. It seemed a lifetime ago now.
US cover
Juliet thinks one thing, but says the opposite. She's perfectly suited to being a spy. And so she is recruited to MI5, initially to transcribe recordings of Nazi sympathizers reporting to their informant, but later she's awarded a mission of her own. When Juliet is first being interviewed, she's asked to choose whether she'd be a Communist or a Fascist (you know, if a gun were held to her head). I annoyed a lot of people while reading this book by asking them exactly that. (Funny, no one admits to choosing to be a Fascist.) So much depends, as Juliet notes, on who's holding the gun.
Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war.
One thing Transcription got me thinking about was personas and how we manage (or don't) to keep multiple personas straight. Juliet is coached to stick as close to the truth as possible; it's very easy — and dangerous — how one lie leads to another.

(How well do we really know anyone? We only know them insofar as they let us know them. Are we the same person to everyone? Surely my neighbour, my coworker, my friend from university would describe me in completely different terms. [And what do I make of my neighbours' visitors? I have concocted their stories from what I've seen and what I've heard.] To what extent do I manipulate their perceptions of me?)

Although the story is told in the third person, it takes the point of view of Juliet throughout the novel. We are treated to the running commentary inside Juliet's head, not anyone else's head. As noted in Slate:
She notices everything, judges most of it, says little, and is listened to even less. In this sense, Atkinson suggests, all women are spies; they appear to be what others need them to be and contain a secret world all their own.
UK cover
I like Juliet; she questions everything, she thinks things she's not supposed to think.
She fingered the strand of pearls at her neck. Inside each pearl there was little piece of grit. That was the true self of the pearl, wasn't it? The beauty of the pearl was just the poor oyster trying to protect itself. From the grit. From the truth.
One could say it's an unreliable narrator, and it's thank to this that Atkinson pulls off the plot twists.
Somewhere along the line in her own past life she must have taken a wrong turning, Juliet thought. Why else would she be sitting here? Giselle came into Juliet's mind. Despite dying at the hands of the Nazis, she had never merited the soubriquet "poor." You had to ask yourself, which was better — to have sex with any number of interesting (albeit possibly evil) men (and some women too, apparently), to be glamorously decadent, to ingest excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol and die a horrible but heroic death at a relatively young age, or to end up in Schools Broadcasting at the BBC?

It was a relief when five o'clock came around.
Juliet never obtains joy, of course.

[The covers are so different! I like the Canadian one best; the title font wins it. The flamingo is a reference to a codename late in the story.]

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Your eloquence was boring in the end

But You are not without fault, O Season. I shall tell You wherein lay Your fault. You did not wish, O Season, to confine Yourself to the boundaries of reality. No reality satisfied You. You looked beyond every realization. Not finding satisfaction in reality, You created superstructures out of metaphors and poetic figures. You moved about in the associations, allusions, imponderabilia between things. Every thing alluded to some other thing, and that one appealed another farther off, and so on, without end. Your eloquence was boring in the end. People became fed up with that coming and going on waves of endless phraseology. That's right, phraseology — pardon the word. This became clear when, here and there, a yearning for relevance began to awaken in many souls. At that moment You were already defeated. The boundaries of Your universality became visible, and Your great style, Your beautiful baroque, which was appropriate for reality during Your good times, now turned out to be a mannerism. Your sweetness and Your pensiveness bore the mark of youthful exaltation. Your nights were immense and endless, like the megalomaniacal sighs of lovers, but they were swarms of apparitions, like the ravings of hallucinators. Your fragrances were excessive and beyond the capacity of humans for rapture. Under the magic of Your touch everything dematerialized and grew toward its more distant, always higher, forms. Your apples were eaten while dreaming about the fruits of heavenly landscapes, and near Your peach trees people thought about ethereal fruits that could be consumed by the sense of smell alone. You had on Your palette only the highest registers of colours; you did not know the satiey and firmness of dark, earthy, rich brown. Autumn is the yearning of the human soul for materiality, for relevance, for boundaries. When for obscure reasons people's metaphors, projects, dreams begin yearning for realization, the time of autumn arrives.
— from "Autumn" in Collected Stories, by Bruno Schulz.

Summer's really over now; it did feel like wave upon wave, like megalomaniacal sighs of lovers. It was too much. "Autumn is the yearning of the human soul for materiality, for relevance, for boundaries." Is that what I crave now?

I am rereading Schulz's Street of Crocodiles (aka Cinnamon Shops). It's a book club selection, so I thought I'd give the new translation a go. This volume includes The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass and few other stories.

Like this past summer, it's overwhelmingly lush.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The terror of exposing herself

Julie wanted eternal reincarnation; she wanted to experience all kinds of existences, and from time to time enjoy a luxurious and beautiful life.
Here's a book I didn't much care for: Little Reunions, by Eileen Chang. I'd been trying to read this since March, and kept failing to find the right headspace for it. But now it's done. It bored me.

Too many characters I didn't care anything about — I had trouble keeping them straight. And I could never quite figure out the tone with which to read it. Is it funny or melancholic? Is the awkwardness in the translation (from Chinese) or in the characters, or is it a function of being a world completely foreign to me.
Julie, however, devoted little time to revisiting the past and so such thoughts about her family were fleeting. Memories, happy or not, always embodied a doleful note, which, no matter how faint, Julie felt a strong aversion to. She never sought out melancholy, but life unavoidably overflowed with it. Just thinking along these lines made her feel liked she was standing in the portal of an ancient edifice, peering through the moonlight and dark shadows that permeated the ruins of a once noble and illustrious household, which was now nothing more that scattered shards of roof tiles and piles of rubble from collapsed walls. That instant of knowing what once existed there.
The first half of the book deals with Julie's upbringing and extended family. There's a complicated family hierarchy of wives and concubines that's tricky to navigate. There are secrets and scandals — many of them not so secret at all. But for the most part, these secrets are only obliquely referenced.

Much of this novel reads like a gossip column, with all its tangents of who visited whom wearing what under what pretences. Julie's mother has a string of lovers; she is emotionally and often geographically distant from Julie. (Julie's father, meanwhile, is an opium addict — I would love to read a novel about the women that fell into his world.)

It's not until the second half of the novel that Julie falls in love (kind of) and gets married (kind of). I had to read between the lines not only to figure out what Julie felt, but also to piece together what actually happened.

At one point, in a seemingly complete disconnect, the story jumps for a few pages to New York City a decade into the future, Julie bathing while waiting for the abortionist.

At another point, there's this sex scene:
"Hey! What are you doing?" she asked, terrified. His hair brushed against her thigh — the head of a wild beast.

The beast sips at the eternal springs of a dark cavern in the netherworld, slurping with his curled tongue. She is a bat hanging upside down at the mouth of a cave. Like a hermit hidden withing the bowels of the mountain being explored, encroached upon, she felt helpless and hopeless. Now the small beast sips at her innermost core, small mouthfuls one at a time. The terror of exposing herself mingled with a burning desire: She wants him back, now! Back to her arms, back to where she can see him.
This is such a strange metaphorical paragraph that is completely out of keeping with the rest of the text. But! "The terror of exposing herself" — how telling is that?!

Maybe that's the thing, and the source of awkwardness, the terror of exposing oneself. Clearly Julie is brimming with feelings, with regard to her mother, her aunt, her husband, as well as lesser characters like her father and her brother, but is never given rein to express them.

So, as with many "young socialite"-type stories, it moves from comedy to tragedy in a flip of the hair.

Reviews

The following reviews gave me some context (Little Reunions is a thinly veiled fictionalization of Chang's life story), but very little insight...

Asymptote:
The endless network of cousins and concubines is less a loving family than a complicated business concern filled with unpaid accounts and threatened lawsuits.
Harvard Review:
Indeed, this is a novel about the varied independence of three women, and all the contingent thrills, sacrifices, and dangers of trying to live a life beyond a culture of submission.
Los Angeles Review of Books:
Chang, through her writing, was teaching me how to be seen in a large urban center, instructing me in the ways a person can come to be viewed among many, and how one’s individualism allows that person to become a part of the vast world around her.
See also "Before the Revolution" in The New York Review of Books:
Chang's equitable worldview, made possible by her bicultural background, does much to explain why Little Reunions sold so well when it appeared in 2009. Many middle-class Chinese readers, wealthier and better-informed than their predecessors but feeling morally adrift, hoped for a vision of enlightened forgiveness and dignified equality with the West. Such a prospect was a bracing alternative to the draining tantrums about national humiliation and payback that suffused the Internet and continued to appear in state-approved books like Unhappy China, another best seller in 2009.
Excerpt.