Monday, January 30, 2006

Polish war memoirs

I received notification last week of the publication in English of Those Who Trespass Against Us: One Woman's War Against the Nazis, by Countess Karolina Lanckoronska, recently released in the UK.

Born in Vienna in 1898, Karolina Lanckoronska was an aristocrat and art historian who taught at the University of Lwow. When the Soviets came to occupy the city, Lanckoronska became active in the Polish resistance. She was arrested in 1942, imprisoned and sentenced to death before being incarcerated, first in Stanislau then in Lwow and Berlin. She was finally placed in a concentration camp in Ravensbruck.

As a Countess, Lanckoranska was subjected to varying treatment, at times suffering near starvation, only to receive extra food and medical care at other times according to the often-conflicting concerns of the authorities in Berlin. With the intervention of some influential friends, the honourable actions of one Nazi, and efforts by the Swiss scholar Carl J. Burckhardt, she was eventually released.

The title is taken from Lanckoronska's account that, during the war when saying the Lord's Prayer, she could not bring herself to say "as we forgive those who trespass against us" — because she did NOT forgive the invaders of her country, and did not wish to lie to God.

These memoirs were written immediately after her release, but she did not want them published during her lifetime. She finally consented to their publication in Poland in 2001 (Wspomnienia Wojenne), a year before her death at age 104.

The Lanckoronski Foundation, which the Countess founded to aid Poles and Poland particularly in the cultural sphere, receives a small royalty from sales of the book.

The experiences of Poles during World War II have not been widely documented or discussed, for fear, guilt, and a psychological instinct to suppress the horror. It is my own family's experience, and even I have been denied access to it — I feel this acutely as the survivors are dying off.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Beset by oddities

Auster in winter
Auster is interviewed regarding Brooklyn Follies on NPR. The chat
doesn't provide any startling revelations but it exudes an enthusiasm for the book that no review has yet generated for me. Auster's love for Brooklyn is known, but I'm somehow touched by the love he expresses for his characters.

Jason Boog talks about falling under the spell of Auster. In his preamble he notes, "Paul Auster can convince you that anything is true."

I've been watching a 1992 documentary on Auster (in French) that someone was kind enough to record for me. It's taking a long time to view the whole thing, as every few minutes Paul Auster says something interesting, so we have to pause and discuss baseball or pencils or to admire his hair, or Siri Huvstedt says something nasal and bloated, which we have to make fun of.

Auster on cramped surroundings: "The smaller it is, the bigger you have to make it in your mind, and then you find a way to perhaps transcend the place you're in."

Also, I've shown remarkable restraint (and perhaps stupidity) in not reading The Red Notebook. I have not opened it apart from the day I bought it, read a few snippets on the metro home, and tucked it into my purse. I have not since removed it from my purse, as I am intent on never being caught without reading material and so few books are exactly the right size. Of course, the content of it is charming too, filled with exactly the odd sorts of anecdotes that strangers might tell you in the metro.

The strange Mr Strange
I've been reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (extract) for weeks now. There are several moody illustrations throughout, yet in one instance Clarke refers to the work of another artist, obviously recognizing that neither she nor her illustrator are up the task of painting this picture:
In Madrid the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, made a sketch in red chalk of Jonathan Strange surrounded by the dead Neapolitans. In the picture Strange is seated on the ground. His gaze is cast down and his arms hang limp at his sides and his whole attitude speaks of helplessness and despair. The Neapolitans crowd around him; some are regarding him hungrily; others have expressions of supplication on their faces; one is putting out a tentative finger to stroke the back of his hair. It is, needless to say, quite different from any other portrait of Strange.

None of Goya's works matches this description, but his Disasters of War series certainly is highly evocative of the zombie-like horrors Clarke alludes to.

I have another 200 pages still to go, but barring some masterful literary trick yet to unfold or being at a complete loss for words on any other more interesting subject, I won't be saying more about this novel here. It's entertaining and is helping me procrastinate doing work and other projects, but it wouldn't bother me not to know how it ends. (Weird, that it wouldn't bother me.)

There is a curious magic about the book itself (let alone within the story it tells), it being at the right time for me, that it is handy to pick up at any moment but not so utterly engrossing that I cannot put it down, that I can follow the story for many pages while half my mind is puzzling over vocational and domestic dilemmas.

One of its effects is the curious sensation that I am occupying two worlds simultaneously.

I feel sleep-deprived this week, as if I've been staying up reading all night, which I haven't. My waking life is starting to resemble Lady Pole's.

The dream
Surrounded by "dream-familiar" strangers, my friends, in a bar. The place is abustle with conversation but nobody's actually talking out loud. Someone sits down beside me. I wake up with a most incredibly intense feeling of love, inner peace, understanding, peace with the world, everything's going to be ok. The feeling stays with me for a couple days, but it's starting to fade.

I rarely remember my dreams.

The phone call
Phone rings. "Hello." "Hello? Hello?" A woman's voice. Then distant but clear, a crossed wire, like a footnote, a man asks "Czy Pani mowi po polsku?" He's waiting for a reply. I'm about to give him one when the woman apologizes for dialing a wrong number and hangs up.

The bear
Getting Helena ready for bed we find someone's already in her bed. My 36-year-old teddy bear wearing Helena's brand new pyjamas. Although Helena herself put him to bed early because he wasn't feeling well, she's concerned now that there's nowhere for her to sleep, as well as nothing for her to wear.

She wakes me at 2 am to tell me she helped him take off the pyjamas because he was hot.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

After the election

I'm disappointed in a voting public who does not see fit to send an astronaut to Parliament, regardless of his party affiliation, but "at the end of the day, not a single shot was fired."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Arthur & George, and Michiko & Terrence and others, and Julian and me

I finished reading Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes, a couple weeks ago but haven't had sufficient time to write anything with proper reflection about it. Now that everybody else has read and written about it too, it seems like a good a time as any...

The first and perhaps most important point to make is that it has taken me a couple weeks to get around to posting any notes about it. I don't feel any passion for this novel. It didn't leave a very strong impression on me.

The reviews, however, I have some issues with.

And "A child wants to see." I want to see.

(You should know that the eponymous Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle. That's not a spoiler per se — anybody who's read the book flap, or the reviews, knows that. It's a fictional account of historical characters and actual events. My impression, however, based on hearing Barnes speak about the novel, is that Barnes intended that famous identity to be slowly revealed over the first 50 pages or so, so as that the character might be solidified as a real person with an identity beyond that of being a famous author, so that our expectations of Arthur might be more realistic. The marketing department evidently thought differently and may thus be largely responsible for the first review considered below.)

The first review to appear in the New York Times, a couple weeks ago, is just plain stupid. Michiko Kakutani:
might have expected him to use the story of Arthur and George as an armature for some sophisticated, postmodernist games or as the jumping-off point for philosophical musings about, say, the gaps between life and art or the difficulty of understanding the past. Instead, Mr. Barnes has decided to write a straight-ahead historical novel — a task he completes in a clumsy and lugubrious fashion.
Whatever the intent, it's a strategy that backfires: the reader doesn't experience the thrill of putting together clues — the way one does when reading a good detective story — but instead feels bombarded by a blizzard of boring bits of data.

Sure, a Holmesian approach might've made for a good book. But Arthur himself spent many years fighting his way out from under Sherlock's shadow (which you might've understood if you'd paid any attention); such a book would be pure fiction. Barnes did not write the book you wanted him to — Get over it! Be clear, too, that while it may not appeal to your tastes, it is anything but clumsy (I'll get to that bit yet).

Last weekend's review in the New York Times opens with one of the spirtualist themes Doyle tackles: "How can you make sense of the beginning unless you know the ending?" And then it goes on a bit about ghosts. Then:
If this makes "Arthur and George" sound like metaphysical-puzzle fiction of the Borges/Eco variety, I suppose that can't be helped. Its ghosts — the huge, imponderable questions of life and death and truth and time — are there, and nothing can reason them away.

Well, the review may want to make it sound that way, but be clear: this is not puzzle fiction, there's very little seriously metaphysical about it, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Borges or Eco. Borges and Eco. That's just silly.

The rest of the review is quite complimentary. A big deal is made of its Englishness. Both title characters are English and not-English. I don't quite understand Arthur's non-Englishness — Barnes tells me its there, but I don't get it. Because he's Catholic? I wish Barnes could make it clearer for me, but I accept that this is a failing on my part, not having a drop of Englishness in me, and I have all my life grappled to understand certain sensibilities among my peers of English heritage — it is a culture distinctly foreign to me. Still, I like English novels, and this is one. The Englishness lies in its tone of restraint.

Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French. "Arthur and George" conceals its contemplation of the imponderables slyly, discreetly hiding it behind the curtains while scenes of Dickensian force and color play out in firelit rooms. Barnes narrates in a preternaturally calm, controlled third person, alternating skillfully between Arthur and George, and everything flows so smoothly that you barely notice he's doing something terribly cunning with tenses. George's passages are in the present tense until his arrest, when the progress of his life, as he sees it, comes to an unscheduled stop; Doyle's are in the past until he meets Jean and begins a relationship that, he tells himself, "has no past, and no future that can be thought about; it has only the present." Too clever by half? In a French novel, it might seem so. In "Arthur and George," it feels more like an honest attempt to see through the story, or to see beyond it — in any event, to see more clearly.

With no other novel have I been so acutely aware of its structure. On this point I choose to praise myself for having become a more astute reader rather than to fault Barnes for not layering over his hard work more subtly.

The review in The Washington Post shows admiration and sense in regard to Arthur and George:
Barnes's artistry underscores that these two proper gentlemen are both, in fact, victimized by the systems they admire most — the law and chivalry. Together, they are nonetheless able to redeem lives wracked by hopelessness and frustration.

However, I disagree with the assessment of the novel's conclusion:
In the novel's final pages, Arthur has matured into a convinced spiritualist, to the dismay of most of his admirers then and now. Yet Barnes's novel allows us to better understand why and how this may have come about.

Frankly, no, I don't better understand Arthur's spiritualist maturation. I'd've liked to be privy to Arthur's internal arguments reconciling the balderdash with the Holmesian method. We see bits of his life come up against each other, but why one result and not another? Barnes is too English on the matter, seemingly afraid to address it in polite company.

The review in the Christian Science Monitor is to date the most reasonable assessment (that is, most closely reflecting my own opinion) of this Good Book by an Important Author:
[I]f anything, Barnes gently mocks the Holmesian belief that life is a problem to be solved by logic and close observation. Instead, the story suggests, human justice can never be more than approximate because "truth" - always filtered through one individual consciousness or another - is so fluid a commodity.

I confess, perhaps influenced by a comment made by the professor who introduced Barnes when I saw him last October, I didn't really care for Arthur. George is the much more interesting character, quiet and introspective, governed by rules (the law as his profession, the law as his downfall, the rules of tradition, both religious and cultural in the household in which he is raised, both English and not English.

Arthur. Perhaps this is the difficulty of writing a historical character (George of course, is historical too, but he has made no lasting impression on the cultural consciousness. We can easily accept his character as being wholly fictional, and better for it.) There is a reticence in characterizing Arthur — too many creative liberties might upset biographers and Doyleans, too much fact would obscure the point of the story, too much emphasis on Holmes and he becomes a caricature.

So instead, he seems a little less than human.

Also, the novel simply did not live up to the excitement I built up for it when I saw Julian Barnes. Reading the book was not at all like what I imagine could've been a very lively follow-up to the reading, perhaps at a nearby pub, on the driving forces behind the habits of individuals, the rules of law, or the hand of God; the media, politics, and the powers that be; immigrants and the English; the reconciliaiton of rationalism and spiritualism; and love.

But if you don't have the opportunity to chat with Barnes over a pint, or at least, as I did, to hear him read from and freely speak about his work, then by all means read the book.

The official website of Julian Barnes.
The US edition of Arthur & George.
On hearing Barnes read from and speak about Arthur & George.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

My toddler's literacy

Bilingualism in action
Yesterday Helena was excited to be returning to daycare. She swipes her hand across her forehead and confirms, "Ma fièvre est broké." She stammers a bit and corrects herself. "Broké, broke. Ma fièvre broke. Brisée. Ma fièvre est brisée." The fever broke. J-F confirms that it's not a proper French expression, but a Québecois would understand it.

The making of a reader
It seems that, at long last, Helena is taking to books. Over the last few days of illness: one night she nudges me awake, a pile of books in her hand, asking me to read to her; another night I find her crouched by her bookshelf, thumbing through the stacks to make a selection before making the request of me. I oblige. Because she's sick, and it's books! Reading aloud at 3 a.m. is difficult — I'm half asleep and it's Dr Seuss. I'll have to work on modifying this new habit of hers. But I'm overjoyed that she gets it: the comfort and solace of books!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

International crime

World Literature Today presents for your consideration the 10 greatest crime novels of all time (only 3 of them written in English), of which I've read 6.


Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, for which it is argued that the underlying murder mystery is a strong enough clothesline on which to hang all Eco's arcana and Borgesian techniques.

Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos. "Most critics wouldn’t classify this great classic of French literature as a crime novel, even though the behavior within it is utterly criminal."

Also on the list: The Maltese Falcon and Crime and Punishment.

Readers are invited to nominate their contenders. I don't generally go in for crime novels, but it's obvious that the definition here is wide. I'm not convinced that Les Liaison dangereuses belongs on this list. One potential candidate I might suggest: The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey.

(This issue of World Literature Today also includes a short review of José Saramago's The Double, which is not strictly speaking a crime novel (although, ...), but I mention it here because I find that this novel, which I read last summer, has aged very well in my memory — were I to write about it now, I would praise it more highly.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

She dreamed a dream

Last night, there was a dragon at her window.

When she woke, fevered, at 3, she told me about the dinosaur. By morning, it'd morphed into a dragon — she often confuses the two — and, in so doing, become more fully realized.

It wanted to eat her, her fingers, but her blue teddybear protected her. It wanted to eat the bear too, but bear resisted. It tried to eat the whole house.

For months, if not longer, I've been asking her, some mornings, if she dreams. Sometimes she says yes and, when pressed, relates something that happened the day before, or else a generic anecdote of anyday. How do you explain "dream" to a toddler; how do you know when they know? (I rarely remember my own dreams — why would I expect more from a 3-year-old?)

This morning we checked for footprints outside her window, just in case. We do live in the city, after all — a city in which ghastly things have been known to happen.

But it was a dragon all right, real as any dream can be, to my relief striking not fear so much as awe.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Some assembly required

Almost a month after it'd been delivered, we would finally assemble our bedroom suite. Yesterday morning, I open the first box. Helena is on hand to help. The bag of screws and nuts and fasteners captures her attention. I'm quick to make up some diversionary task for her, to move one pile of planks from one side of the room to the other. I have a sense now of what lies ahead, the size of the project. Break for lunch.

Though it's really a job just for me and J-F, it's impossible to keep Helena and the cat from sniffing around. One by one, they lose interest. The cat settles down for a nap on top of some packing cardboard. J-F attends to Helena, gets her a beverage. That's the last I see of them. I'm on my own and proceeding at a good pace.

The instructions, related entirely in pictographs, begin with a warning, a right-way/wrong-way of doing things. Do not lift alone; enlist the aid of a smiling Swedish friend. I lifted alone. And then I cried out loudly, "Help! Help!" J-F finally woke up and came shuffling to my side. There was never a question of hurting myself in this operation. It could've been much worse, but I did ding an edge — "You'd have to know it's there." J-F falls back asleep.

And I realize, the house is quiet. I leave the bedroom in shambles and crack open a beer. What better opportunity to surf the internet?

I'm on the brink of replying to an email from a friend, who, it seems, is also enjoying an easy Sunday afternoon, the kind where a touch of alcohol dissolves all those tedious tasks and obligations hanging over our heads.

Helena is crying. She has a fever and will not be consoled. I carry her, rock her, stroke her, kiss her. She finally falls back asleep and we spend much of the rest of the afternoon this way, her comatose in my arms.

By evening, Helena's spirits are restored. I'm determined to finish assembly of this one piece before bedtime, though realistically I will be satisfied to have cleared a path to the bed. Helena follows me, her fever serving as my own personal heat source.

What the pictographic instructions do not detail is how to negotiate with a toddler that she relinquish a required piece, how to remove screws from places they don't rightly fit in pieces said toddler insisted she "work on," how to build an impromptu fort from pieces not yet incorporated into the assembly, how to negotiate that said fort be dismantled, how to keep hammer out of toddler's hands at all times; how to keep the cat from falling asleep on the instructions, how to keep the cat from reflexively batting screws into the far corners of the room, how to keep cat fur from clinging to the interior of my brand new piece of furniture; and, most importantly at a time like this, how to keep my man in the bedroom. Nevermind product-specific instructions, I'd like right-way/wrong-way pictographic warnings regarding how to proceed to accompany my household.

One chest of drawers. Estimated time of assembly: 11 hours. Only 4 more pieces in the suite to go. Before bed, I also manage to finish the beer I'd opened.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A jazz education

One of the books I'd wanted for Helena for a long time already, Charlie Parker Played BeBop, by Chris Raschka, she finally received for her birthday a couple months ago. It was first brought to my attention via Reading to My Kid (which blog is now sadly defunct, and has been for a year and a half — I should give up hope that it shall ever be updated — but for a few months it had served to guide me in enhancing Helena's first reading experiences). I later saw the book presented on Between the Lions (which website features text and illustrations abridged and adapted from the book).

The music of words.

Helena has yet to sit through an entire reading, but experience shows that it may take months for her to warm to a new book in her personal library. She may yet latch onto it.

My wonderful sister thought to bestow on us, along with this, one a bonus book:

Jazz ABZ : An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits, by Wynton Marsalis. This book blows me away.

It's targetted at readers aged 9–12 years, but it's wonderful read-aloud material to a much younger audience, and its appeal to adults who love poetry or jazz, but especially both, is obvious.

There's no question that Wynton Marsalis has an ear for music. Here he extends this ear to the words and adds his extensive musical scholarship to produce an alphabetic jazz encyclopedia.

For each letter of the alphabet there is a jazz legend whose name begins with that lettter — A is for Armstrong, B for Basie. A few entries stretch a little beyond the obvious — L is for Lady, Billie Holiday (Lady bountiful leading the lilting lullaby. / Lady of the Lake with letter-perfect delivery,); Z for Dizzy Gillespie.

Each portrait poem uses its letter to marvelous alliterative effect. "Mingus makes mighty, maddening, muscular music. / Maelstroms of romantic music like when the blues marries / meat-and-potatoes with multi-mathematic modulations."

One of the more ambitious entries is a performance poem that includes instructions for finger-snapping accompaniment:
ting tinky ting tinky ting tinky ting tinky
ting ch ting ch-ky ting ch ting ch-ky
Boom! ch Boom! ch Boom! ch - ch
- ch - ch Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
- - ch - ch Bam! ch ch

I am Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. They call me Art Blakey.
Icon imperial of the divine instrument of independence.
I am.

A beat poem homage to Sidney Bechet, "a sibilant ode to the saxophonist's virtuosic, improvisational, spontanous solo style," leaves me breathless:
...sardonic sultan of sarcasm and of scrappy
satirical sounds swung slowly or savagely scandalizing shallow society
softies with soaring scarlet scherzos, so scholarly, so scintillating,
so scurrilously so!...

The portraits mix biographical information with commentary on the artists' music and influence, each using a different poetical form specifically selected to mirror, or honour, their musical style. There is an appendix of straightforward biographical sketches and explanatory notes on the poetic forms and choices made for the representations. (For example, "What a good haiku must do is create a sharp, pure, and resonant image, like the deep-song sound of Thelonius Monk's piano and the short, distinctive themes that characterize his compositions.")

I'm grateful also for the suggested discography on the inside back cover to assist my jazz education.

The illustrations by Paul Rodgers are striking, in their way, noted as "evoking the spirit of pop art, Blue Note album covers, and 1920s advertising art," but I barely notice them — they're a forgettable backdrop to the mainstage concert of sound.

Regarding jazz, and most artistic domains, I don't know much, but I know what I like.

I love John Zorn's Ornette-Coleman-inpsired Masada (Alef). I listen to it repeatedly. It energizes me, lets my soul scream. I'm listening to it now, and I mention it only because I just got tickets!


Overworked and sleep-deprived. Power surges, corrupt files, irretrievable hours of words.

Consoled somewhat by puddle-jumping with the girl en route a la garderie and the impulse purchase of Paul Auster's The Red Notebook en route a la maison.

Re-emerging, but not a butterfly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

India's missing girls

About half a million fewer girls were born in India in 1997 than expected. Extrapolated over 20 years, the figure would be 10 million. "Because of ultrasound sex screening and a traditional preference for boys."

"Female infanticide of the past is refined and honed to a fine skill in this modern guise."

Study published online in the medical journal The Lancet.

Read: The First Century after Beatrice, a work of fiction, by Amin Maalouf.

In spite of my white hairs and my supposed wisdom, I admit that I do not know exactly where the frontiers lie which we may not cross. Probably in the direction of the atom, and also certain manipulations of our brain and genes. What I am able to detect with more certainty, if I may say so, are those moments when mankind takes mortal risks with itself, its integrity, its identity, its survival. These are the moments when the noblest of sciences puts itself at the service of the most despicable of aims.

. . .

There are, throughout the world, thousands of cities, millions of villages, where the number of girls has been regularly declining; in some this phenomenon has lasted for nearly twenty years. I do not intend to speak to you of those whom a despicable discrimination has prevented from being born. That is no longer the question. I shall tell you in crude terms what I greatly fear, for it is in these terms that the question must be put: I am thinking of the hordes of males who for years will be wandering in search of a non-existent mate; I am thinking of the furious mobs which will form and increase and run amok, driven mad by frustration — not simply sexual, for they will also be deprived of their chance to lead a normal life, to build a family, a home, a future. Can you just imagine the amount of resentment and violence stored up in these people, which nothing will be able to satisfy or appease? What institutions will be able to resist? What laws? What order? What values?

Yes, violence has already been breaking out all over the place. But this has not yet been the violence of people driven to fury. It has been the violence of worried, anxious people, who have not yet experienced frustration themselves, who have had a family and rejoiced in the birth of a son and heir. They protest, they demonstrate, because they are anxious about the future of their communities, but their anxiety is restrained, since they do not experience the tragedy in their own flesh, since they are in revolt, not against any known evil, but against one that mankind has never yet know, and which remains vague, hypothetical. Tomorrow we shall see the generations of the cataclysm, the generations of men without women, generations amputated of their future, generations whose fury it will be impossible to contain.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sounds in the night

Helena, an hour after having been put to bed, singing. I strain to listen; I recognize a little tune by Mozart. The Alphabet Song! Complete and accurate! "Elemenopee" — high in the running for most beautiful word in the English language.

Hours later. J-F urgently nudges me awake. "How do you tell them apart?" Huh? "The good ones from the bad ones?" I'm sitting up now, trying to calm him down. "The pirates! They're all wearing black hats." And back to sleep.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Auster, warm and light

The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster, reviewed in The Globe and Mail:

The prose of The Brooklyn Follies, for long stretches, is exceedingly warm, inviting and, for the most part, persuasive.

. . .

. . .pull at the reins of credibility, but the tone of The Brooklyn Follies trips so lightly between gravitas and moments of levity, between Wittgenstein and gumshoe, that most readers will stay along for the ride, and the restoration.

Slightly more disappointing, however, are the moments of uninspired dialogue weighed down with cliché and stiff humour.

. . .

Auster has put aside his darker obsessions for the time being and listened to his neighbourhood's raucous, bitter-sweet tale of uncommon community.

But I rather like Auster's darker obsessions. Still, it's a nice little prank that what sounds to me (from reviews thus far) to be a distinctly post-9/11 spirit of community should be portrayed in a novel that ends on 9/11.

Will be counting out Christmas money and weighing carefully how to spend it...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Don Quichotte sans frontières

This exhibition celebrating 400 years of Don Quixote (401 years, now) ran at the Bibliotheque nationale du Québec from October 25 to December 31, 2005.

I squeezed in a visit last week. My mother was on her way home, J-F went in to work to get away from it all, my sister had to call in to her office — it seemed a good a time as any for me to take a breather and hit the library. To breathe Don Quixote, in the cold with a toddler cranky from the holiday upheaval of routine in a stroller on uncleared sidewalks.

I regret that I had not the time to write about this in time to encourage others to take in this show. I regret that I did not see it earlier in its run, leaving me time to revisit it, mentally and physically. I regret that the presence of the toddler distracted me from the details, which are really the point of an exhibit like this: A ton of books, to many indeed appearing to be the same book over and over again, in glass cases such that you can't turn them over in your hands, smell their age, flip pages, compare translated excerpts. Big deal. It's only in the lingering, examining the fine print, noticing their publication dates, appreciating advances in typography and book-binding, seeing the evolution of illustrations, evolution of the interpretation of literature's most-abiding character across time and space, that cases full of books, this one book, make any sense. (I've since managed to linger over it in my head, and it's starting to make sense.)

Don Quixote having been translated into more than 70 languages and published in approximately 2500 different editions (according to the BNQ), the exhibit presents a sampling of those editions and other works inspired by the classic, along with posters for films and plays.

During its run were also featured screenings of film adaptations and lectures, none of which I was able to attend.

The volumes, courtesy of relatively local institutions (University of Laval, University of Ottawa, and Instituto Cervantes New York, among others), are predominantly French, Spanish, and English, but I detect a couple Polish translations, as well as Czech, Bulgarian (published 1947), Romanian (1957), Hebrew (1952), Indonesian (1949), and Japanese. (I wonder if the postwar period represents a surge in worldwide publishing of Don Quixote, an effect of globalization of sorts and a sign of the spirit of the times. Or is it simply that books of this time period are better preserved, more readily available, maybe as objects simply nicer to look at?)

The smallest book on display looks to measure about 2 inches by 3, printed in London in 1749. A 1900 Japanese edition is similarly sized. The largest is about 10 inches by 14, with illustrations by Gustave Doré. Some books feature pullout maps (I love when books have maps! I said from the start I wished my copy had a map). Many samples are obviously of multi-volume sets, adding to my consternation that the Grossman translation, also on display, was published as a single volume.

Perhaps the oldest of the editions, showcased such as to appear to be the highlight of the exhibit, is a 2-volume set in Spanish, bearing the dates 1605 and 1615. I would assume these were original editions, but the information-bearing cards generally tell little beyond country of origin and the collection to which it belongs. Did I see an original? I don't know.

Well over a 100 "straight" editions are on display along with an additional dozen or so each of plays and adaptions, graphic novels, and children's versions.

I am stunned that in all the illustrations, Don Quixote is unmistakably Don Quixote, always gaunt and varying only slightly along the spectrum between foolishness and madness.

To my eyes, the most striking — vibrant and alive — illustration is one by Camille Dieuaide for a children's book, Ce fou de Don Quichotte. (Although, the page in my memory, the one the book was open to within its glass case, access to which, in order to flip pages, was strictly denied, bears little resemblance to the cover of the work I managed to track down. Also, by this time I'd noticed signs prohibiting the taking of photographs, so I refrained from capturing any image that might serve as evidence.)

One of the bonuses of having a daycare-going toddler as my companion in arts is that she's been to this library before (I haven't) and knows its layout. Initially I see this as a drawback, as she is intent on dragging me to the kids' section to enjoy the multimedia stations, in completely the opposite direction of the exhibit for which I'd made the trip. Heavy negotiations ensue, with only minimal kicking and screaming. And we set out to explore the children's multimedia stations, because I'm not a very good negotiator and it was the only way to minimize the kicking and screaming. (It's only afterward that I managed to sway her toward the heart of the exhibit as described above.)

As it happens, this was a very good thing, because we came upon a gem: Fanfreluche: Les Aventures de Don Quichotte.

Fanfreluche was a television production of Radio-Canada (I think) airing 1968—1971. It had regular airplay for years into J-F's childhood. Basically, there's a doll (played by an adult) who sits in a giant chair and reads stories out of a giant book, enters into discussions with the characters in the giant book, and enters the book itself. In J-F's words, "For a kids' show it was pretty fucked up."

So. Fanfreluche starts reading about the adventures of Don Quixote and before you know, along comes his horse, Rocinante, strumming a guitar, to warn Fanfreluche and any potential reader to close the book now, the text is dangerous! All these battles, the chivalry!, the romance! will turn your head! Don Quixote's a crazed lunatic, you don't want to cross his path! But Fanfreluche persists.

Enter Don Quixote, who mistakes Fanfreluche for his beloved Dulcinea. Fanfreluche tries to convince him otherwise, but he's having none of it, and he sings her praises above the din of her protestations. Rocinante meanwhile is trying to prevent the Don from getting any word in at all, all the time pleading with Fanfreluche to just close the damn book already.

At least, that's what I get out of it with my crappy French before my toddler strongly insists I watch some crappy Disney movie with her. But that's a pretty awesome 10 minutes of quality postmodern television, awesome enough for me to forgive the kicking and screaming and the bloody stroller and the treacherous ice on the way there and the thick slush on the way home and the stupid escalator at the métro station being out of service, which are maybe why my shoulder's been hurting like hell this week.

And I bought myself a bookmark.

(Summary of my Don Quixote reading experience; final thoughts.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Irving Layton

On Being Bitten by a Dog

A doctor for mere lucre
performed an unnecessary operation
making my nose nearly
as crooked as himself

Another for a similar reason
almost blinded me

A poet famous
for his lyrics of love
and renunciation
toils at the seduction of my wife

And the humans who would like to kill me
are legion

Only once have I been bitten by a dog

— Irving Layton, 1912—2006

The Montreal Gazette:
Literary community remembers.

"I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever," [Leonard] Cohen once said.

The Globe and Mail:

Irving and Me At the Hospital

He stood up for Nietzsche
I stood up for Christ
He stood up for victory
I stood up for less
I loved to read his verses
He loved to hear my song
We never had much interest
In who was right or wrong
His boxer's hands were shaking
He struggled with his pipe
Imperial tobacco
Which I helped him light

— Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Dangerous ideas

The Edge Annual Question — 2006 was suggested by Steven Pinker (a very cool and brilliant guy):

What is your dangerous idea?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

(Via Maud Newton.)

So I've spent all my morning coffee time and more skimming over the 117 responses. I'm still having trouble in some instances sorting out whether the idea is one that's out there and that the respondent believes to be dangerous, or whether it's an idea held to be true by respondent. Most of the ideas are of the dangerous but likely true variety (as opposed to dangerous, with a huge and devastating influence on society at large, but someday soon we'll see the light and get over it).

I expect I'll be reading these again over tomorrow's morning coffee, cuz there's a lot to chew over.

The ideas cover a lot of material, from parenting and education to the environment and the state of democracy (all hopeless causes).

There are many riffs on the idea of a Matrix-like existence, "the self is a conceptual chimera," "we are all virtual," the lessening distinction between reality and simulation, variations of Crick's astonishing hypothesis ("that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons."), we have no souls, free will does not exist, everything is pointless, there is no higher purpose to our lives, blah, blah, blah — all mighty dangerous cuz most people find these to be depressing ideas (I do not) and if the ideas were shown to be valid people would, I assume, simply curl up and die.

The rant of an idea that we're heading toward chaos (Kai Krause, researcher, philosopher, software developer) was trippy:
What I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the last 30 years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would this world work, if everyone were like me ?" and realized: it wouldn't !

It was amazing to me that there were just enough people to make just enough shoes so that everyone can avoid walking barefoot. That there are people volunteering to spend day-in, day-out, being dentists, and lawyers and salesmen. Almost any "jobjob" I look at, I have the most sincere admiration for the tenacity of the do they do it? It would drive me nuts after hours, let alone years...Who makes those shoes ?

That was the wondrous introspection in adolescent phases, searching for a place in the jigsaw puzzle.

But in recent years, the haunting question has come back to me: "How the hell does this world function at all? And does it, really ? I feel an alienation zapping through the channels, I can't find myself connecting with those groups of humanoids trouncing around MTV. Especially the glimpses of "real life": on daytime-courtroom-dramas or just looking at faces in the street. On every scale, the closer I observe it, the more the creeping realization haunts me: individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries... they all just barely hang in there, between debt and dysfunction. The whole planet looks like Any town with mini malls cutting up the landscape and just down the road it's all white trash with rusty car wrecks in the back yard. A huge Groucho Club I don't want to be a member of.

Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychologist, University of New Mexico) explains Fermi's paradox:
Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

An idea I rather like (by which I mean that on the basis of my instinct and intuition, I suspect it is true, and I have no problems with that, it seems "natural" and sensible), from Marc D Hauser, Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University:
A universal grammar of [mental] life
The theory I propose is that human mental life is based on a few simple, abstract, yet expressively powerful rules or computations together with an instructive learning mechanism that prunes the range of possible systems of language, music, mathematics, art, and morality to a limited set of culturally expressed variants.

An idea that I believe to be truly dangerous, as explained by Diane F Halpern, Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president (2005), the American Psychological Association: Choosing the sex of one's child. I'm at a loss to select a quote, so just go read her entire entry, and then go read Amin Maalouf's The First Century After Beatrice, and celebrate your girls and raise your boys right.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A fresh start, with stale crap

We have normality. Almost.

Houseguests have left the house. Visitors have stopped visiting. J-F is back at work this morning, and Helena, who was beginning to show signs of cabin fever, has returned to daycare.

Yesterday I ate a heck of a lot of cookies.

Today I am left to prioritize and begin to tackle a slew of tasks:

general housecleaning, of the kind the house has not seen for almost 2 weeks;

the purchase of toddler-size running shoes, of the kind that actually fit and do not hurt Helena's feet as she complains her now rather old running shoes do;

the purchase of toddler-size socks and underwear, certain realizations about which will by next Christmas, I expect, have turned me into a practical sort of mom, the sort of mom who gives her daughter socks and underwear for Christmas, because that's what she really needs, she certainly doesn't need more toys, and I figure I may have a couple years yet where she will delight in such gifts, perhaps she will learn to look forward to them in subsequent years, maybe even develop a lingerie fetish, or at least continue to receive them graciously, her groans will be suppressed with a flickering smile of understanding, though she will not truly understand until she herself is a mother watching her own child overwhelmed and potentially spoiled by a vast array of mostly useless, certainly financially reckless, and sadly ignored toys;

shopping in general, to treat myself to something nice, but most particularly for a pair of pants — I could really use some new pants;

the assembling of bedroom furniture;

the completion of The Globe and Mail's annual megacrossword puzzle (1532 clues this year), which I suspect will be set aside in its current state to be rediscovered next December as a useful means of procrastinating tasks regarding next Christmas's readiness, just as when I unearthed last year's half-completed puzzle a few weeks ago and felt pressured to make some headway before the new one was released.

the dismantling (4 tries it took me — I kept writing "dismemberment") of the Christmas tree; and

the active procrastination (already underway) of the big job I'm to deliver next week.

Books received for Christmas:
One. Just one. Do these people I call family even know me? What the fuck?

But the one, at least, is a really good one: Time Bites, a collection of essays, by Doris Lessing, on Sufism, cats, writing, and all manner of books. More on this later.

There's also the cash treat-yourself-to-something-nice envelopes, which I will use to compensate for everybody's oversight.

Books given:
a bistro-cooking cookbook;
a mostly photographic retrospective of Pope JPII;
Harry Potter #5, in French;
The Chronicles of Narnia, for my sister, whose recent admission that she'd never read them shocked me into the purchase, as well as leading me to wonder, "If she didn't introduce them to me, then who?"; and
a crappy sf book.

Books unfinished at year-end:
A Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt — deliberately set aside, but still I would've liked to be able to check it off at the end of the year. Really, books ought to be finished by year-end, except for those received at Christmas and periodically dipped into during the post-Christmas lounging period, but then I don't have to worry about that this year, having received only the one book and having had no time for lounging.

Also, Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes — not finished for lack of time, and because I refused to carry the hardcover with me during pre-Christmas public transit commutes, though I did find time to pick up with it again yesterday, and conveniently it is reviewed in Slate today.

Christmas stories, which do not measure against my now-favourite Christmas story, Paul Auster's Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (which I did re-read during the season, though sadly not aloud to a captive audience), but still:
The Horse in the Snow, by Jeanette Winterson
Present, by Ali Smith

Bookish things I mean to get round to writing about:
a phenomenal kid's book of poetry on jazz, or jazz poetry, which came into our house for our birthdays;
a trio of weirdly wonderful Moominland books, which I had been tucking into my bag and reading on the subway;
an exhibit celebrating 400 years of Don Quixote; and
thoughts on some stupid little book I read eons ago (Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook — decidedly neither stupid nor little, in case you don't hear my self-deriding tone for not being able to fully wrap my head around it, at least the part that has the capacity to articulate coherently about it).

Parenting mystery of the week:
How did my little girl learn to cheat at games?