Monday, December 29, 2008

Stars like holographic projections

That same day I saw him again. I spent all afternoon talking to Maria and then we went downtown to buy a scarf, I think, and we kept talking (first about Cesar & Laura, then about everything in existence) and we ended up having cappuccinos at Café Quito, where Maria was supposed to meet Anibal. And Arturo showed up around nine. This time he was with a seventeen-year-old Chilean called Felipe Muller, his best friend, a tall blond kid who almost never spoke and followed Arturo everywhere. And they sat down with us, of course. And then other poets turned up, poets a little older than Arturo, none of them visceral realists, among other reasons because visceral realism didn't exist yet, poets like Anibal who had been friends with Arturo before he left for Chile and so had known him since he was seventeen. They were actually journalists and government officials, the kind of sad people who never leave downtown, or certain downtown neighborhoods, sovereigns of sadness in the area bounded by Avenida Chapultepec, to the south, and Reforma, to the north, staffers at El Nacional, proofreaders at the Excelsior, pencil pushers at the Secretaria de Gobernacion who headed to Bucareli when they left work and sent out their tentacles or their little green slips. And even though, as I say, they were sad, that night we laughed a lot. In fact we never stopped laughing. And then we went walking to the bus stop, Maria, Anibal, Felipe Muller, Gonzalo Muller (Felipe's brother who was leaving Mexico soon), Arturo, and I. And somehow all of us felt incredibly happy, I had forgotten all about Cesar, Maria was looking up at the stars that had miraculously appeared in the sky of Mexico City like holographic projections, and even the way we were walking was graceful, our progress incredibly slow, as if we were advancing and retreating to put off the moment at which we would inevitably have to reach the bus stop, all of us walking and looking up at the sky (Maria was naming the stars). Much later Arturo told me that he hadn't been looking at the stars but at the lights in some apartments on Calle Versalles or Lucerna or Calle Londres, and that was the moment he realized nothing would make him happier than being with me in on of those apartments, eating a few sandwiches with sour cream from a certain street stall on Bucareli. But he didn't tell me that at the time (I would've thought he was crazy). He told me that he'd like to read some of my poems, he told me that he loved the stars of both hemispheres, north and south, and he asked me for my number.

— from The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Watch your toes!

Behold the unholy Santy Claws and the TOE-nenbaum!

All profits from the sale of this book will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation® in Canada and a major national children's charity in the United States.

It's not too late to help.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The idea of pilgrimage

All the witches were asleep on the grass, and so were Will and Lyra. But surrounding the two children were a dozen or more angels, gazing down at them.

And then Serafina understood something for which the witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence. That was how these creatures looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarefied light, standing around the girl with the dirty face and the tartan skirt and the boy with the wounded hand who was frowning in his sleep.

There was a stir at Lyra's neck. Pantalaimon, a snow-white ermine, opened his black eyes sleepily and gazed around unafraid. Later, Lyra would remember it as a dream. Pantalaimon seemed to accept the attention as Lyra's due, and presently he curled up again and closed his eyes.

Finally one of the creatures spread his wings wide. The others, as close as they were, did so too, and their wings interpenetrated with no resistance, sweeping through one another like light through light, until there was a circle of radiance around the sleepers on the grass.

Then the watchers took to the air, one after another, rising like flames into the sky and increasing in size as they did so, until they were immense; but already they were far away, moving like shooting stars toward the north.

Serafina and Ruta Skadi sprang to their pine branches and followed them upward, but they were left far behind.

"Were they like the creatures you saw, Ruta Skadi?" said Serafina as they slowed down in the middle airs, watching the bright flames diminish toward the horizon.

"Bigger, I think, but the same kind. They have no flesh, did you see that? All they are is light. Their senses must be so different from ours. . . . Serafina Pekkala, I'm leaving you now, to call all the witches of our north together. When we meet again, it will be wartime. Go well, my dear. . ."

They embraced in midair, and Ruta Skadi turned and sped southward.

Serafina watched her go, and then turned to see the last of the gleaming angels disappear far away. She felt nothing but compassion for those great watchers. How much they must miss, never to feel the earth beneath their feet, or the wind in their hair, or the tingle of starlight on their bare skin! And she snapped a little twig off the pine branch she flew with, and sniffed the sharp resin smell with greedy pleasure, before flying slowly down to join the sleepers on the grass.

— from The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.

This is the sequel to The Golden Compass, which I read last spring. I am enjoying it more than I did the first book, but as the story evolves I am recognizing the subtle beauty contained in that first book. In some ways, my head was too full for it at the time of first reading — I'd chosen to read it as a light and entertaining escape, when it is much more.

So here I am, nearing the close of the second; my jaw drops, tears well up, a shiver down my spine, a nod of affirmation. So many little snippets I thought I should share, full of wisdom, poignancy, truth. And then the above excerpt stops my heart in its tracks.

These are not God's angels, though this is a story of God, kind of. These are Rilkean angels, as realized by Wim Wenders. They are guides, muses, empaths. They know everything, but nothing.

You've been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face...just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something! Here, that's cold! That feels good! Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it's fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that's good, that feels good! There's so many good things! But you're not here — I'm here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. 'Cause I'm a friend. Compañero!

This is what it is to be human, to be of the earth.

I wonder about Catherin, who used her ticket stub for a bookmark while reading this library book. Catherin took the bus from North Bay, with a change in Ottawa, to read about a subtle knife in Montreal. I hope she's well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cooking with Isabella

...and with Helena. And with pomegranate.

Recently someone asked me if I can cook, and spontaneously I answered, "Yes, of course!" implying that I did so very well.

The truth is: my reply was out of character. And it weighed on me.

Ordinarily, I would say, no, I'm not much of a cook. Pressed, and with a realistic and honest assessment, I would admit to being a fully competent cook.

But in that brief exchange, either I was, for some subconscious reason unknown to myself, fleetingly and wishfully adopting the persona of a "good cook," or perhaps I was letting an unprocessed inner truth escape.

For in truth, I cook a lot; I cook better than many people I know; and the more experienced I've become, the more cooking excites me.

I can't tell you how thrilled I was to have a copy of Nigella Christmas land on my doorstep. Thrilled!

I'm not really good with cookbooks. (I love them though. I don't have very many, but maybe I should.) That is, I'm not good at following a recipe. Maybe because so much of my working life is governed by rules, creating rules, making sure others abide by the rules, I feel I should be allowed liberty in my kitchen. Really, such freedom should be reserved for cooks who know what they're doing, but I'll take it anyway.

I'm always missing an ingredient. There's never thyme on hand, or whole mustard seed. Maybe my kitchen's not properly stocked. And most days of the week, I'm not organized enough to plan a meal and shop for it in advance.

Then there's the measuring. Maybe I don't have enough gadgets (where would I put them?). Sometimes the measuring cup is in the dishwasher, and I don't feel like washing it, so I eyeball quantities, using whatever receptacle is handy.

(This is normal, isn't it? This is what it is to cook, to have to cook daily, to not be gifted at it, to not have hours to devote to it, but to be competent. This is my culinary truth!)

Anyway. Nigella Christmas. Gorgeous book. Makes me hungry. Makes me want to cook. Makes me want to try to cook better.

The first thing I notice: this year's Christmas culinary trend appears to be pomegranate. If you want to make it festive, just add pomegranate! Holiday drinks? with pomegranate juice, of course! garnished with pomegranate seeds! Salads, for Christmas, should be red: cherry tomatoes, red peppers, red onion, pomegranate seeds! Stuffing, with pomegranate. Tired of turkey? — have some couscous, made festive with pomegranate.

I happen to love pomegranate. So this is all very exciting and inspiring. I am now fully deluded into thinking I can create exotic meals by adding a simple pomegranate flourish. (Sometimes my ambition exceeds my capability. My pomegranate lemon chicken was more than edible, but it looked pretty weird — splotchy.)

Still, I'm planning on following a number of recipes, as closely I can, this holiday season. There will be red salad. And there will be a sampling of Nigella's cocktails.

(One of the most important ingredients to have on hand while cooking is alcohol. Primarily for the cook. Also for the guests. I find this goes a long way to making a meal a success.)

While the book has inspired me to add pomegranate to just about everything lately, I've tried following only one recipe in earnest: Cookies! (Without pomegranate.)

This weekend, Helena and I made cookies. Scores of cookies. Two kinds (Nigella's, and perhaps more importantly, the cookies I made with my mom when I was a little girl). I even planned, to the extent of buying new cookie cutters (I'm finally beyond using plastic play-doh shape cutters) and setting aside enough time. As I'd predicted, the project that would take a reasonably organized and motivated adult about an hour or two when you add a very interested and helpful 6-year-old to the mix becomes a very messy day-long event. But, oh, was it fun!

Nigella's cookies, festooning the inside cover of her book:

My cookies, of which I'm unreasonably proud:

And they're tasty, too!

I had some trouble with the recipe: All the quantities are in weights; I'm used to measuring by the cup, as, I'm fairly certain, most average, non-serious cooks are. The recipe in the book doesn't say anything about mixing the butter and sugar together first (as the recipe at the link does, and which I think is a sensible thing to do). I don't own a food processor; I have a hand mixer; and I don't know what the difference is in the results they produce. I have no idea how soft dark sugar is different from any other kind of brown sugar. I've never heard of royal icing, so I looked it up on the internet, and kind of had to wing it (a bit too runny in the end).

(Then there's the decorating. Do Nigella's cookies look as if they were iced with a teaspoon, as she directs? Mine were.)

So the cookies aren't perfect. But they're pretty good! They have pepper in them! And they're pretty to look at. And they'll be even better next year.

Eat your heart out, Nigella! This year I feel like a domestic goddess!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bolano's dogs

On the whole, I'm starting to get poetry. I had a breakthrough this year, I thought.

For a year and a half now, I've been smitten with Roberto Bolano's words, the poetry (the poeticism?) of his work. So I was very much looking forward to The Romantic Dogs.

But these poems had nothing of the transportative quality of his prose, the sweep-you-off-your-feet torrent of words, the passion for poetry, politics, life.

I recognize some of the characters in these poems from the stories and novellas I've read. I have the feeling that's where these poems started, built from the scraps that were edited out.

Now I'm left wondering if maybe it's Spanish-language poetry I don't quite get. (But I like Neruda.) I found too many similarities between these poems and those that constituted a chorus in Fuentes' Happy Families. Weirdly and unnecessarily cryptic. Like a private joke I have no hope of ever being in on.

Or maybe it's just not any good.

I did like, enjoy, appreciate some of it. "Godzilla in Mexico," for example.

And from "X-rays":
If we look, however, with X-rays inside of the man,
We'll see bones and shadows: ghosts of fiestas
and landscapes in motion as if viewed from an airplane
tailspin. We'll see the eyes he saw, the lips
his fingers brushed, a body emerged
from a snowstorm. And we'll see the naked body,
just as he saw it, and the eyes and the lips he brushed,
and we'll know that there's no cure.

Beautiful and provocative, no?

I'll be reading more Bolano soon, and counting on the prose to carry me further than did these poems.

Extra credit
Which of the following covers is the better design?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The stuff of my wintry days

Last week I woke up in a riding that holds the distinction of having elected to provincial parliament a member of Québec solidaire. I live among separatists, but communist separatists.

Helena starts using the cat voice, to put words in his mouth. The cat's words, though, are always few, mostly to do with the too-low level of his food bowl, or some invasion of his personal space.

The cat starts trying her bedroom first in the morning, finding her an easier target, more susceptible to his supersonic purring, the nibbling of extremities and the knocking-stuff-off-shelves ploy that over a dozen years I've become relatively immune to.

After I hennaed my hair, Helena conducts an examination and exclaims that I have two colours now: brun normale et brun "flash" (which, no, is not an established expression for describing hair effects, but I quite like it).

I read a few hundred pages of Dumas last weekend. I'm now at chapter 103? 104? Only about a hundred more pages to go!

I attended for the first time a parent-teacher meeting of which I was not the subject. I learn that my daughter is "super-intelligente" but very bossy, though remarkably, this has not cost her any friends.

Helena has finally — finally! — conquered the escalator. As a toddler she had no trouble stepping onto escalators, but then one day, she simply refused, gripped with fear. But like that, one day, we're suddenly past it.

Effective time management temporarily escapes my grasp. Not enough sleep. Little blogging. Cooking and baking, playing and reading. Wanting to do more, to do it all.

The snow! Isn't it beautiful?!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lem's magnitude

Stanislaw Lem, it turns out, is very funny.

Imaginary Magnitude is a collection of introductions to nonexistent books.

One of my favourite segements is a promotional pamphlet for an encyclopedia that works on finely tuned prognostication, the wanted volume opening to the desired page as the reader stands in front of the shelf. The "extelopedia" predates Douglas Adams' infinite improbability drive by several years and books of J.K. Rowling's devising by a few decades, but it sounds to me like a hybrid of their magic technology.

This program subsequently underwent a thousandfold intensification and Extrapolational adaptation, thanks to which not only can it FORESEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN, if ANYTHING does happen, but also forsee [sic] precisely what will happen if It doesn't happen even a little, i.e., if It doesn't occur at all.

It's over the top, screaming with all its might in that most mysterious of all allegedly successful marketing ploys: Random CAPS!

Naturally, knowing MERELY THE LANGUAGE in which people will be communicating with one another and with machines ten, twenty, or thirty years hence does not mean knowing WHAT THEY WILL THEN most readily and most often be saying. And it is precisely THAT which we shall know, because as a rule people speak FIRST, and think and act LATER. The fundamental defect in all previous attempts at constructing a LINGUISTIC FUTUROLOGY, or PROGNOLINGUA, resulted from a FALSE RATIONALITY of procedure. Scholars have tacitly assumed that people will say ONLY REASONABLE THINGS in the Future and thus will have progressed.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that people LARGELY say SILLY THINGS.

Among the instantaneous updates are those to the price, "which — as you will appreciate, considering the state of the world economy — cannot be prognosticated more than twenty-four minutes beforehand."

The latter half of the book, "Golem XIV," an account of a supercomputer, is a little over my head (particularly in my lately stressed and flu-addled state), but the bonafide introductions, in their wit and interconnectedness, were highly entertaining.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Beyond pawns

Helena is frantic as we're gathering her things for school. Today's Thursday! It's chess club! She needs her folder! Where's her folder? Did I remember to put it in her backpack?!

I reassure her, and she finally sheds a little light on her panic. Today is the last day of this chess club session. Medals are to be awarded. She is convinced she has no chance of receiving one if she fails to bring her folder. I think she has little chance, period, being the youngest of the lot, but her enthusiasm tramples my negativity. We will cross the bridge of her disappointment when we come to it.

The workday finished, I run into Helena with her father just outside the school, so we can all walk home together. Helena reaches down into her jacket to pull out her medal.

I lavish her with obligatory congratulations and adulation, how I proud I am of her. But eventually I have to ask, cautiously. How many people received medals? Three, she tells me. The look in J-F's eyes tells me he knows and understands exactly what my line of questioning is, and that it's OK to proceed. How many kids are in your group? Eleven, she tells me, and only three of us got medals!

R-- got a medal because she's really the best, and the oldest, and she's really good. Helena got a medal because she had the most stickers on her folder, for homework problems completed. And M-- got one too, I'm not really sure why.

Flattery gushes more sincerely now. I'm ashamed of that moment in which I saw my own mother in me, doubting my daughter's accomplishments. I tell myself that it is a natural hesitation, measuring my response against a world where everyone gets a star for attendance, reserving it for justly deserved gains.

A week later, she's still proud and wants as much as ever to learn chess. We keep working through the problems she never finished. We set up the board to match the diagrams, so we can more easily see solutions.

J-F drops Helena at school one morning. He tells me they caught the attention of one of the other mothers. She seeks confirmation: So that's Helena. She got a medal? My son didn't get a medal. Do you coach her?

J-F tells her we play chess with Helena every day until she cries.

Pamuk's library

In The New York Review of Books:

During the thirty-five years I have spent writing my own novels, I have learned not to laugh at the books written by others, and not to cast them aside, no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be. The secret of loving these books was not, perhaps, to read them in the way their authors had intended.... The point was to read these books—strange, and indifferent, and interspersed with moments of astonishing beauty—so as to put myself in their authors' shoes. You did not escape provinciality by running away from the provinces, but by making it your own. This was how I learned to immerse myself in my slowly expanding library, and also how I learned to put myself at a distance. It was after I turned forty that I learned that the most powerful reason for loving my library was that neither Turks nor Westerners knew about it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Byatt in Blue

The 2009 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prize is being awarded to A.S. Byatt.

The 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival takes place April 22–26, 2009. Byatt will be launching her new novel, The Children's Book.

(The festival website has not yet been updated.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Closing Lessing

I finished it, by the way, the other week. All 34 stories (a couple of them called novellas) in 655 pages. Brilliant.

I almost wish there were more. I mean, I know there are more out there, but, I mean, at hand. But not really, because it was emotionally exhausting.

Here are some highlights:
How I Finally Lost My Heart
Our Friend Judith

And how I came to this book in the first place.

I realize now that most of these stories are fairly depressing. The problems of class, the meaninglessness of political life, the common plight of dutiful women. But oh so gut-wrenchingly real. Grappling with identity through it all.

If The Golden Notebook still scares you, even with all the fascinating commentary it provokes, ease into Lessing by reading her Stories.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Now we are six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five, I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I'm as clever as clever,
So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.

— A.A. Milne

You couldn't be cleverer on our walk to school this morning.

Happy birthday, kid.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The alienation effect

On Auster — the games and connections, the intertextuality:

Why does Auster do these things? In some ways, one might liken his narrative games to Bertholt Brecht's "alienation effect." Brecht held that an actor should play his role from a distance, almost tongue-in-cheek, as though commenting on the part rather than losing himself in it. He felt that even the backstage activity should be made obvious to the audience. The point of theater, to Brecht, wasn't for the spectators to lose themselves in the play, but to consider the issues it raised, reflect on the interactions of the characters, think about different possibilities and outcomes. Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by "certain philosophical questions about the world," in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life's overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The visceral symphony

Stanislaw Lem, in the introduction to his Imaginary Magnitudes, a collection of fictitious introductions to nonexistent books, covers a lot of ground. A lot.

He speaks to the glut of information and entertainment at our disposal and the need to have this knowledge or art mediated. This necessity is tempered by the recognition that an introduction to any work is often merely the babble of "some authority's sham commitment to a book." Art has lost its authenticity, and we need a new priest-intermediary to find our way back to it, viscerally, naturally. Lem promises to return art/knowledge to the people, to an unmediated purity, while acknowledging the Introduction as a genre of literature in itself.

Lem justifies himself:

[...] I am right to present an Introduction to this short Anthology of Introductions, for I am proposing prefaces that lead nowhere, introductions that go nowhere, and forewords followed by no words at all.

But with each of these initial moves I shall reveal to you an emptiness of a different kind and a different semantic color, changing according to a typical Heidegger spectral line. With enthusiasm, hope, and much to-do I shall open the altar and triptych doors, and announce the inconostasis with its holy gates; I shall kneel on stairs breaking off at the threshold of a void — a void not so much abandoned as one in which nothing has ever been or ever shall be. This gravest possible amusement, this simply tragic amusement, is a parable of our destiny, since there is no device so human, nor such a property and mainstay of humanity, as a full-sounding, responsibility-devoid, utterly soul-absorbing Introduction to Nothingness.

This is the third book of Lem's that I tackle this year. I continue to be drawn to his work even while it's immensely taxing on my poor little brain.

What do I gain from this? According to Lem, "Supreme liberty [...] for eternal enjoyment."

He may be right.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Seizing firmly the second Wednesday of November

I don't know how to read poetry.

I have a copy of Ballistics, poems by Billy Collins, and it's delightful.

But at this moment I'm unable to determine whether I've read the whole of this slim volume cover to cover. When first I unwrapped it, I opened it to the beginning and began. And so it went for quite a few pages. But then I wanted to share something, which I did, which reminded me I wanted to check something else. So I flipped some pages, and the title of some as yet unread poem caught my interest. Then I worked backwards a little. Over the next few days I carried the book around and would start reading at whatever page I opened it to (can't do that with a novel).

I think I've read most of it now. But I feel as if a part of the book has been lost on me. For one thing, the book is divided into 4 parts, and I can't begin to formulate a reason for this. While I see connections between a number of the poems, I don't see any logic in the progression from one to the next, why some are grouped together with others. I don't presume to call the structure artificial, but it seems to me that it's constricting (deliberately?) the organic nature of the poetic romp.

Then there's the where.

Have you read poetry on the metro? It feels weird. Like people are looking at me. This slightly paranoid feeling makes it hard to focus, to feel it, to enjoy it fully. (Do you wonder what I look like, Billy? I wear a suit, and slutty boots, and I ride public transportation.)

Poetry at bedtime? Doesn't work for me. I need something a little softer and more sustained. Skipping through poems is the opposite of restful (invigorating!), and to leave it at one simply is not enough.

I like a poem with my morning coffee, I've decided. Between having decided what to pack for Helena's lunch and actually doing so.

Also while cooking supper.

Anyway. I quite like Billy Collins. He's very funny. I can't even tell you what kind of poetry he writes — sonnets? free verse? I have no idea. It doesn't rhyme, but it has rhythm, and it has form on the page.

I think he's postmodern, but I'm not sure that's a term usually applied to poetry, nor that I've correctly done so. The author features as character in these poems, with a self-awareness regarding the act of writing.

I quite like "Vermont, Early November" (much as I like Vermont in early November), in which there's "nothing worth writing about really" and seizing the day is just a little too ambitious, so the author (and I imagine him writing this precisely a year ago) is
determined to seize firmly
the second Wednesday of every month that lay ahead.

It's something I can relate to.

I've had extensive conversations with Helena about the poem about the little piggy who had roast beef.

Collins is calling on me to glance back at Philip Larkin, and look for Paul Valéry's abandoned poems, which you've brought to completion.

My favourite poem in this collection is "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant."

So glad I waited all these decades
to record how hot and sour the hot and sour soup is
here at Chang's this afternoon
and how cold he Chinese beer in a frosted glass.

And my book — José Saramago's Blindness
as it turns out — is so absorbing that I look up
from its escalating horrors only
when I am stunned by one of his arresting sentences.

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches —

Something so very poignant in this. Something beautiful. The author becomes the subject of the poem he might've written and realizes it's altogether different, and better.

So, no, I don't know how to read poetry. But I am starting to learn to enjoy it.

I like Billy Collins. Funny. Quietly joyous. Makes me feel calm inside, that isn't life funny, but everything's going to be alright. Good with coffee.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cat blogging

Earlier this evening my cat managed to post not one, but two blog entries.

Blank they were. Straight shooter? Or symbolist?

He does not know how to spell the vibrations of the motor in his throat, his belly.

Never much of a lap cat, tonight he is determined to assert his position of authority over the laptop.

But what does he have to say to you, I wonder?

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's the joke?

A bus nosed to a standstill; half a dozen people got off; a man passed and said: "What's the joke?" He winked, and she realised she had been smiling.

Well-being, created because of the small familiar busyness of the street, filled her. Which was of course why she had spent so long, an hour now, loitering around the foot of the tall building. This irrepressible good nature of the flesh, felt in the movement of her blood like a greeting to pavements, people, a thin drift of cloud across pale blue sky, she checked, or rather tested, by a deliberate use of the other vision on the scene: the man behind the neat arrangements of coloured vegetables had a stupid face, he looked brutal; the future of the adolescents holding their position outside the music-shop door against the current of pressing people could only too easily be guessed at by the sharply aggressive yet forlorn postures of shoulders and loins; Ada, whichever way you looked at her, was hideous, repulsive, with her loose yellowing flesh and her sour-sweat smell. Et cetera, et cetera. Oh yes, et cetera, on theses lines, indefinitely, if she chose to look. Squalid, ugly, pathetic . . . And what of it? insisted her blood, for even now she was smiling, while she kept the other vision sharp as knowledge. She could feel the smile on her face. Because of it, people going past would offer jokes, comments, stop to talk, invite her for drinks or coffee, flirt, tell her the stories of their lives. She was forty this year, and her serenity was a fairly recent achievement. Wrong word: it had not been tried for; but it seemed as if years of pretty violent emotion, one way or another, had gelled or shaken into a joy which welled up from inside her independent of the temporary reactions — pain, disappointment, loss — for it was stronger than they. Well, would it continue? Why should it? it might very well vanish again, without explanation, as it had come. Possibly this was a room in her life; she had walked into it, found it furnished with joy and well-being, and would walk through and out again into another room, still unknown and unimagined. She had certainly never imagined this one, which was a gift from Nature? Chance? Excess? . . . A bookshop had a tray of dingy books outside it, and she rested her hand on their limp backs and loved them. Instantly she looked at the word "love", which her palm, feeling delight at the contact, had chosen, and said to herself: Now it's enough, it's time for me to go in.

— from "Dialogue," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

Do you know this feeling? I've been living it for months. There are days I think I must be going crazy. This sense of well-being — it's completely unreasonable. I can't say it has anything to do with love, exactly, but the same could be said of this story's nameless protagonist.

(A few weeks back, a woman caught my attention in the metro. She was smiling, near laughing, to herself. A happy relief from the usual blank stares of the daily commute, but also unsettling, unnatural. I realized that most days I'm just like her.)

How reassuring to find someone who knows exactly how I feel, even though she be a figment of Doris Lessing's imagination.

I am swimming through this collection of stories, and indeed, each next one is better than the last.

(Have you read "To Room Nineteen"? Oh, my god!)

The Golden Notebook Project is under way, by the way, and though I won't be reading along, I do intend to follow the commentary.

Go read some Doris Lessing.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Helena is in chess club.

Chess is not part of her regular curriculum but is offered as part of the after-school program:

The "Challenging Mathematics" program is based on extensive research and field-testing. It focuses on problem-solving as a strategy for developing an understanding of mathematical concepts.

The goal of the series is to develop judgement and the ability to reason in children, to foster an ability to explain why and how when it comes to their solutions to problems and to develop their self-confidence as well as their own efficient strategies for solving problems.

[Source: Chess'n Math Association, Canada's National Scholastic Chess Organization]

I hesitated to sign her up, thinking it might be too demanding, and too early to be cultivating her geek factor. But it's never too early to learn to solve problems! She is joined by a boy from her class, and their instructor seems well-equipped to inspire a kind of discipline in them. (My own efforts to show Helena the actual starting positions of all the pieces always ended up in a procession of Helena's devising, of characters greeting the king and queen and riding away on horseback, in an orderly fashion.)

It is by far the most (academically) challenging aspect of the kindergarten experience, and the only one that demands homework. We have problems diagrammed on paper that we transfer to a board in front of us. (Initially identifying the pieces out of order. Now testing the rules of the moves: in a given diagram, how many pieces can a given piece capture, or how many squares can it safely move to.)

She wants to play a game proper. I know it will be only a few moves before she feigns disinterest in order to disguise her frustration. She will pack it in and silently resolve to be better prepared another day.

We open.

I blink and she's in tears — deep, sincere, sad sobs. "C'est pas juste!"

That she's only 5? doesn't know all the rules? that we're unfairly matched?


That the pawn can move only straight ahead, one slow square at a time. The pawn advances to the end, and for what? It's not fair, when others can move farther, in different directions. Poor, stupid pawn! What good is it?

It's a weird and proud moment for me, to see in my daughter this glimmer of existential speculation, social injustice.

I try to rationalize. The pawn is important to the security of others. If it is smart enough to survive, to endure the journey to the other side, the pawn can be anything you want it to be.

We are laying the groundwork for the battles ahead.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

One surely ought to stay in character

More stories. I can't get enough of these stories. Just one more, I think, before I return to some of the weightier tomes I have on hand, but just one more leads to another, and then another. And each next one is my new favourite.

Doris Lessing is amazing! Clever, but not too clever. Simple and very complicated at the same time. Real, very real, yet that stark reality is expressed and framed in imaginative ways.

Here's another snippet that struck me:

A mutual friend, Betty, had been given a cast-off Dior dress. She was too short for it. Also she said: "It's not a dress for a married woman with three children and a talent for cooking. I don't know why not, but it isn't." Judith was the right build. Therefore one evening the three of us met by appointment in Judith's bedroom, with the dress. Neither Betty nor I was surprised at the renewed discovery that Judith was beautiful. We had both often caught each other, and ourselves, in moments of envy when Judith's calm and severe face, her undemonstratively perfect body, succeeded in making everyone else in a room or a street look cheap.

Judith is tall, small-breasted, slender. Her light brown hair is parted in the centre and cut straight around her neck. A high straight forehead, straight nose, a full grave mouth are setting for her eyes, which are green, large and prominent. Her lids are very white, fringed with gold, and moulded close over the eyeball, so that in profile she has the look of a staring gilded mask. The dress was of dark green glistening stuff, cut straight, with a sort of loose tunic. It opened simply at the throat. In it Judith could of course evoke nothing but classical images. Diana, perhaps, back from the hunt, in a relaxed moment? A rather intellectual wood nymph who had opted for an afternoon in the British Museum Reading Room? Something like that. Neither Betty nor I said a word, since Judith was examining herself in a long mirror, and must know she looked magnificent.

Slowly she drew off the dress and laid it aside. Slowly she put on the old cord skirt and woollen blouse she had taken off. She must have surprised a resigned glance between us, for she then remarked, with the smallest of mocking smiles: "One surely ought to stay in character, wouldn't you say?" She added, reading the words out of some invisible book, written not by her, since it was a very vulgar book, but perhaps by one of us: "It does everything for me, I must admit."

"After seeing you in it," Betty cried out, defying her, "I can't bear for anyone else to have it. I shall simply put it away." Judith shrugged, rather irritated. In the shapeless skirt and blouse, and without make-up, she stood smiling at us, a woman at whom forty-nine out of fifty people would not look twice.

— from "Our Friend Judith," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

The Golden Notebook Project starts November 10, an experiment in close reading, from The Institute for the Future of the Book. It's not so long ago (3 years?) that I read The Golden Notebook for the first time myself. In its way, it was the subject of my own experiment in close reading, and quite apart from the power of its content, The Golden Notebook changed the way I read.

(It also has the distinction of being one of only two books not properly shelved or stacked, sitting in my desk drawer, unless you call that an organizational class of its own, because it's still waiting for me to deal with it.)

Barack Obama lists it among books significant to him. Surely he is staying in character to say so. (What does that say about the man? That he's a feminist? He understands what it is to have a romanticized vision of a political life? That he understands what it is to compartmentalize the facets of one's being, to be fragmented, and sees the necessity, and the way, of consolidating the whole?)

Many people are daunted by the novel's reputation. I was. But it's brilliant.

Read it when you're ready for it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend Doris Lessing's Stories.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Some dumb poem

[Here's some dumb poem I wrote months ago and carelessly stashed in a dark closet full of neglected writings (the Drafts folder) and stumbled across quite recently while cleaning my electronic house, and which I can actually stand to reread. (So, it's finally come to this!?: me, posting my third-rate angst-masquerading-as-verse on the Internet...) It makes me smile, even. Ahem.]

I encountered Poetry years ago, in my youth,
but we didn't much hit it off
— we saw the world in a very different light.

I ran into Poetry again this summer,
and there was a spark between us.
We've been inseparable,
rain or shine.
Poetry's with me when I go for ice cream
and when I do my laundry.

Some days I wish Poetry would let up a little,
but I give in to Poetry's exhaustive demands:
you're going the wrong way,
look harder, read this, try playing some music,
look up, way up,
"You gotta shake it up a little."

There are days Poetry drives me crazy
and I wish Poetry would leave me alone.
But then Poetry whispers in my ear

Simpling and sapping

It suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at the whole phenomenon quite inaccurately. My (or perhaps I am permitted to say our?) way of looking at it is that one must search for an A, or a B, or a C or a D with a certain combination of desirable or sympathetic qualities so that one may click, or spontaneously combust: or to put it differently, one needs a person who, like a saucer of water, allows one to float off on him/her, like a transfer. But this wasn't so at all. Actually one carries with one a sort of burning spear stuck in one's side, that one waits for someone else to pull out; it is something painful, like a sore or a wound, that one cannot wait to share with someone else.

I saw myself quite plainly in a moment of truth: I was standing at a window (on the third floor) with A and B (to mention only the mountain peaks of my emotional experience) behind me, a rather attractive woman, if I may say so, with a mellowness that I would be the first to admit is the sad harbinger of age, but is attractive by definition, because it is a testament to the amount of sampling and sipping (I nearly wrote 'simpling' and 'sapping') I have done in my time . . . There I stood, brushed, dressed, red-lipped, kohl-eyed, all waiting for an evening with a possible C. And at another window overlooking (I think I am right in saying) Margaret Street, stood C, brushed, washed, shaved, smiling: an attractive man (I think), and he was thinking: Perhaps she will turn out to be D (or A or 3 or ? or %, or whatever symbol he used). We stood, separated by space, certainly, in identical conditions of pleasant uncertainty and anticipation, and we both held our hearts in our hands, all pink and palpitating and ready for pleasure and pain, and we were about to throw these hearts in each other's face like snowballs, or cricket balls (How's that?) or, more accurately, like great bleeding wounds: 'Take my wound.' Because the last thing one ever thinks at such moments is that he (or she) will say: Take my wound, please remove the spear from my side. No, not at all; one simply expects to get rid of one's own.

— from "How I Finally Lost My Heart," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Everyone should have superheroes at work.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poets on which I've stumbled

So I'm wondering about the book I ordered — the book of poetry (what has gotten into me?): has it shipped yet? when will I get it? And I discover: no, it has not been shipped. But the publication date was days ago! What kind of shoddy customer service is this?! It occurs to me to check the publisher's website; maybe publication has been delayed.

And I stumble across this name that rings a bell. A bell-ringing name. Peter Cole. And I remember that he was supposed to be speaking at Concordia this week, and I'd thought about going. According to the publisher of his latest work, that would've been the other day. And I curse. But according to Concordia University's website, it's this day. So I plan an extra long lunch break in order to be able to check it out.

Peter Cole is a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, and he has amazing hair. Really. I can't get over the hair. Check out this picture — the hair is... is... remarkable.

He's a great speaker. The 20 or so of us in attendance were captivated. He's perhaps better known as a translator. He was sincere in explaining the pleasure (as opposed to the problem) of translation, and talked mostly about what it is to live in a space between languages. His fluency in another language and living in another culture created a crack in his English, through which light was introduced, transforming his own poetry.

He addressed some of the difficulties that arise when you're both poet and translator.

On the perils of being a translator: In gaining familiarity with various forms and voices, one may become nothing more than a technician. In breathing another's atmosphere, one may starve one's own poetry.

But ultimately, the acts of translating poetry and writing poetry — that mystical place to which one is transported — are for Cole indistinguishable.

"Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind," from Things on Which I've Stumbled, begins like this:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world's flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive's jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.

I like this poem, but, on the whole, the poems Cole read (recited, performed?), those he'd written as well as those he'd translated, did not speak to me.

I don't remember the last time I heard poetry, other than inside my own head. Or watched it unfold (that is, I see poetry revealed to me everyday; I mean the recitation of a poem). This was a strange experience.

Cole's voice took on a different timbre; he assumed a persona. The speaking of the poem was a deliberate and affected act. I've witnessed this at many readings. With poetry, it is more pronounced. I'm not convinced it should be this way.

(I firmly believe the words should speak for themselves. How can any writer, particularly poets, convey the breathing, the tone, the rhythm, the sum total effect they intend their work to have if not by relying on the words themselves. But attend any reading and it's clear the authors have intentions incompletely conveyed on paper.)

When Cole became a Poet reciting his verse, he removed his glasses and held his book like it was Yorick's skull. His right hand punctuated the verse, describing every beat of his orchestration, driving or being driven by the words, reluctant even to break rhythm by turning a page, rising in crescendo and slurring legato, urging his inner resources for more, to hold, to ease away.

Cole must be a marvelous teacher. He spoke candidly and with humour in response to all questions put to him. On practical matters, like learning another language, getting published, collaborating with authors to perfect a translation; on different schools of thought, in poetry, translation, linguistics (Cole takes some leeway in translation — essence more important than the words); on life — for example, there's no sense in working at translating poetry you don't feel.

Everything is translation after all. We translate every bit of our external world into the context of our own exeperience.

So this maybe is genius. Stumbled upon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Story after story

For someone who claims not to be a big fan of short stories, I sure have read a lot of them lately. These collections since mid-August:

Carlos Fuentes: Happy Families
David Foster Wallace: Oblivion
Daniel Handler: Adverbs
Sana Krasikov: One More Year
Théophile Gautier: My Fantoms

I have found that short stories make for excellent reading:
— while waiting for my morning coffee
— in the bathroom
— on the morning métro commute
— at lunch
— whenever I need a break from my workday
— on the evening métro commute
— while watching the stove
— while the girl splashes in her bath
— while pretending to watch hockey
— at bedtime

Short stories provide a kind of instant gratification that I seem to be craving lately. Certainly I needed these bursts to balance some of my other long and slow reading. They're easy enough to start — and finish! — in the interstices of plodding days.

Currently, I'm midway through Dumas's The Last Cavalier, but earlier this week, reading in an overcrowded train about plots to assassinate Napoleon, I suddenly felt both lost and under siege. So I set it aside, to wait for the smoke to clear. And I turned to Doris Lessing's Stories.

I love the feel of this book — its physical presence. It's new in the catalogue of Everyman's Library. I have a couple other books of this imprint, and they're a real pleasure to read and to carry. If you didn't know:

Everyman's Library pursues the highest standards, utilizing modern prepress, printing, and binding technologies to produce classically designed books printed on acid-free natural-cream-colored text paper and including Smyth-sewn, signatures, full-cloth cases with two-color case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, and European-style half-round spines.

The Everyman's hardcover has peculiar, but perfect, dimensions. Weighty, but somehow in its compactness perfectly weighted. It just feels good!

So I'm reading Doris Lessing again. I've never felt compelled to search out and read in its entirety her oeuvre, and I'm starting to wonder why not. I've immensely enjoyed everything of hers that I've read, and while I truly to believe her work to be Important, my interest in it has been very reasonable — I have not obsessively hunted down obscure or out-of-print works, nor have I compulsively snapped up her latest releases. When I read her, I am pleasantly surprised and reassured to find that it is good. And I am fortunate to have this leisurely but strong relationship with an author, relieved that it is unlikely I will run out her books to read for many years yet to come.

In 1969, Doris Lessing was written about in Time Magazine:

Fans of British Novelist Doris Lessing talk about a composite character called the Lessing Woman in much the same way as people once talked about the Hemingway Man. The Lessing Woman is a formidable female. She hasn't been to a university but she has read everything and remembers it. Her ideals are high and unsullied. She works (or has worked) at lost political causes. Although she loathes marriage, she gamely raises children and endures domestic woes. She cooks well, keeps a spotless house (except when depressed) and does excellent writing, research or secretarial work. She is any man's moral and intellectual superior, and she rarely hesitates to tell him so.

I can't say I've ever heard anyone called a Lessing Woman, though I know a few. I don't think I qualify myself — I'm less political, more naturally maternal, and my house is far from spotless. But there are days I think it's something to aspire to.

The stories were drawn from collections previously published in 1957, 1963, and 1972. They are bleak, in quite a beautiful way, and very real.

Here's one Doris Lessing story (not in the collection I'm reading) I found online: "A Mild Attack of Locusts."

I'll share more about the stories in this particular collection as I progress.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Artful and quizzical


Your result for What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test...

Traditional, Vibrant, and Tasteful

10 Islamic, -4 Impressionist, 5 Ukiyo-e, -9 Cubist, -5 Abstract and 4 Renaissance!

Islamic art is developed from many sources: Roman, Early Christian, and Byzantine styles were taken over in early Islamic architecture; the architecture and decorative art of pre-Islamic Persia was of paramount significance; Central Asian styles were brought in with various nomadic incursions; and Chinese influences. Islamic art uses many geometical floral or vegetable designs in a repetitive pattern known as arabesque. It is used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of Allah.

People that like Islamic art tend to be more traditional people that appreciate keeping patterns that they learned and experienced from their past. It is not to say that they are not innovative personalities, they just do not like to let go of their roots. They like to put new ideas into details and make certain that they will work before sharing them with others. Failure is not something they like to think about because they are more interested in being successful and appreciated for their intelligence. These people can also be or like elaborate things in their life as long as they are tasteful. They tend to prefer geometric patterns and vibrant colors.

Take What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test at HelloQuizzy

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The 2008 Massey Lectures are under way. Margaret Atwood speaks about "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth."

These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they're about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense — from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.

She presented part 4 of the series the other night here in Montreal. (When I first heard tell of it weeks ago, the event was already sold out.)

The lecture, titled The Shadow Side, [. . .] took on the subject of debt in the philosophical and literary sense, with references to Machiavelli, Charles Dickens and, most thoroughly of all, William Shakespeare. (You didn't have to be a seer to guess Shylock would show up somewhere. Her rigorous analysis of how anti-Semitism is rooted in historical concepts of debt was breathaking [sic].)

The lectures will be broadcast on CBC, November 10–14. Or you can read them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


On arriving home after a hard
day's work I find
myself standing dutifully
at the stove, right hand
tending the meat
in the skillet, left hand
holding open Baudelaire,
my nose in it.

And I think:
something is not
right with this picture.

Les Fleurs du Mal
for a pinch of salt.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The flesh of the world

If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.

It's been a rough couple weeks at work. After eating lunch at my desk Friday, I need fresh air. An impromptu afternoon stroll takes me to the bookstore.

I miss browsing in bookstores. The bookstores I know here on the whole simply aren't conducive to it. I go with a mission usually, for "research" or a specific purchase. Some lunch hours I may spend more time there, scanning the bargain bins, but methodically, with only the pretense of leisure. It dawns on me that I may have shut myself off from an introduction to many fine and interesting books, pretty ones that shine cleverly at the cocktail hour, but deep and secretive ones too that leak their mysteries into the last bottle of wine some time after midnight when the jazz records come on.

So I... I don't know what I'm doing there Friday. I'm angry and distracted and tired. And I pluck off the shelf, I know not why — I guess because it's black and red, slim, the title psst-ing at me — Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Poetry as Insurgent Art, and I start to read, and smile. I feel all giddy inside.

Here's the thing. I'm a poet, I'm realizing. I mean... I don't actually write verse. But. No, I'm off to a bad start. How can I explain...?

I think I'm having a midlife crisis. That is, something is crawling over me, or bursting out of me, or seeping through my pores. Part of this is a physical function of age: I'm at, or nearing, my sexual peak, chronobiologically speaking, and the time bomb of the biological clock is pulsing, pounding, through my heart, my head.

This is a lustiness beyond the physical, that has yet to be sated. I am hungry — all my senses together screaming for more! And I am vibrating! Every fibre of my being — my physical body, yes, but I mean my neurons, my heartstrings — vibrating! Singing! My God, do you have any idea how much I love crunchy leaves?!!

Am I crazy? Or is this the noise of a cocoon rustling around me, flaking away?

(Diagnoses welcome.)

And it happens that I've discovered poetry. And I think these things are connected. And Ferlinghetti has me crying Yes! Yes! with every proclamation. Like I am being called to arms. Though I'm not sure my arms are literary ones. And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this information exactly. But it's being made clear to me that this feeling, this experience, this crisis, is not a disintegration, but au contraire a synthesis, at a molecular level, of body and mind too long separate.

Instead of trying to escape reality, plunge into the flesh of the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A chorus of irony and disomfort

Tolstoy wrote that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I think about this often, rather surprisingly often; I'd say about once a week on average. Not a fleeting glance of a thought, but a fully introspective reflection. Usually on my morning commute, having parted ways with the tiny little family of my own making, and wondering what it is that we are, whether we are normal and "happy" (whatever that means) in our quotidian dysfunction. Or sometimes a call from "home" will set me to appraising the actions and motives of siblings and cousins, though they might be unaware of what ripples they may cause.

Since I was 11 years old, perhaps younger, I've been unhealthily(?) obsessed with the question — the problem — of happiness: What is it exactly, and how can I get me some?

When I first read Anna Karenina some 20 years ago, Tolstoy's opening sentence stuck in my mind. I've wondered if families' happinesses are so alike as appearances (or Tolstoy) would have us believe. (Cannot happiness be unique?) Or if their uniquenesses — every family is unique, is it not? — imply that some unhappinesses lie beneath their happy surfaces. Is it the corollary of Tolstoy's pronouncement that all families are unhappy? Or are more of us more alike than we admit, happy — indescribably, ineffably, tragically, naturally and inevitably, our unique and glorious dysfunctions giving us a commonality, lifting us out of our dark secrets? Are we to find solace — happiness — in this newly realized normalcy? By acknowledging our demons, are we redeemed?

Carlos Fuentes's new collection of stories, Happy Families, has Tolstoy's declaration as an epigram. This book, then — in perfect communion with the path my mind follows on my daily commute, accompanying me over the last couple weeks.

In these masterly vignettes, Fuentes explores Tolstoy's classic observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In "A Family Like Any Other," each member of the Pagan family lives in isolation, despite sharing a tiny house. In "The Mariachi's Mother," the limitless devotion of a woman is revealed as she secretly tends to her estranged son's wounds. "Sweethearts" reunites old lovers unexpectedly and opens up the possibilities for other lives and other loves. These are just a few of the remarkable stories in Happy Families, but they all inhabit Fuentes's trademark Mexico, where modern obsessions bump up against those of the mythic past, and the result is a triumphant display of the many ways we reach out to one another and find salvation through irrepressible acts of love.

I don't know who wrote this blurb, but they couldn't possibly have read the same book I did. There is no redemption in love or by love for these tragic characters.

(Did Fuentes mean to be ironic? Or Tolstoy? Or the blurb writer?)

Rape, incest, boredom, and infidelity. The tyranny of parents and the rebelliousness of youth. I don't think Fuentes brings anything new to these age-old stories. He seems to wallow in them.

"Sweethearts," mentioned above, is, in my opinion, crushing: the lovers revisit their a nostalgia to have it erased by the reality of aging bodies and the not-quite admissions of the less-than-romantic dynamics of their own weak-willed youth too easily swayed by their families' wishes.

Still, it was to me one of the more interesting stories of the lot, but not a happy one. No salvation there.

On the whole, these stories seemed to be lacking in sincerity; too contrived, endings — whether of stories or of sentences — too cryptic.

Sixteen stories, each followed by a chorus. I haven't figured out the choruses. Poems, it seems, but long and rambling, intended perhaps to shock with violence of language and imagery. I couldn't find the point in them, either as commentary on the stories preceding them or in their own right.

I found only about half a dozen of the stories to have been worth reading, none of them perfect but with some interesting ideas and a little bit of a sense of passion to help them bear fruit.

I haven't read much by Fuentes — I remember having liked it, but that was long ago and now I'm not so sure. One of the most fleshed-out characters (We don't get to know any of these people very well. As I write this I wonder if Fuentes had it in mind that we don't often ever really know our family.) is that of a girl raped and killed:

You have to know who my daughter was. And please don't protect yourself, as my husband does, behind the lie of Alessandra's supposed human coldness. Ah yes, they say, she was promising girl but barely human. She lacked warmth. She lacked emotion.

People who think that infuriate me, beginning with my husband, I'll tell you that with all honesty. It means not understanding that the "familiar address" Alessandra used with genius — or brilliance, I don't know — was an intense, erotic form of desire. My daughter loved, Senor. Not what everyone vulgarly attributes that verb, physical attraction, not even the tenderness and warmth shared with other human beings. Alessandra loved Nietzsche or the Brontes because she them alone, alone in the graves of their books and their thoughts. Alessandra approached the geniuses of the past to give them life with her attention, which was the form her affection took: paying attention.

She didn't want to take anything from anyone. She wanted to give to the neediest. The dead? Yes, perhaps. It's true, "The dead are so alone.: But she sought out the company of the less frequented dead. The immortals. That's what she told me. She wanted to look after, offer her hand to so many human beings, the artists and thinkers who are the subject of studies, biographies, yes, and lectures, but not of a love equivalent to what we give to a close, living being. Offer her hand to the immortals. That was my daughter's vocation.

I wonder if Fuentes thinks it his vocation, too. A cold, passionless bid for genius that misses the mark.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cavalier attitudes

At long last I have arrived at The Last Cavalier, Alexandre Dumas's long-lost novel. On my shelf for almost a year already, I was somewhat daunted by this brick of more than 700 pages.

But read a sentence and you can't help but read the next one. How could I have stayed away so long from Dumas, he who sweeps me away with political intrigue and wild exploits? Plus, he's very funny.

At that moment word came to Bonaparte that the horses were harnessed and ready. He stood and asked Roland to pay. Roland dealt with the hotel keeper while Bonaparte got into the coach. Just as Roland was about to join his companion, he found Alfred de Barjols in his path.

"Excuse me, monsieur," the young man said to him. "You were beginning to say something to me, but the word never left your lips. Might I know what kept you from pronouncing it?"

"Oh, monsieur," said Roland, "the reason I held it back was simply that my companion pulled me back down by my coat pocket, and so as not to be disagreeable to him, I decided not to call you a fool."

"If you intended to insult me in that way, monsieur, might I therefore consider that you have now done so?"

"If that should please you, monsieur. . . ."

"That does please me, because it offers me the opportunity to demand satisfaction."

"Monsieur," said Roland, "we are in a great hurry, my companion and I, as you can see. But I will be happy to delay my departure for an hour if you think one hour will be enough to settle this question."

"One hour will be sufficient, monsieur."

Roland bowed and hurried to the coach.

"Well," said Bonaparte, "are you going to fight?"

"I could not do otherwise, General," Roland answered. "But my adversary appears to be very accommodating. It should not take more than an hour. I shall hire a horse as soon as this business is over and shall surely catch up with you before you reach Lyon."

Bonaparte shrugged. "Hothead," he said. And then, reaching out his hand, he added, "Try at least not to get yourself killed. I need you in Paris."

"Oh, relax, General. Somewhere between Valence and Vienne I shall come tell you what happened."

Bonaparte left. About one league beyond Valence he heard a horse galloping behind him and ordered the coachman to stop.

"Oh, it's you, Roland," he said. "Apparently everything went well?"

"Perfectly well," said Roland as he paid for his horse.

"Did you fight?"

"Yes, I did, General."


"With pistols."


"And I killed him, General."

Roland took his place beside Bonaparte and the coach set off again at a gallop.

The first 6 chapters are available online. I barrelled through them.

Monday, October 13, 2008

One of the many things I'm thankful for

Helena draws me a picture almost every day. Averaged out with those days on which she draws me handfuls of pictures... well, that's a lot of pictures. I throw them out when she's not looking. Not that I don't treasure each and every one of them, but it's a lot of pictures.

Many she specifically designates as pictures I should take to work. And I do. My office wall is covered with her artwork — she'd previously asked for photographic evidence, and I'd obliged, though she's since seen it with her own eyes. We are currently showcasing a series of superheroes (because who doesn't need a superhero on their wall?). My desk drawer is stuffed with drawings that have fallen out of rotation, and dozens of others I throw away (when nobody's looking).

(Make no mistake: though many are destined for the recycle bin, I know full well how much emptier my days would be without these drawings.)

Some drawings I like more than others — because they're prettier, or tell a particularly interesting story, or show significant artistic development. This weekend Helena drew me a picture that met all these criteria.

Here the prince has come to rescue the princess, but the evil witch is thwarting his efforts with her magic power (that would be the green blob between them). I love the fact that Helena is suddenly concerned with drawing people's eyelashes.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


A man needs sad friends to whom he can tell what he doesn't say to his lover. A man needs patient friends who give him the time that a lover denies him. A man needs the friend who talks to him about his lover and evokes a kind of shared warmth that requires the presence of a third person, a special confidant. And above all, a man must respect the relationship with the friend who isn't his lover and gives the assurance that passion could overwhelm him.

— from "The Gay Divorcee," in Happy Families, by Carlos Fuentes.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

This is a weeping song

Nick Cave — and the Bad Seeds — play Metropolis tonight. I'll be there.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The periphery

Some things I'm realizing about DFW...

I've read a few essays, a whole collection of short stories plus a couple others, and a fraction of one novel. So I'm an expert now.

I thought there might be some clever way to encapsulate his style, to call him someone's literary descendant. Some part of my mind even suggested to me Patrick Hamilton — there's a certain breathlessness, an inevitable accompaniment to the attempt to follow and explicate the dark and wondrous workings of the human mind.

If he is anyone's "descendant" — in the tradition of those examining the psychology of minutiae, what constitutes the banal — he is so via Calvino, tracing a precise mathematical function of action and reaction.

The stories in Oblivion were somewhat darker than I'd expected. Though I don't really know what I expected. There's death and suicide, grim circumstances. Nasty thoughts. Pettiness.

A couple things in particular strike me.

In one story it's explicitly stated that life happens in our peripheral vision. And I think he's right. The point of things is sometimes brought into sharp relief against things we can barely make out, but most of life is a blur, a mash; if there is a point, it ripples through the mire as we shift our attention.

The other thing is the quick cuts. In some stories we switch story lines by the paragraph. Elsewhere the shifts happen one clipped sentence after another, within the same breath even. This confused me at first, but I came to understand it as the parallel unfolding of simultaneous thoughts, memories, events. We are film-literate enough to understand it if it occurs on screen; but our habits of how to read a page are more ingrained, harder to remould.

I liked the stories better than I liked the bit of novel I've read to date, and I like the essays better than the stories. Keen observation, of which David Foster Wallace is a master, outshines vivid imagination. This thing about the periphery — I think real life is richer in senseless detail than fiction could ever be.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Matiques & matiques

Helena tells me one of the boys in her class is really good at matiques. I don't understand. "You know, matiques... Et matiques. I finally put 2 and 2 together: mathématiques.

She wants to do matiques at bedtime, begs for me to throw her some questions. I oblige. At subtraction involving a 2-digit number (11 - 2), she looks off into the corner of her mind, whispering her own words of encouragement, "Tu es capable, Helena." (Where do we learn to talk to ourselves?)

This afternoon, 2010 is on TV. We watch some, and struggle to make sense of it.

Helena starts chess club this week. We must retrieve the knights from the Lego ramparts.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The kindred smile on our lips

Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Andreas-Salomé shared a love story, or something like it.

My day also wishes me to tell you: it is poor because you are not near it; it is rich because your goodness spreads light over all its things. I talk to you often and speak of you with all that is mine. Live, sad to say, among people who interrupt my dreams with their loudness, and know, of course, not a single one of them. They are people who talk about trips, rainy days, and raising children, who bow deeply to each other, smiling and rubbing their hands, and greet each other with "Good Morning" ten times a day in loud, disagreeable voices." And so I associate only with Stauffer-Bern, who, though unpleasant in many respects, still seems an interesting and remarkable man. I look forward to telling you about this strange Bernbeurger, who is a mixture of daring and cowardice, of quiet, pellucid feeling and brutal, callous assertion, and who seems to express these inner contradictions (always magnifying them awkwardly) whenever he is in the presence of a woman. But the real tragedy of Stauffer's life lies not in the self-doubt that again and again subjects his hope to bitterness and leads him away from one branch of art off toward some other, before he can ever really flourish in any one: but rather in the fact that neither he nor Frau Escher recognized early enough (or wished to recognize?) what really attracted them to each other; and that then, when such recognition did belatedly arrive, in the sacred day of their having at last found each other, such violent storms erupted that all the young sprouting seeds could not but be destroyed. It is not enough for two people to find each other, it is also very important that they find each other at the right moment and hold deep, quiet festivals in which their desires merge so that they can fight as one against storms. How many people have parted ways because they did not find the time slowly to grow close to each other? Before two people can experience unhappiness together, they have to have been blissful together and possess a sacred memory of that time, which evokes a kindred smile on their lips and a kindred longing in their souls. They become like children who have lived through the festivities of a Christmas night together; when they find a few minutes to catch their breath during the pale, drawn-out days, they will sit down together and tell each other with glowing cheeks about that pin-tree-scented nighttime full of sparkling lights . . .

Such people will weather all storms together.

— Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, September 5, 1897, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

This is a remarkable book. I've read it slowly, very slowly, over months, which I think is the only way, really. It's been my summer book, from first flush to cool comfort. This summer has been bracketed — set off from the rest of my life — between its covers.

And it is a love story, or so the subtitle claims. The love is difficult to disentangle sometimes from the writer's block, the writer's despair, the treatises on art, the plans, the endless plans for visits, travels, studies, work, plans many of which never came to fruition.

They are each of them in love with their work, but their love for each other remains something of a mystery.

The first of the letters is from Rilke, following their first meeting, an afternoon tea with a mutual friend, in 1897. They became lovers shortly thereafter, and spent a good part of the next couple years together, though this I learn from the notes, the exact nature of their relationship being rather difficult to discern from the letters themselves.

Their correspondence continued until Rilke's death in 1926.

Rilke's letters are at times effusive and nostalgic for the the time they spent together. Above all, they are poetic. Even while he despairs of not being able to produce anything worthwhile of his own, he grasps for life — passionately — in the work of Rodin and Baudelaire. He is excited to discover, and share, Proust and Rabindranath Tagore. Later, he is a fervent admirer of, and feels a deep affinity for, the poetry of Paul Valéry and throws himself into the task of its translation.

One of the most interesting letters, one which excites discussion throughout the ensuing exchanges, concerns Rilke's impressions of Rodin — both the sculptor-artist and the person. Rodin is clearly not just an artist, but a craftsman, as well as being of a disposition that includes the focus and discipline that his art-craft demands; these are characteristics Rilke strives for (virtually to the end of his days), but it's apparent that his chosen medium — words — doesn't allow for the same tangibility of effect.

Nothing he chooses to sculpt has for him even the slightest hint of vagueness: it is a region where thousands of tiny surface elements have been fitted into space, and his task, when he creates an artwork after it, is to fit the thing even more tightly, even more passionately, a thousand times more adroitly than before, into the breadth of space around it — so that it wouldn't move even if one shook it. The thing is definite; the art-thing must be more definite; removed from all accident, torn away from every uncertainty, lifted out of time and given to space, it has become enduring, capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is. Thus the latter is that inexpressible advance over the former, the calm and mounting realization for the desire to be that emanates from everything in nature. By this is banished that error which would view art as the vainest and most capricious of vocations; art is the humblest service and founded absolutely on law. But all artists and all the arts are infected by this error, and so a very powerful man had to rise up against it; and he had to be someone whose pronouncements are deeds, someone who doesn't talk and incessantly creates things. From the beginning art for Rodin was realization (and such the very opposite of music, which transforms the seeming realities of the everyday world, and de-realized them even further by absorbing them into the easy glissando of appearances. Which is why this opposite of the art-work, this vague act of non-condensing, this temptation toward diffuseness, has so many friends and advocates and addicts, so many who are unfree, who are chained to pleasure, who have no inner powers of intensification and must be enraptured from without. . . .).

As entrancing as the words and ideas are, let us not forget that Rilke writes all this to one woman in particular (though it is easy to forget — a great portion of Andreas-Salomé's letters did not survive).

The big question: Who is this woman who could so engage the bright minds of Europe? It's rumored Nietzsche proposed to her (though biographers dispute this). Though married, she seemed to have enjoyed intense correspondences and relationships with many intellectuals, Freud also among them.

Her writing is cold and clinical. She offers encouragement to Rilke by way of analyzing, explicating, his letters to her and the state of his mind behind them, highlighting his artistic and emotional progress. It is only in the later years that she herself shows any glimmer of real feeling:

And I am looking forward more than words can say to my rooms and woods; to the wanderings and exploratory side-trips one undertakes so deep within oneself while trees, tiny animals, clouds, mountaintops look on in silent sympathy. It is almost divinely beautiful that life knows and can embrace this alternation from the outside to the inside and vice versa. Often, often, often I am with you in all my thoughts and discover there again and again such fullness, which I ever so gradually relive, since in the actual moment of our being together there was not nearly enough time to experience it.

— Lou Andreas-Salomé to Rainer Maria Rilke, October 28, 1913, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

(I'm struck also by how correspondence has changed. I write dozens of emails a day, for work, but some personal, too; they are instantaneous, and then they vanish. They are sometimes just a sentence, or even a word. Some are wordless — a punctuation mark, or an emoticon, will do. Yet these are full conversations, relationships. It seems to me, however, that we lack the time, and indeed often the interest, to explore an idea with any vigour of more than a soundbite. There is an irony, too, that with those people with whom I communicate more sporadically I also enjoy perhaps a richer exchange, full of stories, analysis, progress, reflection. Meanwhile, those relationships of my everyday lack this communicative depth; we are in a position to "observe" each other living and feel (wrongly) that explication is no longer deemed required; exchange is spread thin, made superficial, stretched into the fabric of banality. Ah, for a proper letter!)

See also:
July 25, 1903
October 19, 1904
September 9, 1914