Monday, July 28, 2008

The possibility of Bruni

Carla Bruni sings Michel Houellebecq.

I heard Carla Bruni's new album playing in some shop or other last week, instantly recognizable, as it sounded so much like her first album. I almost bought it there and then anyway, cuz she always sounds, well, nice, in a mellow, sexy kind of way, but I didn't. However, when I heard she'd put to music a poem of Michel Houellebecq's, I had to give it a closer listen.

I'm still intrigued by what it is other people, particularly smart, self-assured women, might see of worth in Houellebecq, in hopes that it holds a clue to my own fascination with him.

The song is La Possibilité d'une île, the poem being one featured in Houellebecq's novel of the same name.

Ma vie ma vie ma très ancienne
Mon premier voeu mal refermé
Mon premier amour infirmé,
Il a fallu que tu reviennes.

Il a fallu que je connaisse
Ce que la vie a de meilleur,
Quand deux corps jouent de leur bonheur
Et sans fin, s'unissent et renaissent.

Entrée en dépendance entière,
Je sais le tremblement de l'être
L'hésitation à disparaître,
Le soleil qui frappe en lisière

Et l'amour où tout est facile,
Où tout est donné dans l'instant;
Il existe au milieu du temps
La possibilité d'une île.

Sadly, it is, I think the weakest song on this CD. (I don't think it's a particularly remarkable poem either; I post here as an oddity.) The song has been described as having a Twin Peaks kind of vibe, which it does — and suddenly I see similarities between Julee Cruise and Carla Bruni... that breathy, whispery style — only, the mood of it just doesn't sit well on Bruni.

Review, in which it is argued these songs "treat life as a fatal game. The lyrics regard the blood sports of love and possession with the focused detachment of someone who has retired from the field only long enough to jot down the score." In spirit, this plays as a suitable, quiet accompaniment to my own current midlife crisis.

Now, it just happens that, the last few days, even before buying this new CD, I was feeling compelled to be listening to a lot of Bruni. This is maybe a mistake, actually, because it's been making me cry!!! and I can't stop myself!

There's no denying Bruni has a poetic sensibility.

Bruni's second album I don't care for so much, musically, but its ambition is admirable, and through it I've come to know and appreciate poems that I might otherwise have discounted. (Do you know this one, by Christina Rossetti?)

And here we are: third album. Kind of crappy, but the more I listen to it, the more it dissolves into inoffensive background music.

So. What affinity exists between Bruni and Houellebecq? The dream of an ideal of free love? Or the dream of outgrowing that desire?

And love, where all is easy,
Where all is given in the instant;
There exists in the midst of time
The possibility of an island.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Uncle, again

Uncle Cleans Up, by JP Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is the follow-up to Uncle (both now published in The New York Review Children's Collection). Uncle is a fabulously rich elephant who reigns over a motley crew inhabiting the grounds of his castle-kingdom. Things are upside down and backwards, odd and chaotic — rather subversive, really.

For much of the book, Uncle's little band is planning and provisioning for day-trip excursions to the far reaches of Uncle's domain.

At the first stop, which was called Rhino Halt, a thin but very happy-looking man came running to the side of the train.

"Got my museum money at last, Ninety!" he said joyfully.

"Sorry, Needler," said Ninety. "We can't take you today. Full up."

Needler burst into loud sobbing.

"After all I've done to save up! Done without lunch for nineteen days, and all to get into the museum!"

"Let him in," said Uncle; "we'll make room."

Needler's no-lunch habit had made him so thin that he slipped into a very small corner of Uncle's carriage.

Little Liz put out her tongue at him, but Uncle saw her and said sternly:

"If you do that again you will be put off at the next station!"

"I'm sorry," said Little Liz very quickly.

"Also, Needler," said Uncle, "I will pay your fare."

He handed sixpence to Ninety.

Needler burst into tears of joy. It really seemed unnatural for a man to cry so much. His tears overflowed his handkerchief and fell on to the floor in a stream.

"Thank you abundantly, sir," he said. "I never thought I would see this day. The cost of living keeps going up so much. But now what joy I've got in front of me! A long lovely walk through all the museum room, tea — they do you well at the tea-room for a halfpenny — and then I'll buy some picture postcards and take the rest of the money home, and live like a prince for a week!"

"I'm only glad you've cheered up," said Uncle, who hates crying of any sort.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first in this series, and I hope there is more to come. For the time being, the books are more suited to my sense of humour and reading sensibility than to my child's, but she is of an age where that may soon change.

Tales from Homeward: Uncle is still alive and well, and maintaining a blog.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Such stuff as dreams are made on

It was Laurie Anderson I became acquainted with first. "Those are pearls that were his eyes."

Years later, I learned a few things from Peter Greenaway.

This summer, Repercussion Theatre presents Shakespeare's The Tempest.

In Montreal's parks, July 22 through August 17 (choose your language). See you there.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Days go by.

There are days I spend my lunch hour wandering across McGill campus, a school I once intended to attend but never did. Did you know?: Students still smoke pot and listen to Neil Young.

Some days are hot. The heat of wide open spaces, on mountaintops or on riverbanks, differs vastly from the dirty heat of the city, the bare skin of strangers grazing yours in the metro.

I've read Days: A Tangier Diary, by Paul Bowles.

I know little of Paul Bowles (yet I am vaguely fascinated by him), having read only a few samples of his work. (I remember reading the heat of The Sheltering Sky, while travelling through the heat of Tunisia.)

There are a few mentions regarding issues of rights and translations, as well as movie rights. On their own these journal entries are fairly meaningless, but they might have more value taken in the context of the writer's work.

Days — it's like reading the boring diary of someone you don't know. I think Bowles would've made a poor blogger.

He notes in the preface, "I suppose the point of publishing such a document is to demonstrate the way in which the hours of a day can as satisfactorily be filled with trivia as with important events." I'm not sure that is the point.

One of the more interesting entries:

I could think only of how fortunate it was that the weather was fine. Even a few drops of rain would have ruined a hundred evening dresses. It didn't seem an ideal manner of welcoming guests, to force them to stand in the street for a half-hour waiting to get to the bottleneck just outside the gate. There we exhibited our invitations, had our names checked on lists, and were admitted one at a time. The line continued through the courtyard, until we were given maps of the terrain and assigned to our tents. I counted nine of these objects, once I had passed through the receiving area, where our host stood grinning, flanked by his sons, and with Elizabeth Taylor seated by his side. "Wait till you see how fat she's grown!" people had warned me. To me she didn't look fat; she looked solid and luscious. She must have been tired; it's not easy to be introduced to nine hundred people one after the other. I refused the champagne and set out in search of the tent I'd been assigned to, pushing my way through the crowd until I'd found it. There were no placecards. I sat down at an empty table until a waiter asked me to choose another, also empty. No one seemed to be in a hurry to eat. My table did eventually fill up — with, among others, the governor, the chief of police, and a military man decked with medals. At the next table sat Malcolm Forbes and his family. Miss Taylor was on his left, her back to me. The crown prince sat on his right. For three hours as I ate I watched their table. The French woman next to me made repeated comments in a whisper about Elizabeth Taylor's shoulders and the crown prince's face, which she characterized as "frightening" and "almost Japanese." All I could reply was that he never altered his poker-face expression and spoke very little. I myself thought he was unutterably bored; if that is so, it was understandable.

Days keep going by.

Monday, July 14, 2008

More possibility

Michel Houellebecq has produced his own film adaptation of his book, The Possibility of an Island.

Here's a comment with at least a summary of the novel better than I could manage (once, twice):

A trailer aired on the website for the film does look quite spectacular, but then French sci-fi has always tended to look flashy, "le cinéma du look", as it's called, without caring too much about the details of plot or plausibility.

But it could work out. La possibilité d'une île, described in the TLS as "a bracing mix of visionary Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh at his cruellest, and ranting John Osborne", is about cloning as a way of cheating death, and is audacious in the way that it seeks to modify the author's extraordinary misanthropy by linking itself, apparently unironically, with a loopy cult who recall, but for legal reasons are not to be identified with, the Raëlians.

I, for one, can't wait.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More tightly knit

It is as if whatever I truly receive falls too deeply into me, falls, falls for years and in the end I lack the strength to lift it out of me and I walk about fearfully with my heavily laden depths and never reach them. Yes, I know that impatience warps all those processes and transformations that take their course in darkness as in heart-chambers, and I know that in patience lies everything: humility, strength, measure. But life moves on and is like a day, and whoever wished to be patient would need a thousand such days, though perhaps not even one is given him. Life moves on, and it strides past many in the distance, and around those waiting it makes a detour. And thus my wish to be someone working rather than waiting, someone standing at the center of his work's workshop far into every day's dawn. And yet I cannot be, because almost nothing in me has reached fruition, or else I am not aware of it and let my faraway harvests grow old and outlive their time. There is still nothing but confusion in me; what I experience is like pain and what I truly perceive hurts. I don't seize the image: it presses into my hand with its pointed tips and sharp edges, presses deep ino my hand and almost against my will: and whatever else I would grasp slides off me, is like water and flows elsewhere once it has mirrored me absent-mindedly. What should he do, Lou, who grasps so little about life, who must let it happen to him and comes to realize that his own willing is always slighter than another great will into whose current he oftentimes chances like a thing drifting downstream? What should he do, Lou, for whom the books in which he wants to read only draw open like heavy doors which the next wind will slam shut again? What should he do for whom people are just as difficult as books, just as superfluous and strange, because he cannot derive from them what he needs, because he cannot select from them and thus takes from them what is crucial and incidental and burdens himself with both? What should such a person do, Lou? Should he remain utterly alone and accustom himself to a life lived among things, which are more like him and place no burden on him?

Yes, Lou, I too believe that the experiences of the past few years have been good for me, that whatever came to me pressed me more firmly into myself and no longer scattered me as so often before; I am now more tightly knit, and there are fewer pores in me, fewer interstices that fill up and swell when things not my own penetrate.

— Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, July 25, 1903, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When possibilities collide

I finished the Houellebecq novel the other week — The Possibility of an Island, on which I commented previously. It was difficult, in an unpleasant, morally challenging kind of way.

The primary narrator, Daniel1, is not very likable. Yet, he is strangely compelling and in the final pages almost sympathetic. And this, I think, is because of my age.

I am at that age... I've never been one to worry about my age, or expected "accomplishments" (marriage, children, promotion) by a certain age. But I've reached that age where people, for example, tell me I look good for my age (back-handed compliment?) or ask if I worry about it.

It doesn't exactly make me feel old; it makes me feel, however, as if I ought to, as if it's my duty to fret and regret.

And as much as I believe that, finally, I am in my skin, I have grown into myself, there is a tiny, tiny, tiny part (whether innate or manufactured by society and beauty industry, I can no longer tell) that thinks my attractiveness has decreased and hence my worth is a little diminished.

So, Houellebecq, sexist pig with double standards though he may be, still manages to make a point.

The weather was changing quickly, it wasn't long before the heat settled on the south of Spain; naked young girls began to tan themselves, especially at weekends, on the beach near the residence, and I began to feel the return, albeit weak and flaccid, of something that wasn't really even desire — for the word would seem to me, despite everything, to imply a minimum belief in the possibility of its fulfilment — but the memory, the phantom of what could have been desire. I could now make out clearly the cosa mentale, the ultimate torment, and at that moment I could say at last that I had understood. Sexual pleasure was not only superior, in refinement and violence, to all the other pleasures life had to offer; it was not only the one pleasure with which there is no collateral damage to the organism, but which on the contrary contributes to maintaining it at its highest level of vitality and strength; it was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures — whether associated with rich food, tobacco, alcohol or drugs — were only derisory and desperate compensations, mini-suicides that did not have the courage to speak their name, attempts to speed up the destruction of a body that no longer had access to the one real pleasure.

There's something highly distasteful in the ideas Houellebecq offers, but they're made all the more so for that tiny kernel of something I recognize as maybe a little bit true.

Youth was the time for happiness, its only season; young people, leading lazy, carefree life, partially occupied by scarcely absorbing studies, were able to devote themselves unlimitedly to the liberated exultation of their bodies. They could play, dance, love and multiply their pleasure. They could leave a party, in the early hours of the morning, in the company of sexual partners they had chosen, and contemplate the dreary line of employees going to work. They were the salt of the earth, and everything was given to them, everything was permitted for them, everything was possible. Later on, having started a family, having entered the adult world, they would be introduced to worry, work, responsibility and the difficulties of existence; they would have to pay taxes, submit themselves to administrative formalities whilst ceaselessly bearing witness — powerless and shamefilled — to the irreversible degradation of their own bodies, which would be slow at first, then increasingly rapid; above all, they would have to look after children, mortal enemies, in their own homes, they would have to pamper them, feed them, worry about their illnesses, provide the means for their education and their pleasure, and unlike in the world of animals, this would last not just for a season, they would remain slaves of their offspring always, the time of joy was well and truly over for them, they would have to continue to suffer until the end, in pain and with increasing health problems, until they were no longer good for anything and were definitively thrown onto the rubbish heap, cumbersome and useless. In return, their children would not be at all grateful, on the contrary their efforts, however strenuous, would never be considered enough, they would, until the bitter end, be considered guilty because of the simple fact of being parents. From this sad life, marked by shame, all joy would be pitilessly banished. When they wanted to draw near to young people's bodies, they would be chased away, rejected, ridiculed, insulted and, more and more often nowadays, imprisoned. The physical bodies of young people, the only desirable possession the world has ever produced, were reserved for the exclusive use of the young, and the fate of the old was to work and to suffer. This was the true meaning of solidarity between generations; it was a pure and simple holocaust of each generation in favour of the one that replaced it, a cruel, prolonged holocaust that brought with it no consolation, no comfort, nor any material or emotional compensation.

It's all the uglier as a reader, to have been that youth and now to be "later on." A bit extreme, the way he puts it, but nevertheless a bit true. Let me assure you: I do not see my child as a mortal enemy, and she is year's away from being ungrateful; there is no regret, but I admit to occasional resentment, not against her exactly, but against the order of things, that it should be so.

Some interesting thoughts related to Houellebecq: here.

Why any of this is connected to Nietzsche in my head is a tricky business. Beyond my reading him concurrently, Houellebecq mentions him quite a bit, along with Schopenhauer, but I'm ill equipped to discern if he does so as homage or in criticism, and in either case whether he does so justly — does he fairly represent them or skew their ideas to suit his purpose?

(I find Houellebecq very frustrating, like a guy you meet at one those parties, who turns out to be a jerk; you see eye to eye on all manner of postulates but manage to draw exactly opposite conclusions.)

Here Nietzsche expounds on a version of the maxim, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Daniel ought to take heed.

Only great suffering; that great suffering, under which we seem to be over a fire of greenwood, the suffering that takes its time — forces us philosophers to descend into our nethermost depths, and to let go down, all mildness, all mediocrity, — on which doubt whether such suffering improve a man; but I know that it makes him deeper. . . . Supposing we learn to set our pride, our scorn, out strength of will against it, and thus resemble the Indian who, however cruelly he may be tortured, considers himself revenged on his tormentor by the bitterness of his own tongue. Supposing we withdraw from pain into nonentity, into the deaf, dumb, and rigid sphere of self-surrender, self-forgetfulness, self-effacement: one is another person when one leaves these protracted and dangerous exercises in the art of self-mastery; one has one note of interrogation the more, and above all one has the will henceforward to ask more, deeper, sterner, harder, more wicked, and more silent questions, than anyone has ever asked on earth before. . . . Trust in life has vanished; life itself has become a problem. — But let no one think that one has therefore become a spirit of gloom or a blind owl! Even love of life is still possible, — but it is a different kind of love. . . . It is the love for a woman whom we doubt. . . .

("More silent questions"!!!)

Right. Life's a problem — on this point Nietzsche and Houellebecq seem to agree — but we can get past that.

Houellebecq develops the idea of a cult of indifference. I think there's something of this in Nietzsche, too, when he criticizes Wagner's bombast as pulp for the masses. Our gluttony, our mass consumption, of goods, but of ideas and experience too, has numbed us to their true effects, disabled our capacity to recognize the genuine article.

It is age — the accumulation of experience — that jades us, then dulls us.

I'm not interested in recapturing youth, per se. I'm not interested in attending that party to leave in the early hours of the morning. But I'd love, for example, to experience a first kiss again, or see Paris as if for the first time.

How do you lift the veil of indifference that's fallen over our eyes, blurring our contact with, our appreciation of the everyday?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The joy of txt

David Crystal defends text messaging, showing how many of its same techniques have been used historically and citing research that shows it to improve literacy.

It's an evolution of language: it's fun and it has great creative potential.

Here's one example of a text-poem, by Ben Ziman-Bright, which I particularly like:

The wet rustle of rain
can dampen today. Your text
buoys me above oil-rainbow puddles
like a paper boat, so that even
soaked to the skin
I am grinning.

The length constraint in text-poetry fosters economy of expression in much the same way as other tightly constrained forms of poetry do, such as the haiku or the Welsh englyn. To say a poem must be written within 160 characters at first seems just as pointless as to say that a poem must be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. But put such a discipline into the hands of a master, and the result can be poetic magic. Of course, SMS poetry has some way to go before it can match the haiku tradition; but then, haikus have had a head-start of several hundred years.

There is something about the genre which has no parallel elsewhere. This is nothing to do with the use of texting abbreviations. It is more to do with the way the short lines have an individual force. Reading a text poem, wrote Peter Sansom, who co-judged a Guardian competition in 2002, is "an urgent business ... with a text poem you stay focused as it were in the now of each arriving line."

Yesterday I saw a scruffy young man set up on a street corner downtown, sitting at a rickety table with an old typewriter, selling instant poetry. I wonder if he has a phone.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The booted cat

It's perhaps a bit odd, being that I love cats and that I love boots, that I'm not more familiar with Charles Perrault's tale of Puss in Boots.

I'm inspired to take a fresh look at it.

This week we enjoyed an early evening outing and were transported to a place where a witch casts curses, trees sing, colours burst, and a particularly stylish, well-shod cat rules.

Le Chat Botté is presented by La Roulotte, a roaming theatre troupe that will be bringing this classic fairy tale to 38 parks over the next 2 months.

« Comment nous assurer du renouvellement de nos publics si nous cessons d'offrir aux familles et aux enfants réunis dans tous nos parcs l'expérience de l'illusion théâtrale ? Plus que jamais La Roulotte est nécessaire. Trop longtemps hypnotisés par les écrans durant le long hiver, les yeux de nos enfants et souvent de leurs parents doivent retrouver la présence des corps et des voix réelles qui inventeront pour eux seuls, ce jour là un temps réinventé. Vive la maison sur roue ! », a déclaré monsieur Raymond Cloutier, directeur du Conservatoire d'art dramatique de Montréal.

The crowd — and there was one — was enthusiastic. The show is lively and music-filled, and runs about an hour, or about 5 minutes too long for one particular 5-year-old I know.

Summer! Parks! Theatre!