Sunday, August 31, 2008


I started writing this post about a year ago. Mostly, it was about Helena coming into her own as a person, being her own little girl, and about some of the resulting turmoil I'd been experiencing as her mother.

In a year, little has changed — she's still coming into her own as a person (does it ever stop?), and I still feel turmoil about it — and everything has changed.

I don't write about her here as much as I'd like. I say this is because I think she deserves her privacy, but this is also a convenient excuse. The truth is it's hard to write about her: Mind you, I feel that I don't write about her per se; I write about the experience of motherhood (which happens to pertain to her). (Just as, generally, I don't write about books; I write about how they affect me.) And that is extremely personal, which makes it difficult to articulate — to myself, let alone others.

So. This post I started writing a year ago... much of it existed only in my head; what few words I'd written, I've essentially deleted. So, why do I even bother to revisit it now? Because I think my daughter is amazingly cool, and I want to remember, now and for always.

What I wanted to say then...

Helena bought her first CD. I don't know how it came about, but Helena loves Avril Lavigne. (Loved? This phase may already be over...) I think particularly the pink in her hair. After seeing repeated promos for a concert to be broadcast on TV last summer, we had to watch. Weeks went by, and Helena kept singing her songs and asking for a CD. Maybe I'm wrong, but Avril to me embodies a better kind of girl power than do many of her contemporaries — besides which she's musically more my style. So it came to pass.

(Do you remember the first record you bought? How old were you? I was 12, and ashamed to say that first album was Asia.)

I bought Helena a Barbie. A year later this seems like no news at all. I'd never been much of a Barbie girl myself, and generally I feel as conflicted about Barbie corporation as I do about Disney, even while this brand name consumption is de rigueur among her peers. Helena wanted a Barbie — begged for one. I thought long and hard. Ultimately, I thought, better to head off the influences of others I may not approve of and introduce her to the world of Barbie myself. I'm proud that, with just the tiniest bit of nudging, she turned away from all the sparkly sluttiness and chose for herself something altogether more wholesome, Barbie in jeans and with a pony, seeming to me the right formula for realistic fantasy play. Helena has of course received more Barbies since, but I'm glad the first one came from me.

Then there was Julie, a new educatrice at the daycare. Helena was enamored of her. "You know, Mom, I love Julie more than you. She smells sssoooo good." I haven't heard of Julie in months; she hadn't worked there long. Funny about smell, though — so primal and Proustian, smell; I was jealous of Julie. But most days when I tuck Helena in, she tells me I smell good, and my heart soars.

(My mother wore perfume, still wears it, and it triggers a migraine. When I'm around, I've asked her not to. But still she does. She puts so little, she says. But I still have to breathe away from her, can't breathe her in. She had a scarf, however, that smelled like her, like her beneath the cologne, and some years ago I asked to have it. Even after repeated washings, I smell her in it, faint, but there, around my neck.)

What I want to say now...

Helena asks to have her radio on when I tuck her in. We went through a phase of this, a year ago, and sometime before that, and she'd listen to classical music to fall asleep. Now she asks to change the station and settles on "classic rock," so she's falling asleep to 54-40, Led Zeppelin, and U2. I check in on her the other night; she's still awake, and I ask if I should turn the radio off. "No. I'm not dancing, Mom. I'm listening to it quietly, like this. I like listening to music, especially cool music. Rock and roll is cool." And then she plays a couple bars of air guitar along to Heart.

Last week she was singing Foo Fighters in the bathtub.

Helena started school last week. Kindergarten.

Look at me
Look at me
Just called to say that it's good to be
In such a small world...

Day 2 her father dropped her off. When her teacher came out to corral the kids, Helena simply turned around and said, "Bye, Dad."


"You're my best friend, Momma. We'll always be best friends, won't we, Momma?" For a little while longer, at least.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Submerged in that flood tide of raw, dense, motley, and tumultuous life

Her mother was a shopkeeper who had an open-air stall selling Catalan notions and textiles in the market plaza. The market plaza: a great quadrangular space, bounded by decrepit and tumbledown old houses with porticoes, which in the morning hours filled with the village throngs in a vast bubbling of colors, smells, and noises of the most violent and blatant kind; all manner of carmines, vermilions, veronese greens, and yellows of the fruits and vegetables; scarlets, cadmiums, indigos, and purples of the peasant skirts, capes, and parasols; the balsamic aroma of the mountain grasses, the cloying odor of the pimento, afuegaelpito and pata de mulo cheeses, scent of damp earth, stink of corral and stable; cock crows, duck quacks, lamb bleats, mongrel barks; sound of hurdy-gurdy and of bagpipes, laughs, agreements and curses, the barber's oratory, and psalmody of the little storyteller, the grumbling of the blind man, reciter of tales of crimes and shipwrecks. In the early afternoon, the plaza faded out and fell into a pallid and deep quietude, without any sign of life. In the still air there wafted the bell of the neighboring church of San Isidoro, pealing Animas.

There Micaela spent the years of her infancy, adolescence, and youth. Her education might have been even worse than that of the streets, as is the education of the market, were it not that Micaela had not been born to allow herself to be shaped by the surrounding reality or to be carried along by the flux of life, but rather to correct and channel the reality at hand and the flow of life that had fallen to her lot, within herself and about herself. Primordial character trait: the absence of sensuality. Her senses did not dominate her. She almost, almost, did not have senses, since she did not use them to surrender herself to the world or to delight in its beautiful spectacle, but as spies and witnesses for the prosecution, which brought news and information from outside to the internal tribunal of her intelligence, which almost always handed down condemnatory judgments. In the center of the market, submerged in that flood tide of raw, dense, motley, and tumultuous life, Micaela sat abstracted from the sensations at hand; the colors did not dazzle her, not the smells stimulate her, not the music soften her. Her skin was lemon colored and as if cured, nerveless — an insulator — skin, on the other hand, matte, firm, knitted, and very beautiful. And, not judging with her senses but with her mind, the market, which was the sunlit sky of her world, seemed to her like a shapeless and repugnant jumble of greed, lust, ignorance, deceit, hatred, and misery. And the nighttime sky, the evening and empty plaza, like an unending tedium, a premonition of death.

— from Honeymoon, Bittermoon, by Ramón Pérez de Ayala.

Micaela early realizes that men are digusting pigs, and when she has a son she decides to raise him to be the man she would be. So Urbano's youth is sheltered and his education censored. Micaela thinks this a success, until Urbano's wedding night, when it becomes clear that the newlyweds are lacking in some essential information.

The children are "pure" but the adults are hypocrites; all of them are fools.

I picked up this book years ago for a couple bucks, but not till the other day did I grab it on my way out of the house. I'm about halfway through, and it's very funny, while still touching, wise, and poetic.

Monday, August 25, 2008

One more

One More Year, by Sana Krasikov, is a collection of 8 short stories covering the contemporary immigrant experience of Eastern Europeans. (But they're not even a little bit like Bezmozgis, if you're wondering, if that's all you know about Eastern European immigrant stories; he's much funnier. Yet I mention it.)

The stories are all rather depressing, with themes of dislocation, of disconnectedness between people's hopes and their reality. Krasikov says they're love stories, and they are, but of a tragic kind, more about loneliness, a yearning for a proper love story.

Every review I come across offers up a different favourite story, which is the nice thing about a collection, and about reading people's opinions on them — to see how the different expressions of these themes relate to varied readers.

I'm not a big fan of short stories in general, and I'm not entirely sure why, but they can — and these do — offer poignant and sharp observations. The last story, the longest of the lot, was dissatisfying only in that the cast of characters was so interesting, I'd've liked to know them in novel length.

Review: "Most of the women in these stories are lonely and needy and allow themselves to be betrayed and neglected by men they cling to because they fear being alone."


Stories available online
"Companion" — my favourite, and winner of an O Henry Award.
"The Repatriates."

"Maia in Yonkers."
"There Will Be No Fourth Rome."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Austerrific! Kind of.

If anyone cares and doesn't already know, Paul Auster has a new book out: Man in the Dark.

I care a little bit, but the truth is, I've fallen out of love with Paul Auster. I'm not really sure how it happened, and it surprises me more than anyone, but there you go.

This morning I listened to an interview on NPR, and then I listened to the much more interesting conversation on The Bat Segundo Show.

I'll get aorund to reading this book someday, but I'm in no hurry.

Coincidentally, I just this week read Travels in the Scriptorium. It was a quick and engaging enough read, but dissatisfying. I can't really see someone not already familiar with the bulk of Auster's novel getting much out of this one. And those who do have that familiarity would prefer something new, or something more.

You can find Paul Auster news here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I've spent a lot of time this summer looking up, with my head in the clouds some might say.

We play the cloud game on long drives. Mostly, they just look like clouds to me. Fake clouds. If you saw them in a painting you would laugh, decry them as phoney.

We turn the bend and suddenly there a dolphin frolics in the sky between the trees. Around the next bend, swathed in robes a Bedouin spurs on his camel. Then hordes of Mongols wielding cutlasses storm across the sky.

These fascinating clouds. By turns dark portents, angelic snows, childish whimsy, cotton-candy circus safety nets, demonic phantasmagoria, hellfires in white.

So I wonder, from a painterly perspective, how can you represent them credibly?

What I did on my summer vacation? I spent untold hours trying to pin a cloud to paper.

This is my cloud:

This photo is dark and doesn't do it justice, doesn't capture the light, the texture, the thickness, the slabs of colour. (Oil pastel crayons were always my medium of choice.) (Note: I have no formal art training whatsoever.) What you can't see is that this is layers of white and yellow and white and white and blue and white and grey and white and more white, on a 9 × 12 sheet of drawing paper.

(Perhaps I will get around to scanning the picture, to see if it shows depth.)

It's a cloud that looks like a cloud, because to draw a cloud that looks like a stampeding elephant would invite ridicule. I will save that for a future endeavour.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Poète impeccable, parfait magicien

Who in hell is Théophile Gautier?

"Posterity will judge Gautier to be one of the masters of writing, not only in France but also in Europe," attested Charles Baudelaire. So how come I've never heard of him?

Then one day not so long ago, his name crops up three times over the space of a few hours.

1. I've been wandering through Baudelaire this summer. I find that he dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to Gautier and that he regarded him as a great influence.

2. I pick up some brochures for the upcoming orchestral season, to bookmark those events that might be of interest to me. I notice that Les Nuits d'été are Gautier's love poems set to music by Berlioz. (Perhaps I will go.)

3. I receive an email informing me that NYRB Classics is releasing Gautier's My Fantoms.

The review copy I requested showed up shortly thereafter.

[In another instance of serendipity, while catching up on my blog reading I find that Imani has encountered Gautier: the lyrics, with music, and about the cycle.]

My Fantoms is a collection of 7 stories spanning Gautier's career. They are supernatural in their subject matter and vaguely erotic in their telling.

My favourite of the lot, from which I offer two excerpts, is "The Painter," for how it renders the artist's disposition, the artistic experience.

But as well as this, Onuphrius was a poet. There was no way in which he could ever escape his self-knowledge, and what contributed more than a little to his continual state of acute nervous excitement, which even Jacintha could not always control, was his obsessional reading. He read nothing but tales of legendary marvels, ancient chivalric romances, mystical poetry, treatises of the Cabal, German ballads, and volumes on demonology and witchcraft. In the midst of the bustling world of reality around him, he created from these books an inner world of visionary and ecstatic experience, which it was given to very few others to penetrate. From his ingrained habit of seeking the supernatural aspect, he had the ability to make the most ordinary, down to earth circumstance give rise to something weird and fantastic. You could have put him into a square, white-washed room, blank from floor to ceiling and with windows of opaque glass, and he would have been able to spot some uncanny apparition quite as easily as if he had been in a Rembrandt interior, flickering with uncertain light and awash with sinister shadows; such was the power of his mental vision acting on his physical eyesight to distort the straightest line and complicate the simplest object, like those curved or multi-faced mirrors which falsify everything placed in front of them, transforming them into grotesque or terrible presences.

The prose is dense in description, verging on florid, but real, and aspiring to surreal. There is poetry in every detail, a lust for life as Gautier's characters brush up against death.

Later in this story, the devil slices off the top of his skull:

This unexpected lobotomy did not seem to do him the least harm, expect that after a few minutes he heard a peculiar kind of buzzing above his head, and looking up he saw that all of his thoughts, no longer contained by the top of his skull, were pouring out in a chaotic stream like budgerigars fluttering from an open bird-cage door. All the ideal women that he had ever imagined to himself soared out of his head with their individual dresses, mannerisms, and modes of speech (though it ought to be said, in Onuphrius's defence, that they all looked like Jacintha's twin-sister); with them went the heroines of all the novels he had ever planned to write. Each of these women drew after them a cortège of lovers, some wearing heraldic tunics of the Middle Ages and others the top-hats and suits of eighteen thirty-two. After these came all the majestic, farcical, or monstrous human types he had ever dreamt up; then all his sketches for future paintings, set in every historical period and geographical location; then all his philosophical ideas, floating in the form of soap-bubbles; and finally, everything he remembered from his years of adolescent reading. All these continued to stream out into the air for well over an hour, until the whole studio was full, and the men and women walked up and down the room without the least hint of embarrassment, chatting, laughing, and arguing together and obviously feeling quite at home. Dumb-struck, Onuphrius could not think what to do with himself, and finally decided the best thing was simply to leave them at it, and go out of the studio.

The collection as a whole reminds me a great deal of Alexandre Dumas's Les Mille et un fantômes, or what I know of it. I'm delighted to learn that Dumas and Gautier travelled in the same circles — namely Le Petit Cénacle, a group of artists known for its extravagance and eccentricity — and I like to imagine they told each other ghost stories late into the night.

Théophile Gautier: Impeccable? Perfect? I don't know. But entertaining, sensuous, witty — yes. The man knows how to turn a phrase.

Friday, August 15, 2008

In which I rationalize my questionable parenting stance of allowing the 5-year-old to play GTA

I have mixed feelings about it. Truthfully, I hated the idea at first. But this battle I lost early on, and I never found ground to retake.

There are moments I cringe, like when the character wanders through a strip club; none of the nudity or behaviour seems to register with Helena, though — at least, it doesn't faze her — so I've restrained myself from reacting in case I create an issue where there isn't one.

I'm relaxing about it a bit. Evidence shows that she's a pretty good kid, and the game may be a means to, or at least an expression of, some positive ends.

1. She stops at all the red lights.
2. When riding a motorcycle, she always puts on a helmet.
3. She's a better driver than I am.
4. She prefers riding public transit over stealing cars.
5. She follows mission instructions to the best of her ability and as promptly as possible, without being sidetracked.
6. When she's lost, she stops and asks (her father) for directions.
7. She finds, and explores, every ladder, staircase, secret passageway, helipad, etc imaginable, and then some.
8. She spends her money on cab fare and on tasteful wardrobe improvements.
9. She lets herself be arrested by the police — they're only doing their job, she says, and it's because she did something wrong.
10. She spends "quality" time with her father.

Some things I rationalize. Some days I wish I were stronger.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hébert's secrets

In the introduction to my collection of Anne Hébert's later novels, Mavis Gallant writes:

The French author Marguerie Yourcenar believed it was impossible to write anything about women, because their lives were so full of secrets. A woman's life, she said, was like one of those old-fashioned sewing machines with a multitude of small drawers meant to hold thread and buttons and miniature scissors. Every drawer contains a different secret. Yourcenar said nothing about men and secrets or about artists in general or writer in particular of the profound split between life imagined and lives lived.

This seemed to me an odd way to introduce this book, until it dawned on me that Gallant did not mean to comment on or critique Hébert's characters; rather she was relating what she knew of the character of Hébert herself. Indeed, there is a dearth of information about Hébert on the internets, even while she is one of Canada's, and Quebec's in particular, most acclaimed writers.

I persist in wondering how this idea of secrets might apply to Hébert's characters. Broadly, her female characters fall into two categories: domesticated and wild. Occasionally sliding along the spectrum. These women may be complicated, but they seem to me ultimately knowable. I wonder if this is a talent of Hébert's that she writes them this way, or the virtue of being a woman that allows me to read them this way.

The men (or boys), on the other hand, primarily driven by these women, for good or ill, remain unfathomably opaque to me. There must be more to their motivation than women (whether as objects of desire, forces to escape, mothers or wives)? Is this a weakness in Hébert's ability to draw male characters, a deliberate comment on how she perceives them, or a failing in my reading?

And I am severely disappointed that Gallant did not address this difference in the treatment of the secrets of and the problem of truly knowing male and female characters, as well as the extent to which the characters are able to truly know each other, in her prefatory remarks.

I did make an effort to read one of Hébert's novellas ("Est-ce que je te dérange?") in French. It was tough going, and I ended up reading it almost side by side with its English translation. As with the other works I've read, the story in English reads with deceptive simplicity. The poetry of the mood, the rhythm of the language, calls for a precision of vocabulary, tense, syntax that is more challenging than I expected (this is true also of the English versions, on closer inspection).

That makes 4 novellas in this collection plus an earlier one that I've read. By far my favourite is The Burden of Dreams, which I mentioned previously. I may yet venture to read more some day.

Mood is everything, with a languorous intensity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Through the eyes of a child

She tells me, "You have to try to see it through the eyes of a child." I argue that the child already sees everything through the eyes of a child. It's the adults who demand the aids, the lavish hooks to drag out their long-buried imaginations. My mother-in-law and I have been at odds regarding Disneyworld for years. I simply don't see the point.

The child sees. The real trick, I think, is for adults to do the same — to see the mundane from a 3-foot-high, naive perspective. For this there is no help from — and no need for — Disney, only a child's lead into one's own soul.

It's with a melancholy accompanied by a certain level of discomfort that I realize the most poetic, most "romantic" moments I've experienced in recent years are those shared with my child: strolls through the neighbourhood, ice cream, playing in the park.

She tells me she loves me 100 times a day, that I'm beautiful, that I smell good.

The act of poetry, I think, is entwined in vision and creation. Through Helena's eyes I see things differently, and better. We see grand kingdoms in the clouds and in spider webs. We draw, we make music, we make up words.

This child is a natural stream of consciousness, a surrealist extraordinaire for whom the world is her own cadavre exquis.

One weekend we frolic, in my mother-in-law's backyard pool overlooking the river. My daughter's father stands metres off, feeding his own soul, fishing off the dock.

She wants to swim. It is I who watches over her, plays with her, teaches her, consoles her. My soul is left to feed off her throwaway gestures and words.

Against the background of chlorinated water in a tiled basin. Her eyes are pool blue, we tell her. No, she laughs: "The pool is an eye. Swim in my eye." The pool watching us fathom its own depths.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The burden of books

I've been antsy this week, for numerous reasons, and having trouble settling on something to read.

I've been reading Rilke this summer — his correspondence with Louis Andreas-Salomé — but the intensity of the emotion and poetry therein I am unable to support for more than a dozen or so pages at a time. I am taking time to digest it, and I fear the time to articulate what it is fomenting within me will be longer still.

But I needed something to read in the métro yesterday, and given the week I've been having, Rilke would not make an easy companion. In addition, I needed to find reading material for our upcoming stay at the cottage.

It is almost unfortunate that I pulled Anne Hébert ("Collected Later Novels") from the stack. I was immediately drawn in and finished the first of the collection, The Burden of Dreams, by far the longest of the lot, a solid third of the book, before we've even left town.

It's last year's visit to Kamouraska that inspired me to look up Anne Hébert in the first place. I haven't made it to that novel yet (Kamouraska), but I sense almost any of her work would be a fitting read on our impending journey from the big city through small-town Quebec and into the wilderness.

This morning I resorted to rereading Héloïse, the only work of hers I'd ever read and years ago, in the métro (and what better place! Summary: Bernard glimpses Héloïse, a kind of other-wordly anachronism, in the métro, becomes obsessed with her, yet marries the woman he no longer loves), so as not to deplete my vacation reading material, and to inform my current reading in light of that haunting story.

At lunch I went to the library to pick out an Anne Hébert novel in French. The simplicity of the language in English translation leads me to believe that the original French may lie within my grasp.

The writing style reminds me of Michael Ondaatje. The poetry of the language, to paint a mood, spare but precise. The way the story skips through time.

The protagonists in Héloïse and The Burden of Dreams, Bernard and Julien respectively, are both poets, romantics, their very being swept up in an idea. Julien in particular loses himself in music (I'm listening to Mozart and Schubert today on Hébert's suggestion. How is it that she should write of them in the same breath, while I should have in my possession a CD featuring works by just the two of them?) and literature.

He reads poems and novels. He is transported to a world without limits, one where strange sensations and astonishing characters abound. A second existence doubles the little life he leads as ideal employee and well-behaved lover.

Julien crosses the ocean: "Following in Baudelaire's footsteps he tastes the spleen of Paris..." (Baudelaire has shadowed my own summer in various ways...)

She insisted on paying for her ticket and now she has taken a seat next to him, on the threadbare velvet bench. Their two profiles stand out, somewhat solemn and overlapping slightly, like royal profiles on a postage stamp. He keeps brushing against her with his knee and shoulder. The music absorbs them and exempts them from any movement, any word. Their deepest complicity comes from their twofold living warmth, perceived through their garments that touch each other in the muggy darkness of the concert hall.

Her hand, burning hot, somewhat limp and relaxed among the folds of her skirt, the smooth cold ring on the fourth finger. Julien has brushed against that hand, has felt the hard ring under his fingers. From that moment on, he became less attentive to the concert, as if irritated by a sudden dissonance, shocked by a false note that reverberates and echoes all through the hall.

Several times she has looked at her watch and now, barely seated across the table from him on the terrace of a café, she announces that friends are expecting her, that she promised them long ago . . .

Julien says:

"That ring you're wearing?"

But the ring is no longer on her finger, for she dropped it into her bag as soon as the concert was over. Her hands are perfectly bare now, long and smooth. She shrugs.

"I wore it for the concert, that's all. Afterwards it's too much trouble, I have no need of jewellery, since I'm sober and austere by nature — and divorced into the bargain."

She speaks quickly. Seems anxious to provide whatever information he may request.

"What are your friends like?"

"Young, happy, a little crazy. I have lots of fun with them."

"And with me?"

"With you? It's rather the opposite. Aside from your eccentricities, which intrigue me, I wonder what it is about you I find amusing. Unless your dear bewildered face secretly makes me swoon?"

Everything she says is murmured very softly, in a sweet voice filled with laughter and tender irony.

He has only a little time to be with her. At any moment she may disappear, taken up by her hidden life. And then Julien's loneliness in Paris risks becoming very great. He questions her like a judge who persists in trying to compromise someone who is slipping away. How long has she been divorced? Does she play a musical instrument?

"I play the piano sometimes."

She become impatient, leans across the table towards him.

"You spoil everything with your questions. I am the way I am, just as you see me here, across from you, only passing through, with no past or future."

She rises, both hands pressed against the table.

"My name is Camille Jouve. I'm thirty years old. My double life is none of your business. Imagine whatever you want."

For the moment I think Hébert is wrong to invest this emotional complexity in such youthful characters. Young love may be tragic, but her stories are marked by an awareness of tragedy, altogether more tragic, that her characters do not see, that can be seen only in retrospect and maturity. That is, these young people are not wholly genuine; they are clearly stamped with a future that looks back on them. Or maybe it's only age that allows me to read it this way.

The burden of books, the problem with losing yourself in books, as Hébert's protagonists have done, as I have done, is that eventually the poetry of books spills out into real life, can no longer be contained.


"Can we go down to the ocean, Mommy?"

What, right now? Is she not enjoying our cottage weekend? Does she mean on a subsequent vacation? I grapple with subtext, while Helena lifts her arm, points through the trees. Ah.

"You mean the lake..."

"What's the difference between ocean and lake?"

I stumble over some distinguishing characteristics: size, location, flora and fauna. I listen to myself ramble about saltwater and freshwater, and realize interestedly that to me, for some reason, this is the feature that demarcates the difference. I don't think Helena is paying attention anymore...

"Once when I was crying really, really hard my tears fell into my mouth and it was salty but it tasted good so I licked them up. Is that like the ocean?"

[Last weekend we went to the cottage. We leave tomorrow morning for a repeat performance.]

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Full fathom five

A couple weeks ago we made an evening of Shakespeare in the park.

I understood nothing. I still have pretty much no idea what The Tempest is about.

The set was kind of beautiful in a minimalist kind of way: shades of sand. The acting, in my humble opinion, was fairly weak. In part this was brought into relief by the setting, not the usual crates-for-a-stage on a flat piece of land, but a steel and concrete amphitheatre on a man-made lake — voices simply don't carry well.

On top of this, most of the actors are bilingual, with noticeable accents. And the accents are varied, giving the play an uneven texture. I wonder if some of the cast doesn't perform more strongly in French.

These drawbacks impeded my understanding of the play. The fullest impression I have about The Tempest is what I picked up from John: the idea of God as castaway. Through this filter I managed to make some sense of the language and dynamics, to create in my own head a narrative that had some meaning for me.

The thing about an event is that the circumstances, context, and sideshows add so much colour to the main attraction. In that respect, it was a wonderful evening. We watched the ducks in the lake. We eavesdropped on, and even participated in, spontaneous conversations among strangers in line. A young man got off his bike and climbed a tree to swing from a high branch by his knees and monkey around a bit before getting back on his bike and riding off. We heard a Latin jazz band playing on the other side of the park.

Then the play started. (I was scolded by park personnel for taking pictures. As fate would have have it, the resulting pictures are blurry and unremarkable.)

We had popcorn.

We talked about how Lost might've sprang from a Tempest concept.

Everything Helena knows about Shakespeare she knows from Doctor Who. She recognized Sycorax.

During intermission, the cast popped out to beg for donations. Caliban pranced around Helena a bit — she played at being terrorized, but was thrilled. Not many theatre-goers have been tickled by Caliban.

So, for Shakespeare in the park, Helena stayed up late; she wanted to stay to the end. We did, and we loved it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Strength and conscience

Dear Lou,

This morning in a moment of great brightness it became clear to me. I have been living for years in bad conscience and shallow strength: whatever drifts into me rides on my current for a short while, sails along, but then suddenly hits bottom with a shriek and is stuck there.

If my life is to improve, I must concentrate above all on these two things: strength and conscience.

My strength (as a blood analysis has shown) is insufficient. A stay in Skodsberg or a Lahmann's could improve this. After that, life lived simply and according to nature.

But what about conscience? I see that I can't keep going on with my work this way; That I must open up new tributaries to it; not becuse the sreams that flow into it from event and existence are too meager, — rather: because I can't order or unite them. I must learn to grasp and hold; I must learn to work. I have been telling myself this for years and yet go bungling on. Hence my guilty conscience; all the guiltier when others have confidence in me.

— Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, October 19, 1904, from Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters.

(See also July 25, 1903.)

Friday, August 01, 2008

The bottomless ocean

I've been meaning to read Solaris forever.

I saw the Tarkovsky film adaptation at a rep cinema half a lifetime ago. I fell asleep. I insist that this was no comment on the film per se; I was studying hard, and working strange hours. Yet the film made an impression on me, some visuals burned on my retina.

Then there was the remake. Which I had to see, because the premise is brilliant, the idea of a remake intrigued me, and because George Clooney is hot. But I fell asleep.

This year I read Stanislaw Lem for the first time. It blew me away.

And I arrive at Solaris by chance. I didn't plan on it, not yet. I'd meant to wait awhile, acquaint myself with some other of Lem's work. Find a French edition, from which the English was translated; a Polish edition, by which to judge and improve the English result.

As fate would have it, I found Solaris at the end of a shelf of English-language young adult fiction, just off the music listening stations, in the children's section of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Helena and I spend an evening every three weeks or so, no doubt misshelved on account of its cover (shown). It was waiting for me.

"You poor innocent!"

I looked up with a start. But Snow was not making fun of me. It seemed to me that I was seeing him now for the first time. His face was grey, and the deep lines between cheek and nose were evidence of an unutterable exhaustion: he looked a sick man.

Curiously awed, I asked him:

"Why did you say that?"

"Because it's a tragic story." Seeing that I was upset, he added, hastily: "No, no you still don't understand. Of course it's a terrible burden to carry around, and you must feel like a murderer, but . . . there are worse things."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, really. And I'm almost glad that you refuse to believe me. Certain events, which have actually happened, are horrible, but what is more horrible still is what hasn't happened, what has never existed."

"What are you saying? I asked, my voice faltering.

He shook his head from side to side.

"A normal man," he said. "What is a normal man? A man who has never committed a disgraceful act? Maybe, but has he never had uncontrollable thoughts? Perhaps he hasn't. But perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from somewhere within him, ten or thirty years ago, something which he suppressed and then forgot about, which he doesn't fear since he knows he will never allow it to develop and so lead to any action on his part. And now, suddenly, in broad daylight, he comes across this thing . . . this thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible. He wonders where he is . . . Do you know where he is?"


"Here," whispered Snow, "on Solaris."

Having now read two of Lem's novels, I can already clearly identify two central themes to his work:

1. The problem of alien-ness, and the ill-reasoned human tendency to anthropomorphize that alien-ness.

2. The problem of human-ness: how can we hope to know anything alien if we do not truly know ourselves?

(What we see is a reflection of what we ourselves project.)

The book is not as philosophical as His Master's Voice, but still very thoughtful. It has a plot. It's short, but it bogs down a bit in the middle, for just a few pages, in describing the physical nature, the geological formations, the molecular structure, of the planet Solaris, which is essentially a sentient ocean, tapping into explorers' consciousnesses to confront them with their own memories, performing its own brand of experiment on the scientists.

The burning question Solaris poses to this reader is one of psychological horror: What dark, suppressed shame of mine would Solaris find to test me with?


Gallery of book covers (select Solaris in the sidebar), from which all movie tie-ins are tastefully omitted.

Plethora of Solaris-related tidbits.

Solaris throws into question my safe-phrase, my mantra, the knowledge that keeps me sane when all else is chaos: "There is water at the bottom of the ocean."