Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saffron grey

The epigraph that starts off Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, by Jasper Fforde, is taken from Alfred North Whitehead and sets up its most interesting premise:

There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material. . . . When the light enters your eyes and falls on the retina, there is motion of material. Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is merely motion of material. . . . The mind in apprehending experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.

Fforde's world this time is not to be found on library shelves or in nursery rhymes; it's a wholly new invention, taking as its foundation the light spectrum. Citizens are classed by what they see; that is, their station in life is determined not by the colour of their skin, but by the colours they are able to perceive. Heredity also plays a role in that colours can be mixed; offspring are generally expected to inherit the ability to perceive to a certain degree a mix of the colours of their parents (marriages between complementary colours are forbidden).

This is a parody of a dystopia, set in our future. The event that brought about this society is never specified, but there are a few references to the world and personages we know.

Every page sheds light on some absurdity, the structure of this society dependent on such rules. For the most part, the book plays as sheer entertainment, although there is the occasional glimmer of social commentary, where the danger of blind conformity to order is quite pointed.

But Shades of Grey is funny.

Suddenly my eye was caught by the figure of a man in his early thirties, standing in the shadows of the alleyway opposite. He was grimy and unshaven and had NC-B4 carved rather clumsily below his left clavicle — most scars were neat affairs, but his looked like a bad weld. He was also inappropriately naked and, while staring vacantly up at the sky, was actually peeing on his left foot.

"Stafford?" I whispered, a tremor of fear sounding in my voice.

"Yes, Master Edward?"

"There's a naked man in the alleyway behind us. I think it might be . . . Riffraff."

Stafford turned around, looked at the man and said, "I don't see anyone."

"How can you not see him? He's peeing on his own foot."

"Master Edward, you can't see him."

"I can."

"You can't. He doesn't exist, Master Edward — take Our Munsell's word for it."

I suddenly understood. The Rules, despite their vast complexity and extensive range, had no way of dealing with anything that had no explainable position within a world of absolutes. So instead of attempting to understand or explain them, they were simply awarded the status of Apocrypha and stridently ignored lest they raise questions of fallibility.

"He's Apocryphal?" I asked.

"He would be if he were there — which he isn't."

I understood Stafford's reticence. Admitting that Apocrypha actually existed was a grave impiety punishable by a five-hundred-merit fine. A whole range of euphemistic language had developed to refer to them, but no one generally did — a slip of tense could leave your hard-won merit score in tatters.

"I've never actually seen an Apocryphal man," I noted, unable to stop staring, "and, um, still haven't. Do you think they might all look the same — if they existed?"

"I've only not seen one," said Stafford, following my gaze to where the unseeable man was now pouring cooling water over himself from a water butt, "so I've no idea what one shouldn't look like."

The plot of Shades of Grey is at times a little unfocused, but the world-building is an extraordinary feat! It seems the spoons in my house go missing for entirely different reasons, thankfully, than those which brought about the spoon shortage in Fforde's world. (The version I read was colorized for spelling.)

I've read, and loved, all but one of the Thursday Next books; I read the first Nursery Crimes book and intend to read on. I'm pleased that Fforde is capable of stretching his creativity in this entirely new direction, and I look forward to reading further adventures set amid this colour-based society.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Today the metro is surprisingly spare. Everyone gets a seat. Revelling in the luxury of space, some people are resistant to moving their bag so that someone can sit beside them.

Earlier in the week, a middle-aged man laden with bundles stands in the aisle and becomes engrossed in the book the woman seated nearest him is reading. He bends and adjusts and draws his face nearer her shoulder. When a seat becomes available, he opts to stay where he is and wait for the page to turn. The train lurches and he loses his balance. He quickly retakes his position and finds his place.

Yesterday, a youthful trio with placards and open arms offer free hugs outside the metro entrance. No one takes them up on it. I consider it, but settle for a smile.

All she wants for Christmas...

... is her two maxillary lateral incisors.

She lost one before breakfast, due to the force of her tongue and talking too much. It'd been wiggling for only a couple days, but I think the front tooth needs the room to come in.

The one that's been dangling digustingly for weeks came out during a bedtime snack.

This entailed some complicated logistics. If two teeth are wrapped in one tissue, the Tooth Fairy may assume there's only one and leave compensation accordingly. But if packaged separately, the Tooth Fairy may find just one and leave. The eventual solution: two separate tooth packages elasticked together.

Thank goodness they fell when they did: A day later and the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus may have crossed paths, and that would be too crowded a night!

Friday, December 18, 2009

My new favourite Christmas carol

(Via BoingBoing.)


"They do things which, normally, you'd only expect vertebrates to do."

Like tool use.

Check out the amazing video: "Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clarity of mind

Chapter 3 of The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) is pretty long.

Hans is greatly embarrassed and offended by the bestial behaviour of the Russian couple in the room next door. But while at first he directs his moral outrage at them, he very quickly shifts the blame from the individuals to the world they inhabit, the thin walls, the shoddy construction.

Hans seems disrupted. As much as he tries to maintain the regularities of his everyday life — the clothes, the mannerisms — something's out of whack. "In fact, he felt as if he had only just now reestablished a connection with yesterday, as if he were taking in the whole picture again, as it were, which had not really been the case since he awoke."

A lot of characters are being introduced at breakfast. I hope I can keep track of them all.

What year is this, by the way? 1913? Is it possible the influence of Coco Chanel is being felt?:

Almost all the women wore close-fitting jackets of wool or silk, called "sweaters," in white or bright colors, with shawl collars and side pockets; it looked very pretty when they just stood there chatting, both hands buried in their sweater pockets.

Hans meets the doctor, who seems to be bursting with good intentions such that he has no control over where they stick. Hans and Joachim go for a walk and encounter the Half-Lung Club (having undergone pneumothorax operation), some sweaters among them.

[A headline in The New York Times in 1913 reads: SURGICAL CURE FOR ADVANCED CASES OF CONSUMPTION; The Induction of Artificial Pneumothorax, or Compression of Affected Lungs with Nitrogen, as Tested in 1,000 Cases, Gives Remarkable Results in Pulmonary Tuberculosis. (This practice was ultimately found to be of little benefit and was discontinued.)]

All these patients, so full of life, so it seems to Hans. Joachim explains that they are free of time.

Hans's cigar doesn't taste good. All that fresh air in the mountains, of course! I believe this to be a sign of Hans's habits not sitting quite right in this environment.

On page 62 I encounter the 3rd instance of an auditory... jolt — it's like a grimace directed at the reader. The first was the cough, which came of illness; the second a whistle from a half-lung, an operational byproduct, a grotesquerie; now a wail in death. These are startling noises in sharp relief to the overall tone; like someone jumping up and shouting boo! while you're enjoying a calm mountain view.

Hans laughs quite a bit, by the way — uncontrollably. Perhaps it's a bit extreme, or inappropriate, or nervous, to be liberating and healthy. I don't know.

Herr Settembrini, strange little man they encounter on their walk. Charm and style. Wisdom and knowledge. Enthusiasm, lust. "One must apply truth and energy in naming things. It elevates and intensifies life." "Form opinions! That's why nature gave you eyes and reason." He's provocative!

Hans takes to philosophizing about time:

"There is nothing 'actual' about time. If it seems long to you, then it is long, and if it seems to pass quickly, then it's short. But how long or how short it is in actuality, no one knows."

And "what is the organ for our sense of time?" Hans is quite agitated about the subject. It seems to be pissing off Joachim a bit, but with some level of amusement too, as he later teases Hans about the outburst.

It's less than a day since his arrival and Hans is acclimatizing to the sanatorium routine. Wake, breakfast, walk, nap, second breakfast (with beer, since he is loathe to break his old habits, but he finds its effect completely stupefying), another little walk, another nap (rather, "rest cure"). It seems a bit ridiculous, really — I think we're meant to see it this way, as through Hans's eyes, to be taken aback by the eating and resting and lazing, the general apparent healthfulness among the ill, the disconnect from the world at the foot of the mountain, the difference in how time moves and the activities that fill it.

Hans's heart is pounding. Not out of fear, or anticipation, so to him it signifies a mind–body disconnect, that the body is acting independently of the soul and without reason.

So after dinner, there's another rest cure before tea. Hans is loving the rest cures and particularly his splendid lounge chair. He doesn't take much notice of the traces of blood in his handkerchief (duh-duh-DUH).

On waking, Hans announces to Joachim that he may not be able to stay. (He couldn't possibly leave!? We're only on page 96!) He prides himself on being healthy, but he's craving the doctor's attention. He pokes fun at the lifestyle in evidence, but he's clearly drawn to it all the same. It seems he fears succumbing to the spell of the place. The man's a walking paradox. His time here (not a full 24 hours to this point) has been as if in a haze, yet he's demonstrated, and himself felt, some remarkable clarity of insight and judgement. In going away, has he stepped out of himself? Or having stepped out of his daily life, has he become more himself? Hans really does seem afraid, and befuddled, even while he can philosophize on abstract points; he's losing his bearings. But no sooner does he express the possibility of leaving than it is forgotten. It's time for tea! Then another walk, and a rest cure, and supper.

Hans is to bed early and dreaming fitfully, twice about Madame Chauchat, the white-sweater-wearing door-slamming Russian woman.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The mountain

Another exercise in reading slowly and carefully. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. I'm not sure what led me to this book — Mann keeps coming up over the last little while — a few choice soul-jarring quotations and a title that evokes days past, my own secret mountain. It's calling out to me. Here I am. It's time.

I'll save AS Byatt's introduction and the chronology for later.

From the author's foreword: "[I]n Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody." This is a historical novel, not because the story is old but because it took place at a very particular point in time, that is, before the Great War, which changed life as we know it forever. We are warned also that the story will be told in precise and thorough detail. Indeed, Mann spent something like 12 years writing this novel.

Hans Castorp is journeying from Hamburg to Davos-Platz. (My mother's been there! I must find pictures!) I'm instantly reminded of another Hans, in Swabia, I read about not too long ago.

So Hans is headed to the sanatorium for a little vacation. He's 23 years old, he's written exams, he's set to start a kind of engineering apprenticeship. I'm not sure why he's taking this 3-week sojourn, but very suddenly, helped by distance and heady heights, he finds that he's been lifted out of himself. His cousin Joachim meets him at the station. A military man? He's been here for 6 months aleady. Their relationship is familiar yet awkward; they are conscious of not appearing (to themselves? to observers?) to be too warm with each other.

The air at 5300 feet?: "It lacked odor, content, moisture, it went easily into the lungs and said nothing to the soul. (p 9)"

Joachim seems to identify with the community of the sanatorium: us, we, our. We learn that bodies, presumably dead ones, leave the sanatorium. Also that patients undergo psychic dissection. Hans finds this all pretty hilarious (and so do I). A woman died day before yesterday in the room to be Hans's.

They had reached the second floor, when Hans Castorp suddenly stopped in his tracks, mesmerized by a perfectly ghastly noise he heard coming from beyond a dogleg in the hall — not a loud noise, but so decidedly repulsive that Hans Castorp grimaced and stared wide-eyed at this cousin. It was a cough, apparently — a man's cough, but a cough unlike any that Hans Castorp had ever heard; indeed, compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life — a cough devoid of any zest for life or love, which didn't come in spasms, but sounded as if someone were stirring feebly in a terrible mush of decomposing organic material.

Why is Joachim here? During dinner he lets on to the monotony of the forever here. He's here under orders.

To this point, the book really is quite funny thanks to some ridiculous images and the pacing of them.

Chapter 2 is a flashback through Hans's childhood and youth, remembering his father and his grandfather and the baptismal bowl:

His father's name was there, as was in fact his grandfather's, and his great-grandfather's; and now that syllable came doubled, tripled, and quadrupled from the storyteller's mouth; and the boy would lay his head to one side, his eyes fixed and full of thought, yet somehow dreamily thoughtless, his lips parted in drowsy devotion, and he would listen to the great-great-great-great — that somber sound of the crypt and buried time, which nevertheless both expressed a reverently preserved connection of his own life in the present to things now sunk deep beneath the earth and simultaneously had a curious effect on him: the same effect visible in the look on his face. The sound made him feel as if he were breathing the moldy, cool air of Saint Catherine's Church or the crypt in Saint Michael's, as if he could sense the gentle draft of places where as you walked, hat in hand, you fell into a certain reverential, forward rocking motion, your heels never touching the ground; and he also thought he could hear the remote, cloistered silence of those reverberating spaces. At the sound of those somber syllables, religious feelings got mixed up with a sense of death and history, and all of it together somehow left the boy with a pleasant sensation — indeed, it may well have been that it was solely for the sake of that sound, just to hear it and join in reciting it, that he had once again asked to be allowed to see the baptismal bowl. (p 24)

Hans and his grandfather have a mutual sympathy and physical affinity. "Children and grandchildren observe in order to admire, and they admire in order to learn and develop what heredity has stored within them. (p 27)"

Hans relishes the ritual of his life. He also loves living well.

The narrator refrains from calling Hans mediocre, qualifying the suggestion. Hans doesn't rise to meet the occasion not because he's not capable but because he doesn't see why he should (sounds like my generation). And this is on page 37 very poetically laid out to be not the fault of the individual but of the times (oh, it's not my fault after all?). He respects work, but does not love it; it stands in the way of, while being the means to, his enjoyment of a fine cigar. He works to live.

As for the rest, Hans is an unwritten page. He does not know himself what kind of person will grow out of his past. At this point, his doctor prescribes for him a change of air. (Joachim, it turns out, is seriously ill — sounds like tuberculosis.)

Here ends chapter 2.

I get the feeling Hans's life will take a turn he had never imagined, his stay at the sanatorium to be life-changing, life-defining.

José Saramago is also currently rereading The Magic Mountain. Perhaps he will post his thoughts here.

Monday, December 07, 2009


At the age of 7, Helena has announced that she hates pink.

She and Adèle have a game on, to not wear any pink to school. That'll last until they have to put on their gym shorts.

She tells me this as we're preparing for bed. I'm helping her pull off a pink hoodie (the one she wanted to wear every single day last week). Her pink nightdress with the strawberries is laid out. She's standing on her bed, the hot pink comforter tangled round her feet. She's haloed by pink mosquito netting.

She hates pink. Finally. Just like me.

She loves black, she tells me. Black is the new pink.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


- Milorad Pavić died this week. Go read Dictionary of the Khazars. It remains one of the most original books I've ever read. The "story" is told via encyclopedia entries, with many of the same entries being reworked in each of the 3 major sections — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — the mystery being to which of the religions did the Khazar people convert. There was a time when the problem of translation greatly fascinated me, and I worried over whether it would be better to change an entry heading and risk deviating from the very right word in order to preserve the alphabetical order of the original or to change the order of the entries in compliance with the target language but thereby tainting the impact of the proper unfolding of the narrative. In Krakow I came across a Polish version, which I treasure for its binding. I spent some time comparing translations, but I arrived at no conclusions.

- Which quite interesting dead person are you?

- Fabulous video of printing and bookbinding.

- International science fiction this month at Words without Borders. Includes work by Stanisław Lem and about Stanisław Lem. I've scheduled this issue as next week's lunchtime reading.

- The Doctor Who 2009 Christmas Adventure Calendar! Although, sadly, some treats are not available in my area.

Books I haven't said much about
- The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman. Don't bother. This review says it all.

- Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. Weird and wonderful and really touching, provided you have a weird sense of humour and can get past all the freakshow stuff.

- Generosity, by Richard Powers. It's ages since I read this already, and I still don't know what to say about it. Wonderful premise, and worth talking about. But as to the question of happiness, its essence, other recent reads have handled this with more passion and guts (namely The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk).

- The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer. I read this back in the spring and loved it. Very poignant. Much like the movie of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in plot and mood.

- Platform, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is very provocative and challenges my comfort zone. I quite liked Platform (I read it in March) and found the characters more mature (read: morally acceptable) than in the other couple novels of his I'd read. I think I have more to say on this book yet. I find myself rather hoping that Houellebecq has something new out soon.

Books I plan to read soon
- The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. Under way; stay tuned.

- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Because one day I was in a bookstore and I felt like buying a book, and I've been meaning for a couple years to look this one up, so I took a look and it just felt right, really right.

- The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer. Review copy.

- The Last Supper, by Paweł Huelle. I'd read about 100 pages when I realized I had no idea what was going on. A little too frenetic for the headspace I've been living in of late. But I'll come back to it in short order.

- The Book of Fathers, by Miklós Vámos. Review copy.

- The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Because it was cited by Roberto Bolaño as a book that marked his life. Plus I had trouble stopping after reading the first paragraph. (You can read the introduction for yourself.)

- Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde. Advance reading copy, of the US colorized version (ie, edited for spelling and I know not what else). Can't wait actually. I could use a little levity.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"Who's the lady with the log?

We call her the log lady:

Sometimes ideas, like men, jump up and say "hello." They introduce themselves, these ideas, with words. Are they words? These ideas speak so strangely.

All that we see in this world is based on someone's ideas. Some ideas are destructive, some are constructive. Some ideas can arrive in the form of a dream. I can say it again: some ideas arrive in the form of a dream.

I received Twin Peaks on DVD for my birthday, and I'm ecstatic for the opportunity to watch it. I was very aware of the phenomena of it as it happened almost 20 years ago, but for some reason I didn't see most of it. I must've had some crazy job with weird hours, although I remember talking with my coworker Robert about it, or maybe it was on the night I usually went out dancing, and I didn't own a VCR in those days. But I can see it now, as if for the first time.

Adding to my enjoyment — we've just finished season 1 — is the fact that I've now read Infinite Jest, so when the black, billowy triangle-ish shadow flits across the curtain in the red room, I could say, Oh my god, what does that belong to, how creepy is that?!

It turns out that Twin Peaks and Infinite Jest have several features in common. The black, billowy triangle-ish shape of horror, menacing French-Canadians, white hair overnight, the face in the floor (or, well, bloodstain in the carpet, but...), the dream-logic, the weighty significance of dreams, a spiritual dimension that allows for shamans or wraiths.

Not least of the similarities is that they serve as an obsessive puzzle to be figured out almost more than they do as entertainment. And they're both very funny.

Last night I dreamed I was flushing all my clothes down the toilet, and shoes, including the worn out pair I actually threw out last week, only it was like my younger self, only sometimes it was my daughter, and I (we?) were being scolded by my older self for clogging the toilet, for not disposing of them properly.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Skin like lace

I just finished reading Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, being the third in trilogy of His Dark Materials. Oh, it had me all teary toward the end. Maybe that's just PMS, but it is a beautiful story and it sings to the atheist in me: this is it folks, make it count, your life is in this world! But it's still very spiritual, with angels and witches and Dust and the interconnectedness of all things.

I read the first two books in the series ages ago (and the movie, The Golden Compass? kind of boring), and it says something (about me, yeah, but I mean here about the books) that I didn't rush out for the next one with that I-can't-wait-to-get-my-hands-on-it fervour. (I borrowed these books from the library for crying out loud.) These books have worked on me kind of slowly. I thought them charmingly well-written, blah, blah, but then halfway through the second one oh my god, and I realized why some some Christians might not like these books at all.

But the thing is: the story's much bigger than the sum of its parts. Sure, there's adventure and a magic about it all — the battles and the daemons and the land of the dead — but it's bigger than all that. It all comes together and wheedles into your soul.

Plus, it's superbly well-crafted. Here's my favourite sentence:

She felt as if her skin had turned into lace and the damp and bitter air could flow in and out of her ribs, scaldingly cold on the raw wound where Pantalaimon had been.

Oh, I wish I could read this as a 12-year-old.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

People are animals

New York is part of the natural world. I love the city, I love the country, and for the same reasons. The city is part of the country. When I had an apartment on East Forty-eighth Street, my backyard yielded more birds during the migratory season than I ever saw in Maine. I could step out on my porch, spring or fall, and there was the hermit thrush, picking around in McEvoy's yard. Or the white-throated sparrow, the brown thrasher, the jay, the kinglet. John Kieran has recorded the immense variety of flora and fauna within the limits of Greater New York.

But it is not just a question of birds and animals. The urban scene is a spectacle that fascinates me. People are animals, and the city is full of people in strange plumage, defending their territorial rights, digging for their supper.

— E.B. White, The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

I love this take on wildlife in the city. Being an urban animal myself, I often find myself in the position of having to defend my choice to live in the city against suburbanites. What they fail to see is how much more natural an environment it is than their cookie-cutter houses and manicured lawns.

(Full interview available.)

I finished reading one interview, but it wasn't my stop yet, so what to read next? The interview I was planning to read next is in another volume.

Well then why not a talk with the man behind the slim little volume I was consulting today? I spent my morning grappling with, for example, the nuance between "accord" and "afford," so I spent a portion of my afternoon with The Elements of Style, regaining some perspective.

I know nothing about E.B. White other than that I loved The Trumpet of the Swan when I was a kid, and, yeah, the other kids' books too. And I knew that he'd reworked the stylebook that is the beginning and end of all stylebooks.

The interview proves him to be a charming man, down to earth, matter-of-fact, realistic, sensible, perceptive. This comes as no surprise and as a wonderful reassurance.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Slowly, like an ant

[A] novelist is essentially a person who covers distance through his patience, slowly, like an ant. A novelist impresses us not by his demonic and romantic vision, but by his patience.

— Orhan Pamuk, The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

I won a publisher's contest some time ago and was so very pleased to find the prize on my doorstep last week: The Paris Review Interviews (Boxed Set) I-IV. (The corners are smushed and one face is thoroughly gouged, but it still functions perfectly well as a slipcase. The books are fine, and their contents are priceless.)

I've read some of the interviews online, of course, but I expect the books to serve as a sometime reference and serendipitous source of inspiration, there when I need it.

(Here's an excerpt from the Pamuk interview. I remember being struck by a habit he told of, when working in the same space as he was living, of leaving home in the morning as if were going to work, walking round the block, and returning to sit down to work. If ever I find myself working from home again, I mean to try this strategy.)

I'm not really sure how to read this collection of interviews. It's not the sort of thing to be read cover to cover. Although, I'm discovering that a single interview makes for excellent metro reading, and I think I'd be wise to leave a volume in the bathroom.

I've decided to let my reading lead me through them. Since I've recently read novels by Orhan Pamuk and Graham Greene, I thought I'd check out those interviews first. I have Haruki Murakami on my shelf and I'm planning to get to it next month; then I'll read the interview to complement the novel.

Sometimes a reader too must move slowly, like an ant.

I can entertain no doubt

First published 150 years ago, on November 24, 1859:

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained — namely, that each species has been independently created — is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

— from the introduction to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin.

See also: Darwin vs. Genesis, a literary smackdown (via).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The alternative

I'm trying more poetry on for size.

I've been browsing Easy, a new collection from Marie Ponsot. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that it is rather easy. These are not esoteric expressions of indefinably poetic moments. These poems are anecdotes.

"We Own the Alternative" is one such piece, conversational in tone. Here's the first bit:

"Mere failure to be young is not interesting,"
our host says, "Here we are free to be not young,
not bound to evaluate everything,
ready for Tuesday's flimsy shift to be flung
over Friday's shoulder, or for it to cling,
a comfort when cold winds make comfort disappear.["]

Having just turned 40 this weekend, I'm not ready to claim old, it's merely the late Wednesday of my life, but I refuse to fail to be young. Easy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My, how we've grown

The freshly-turned-7-year-old kid with the approximately-just-more-than-7-month-old cat:

(Compare months ago.)

Happy birthday, Kid!

May all your wishes come true.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The space between what’s promised and what’s made

For days I've been gearing myself up for (dreading) a cupcake-baking extravaganza this evening. Today I read this delicious article over lunch (tomato-artichoke salad with the bacon-olive pizza I doggie-bagged home from a trendy lounge last night).

[I]f the first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes, the second is that a space exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets. It is partly that the steps between — the melted chocolate's gleam, the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar — are often more satisfying than the finished cake. But the trouble also lies in the same good words that got you going. How do you know when a thing "just begins to boil"? How can you be sure that the milk has scorched but not burned? Or touch something too hot to touch, or tell firm peaks from stiff peaks? How do you define "chopped"?

The thing is: I think I secretly love cooking. I would love to spend my days figuring it out, the chemistry of it, experimenting with proportions, tasting exactly how much salt does to meat.

[I]s learning how to cook from a grammar book — item by item, and by rote — really learning how to cook? Doesn't it miss the social context — the dialogue of generations, the commonality of the family recipe — that makes cooking something more than just assembling calories and nutrients? It's as if someone had written a book called "How to Play Catch." ("Open your glove so that it faces the person throwing you the ball. As the ball arrives, squeeze the glove shut.") What it would tell you is not that we have figured out how to play catch but that we must now live in a culture without dads. In a world denuded of living examples, we end up with the guy who insists on making Malaysian Shrimp one night and Penne all'Amatriciana the next; it isn't about anything except having learned how it's done. Your grandmother's pound cake may have been like concrete, but it was about a whole history and view of life; it got that tough for a reason.


Unsupported by your mom, the cookbook is the model of empty knowledge.

This evening I will discover the exact proportion of lemon juice required for perfect icing, and I will note it in the recipe book I'll be consulting. And both my mother and my daughter are going to hear about it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A doctor for the world's pain

Michael Moorcock is writing a Doctor Who novel (via). We won't see it for another year or two. But. Wow!

I kind of love Michael Moorcock. Well, not really, but I had a really big crush, in grade 8, on a guy who was a fan. So I went ahead and read a couple dozen Moorcock books over the ensuing years.

The "straight-up" fantasy was a good enough read. Looking back I'm realizing that The Jerry Cornelius Chronicles and Gloriana were probably not the wisest choice of reading material for an impressionable teenage girl, but what did I know. For all the trippy sex, drugs, and time travel, these books helped make me what I am.

Come to think of it, the regeneration concept of the Doctor has Moorcock written all over it.

Can I just say?: I love The War Hound and the World's Pain. I first read it more than 25 years ago, and I still think it's one of the coolest books I ever read. It bears the distinction of being the rattiest looking paperback on my shelves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The naïve and the sentimental novelist

Excerpts from The Norton Lectures, delivered by Orhan Pamuk:

"Being a novelist is the art of being both naïve and reflective at the same time."

"The reader and writer can never agree on the fictionality of the novel[...] In a corner of our minds we know that this lack of perfect agreement between the reader and the writer is the driving force of the novel."

"The art of the novel is the knack of being able to speak about ourselves as if we were another person and about others as if we were them."

"We feel that we sometimes think with words and sometimes with images. Often we skip from one to the other."

"I too enjoy reading a novel that no one else appears to be interested in with the feeling of having discovered it myself."

Pamuk is both naïve and sentimental in The Museum of Innocence, and it is to his credit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not for nothing

Helena was upset coming home from school Friday. It'd been a rough week on all us, in different ways.

She was home "sick" the first 3 days of the week. The school has been hypervigilant regarding H1N1. Had she gone to school with a touch of fever and light cough, she would've been sent home. The secretary called regularly for news of her symptoms. I dared not tell her Helena was dancing around like a rock star. Meanwhile, I fell behind on meeting some work deadlines because I was helping her accomplish a videogame mission.

She returned to school on Thursday to a substitute teacher and with her chess club assignment incomplete, much to my surprise and contrary to my instruction when I went into the office Wednesday finally to get some peace and quiet (J-F stayed home with her that day). Friday was her first day to see her regular teacher, Marilyne, in a week, and she was still hoping for the sticker that had been promised but forgotten last Friday.

But Marilyne saw fit to award her "yellow" status at the end of the day, down a couple notches from Helena's usual happy green, for disturbing the class (and quite likely being a bit cranky about it), but not slipping into red. It wasn't Helena's first yellow (that was traumatic), and I'm sure it won't be her last. I guess we're averaging one a month.

But she takes these things seriously. At home, she took me aside to tell me the story of the yellow, and she cried and she cried and she cried.

Apparently she has a chatty deskmate. We'll mention it to the teacher when we meet in a couple weeks; we'll get more of the story then. Maybe Helena was lured into transgression, or maybe she was just having a bad day. No big deal either way.

But I cannot doubt the sincerity of my daughter when she exclaims, "I don't go to school for nothing, you know. I go to learn!"

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What weekends are made of

Sleeping in on a weekend morning. I wake to find the girl perched at the foot of the bed painting my toenails. I don't know whether I'm more amused or disturbed.

I've devoted far too many hours to considering frosting. The girl's birthday is in a couple weeks, and we decided that it'd be nice to take cupcakes to school to celebrate with her friends. I've never made cupcakes. I found a simple recipe and we did a trial run. The cakes are delicious, but we all concur that the frosting (a pretty standard buttercream) is horrendous. (Yes, the butter was fresh!) The original batch got modified, then I tried something else. Three frosting failures so far. What are we going to do!!?!

I am really, really, really annoyed about the clementines! They have pits! Not just the occasional 1 or 2 per orange. Lots and lots of pits! I'm talking 4 or 5 per segment, every segment! It's taken all the joy out of clementines. And I love clementines! Just not like this! If this continues, I may have to stop eating them. Oh my god, what if I get scurvy!!?!

The last of the balcony-garden tomatoes are finally harvested. The geraniums have been brought inside to winter.

Am I finally ready for Mann's Magic Mountain? No, I decided. I wanted something small and modern first, as a palate cleanser. So I started The Last Supper, by Paweł Huelle (pronounced "hyoo-la" I've finally learned, in an entirely un-Polish way). Coincidentally, Huelle wrote a kind of prequel to The Magic Mountain, but this novel isn't it. This one's all about Art and Religion — a couple of my favourite subjects — but we're off to a shaky start.

The first chapter is a dream sequence, I found out by accident (looking to see where the chapter break was), and I'm glad I did, and I'm doing you a service by telling you so, because it allowed the chapter to make some kind of sense finally. It's all very frenetic, maybe the more so for having just come off a couple books with intense emotional focus.

On some level I must be hoping to reconnect with my Polishness, or to learn something about Poland today. I still think that Polish literature of the early to mid 20th century is one of the world's best kept secrets. And I'm glad to get, for example, the Mrożek reference (he's like the Polish Ionesco). And I'm glad to have a first-hand recollection of the Gdańsk terrain, physical and cultural. But I don't feel like I'm connecting yet...

The Tudors! We'll finish with season 1 tonight. Somehow I never did get to watch a full episode while it was airing, so I borrowed it from the library. Full of sex and God and war and intrigue!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

That strange mathematical point of endlessness

So I've finished reading Graham Greene's The End of Affair, and it's not at all what I expected. This guy sets about sabotaging his relatively long-term relationship with this married woman, and the affair ends, and we spend much of the book wondering how and why it ends, and the guy sure doesn't have a clue about the why, and years later he's still a bit upset about it, but the book's not even really about that. It's about her, developing a relationship with God.

There are some pretty complex human dynamics at work here, and Greene put them to paper seemingly effortlessly. "The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness," he writes (and I think Tolstoy would agree — that's where the story lies). The narrator is dripping with anger, hate, frustration, confusion, spitefulness, pride (masquerading as indifference), and, yes, even love (on occasion appearing as lustfulness) — everything but happiness.

I felt that afternoon such complete trust when she said to me suddenly, without being questioned, "I've never loved anybody or anything as I do you." It was as if, sitting there in the chair with a half-eaten sandwich in her hand, she was abandoning herself as completely as she had done, five minutes back, on the hardwood floor. We most of us hesitate to make so complete a statement — we remember and we foresee and we doubt. She had no doubts. The moment only mattered. Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space. What did time matter — all the past and the other men she may from time to time (there is that word again) have known, or all the future in which she might be making the same statement with the same sense of truth? When I replied that I loved her too in that way, I was the liar, not she, for I never lose the consciousness of time: to me the present is never here: it is always last year or next week.

She wasn't lying even when she said, "Nobody else. Ever again." There are contradictions in time, that's all, that don't exist on the mathematical point. She had so much more capacity for love than I had — I couldn't bring down that curtain round the moment, I couldn't forget and I couldn't not fear.

The narrator, Bendrix, is, for the most part, a spiteful little shit. It's odd that he should invoke Sarah's capacity for love here — he spends so much energy on denying it, disbelieving it, and trying to disprove it. But he recognizes it. It's this capacity and this being outside time that, if they don't make her saintly, bring her closer to God.

What is love, anyway? Does Sarah make her sacrifice out of love? Or is it fear? Her keeping her contract with God — is that for love of God, or love of Bendrix, or indifference toward Bendrix? Is it selfish or selfless?

Who's the hero then? Bendrix is nasty and petty — not exactly sympathetic — hardly the makings of a hero. Or is it him after all, for raging on? Certainly not the cuckold Henry. The rationalist? But he fails in his argument against God, creates a convert even. Could it be Sarah, slut turned saint? (Apart from acknowledging that she's been a bitch and a fake, I'm not convinced that she's evolved much as a person.) Perhaps it's God Himself, having the last laugh on the lot of them, for all they would lose in His name, whether willingly sacrificed or not of their own agency.

Maybe it's simply that religion makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that's why I find this to be an excruciatingly painful and difficult little book. And it boggles me (as it does Bendrix) that someone could love God more than a flesh-and-blood person.

On a side note, Emily in writing about St Augustine's Confessions called out that "he depicts his relationship with God in language modern readers will recognize from the subsequent literature of erotically-charged romance." I immediately recognized that something similar is at play in Sarah's diary entries. Greene even reinforces this: "The words of human love have been used by saints to describe their vision of God."

There's some compelling writing in this book, capturing perfectly the underlying tensions in a run-of-the-mill conversation.

Halfway through, I'm thinking, he reminds me of someone, the way he does that, the way a banal conversation explodes with meaning. Some may think it blasphemous of me to say, but: Doris Lessing. (By some, I mean Maud Newton, who, if I've got it right, loves Greene and hates Lessing.) I'm thinking specifically of Lessing's short stories, and The Golden Notebook. Not sure this quality is so present in her other novels.

Anyway, the narrator is a writer, and it's hard to know how much is fiction and how much is Greene himself. The novel is, after all, allegedly based on a real-life affair. He writes in the morning ("A love affair had to begin after lunch"), setting himself a daily quota. Most of the work of writing is done in the subconscious. "So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days," so that the unconscious is freed up to work out the problems of the fiction. Stories aren't invented, they're "remembered"; but they still require intense research.

It seems that Greene himself was ambivalent toward this novel. It is raw and weird, but, to my mind, this perhaps heightens its power and may offer more authenticity than a "well-crafted" piece.

From a 1951 New York Times review:

His juxtapositions of love and hate, envy and admiration form the high level of his drama and are reinforced by the stylistic contrasts of the characters and scenes which give them flesh. When we come to his shifty money-changers, private investigators and race-track touts, Government officials and garden-party ladies we hear the tape recorder at its accurate work. In "The End of the Affair" the splendidly stupid private detective, Alfred Parkis, and his apprentice son, and the maudlin grifter who is the heroine's mother, equal the best of the seedy supernumeraries of his other novels. It is savage and sad, vulgar and ideal, coarse and refined, and a rather accurate image of an era of cunning and glory, of cowardice and heroism, of belief and unbelief.

Read this book before you die.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The sharp edge of a razor

A novelist must preserve a child-like belief in the importance of things which common-sense considers of no great consequence. He must never entirely grow up.

— W Somerset Maugham

I'm so glad to see a resurgence of interest in Maugham of late. People tend to think of him as a B-list writer; he was too popular in his day to be considered seriously. Graham Greene's narrator in The End of the Affair assesses his own literary worth to be a notch above Maugham's (with EM Forster sitting a level higher).

I first read Maugham the summer I was 15. I was staying with my sister in Ottawa for a time, and The Razor's Edge was making the rounds through her circle of friends. The world clearly consisted of these character types. "He's such an Elliott," they might say.

Of course, I fell in love with Larry. I wanted to be him. Twenty plus years on, I've become adept at recognizing the inner Larry in a healthy proportion of everyone I encounter.

Because of this book, I have an unreasonable fondness for Newhart and Żubrówka. More than anything, I believe this book was my gateway to becoming a reader who knows how to read.

(But I'm still looking for salvation.)

I went on to read everything of Maugham's I could get my hands on, and for the ensuing decade it was something of an obsessive quest. It's been years since I read one of these books, but I won't part with my stash — a couple dozen well-worn paperbacks.

The Skeptical Romancer (Everyman's Library), a collection of Maugham's travel writing, with an introduction by Pico Iyer, is now on my wishlist.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Think of Troilus

Jealous lovers are more respectable, less ridiculous, than jealous husbands. They are supported by the weight of literature. Betrayed lovers are tragic, never comic. Think of Troilus.

— from The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.

(I'm only about 50 pages in. The above is from page 17, and I think there's something beautiful and true about the statement.)

This novella is nothing like what I expected. It seems that the story of the affair is recounted in a series of flashbacks, with the cool detachment time allows. It feels absolutely uncomfortably voyeuristic; the narrator's a bit spiteful — we're allowed this glimpse of intimacy without being fully welcomed into it.

There's also a surprising lot about the process of writing in here, the discipline of it, the research and inspiration. The narrator raises the problem of weighting a scene with unspoken meaning, and magically Greene is meanwhile weighting the scene with unspoken meaning.

But I don't know anything about Troilus.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ninja girl

Confession (and further proof of negligent parenting): We've never actually taken the kid trick-or-treating. Except for that time when she was 2 and we were visiting my mom and we went to all of 3 houses, and this was less for the joy of trick-or-treating than for the joy my mother took in showing off her cute granddaughter to the neighbours.

Our urban neighbourhood simply isn't condusive to it. We've never once had trick-or-treaters at our door, at this address or in our previous apartment. I've never seen any in the streets. Which I don't fully understand — I know kids live around here, there's a school at the end of the street, and the playground a couple blocks over even this time of year is full of them. Helena tells me some of her classmates partake in this tradition — I have yet to determine if these are kids who live nearby or out of zone. It's all very mysterious.

But I don't think Helena minds much. There have always been plenty of activities, and candy, at school (and daycare before that) to keep here happy.

With yesterday's crappy weather, she was more interested, thankfully, in preserving that other grand Halloween tradition: the watching of scary movies.

Google "scary movies for kids" and you'll find parents like me wondering what's too scary. You'll also find lots of outraged parents wondering why on Earth we would want to scare our precious youngsters. Well, because it's fun.

Obviously individual sensibilities must be taken into account, but this kid's made of pretty tough stuff (although ironically, the older she gets, the scarier she thinks Doctor Who is, her fear growing proportionally with her comprehension). She's been reminding me for weeks that we need to find a scary movie. And not a cartoon.

Last year we watched The Birds. She watched less than half before opting for bed, but it made a memorable, nontraumatic impression, such that we can refer to this cultural touchstone when we encounter vicious swarms of seagulls in parking lots and have a good laugh over it.

This year: The Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee. Helena tells me it wasn't scary at all (don't tell her I told you, but I saw her jump twice). It's just biting people, and she shrugs her shoulders. Although, she clarifies, if Dracula acually came to bite her, yes, she'd be scared, but he's biting other people so it's no big deal. But now at least she knows how to kill a vampire.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The museum

So the effect of that moment I was living was of something I was remembering. Visitors to my Museum of Innocence must compel themselves, therefore, to view all objects displayed therein — the buttons, the glasses, the old photographs, and Füsun's combs — not as real things in the present moment, but as my memories.

Here is an incomplete inventory of the objects on display:

- the shop sign that had once hung on the door where she worked (p 5)
- school photograph of maternal grandfather (p 8)
- an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin from Fuay, a European-style restaurant (p 12)
- the newspaper advertisement, the commercials, and bottles of strawberry, peach, orange, and sour cherry flavors of Turkey's first domestic fruit soda, Meltem, in memory of our optimism and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the day (p 26)
- Füsun's fuchsia dress (p 27)
- one of Füsun's earrings (first exhibit) (p 28)
- floral batiste handkerchief, as a symbol of solicitude (p 30)
- mother's crystal inkwell and pen set, symbolizing refinement and fragile tenderness (p 30)
- belt with oversize buckles, as a symbol of melancholy (p 31)
- photographs and postcards (p 41)
- pictures of movies stars form Zambo (p 45)
- cigarette, usher's flashlight, Alaska Frigo ice cream, symbolizing the desire and solitude of youth (p 47)
- Spleen cologne, from Paris (p 49)
- cigarette packets, teacup, glass, seashell to evoke heavy, draining, crushing atmosphere; girlish hair clip to remind us the stories happened to a child (p 55)
- painting, commissioned; view of Füsun's apartment, with chestnut tree (p 67)
- small collection of funeral photographs (p 83)
- plaster bust of his father, with plastic mustache (p 87)
- postcards of Istanbul Hilton (p 102)
- photo with Ship-Sinker Güven (who ran an insurance company); photo with gentleman banker (p 128)
- clock, matchsticks, matchbooks (p 146)
- depiction of internal organs of human body, from ad for painkiller (p 148)
- picnic basket, with thermos with tea, stuffed grape leave, boiled eggs, soda bottles, tablecloth (p 152)
- painting by Melling, of view similar to picnic view (p 152)
- door chime (p 161)
- stapler, ashtray with company logo (p 171)
- menus and glasses from Fuaye (p 174)
- letter to Füsun (p 179)
- newsclipping, with Ceyda's official beauty contest photo (p 180)
- collar of father's pyjamas, one of his slippers (p 182)
- items from mother's drawers (p 188)
- telephone token (p 201)
- hotel key, headed stationery, replica of sign (p 210)
- enlarged photo of father's toes (p 224)
- bolt of bathroom in Füsun's apartment, but not her lipstick (p 242)
- oil painting, commissioned; view of main room in Füsun's house from point of view of canary (p 250)
- little tin spoon, saltshaker, half-eaten ice cream cone (p 256-7)
- ticket stubs from summer cinemas, lobby photographs, advertisements (p 260)
- Meltem soda bottle (272)
- slender Buren wristwatch (p 288)
- model of Füsun's apartment (p 298)
- picture of view from window in back room (p 300)
- tombala set used for eight consecutive years at Füsun's house (p 322)
- 4,213 of Füsun's cigarette butts, each with its own soul (p 395)
- a pair of optical illusions (p 421)
- blue bikini (p 436)

Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilization will be aware that museums are the repositories of those things from which Western Civilization derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world, and likewise when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard. When their first pieces passed into their hands, the first true collectors — who would later exhibit, categorize, and catalog their great collections (in the first catalogs, which were the first encyclopedias) — initially never recognized these objects for what they were.

This is an excruciatingly lovely book, this book being The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Through all these objects, these simple objects — some conventional mementos, others ridiculously banal — a love story is told, and more.

As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that, like the tales of Leyla and Mecnun or Hüsn and Aşk, this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.

It is a book in 3 parts, the first section being about Kemal's relationships and how he sabotages them. It is very much about the nature of relationships, traditional versus modern, and, in particular, the issue of a woman's attitude to her own virginity. To be a modern woman in 1970s Turkey is a complicated, contradiction-laden thing. And it's evident that Kemal doesn't fully understand it either. Kemal is engaged to Sibel, a beautiful socialite, but he has fallen in love with Füsun. We see Kemal grapple with social conventions and learn his own mind. He makes choices and deals (or not) with their aftermath.

The second section is the meat of Kemal's obsession. It is a meditation on time and memory, and love, of course. This is the story of courtship, in a way. Kemal's grand romantic gestures are comprised of countless trivialities that finally are seen to sum up to something greater than its individually insignificant parts. And yet, it is in those discrete acts that everything is contained.

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death. As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning — a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore — we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the "present" can bring us enough happiness to last a century, [...]

The third section is quite short and is really more of a postscript. I'm not sure what purpose it serves to the novel as a whole... It allows Pamuk to insert the character of an author named Pamuk, commissioned by Kemal to write his story, as a guide to the museum. So that's a neat trick. Apart from that, I suppose it allows a couple points to be cleared up, things the narrator couldn't've known, and a few things are reported as being said, and I can see that it would've been difficult to have characters say these things naturally within their own narratives. Also presented here is a kind of philosophy of museums. But the astute reader would already have understood these things. Their reinforcement here is superfluous. The story by this time is essentially over. I almost wonder if the novel might be stronger without this section.

Similarly, the book contains an index of characters, absolutely useless to the average reader, but it is in keeping with the philosophy of museum: that it is not directed to the casual visitor, but it takes on import only from the perspective of the subject under examination (the museum's reason for being). The list acts as an acknowledgement of contributors.

It's kind of a disturbing book, actually. (It feels at times a little uncomfortably like Nabokov, for reasons I can't pinpoint but generally to do with the nature of obsession.) I don't know if our narrator is particularly sympathetic. It's not that he treats women badly, but he does some stupid things regarding women and he's such a guy about it. (I mean, he lies to Füsun! He actually thinks it's the right thing to do, he must believe he can get away with it, but he's kind of a jerk about it.) So it's a weird thing to get all wrapped up in his obsession: I don't think we're meant to fully understand it as we go along, it is the point of the novel to make us come round to understanding it.

We're led through this museum of a book, waiting to be told how it came to be. To what tragic end did this love come? You just know — the tone, the verb tenses — that all this, this love, is over. But the obsession continues.

The weirdness is amplified by the fact that we don't really know the object of Kemal's obsession. We know Füsun only through his eyes, and there are times we must question her innocence — is she playing her own game, is she acting out of anger, spite, revenge — we don't really know her at all.

This love is not innocent, nor are the parties to it. So I'm not sure about the innocence:

Main Entry: in·no·cence
Pronunciation: \ˈi-nə-sən(t)s\
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 a : freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil : blamelessness b : chastity c : freedom from legal guilt of a particular crime or offense d (1) : freedom from guile or cunning : simplicity (2) : lack of worldly experience or sophistication e : lack of knowledge : ignorance
2 : one that is innocent
3 : bluet

Chastity (as abstention from intercourse) is a factor, but I don't think it is central, except insofar as it leads to a chastening of character. Perhaps the museum is less a tribute than an attempt at absolution from guilt.

This is a gorgeous novel. I don't think it's as important as Snow, but I suspect it's more accessible, with a kind of quiet, noble beauty about it. It's about this timeless thing called love, after all, dwelling on all its elements in Proustian detail. And happiness! Have I mentioned happiness? No matter how tragic its end, there's a lot of happiness in love.

Excerpt: Kissing.

Jeremy is reading The Museum of Innocence and blogging about it as he goes. (I love this approach to reading/blogging, where reactions and associations are more immediate. I wish I did more of this, managed my time better, instead of saving it all up for a binge.)

Washington Post: "And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?"

The National (Abu Dhabi): "But The Museum of Innocence is far more ambitious than it might first seem; before long, Pamuk spins his love story into a damning social history of Turkish taboos and traditions."

New York Review of Books (Pico Iyer): "Every detail, in short, speaks of a culture of quixotic aspirations."

The Harvard Crimson: "The museum-like quality of novels is about preservation, conservation, and resistance to being forgotten."

Norton Lectures:
Excerpts from "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist," delivered by Orhan Pamuk.
Summarized in Harvard Magazine.

International Festival of Authors

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blue Met 2010

The winner of the 2010 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix, recognizing a lifetime of literary achievement by a writer of international reputation, has been announced.

Novelist Dany Laferrière will receive the prize at the 12th annual Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, which will take place April 21–25, 2010.

"I am thrilled that Montreal author Dany Laferrière has accepted our invitation, and especially delighted that a long-time friend of the Blue Metropolis Festival will be recognized for the great quality, the audacity and wit of his work in several different genres," said Linda Leith, President and Artistic Director of Blue Metropolis Foundation.

Laferrière is probably best known for his first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Today I am sick, with aches and intense sinus pressure and a very sore throat.

We had a whirlwind weekend, in Toronto, celebrating an aunt's 80th birthday, with probably near 80 family members, family friends. It made me proud to bring J-F more fully into the family fold, meeting cousins he'd never met. It made me proud that Helena was bright-eyed and sweet as ever, and that my mother could show her off before the clan.

Helena was a bit overwhelmed. "They love me so much. And everybody wants to give me presents!"

I slept most of the drive home yesterday. All I wanted was a Neo Citran and a blanket.

It didn't take much convincing this morning — J-F told my I should stay home today, and I said OK. Today, I'm a little bit glad to be a little bit sick, that I could nap and read and nap some more, and finish The Museum of Innocence (which is absolutely exquisite and highly recommended), that I could hang out with my cat.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Kissing Füsun was no longer a provocation devised to test and to express our attraction for each other; it was something we did for the pleasure of it, and as we made love we were both amazed to discover love's true essence. It was not just our wet mouths and our tongues that were entwined but our respective memories. So whenever we kissed, I would kiss her first as she stood before me, then as she existed in my recollection. Afterward, I would open my eyes momentarily to kiss the image of her a moment ago and then one of more distant memory, until thoughts of other girls resembling her would commingle with both those memories, and I would kiss them, too, feeling all the more virile for having so many girls at once; from here it was a simple thing to kiss her next as if I were someone else, as the pleasure I took from her childish mouth, wide lips, and playful tongue stirred my confusion and fed ideas heretofore not considered ("This is a child," went one idea — "Yes, but a very womanly one," went another), and the pleasure grew to encompass all the various personae I adopted as I kissed her, and all the remembered Füsuns that were evoked when she kissed me. It was in these first long kisses, in our lovemaking's slow accumulation of particularity and ritual, that I had the first intimations of another way of knowing, another kind of happiness that opened a gate ever so slightly, suggesting a paradise few will ever know in this life. Our kisses delivered us beyond the pleasures of flesh and sexual bliss for what we sensed beyond the moment of the springtime afternoon was as great and wide as Time itself.

— from The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The stack

Pictured in random order, but described in a particular order according to a logic I couldn't possibly begin to explain to anyone.

(I've already actually read a couple of these, but they're still in the stack as books I have to contend with (write about, shelve, pass on to someone else). It may not look like much of a stack, but it's enough to make me feel daunted — I've gotten pretty good at not acquiring books I don't actually mean to read fairly immediately. Sure, I have a shelf of book I haven't gotten to in years, but I do my best not to let it grow.)

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story, by Hanan Al-Shaykh. This was a review copy and I'm not sure why I accepted it because it didn't sound like the sort of thing I would ordinarily read. But! It was captivating! I was not familiar with the author's name, but apparently she's quite revered for her short stories. I was a bit put off by the prologue, which sets up how this book came to be; there was a lot of ego (both Hanan's and her mother's) and little humility. But I guess it speaks to the author's skill that she took me past that and so convincingly channeled her mother's story, about growing up as a woman, and a free-spirited one, in Lebanon in the middle of the last century, with fairy-tale-like exuberance. (Here's a great review.)

The Mystery Guest: An Account, by Grégoire Bouillier. Along with the Greene and Mann below, these are books I ordered for myself just because I really wanted them, and I'd put it off long enough. (The trailer for this book is among the first I ever saw, and still my favourite.) It's a kind of memoir, about a guy who overthinks the significance of every single social gesture or nongesture, particularly as relating to the girl who dumped him with no explanation (I'd've dumped him too). See this review for more details. The book is charming and funny, even while the narrator is a bit of a weenie. At 132 pages it makes for a great read on a rainy Sunday afternoon (which it did this past weekend, between turkey cooking and card-playing).

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. I hear it's devastatingly good, and I quite liked Brighton Rock this past summer.

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. This is my own personal next project as a close and careful read, or as much like it as I can muster. I've been wanting to get to it for some time, as I myself have a tale of a magic mountain. I've been even more keen on Mann since coming across (via Maud Newton) this quotation from a 1955 interview:

The basic theme on which I've tried to play all my variations is the problem of the artist, the contrast between the excitement of beauty and the demands of life; between, if you will, the ab- or super-normal poetic vision and the normal necessity of catching the eight o'clock bus. My theme is also the paradox that the vision could never live without the opposing necessity since it must be inspired by it.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. I picked this up at our fundraising book sale at work. I'm certain some bloggers have raved about this book in the past, but I can't remember who. Was it you?

Wake, by Robert J Sawyer. I won this book about a week ago (and so far, this is the best reason I can figure to join Twitter: the contests). I find Sawyer has his ups and downs; the ideas in his novels can be awesome, but the writing at times brings it down. In some books, the dialogue was hopeless, and the characterization of women and relationships was less then believable; but he fares better than many genre writers. I've read a few chapters already — while I'm not convinced that Sawyer has the voice of a 15-year-old girl down, the story has a cool concept and I do want to know how it turns out.

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. To be released October 20. I have a review copy. For which I am dropping everything. First sentence: "It was the happiest moment of my life, thought I didn't know it."

Monday, October 12, 2009


When I first saw this artwork a few days ago, I couldn't help but be reminded of Archimboldo, though Archimboldo's compositions are built of more organic elements.

Genesis P-Orridge — now there's a name that takes me back — has an exhibition on at New York's Invisible-Exports Gallery until October 18, 2009. In an interview for The Morning News, Genesis P-Orridge cites his (and I use all pronouns herein loosely) discovery of Max Ernst and the art of cut-ups as kind of an epiphany.

(He talks also of a Sacred Geometry, which also brings to mind certain aspects of 2666. I wonder if one could assess 2666 in terms of cut-up or collage art...)

I can't say I'm particularly impressed by the art in this exhibition, but it's the intro to the interview that brought some hazy, near-20-year-old memories into focus. Apparently Genesis isn't a big fan of email interviews, as they take on the semblance of school assignments, so we are treated instead to about 3000 words explicating his concept. I recall Genesis having a peculiar attitude toward live interviews as well.

It was when Chris came up to see me for a couple days, and he brought his girlfriend, which was a bit odd, cuz I thought he liked me, but I guess this meant he didn't, which was for the best really. And it was all very spontaneous and all because of the Psychic TV show that night. The show had played the night before in Kingston — Chris had seen them and wanted to get an interview for his radio show, but he hadn't managed, so he came up to Ottawa looking for another chance. So Chris and — oh, I can't for the life of me remember her name...

Anyway, they show up on my doorstep mid-afternoon, (was I even working then? I couldn't've been studying... was it summer?) and I had a ticket for the show already (and I am so psyched — I'd had a ticket for their show the year before, but they cancelled), and the venue was just a 5-minute walk up the street, so we check it out straight away but nobody comes to the door and we can't figure out the back way, so we go for a beer across the street. And then we cross back over — it's still late afternoon, and it's really sunny — and we bang on the door, and then we bang on the door some more, and we ask around in the groundfloor bar (a separate and distinct establishment from the concert venue) but the inner adjoining door shows no signs of opening, so we go back out to the door on the street and bang some more, and after about 10 minutes someone comes to see what the racket's all about. Chris asks about the band, has the band arrived?, he'd love to get an interview, do you think he could have an interview? The guy tells us to hold on, he'll be right back. And a couple minutes later, Genesis P-Orridge opens up the door, and Chris tells him he loved the show in Kingston last night and does he have a few minutes for an interview. And Genesis says, no, he doesn't really feel like an interview, what he really feels like is a cheese sandwich, and the late afternoon sun is shining straight in his eyes, and his head is all fleshy and wet. And he thinks about it for a few seconds and tells Chris he'll give him an interview if he can bring him a cheese sandwich, and he closes the door and the three of us just stand there, not quite sure what to make of this.

And then their eyes turn on me, because I live there, and if anybody would, I should know where we could get a cheese sandwich. But when's the last time I ever had a cheese sandwich? So we check the adjoining bar, but the only food they have is those little packets of potato chips. We go back across the street to the pub, and the waitress says, do you mean like a grilled cheese? We just stand there looking at each other, we don't know, and we start to dissect our encounter; if Genesis P-Orridge meant a grilled cheese sandwich he would've said a grilled cheese sandwich, but then too, he's British, and we wonder whether the default semantics of a British cheese sandwich implied that it was grilled. I don't know why exactly, but we finally decide, no, he couldn't possibly want his sandwich grilled. I suggest we check out the bistro café on the corner — they serve a lovely bacon-tomato-cheese melt, but there's that melt factor again, which while it doesn't strictly speaking mean "grilled," it deviates from the default semantics we've already settled on. Besides which it was on a croissant, and we're all agreed this was an error on the side of too fancy and wouldn't do at all.

I run down the list of possible eateries on this stretch of street. There's the Spanish place, Indian, Moroccan, another pub, there's a Greek place too but that's already drifting further off than we'd like, and I can't think of anything appropriately deli-like, apart from the place in the market that I reserve for a Saturday afternoon excursion; that is, for this here and now and with our pressing need, it's too far away. I shrug my shoulders, why don't we just pick up some stuff at the grocery? it's just on the next corner.

So we pool our cash and pick out some nice fresh kaiser rolls, and some kind of wheat bread, and a slab of cheddar, some camembert, and some spiced gouda, and a head of lettuce, and a jar of pickles, and some paper plates and napkins, and a knife, and one of them say we need butter too but I don't understand why anyone would put butter on a cheese sandwich. And we head back to the hall and bang on the door some more. The same guy finally pokes his head around, we exclaim happily that we have cheese sandwiches! or at least the makings thereof! And he should let us in cuz Genesis P-Orridge said it was OK. So he does, and we bound upstairs, say hi to the band and spread out our bounty on the first table that presents itself. Genesis's face (and we all feel we're on a first-name basis now) radiates glee, and someone offers us a beer. Chris sets up his tape deck and I set about making sandwiches, I don't know what Jen's doing (that's her name — Jen!) but she's all tough and cool, pierced and tattooed, I think maybe she just starts making out with one of the guys, I don't know, and before you know it we're all really — I mean really — stoned and pretty happy about the whole thing, especially the wondrous and varied cheese sandwiches.

The show itself was pretty anticlimactic, although we did all get to dance onstage, toward thee infinite beat.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The part about Archimboldi

2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is difficult. It's rich with imagery and ideas, most of which feel connected but which connections are near impossible to describe meaningfully. To offer any kind of summary is like saying, Here's this stick figure I drew of the Mona Lisa. By which I mean to say that 2666 is a masterpiece, but not at all like the Mona Lisa — more like Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Or something from Archimboldo.

This fifth and final part of 2666, The Part about Archimboldi, reads like part fairy-tale, part dream, with bits of nightmare and dark myths thrown in.

I basked in the beauty of this section, but it's taken me quite some time to come to the realization that in fact I did not like Archimboldi. From the outset there is something creepy about him. I thought for a while that this impression was merely a lingering effect of all that came before, the 600 plus pages of sinister mood. But with a little distance, and upon closer examination of some sections and my reactions to them, I'm quite confident in pronouncing: I do not like Archimboldi. I do not find him sympathetic.

Is he a hero? He is the character that figures most prominently in the book. It starts with him (though he is never on stage, he is undeniably central) and ends with him (the whole last section is devoted to his biography), and there are several references to him in between. One might argue that he overcame great adversity to achieve his status as a critically acclaimed obscure author — his family circumstance, his physical oddity, an inability to communicate, war, war, war, hard times, etc.


1. I don't believe he was active at all in putting all this behind him. He simply let things happen, and he came out on the other side. (Is he a hero of inaction?)

2. His status and the merit of it are entirely questionable. Bolaño posits artist as hero throughout the novel and if he had a definitive stance on the issue it is a contradictory one. If the artist is a vessel through which the divine is manifest, or if he is naturally talented, how much can the artist take credit? The toil of mediocrity is more commendable a virtue. And I rather think Bolaño did fashion Archimboldi as a vessel.

(Note: For those who haven't been reading along, Hans Reiter takes the pen name Benno von Archimboldi, inspired by Benito Juárez and painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.)

Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone. Hans Reiter was an exception. He feared neither the healthy nor the diseased. He never got bored. He was always eager to help and he greatly valued the notion — so vague, so malleable, so warped — of friendship. The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man's sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then, too, then, too, then, too.

This (p 661) feeds my sense that Hans is not fully healthy, or he would flee the diseased. And if he is somewhat diseased, his words — his literary work — is worth something, or so goes the argument by Bolaño’s logic. What is this "diseased man's sense of time"? Is it time more palpable, more real, when framed by mortality? (Did the diseased Bolaño's sense of time make him a better writer?)

But Archimboldi often finds himself outside of time (p 662):

They seemed suddenly to freeze, lose all sense of time, and turn completely inward, as if they were bypassing the abyss of daily life, the abyss of people, the abyss of conversation, and decided to approach a kind of lakeside region, a late-romantic region, where the borders were clocked from dusk to dusk, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die, like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die, who understand that more time isn’t more eternity and nevertheless wish with all their souls for more time, and their wails are birds that come flying every so often across the double lakeside landscape, so calmly, like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats. Then, naturally, the three men would emerge stiff from the silence and go back to talking about inventions, women, Finnish philology, the building of highways across the Reich.

(Doesn't that just take your breath away?!)

(In the desert of boredom, this oasis of debauchery — I return to the novel's epigraph from Baudelaire. Is Archimboldi a horror? The abyss as an oasis, revelry in mortality.)

That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi's only wish was never to inhabit either. [p 800]

Then there's this whole discussion (p 664-6) about the 4th dimension and how it is expressible only through music. Which brings us to the 5th dimension and how the perspective from the 5th of the 4th would to denizens of 4 dimensions be beyond their ability to conceive let alone fathom. All of which reminds me of Flatland. And Infinite Jest, which also references Flatland, with its problem of the wraith and at what speed he exists and how he processes time or whether he is outside time.

("[F]ive pairs of eyes lacked spatiotemporal coherence" (p 782) — there should only be three pairs. Who belongs to the other eyes?)

My very favourite passage of this section (p 704), a propos of nothing, really, though it too describes an abyss of sorts:

One night, in the trenches, Reiter rose up to his full height and gazed at the stars, but his attention, inevitably, was diverted toward Sevastopol. The city in the distance was a black mass with red mouths that opened and closed. The soldiers called it the bone crusher, but that night it didn't strike Reiter as a machine but as the reincarnation of a mythological being, a living creature struggling to draw breath.

Why is young Reiter's speech garbled (p 646)? Does the tourist simply not understand the local dialect? Or is there a communication problem?

(Was Reiter struggling to draw breath? He twice almost drowns. He swims, is at home in the water — breath would be a struggle. Is Reiter, then a mythological being? Or does he picture himself as one? Is he condemned like Sisyphus, only to the abyss of daily life, keeping Thanatos in chains, so men might live free of the anxiety of time (p 821)? Reiter recreates himself as Archimboldi, who become a myth.)

Later in Ansky's farmhouse, when he recognizes himself in the mural (who could've painted it? why would Reiter figure in it?), Reiter remembers "that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice" (724), having been shot in the throat.

What about Ansky's seaweedlike extraterrestrial (p 719)? (Is this Reiter? Did he appear in the past, by means beyond our current understanding of the physical world, and inspire this character? Or is he retroactively inserting himself into the text, as any reader might relate to a character?) The conversation he has with the boy is often unintelligible.

Ansky's characters also seem to travel through space and time in a manner that defies physics.

(There are many examples of "supernatural" communication throughout all the parts of the novel. Telepathy in various forms, dreams, a seer, communication via the whisper of leaves, a book on a clothesline airing its contents. All these ideas floating around in the ether (some of them evil) — they have to settle somewhere.)

What is culture, the Germans debate (p 683). General Entrescu claims it is life, that art "couldn't hold a candle to the dream of a single illiterate Romanian peasant." He knows this because he knows his men:

"I steal into their dreams," he said. "I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I'm in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all of this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion."

How does he do it? Is this why his men crucify him? Is he a demon or a saviour?

Reiter argues that "Sammer was just a civil servant of no consequence" (p 776). Then why did he kill him? (Is this the act of a hero?) Or else he is lying.

After much thinking about the concept of semblance, as Ansky had put it forward, Reiter concludes (p 741) that "Only Ansky's wandering isn't semblance, he thought, only Ansky at fourteen isn't semblance. Ansky lived his whole life in rabid immaturity because the revolution, the one true revolution, is also immature."

I think we're meant to see Reiter as immature also, emotionally immature, or emotionally distanced, or un-self-aware.

He remembered that in those days he hadn't yet recovered his voice. He also remembered that in those days he had ceaselessly read and reread Ansky's notebook, memorizing each word, and feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky. And he accepted the guilt and happiness and some nights he even weighed them against each other and the net result of his unorthodox reckoning was happiness, but a different kind of happiness, a heartrending happiness that for Reiter wasn't happiness but simply Reiter. [p 742]

I am certain (how can I be certain?) that Reiter/Archimboldi plagiarizes Ansky. He memorized his notebook we’re reminded (p 796), and Ingeborg notes the speed with which he writes. His authenticity is called into question. It is kinder perhaps to say he gives Ansky’s notebook a voice. But does he do so with any motivation other than to defeat boredom?

In Ansky's view, Archimboldo's painting technique was happiness personified (p 734), even though he produced a couple what could be described as horror paintings.

There are several Archimboldo-esque descriptions throughout the novel, starting with those of seaweed and culminating in this, recognizing a family resemblance (p 866):

One night Lotte saw shadows listening to the radio. One of the shadows was her father. Another shadow was her mother. Other shadows had eyes and noses and mouth that she didn't recognize. Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes.

I keep thinking of Archimboldo paintings, and the seaweed image, as something organic, but not fully sentient.

When Lotte reads parts of Archimboldi's The King of the Forest to him, why does Klaus's expression change (p 888)? What does he recognize? Klaus who demonstrated some affinity with the Flora's book. It was Flora who was reminded of the shepherd boy Benito Juárez (p 431), before he was a great man and Archimboldi borrowed his name (p 809). Facing boredom head-on was an act of bravery and Benito Juárez had done it (p 433). Had Archimboldi done so? By taking up writing?

There's so much more to say. But I don't know what else to say.

Excerpt (part 1): Separate and interminable suburbs.
Part 1: The part about the critics.
Part 2: The part about Amalfitano.
Excerpt (part 3): A walk on the beach.
Parts 3 and 4: The parts about Fate and about the crimes and a vast introductory digression in which I compare and contrast 2666 and Infinite Jest.

Consult the list of other readers who've posted thoughts on this book.