Saturday, January 31, 2009

The urban jungle in winter

To stop and smell the roses in January in Montreal is to take a half-hour to walk the half-block from school to home.

For a 6-year-old, it is to mark every patch of virgin snow, to climb every snow-blown mountain at the end of every driveway and slide down it or, failing that, attempt to demolish it.

For the 6-year-old's mother, it is to lose patience at first, then watch and indulge, even help. What's the hurry? To get home, have supper, go to bed? It is to remember the magic of the snow of childhood.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sharpening my wings

Some days, I walk into bookstores and I buy things — books! On impulse! Just like that! Some days, I don't know why I do it. But some days, it makes me feel better.

One day — in fact, I believe it may have been my birthday — my eyes fell on a thick black stack of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Besotted by Poetry though I may be these days, and curious to better know my countrymen (if I may call them that; I think I may), and realizing that likely it's freshly out in paperback, and printed with a fake sticker, the New York Times calling it a notable book, I still thought it was weird that the bookstore should have more than a dozen copies in stock. No matter. I had to have one. It was my birthday after all.

The book sits on the shelf under the coffee table, intimidating me. It is Poetry, and quite possibly Important besides, but also the fact of its Polishness sets me on edge a little — I worry that what I find will be too little, or too much.

Some days I pick it up, open it at random. I'm sniffing it out, getting used to its presence.

Today I find this...


The cold blue sky like a stone on which angels
sublime and quite unearthly sharpen their wings
moving on rungs of radiance on crags of shadow
they gradually sink into the imaginary heaven
but in another moment they emerge even paler
on the other side of the sky the other side of the eye
Don't say that it's not true that there are no angels
you immersed in the pool of your indolent body
you who see everything in the color of your eyes
and stand sated with world — at your lashes' edge

How could anyone be sated, with world, with poetry, with the sublime?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The story so far

I've been reading. I've been lost in my reading — in good ways and in bad.

It started with The Savage Detectives. I started it over the Christmas break, and it was my little oasis of poetry, to shut the world off — the family, the noise — for a few minutes a day and immerse myself in a book.

So I loved the start of it, wanted to know more of the visceral realist movement in Mexico. Then it got weird. The second section of the book, called "The Savage Detectives," consists of the journal entries of a varied cross-section of people, recalling certain events, or nonevents, in which the new visceral realists we'd come to know in the first section played peripheral roles. Then I felt lost. I was somewhat startled to find myself dislocated in space and time, over and over again. (Who are the detectives here anyway? And what's so savage about them?) Then I gave myself over to it.

But the whole time I'm thinking: How did someone manage to craft a novel out of all this? Is it really a novel? And do I really like it?

These tiny windows onto these poets who passed through random people's lives. This interests me, as a technique, as well as in life, because, well, how much do we know anyone really? The size of the window varies, but even to live with someone for years, sharing nights and days, whole and endless, is there ever complete entry into their inner life?

This, then, is how one writes? Find a window, open it wider, wider. And when it doesn't open any further, find another window?

"One day I drank five Coca-Colas and suddenly I felt sick, as if the sun had filtered down into my Cokes and I'd drunk it without realizing." This is a magical sentence. I've read it over countless times. I still don't get it. Sick — like the sun would poison your drink; drinking the sun would poison you. And that doesn't seem quite right, it's not the glass of Florida sunshine we down at breakfast. But then it's not the Florida sun, is it? And I remember seeing the desert shimmer in the south of Tunisia, the sad little zoo with the trick camel that drank water from a Coke bottle; I remember The Sheltering Sky and I remember Under the Volcano, and pretty much the only thing I remember about the both of them is the feeling of heat, the exhaustion of it, like drinking a poison sun. It's a plain little sentence, but I love it.

Stars like holographic projections
Two islands

Then I started the seahorse book (so called by Helena for the illustration on its cover): Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson. I started by loving it. So much the opposite of Bolaño, so spare; poetic with a delicate poignancy of observation. Not Bolaño's rapturous flood of images and emotions.

Bolaño is the poetry of excess. Winterson is a negative; it's what's left after all excess is removed. I don't know how to substantiate this. It's a feeling. Visceral. There is a time for Winterson's stillness. And I needed to be stilled, a little, in my reading. But I get a rush from the bombardment Bolaño levels at me. Makes me feel alive. Winterson leaves me feeling longing, empty. Bolaño may tear out my innards, but at least I see the innards, know what and where they are, as I gather it all up into myself again. It's something visceral.

Lighthousekeeping starts in a fairytale haze, through which eternal truths seem to shine. How does she write this thing? Few words, but all, I'm sure, carefully chosen.

Darkness was a presence. I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own.

Pew did not speak. I didn't know if he was kind or unkind, or what he intended to do with me. He had lived alone all his life.

That first night, Pew cooked the sausage in darkness. No, Pew cooked the sausage with darkness. It was the kind of dark you can taste. That's what we ate: sausages and darkness.

And there was talk of story, without all that much story actually being divulged. Wherever a story starts, one could always go back a little further, to an earlier beginning, just as stories always go on well after the ending. How can you tell a story these days without acknowledging this? And it all made a calm and rational sense to me.

Then it got weird. Suddenly the fairy tale was gone and we were in modern times trying to make it sound like a fairy tale, all cryptic proclamations of love, all airy-fairy. And she lost me.

But all the same, I wonder. How did she write this, these disparate tableaux laid on top of each other to make something called a novel?

I noted an obvious debt to Doris Lessing:

The doctor leaned back in his chair. "Do you keep a diary?"

"I have a collection of silver notebooks."

"Are they consistent?"

"Yes. I buy them from the same department store."

"I mean, do you keep on record or your life, or several? Do you feel you have more than one life perhaps?"

"Of course I do. It would be impossible to tell one single story."

"Perhaps you should try."

"A beginning, a middle, and an end?"

"Something like that — yes."

Then something more visceral (though, somehow, fairly emotionlessly told):

My heart is a muscle with four valves. It beats 101,000 times a day, it pumps eight pints of blood around my body. Science can bypass it, but I can't. I say I give it to you, but I never do.

...reminding me of "How I Finally Lost My Heart."

Then I read more Doris Lessing: On Cats. It's light, and deft, and it's about cats, wonderful cats! This is not a fluffy, sentimental book. This is about weird creatures with secret lives. And I wonder how she does it, there's no particular way about her, or her words; it's all done without pretension, straight up. She just has the most interesting things to say.

Now, at the end of January, in the deep of winter, I am reading The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, and I wish I could stay in bed all day reading. I've been suspicious of this book; overhyped, I thought. But on impulse I dragged it out of the bargain bin the other day, and I haven't been able to put it down since. It feels old-fashioned (and I don't know what that means); traditional: extolling the beginning-middle-end that Winterson denies. It is comfortable, if slightly (deliciously) eery, and makes me want to stay still and lost and blanketed till it's done.

And this is how I'm learning to write. Reading has always been a window onto another world, but now I'm seeing that writing is too. I see so many windows these days — in the metro, in my coworkers' phone conversations, in other internet lives. Some days there is even time enough to peer through them. It's not a matter of escape, but simply of seeing something else, something outside myself. (If I've learned anything this last year it's to allow myself to be lifted out of myself, to be lifted, to lift myself.) To shape a novel is to find where the views through various windows intersect.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

After a certain age

[...] Anyway, somewhere back there, a very small girl had fought for and won a cat who kept her days and nights company; and then she lost it.

After a certain age — and for some of us that can be very young — there are no new people, beasts, dreams, faces, events: it has all happened before, they appeared before, masked differently, wearing different clothes, another nationality, another colour; but the same, the same, and everything is an echo and a repetition; and there is no grief even that it is not a recurrence of something long out of memory that expresses itself in unbelievable anguish, days of tears, loneliness, knowledge of betrayal and all for a small, thin, dying cat.

— from On Cats, by Doris Lessing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My fable

< You can't sleep right now. Continue? >

I came to bed late last night. J-F brings me a coffee this morning, and I try to talk out my predicament.

"I'm having trouble with my character — she can't sleep. She won't get into bed, let alone have sex. I think it may be potion-related — you know how many of them are java-based..."

J-F looks at me in disbelief. "Do you have any idea how much you sound like a teenage geekboy?"

I stayed up way past my bedtime playing a videogame.

For Helena's sake, of course. Watching her father play Fable II, well... she wanted to play too. When J-F started to worry that she'd undo his progress, I agreed to coach her through her own game. Better: we've created our own kickass girl hero.

We have an arrangement: she kills all the bad guys and I take care of all the administrative affairs, as well as kill off those bad guys that are either too tough or too scary.

We play nice, generally: work hard, follow the rules, love presents (giving and receiving), don't steal, dance for the crowd, treat the dog right. We make decisions, set priorities, consider strategies. We explore.

I watch her kill 100 hollow men; she ignores me rambling on about TS Eliot, despite the fascinating Doctor Who connection.

At the end of the day, there is business to settle: an inventory of treasures to manage, skills and weapons to upgrade, rents to adjust, relationships to maintain.

I want to keep our game-family provided for and happy. Having been away on a quest, it seems only right to spend some quality time together before embarking on another.

But I can't get my game-husband in bed with me.

I've tried everything. I buy a new outfit, dye my hair. My game-husband says he wants me, as do many villagers. But my character will not go to bed. This bed is worn and has a suspect history; so I buy a new bed. My game-husband asks, "Are you sure this is your bed?" I put the old bed back. I try a few pick-up lines; he suggests we go "that way." I can't be quite sure what that way lies, but it's quite certain he will not lay with me. "That way," in the direction he indicates, I buy a new house, a fresh marital home. But my old problem follows us.

I give up. I decide I may as well get some rest, restore my health. My attempt to do so gives me a message: < You can't sleep right now. Continue. >

Well, I can't sleep now.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Canada writes

We all know Canada's been reading for years; now Canada writes as well.

This week Canada writes about your favourite song. I've already answered; what's yours?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sublime things (this week)

The moon! Did you see the moon!?!

Helena offers to show me the yoga positions she knows. She assembles herself into a lotus, palms together, lowers her eyes, and sweetly murmurs, "Namaste."


J-F, as we're trying to plan the coming week, comments that Helena, busy with a toy, is too much in the present to want to participate in this conversation. She asks why we would say that, "Je ne suis pas dans une boîte."

The other night we watched The Man From Earth. While some of it (the acting, the camera work) is laughable, the ideas are persistently interesting. A departing scholar reveals to his colleagues that he is a Cro-Magnon caveman, 14,000 years old. He reveals that he studied with Buddha, and it later comes to light that he himself was a significant religious figure — Jesus. I love stories that work like this, showing great events as banalities — we see how the everyday grows into historical significance, given the right filters. See this movie if you want something to talk about for days.

I'm reminded of one of my very favourite films of all time (Man Facing Southeast), mostly, I guess, because the premise is beyond credibility — our protagonists' confessions must be taken on faith — but also because, when words run out, they turn to Beethoven. (I wonder what ever happened to David?)

Helena thinks the cat, knowing she wants to pet him, can "read her head."

Reading. Reading Bolaño, not sure what to make of this Bolaño, almost finished this Bolaño, need to take a break from Bolaño. Lining up: Lessing, Winterson, Turgenev. Also reading TS Eliot:

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hurrah for Dumas!

Really. Dumas is wonderful. And great in bed.

I did finally finish The Last Cavalier late last year.

The first couple hundred pages moved swiftly, full of Napoleonic politics I couldn't always follow, but intensely gripping nonetheless. So much was I glutted, and confused, I had to take a break for a few weeks.

I hesitated to pick it up again — Dumas had exhausted me — but I did. To this point, the last cavalier, Count de Saint-Hermine, was a figure in the shadows as a Royalist and a potential threat to Napoleon, and about to marry into his circle, but circumstance whisked him away and he was left to languish in prison for a few years. On page 348, he is finally released, and with part 2, the adventure really begins.

Pirates, tigers, pythons, sharks. A girl who dies of love for him. Three hundred pages of completely unbelievable wild exploits. Dumas kept me up late; I rose sleepily cranky, dying to know what happens next.

I have 2 gripes:

1. The English translation is in desperate need of proofreading. I usually manage to turn off this part of my brain when reading for pleasure; it's rare that a typo pulls me out the fictional world I'm immersed in. Here I counted dozens of errors, and the magic of the story surely kept as many more from being noticed. A shame, for a manuscript whose publication is being marketed as important.

2. All who set out on this reading know the novel was "unfinished," that it might be in need of some editing, of tightening, of tying up loose ends. The volume is published with an appendix containing 3 chapters written by Dumas that don't directly follow from where the serial breaks off. That's fine; that's what happens when you die before you're finished. However, editor Claude Schopp took it upon himself to supply a conclusion to the episode that left us hanging. Scholar though he may be, familiar with all Dumas's phrasings and likely able to map all his plot developments and provide a very educated guess about where they might lead (besides being in possession of Dumas's notes), I think his 9-page addition was neither necessary nor right.

But. Great book. Delightful.

The characters in their exploits sometimes approach caricature. Their moral dimensions are at times simplistic, but there is no action taken devoid of one. Ultimately there's such fullness in Dumas's people, such joie de vivre in the telling, there is de la vie in what's told.

One thing that struck me. Dumas's character descriptions — of our beloved Count, but also of Napoleon, of Nelson, of advisors and friends — very often include a reference to age, expressing an awe that someone could accomplish so much, live so many adventures, command such respect and responsibility at so young an age. All so young! I notice, maybe, because I am becoming somewhat age-sensitive, marvelling at what others achieve by age 25 or 30. I suppose it's only natural old-man Dumas might obsess over such details, suprisingly only because he himself produced so much in his lifetime.

Some introductory comments.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The form happiness takes

Today I bought pink, jewel-encrusted shoes. (For my daughter.)

Yesterday, we went to Narnia together. (Here's how.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Two islands

Of all the islands he'd visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

— from The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The most wonderful time of the year

It is. I keep reminding myself. Was. Has been. Wonderful.

I fully believed it a month ago, when the world first lay white at our feet, crowds bustled, and the air positively glistened with crisp anticipation. Then. Then came the mocking commentary: "It's the most wonderful time of the year," he'd singsong in a phony voice, eyebrow raised in irony. Mocking the good intentions, hardening the reality, hardening the icy crust around my heart.

And I started to hate bits of it. Obligations. Inanities.

I baked. With joy at first. I baked for escape at times. But mostly it was joy.

Now it's (almost) all over (we take the train home tomorrow) and I feel sad. I'm not sure why. Sigh.

I pass Helena a box of tissues. "I need just one Kleeneck, Mommy."

We travelled, ate, and drank. We played cards. I've read very little (after loving Dumas all through December, Bolaño bores me), written less, neglected friends.

I don't make resolutions. Never have. At least not the first-of-January kind. They are the early spring and the midsummer kind, the anyday resolution, to change, to shake things up, to just do something.

Except this year. I resolve to write. Daily. Not here necessarily. I mean, to write — for it to be shaped into something bigger. For some reason, even this makes me sad.