Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chess and the child

As much as she'd seemed to love it, as well as she did, Helena was not interested in continuing with chess club after the Christmas break.

We weighed our options, signed her up for choir instead of dance — something else she wasn't interested in pursuing, though she changed her tune when she discovered some of her friends were continuing and new ones were joining.

And chess, well, I signed her up anyway. Because, though it's extracurricular, it's the most (the only?) intellectually challenging aspect of her kindergarten year. And I believe that she thrives on it.

Friday morning she astounded me. She double checks that I found her chess folder and put it in her backpack. Very casually she mentions how she's looking forward to chess today (even though only a couple of her classmates are enrolled, and they're boys), and wouldn't it be nice if she got another medal — she's going to work toward that medal.

Sunday morning, we work on her sheet of problems: which piece should Black capture on the given sample board.

The choice is governed by where Black can move that is safe versus what immediate threat does White pose that Black must thwart, and, in one case, all other things being equal, the relative value of taking, say, a bishop over a pawn.

I don't recall my exact comment, or why I made it. Something empty, to the effect of "isn't it good to be taking a course where you can learn such interesting things." To which she rejoins: I don't need a course to learn these things, I already know these things. I need only to play now.

I'd spent a couple days already pondering her competitive spirit. Where does it come from? Not from me, I don't think, on either the nature or nurture front. The need to best her classmates? To prove something? To whom? The thrill of victory in itself? Reward or recognition?

After a few hours, I'd determined it was merely an extension of that purely natural human drive — for survival, of the fittest — that is either encouraged or quashed along the way.

But now. Now I have cocky self-assuredness to contend with. Now this is a quality I know next to nothing about, and I don't know what to do with it in a child of mine.

Hours later I understand something deeper and true in Helena's words: these are not things that can be learned. You learn the facts, the moves; the rest follows. You don't learn logic (do you?), you observe it. The game unfolds: something you know, put into practice. You learn from mistakes, from experience; but this is not fundamental. It's the fine tuning of the expression of something innate.

(I think. And I think this is what Helena thinks.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Madame la vendeuse de café

Of all the very beautiful women whom I had seen the most very beautiful was the large and circular lady who sold a cup of perfectly hot and genuine coffee for deux sous, just on the brink of the station, chatting cheerfully with her many customers. Of all the drinks I ever drank, hers was the most sacredly delicious. She wore, I remember, a tight black dress in which enormous and benignant breasts bulged and sank continuously. I lingered over my tiny cup, watching her swift big hands, her round nodding face, her large sudden smile. I drank two coffees, and insisted that my money should pay for our drinks. Of all the treating which I shall ever do, the treating of my captor will stand unique in pleasure. Even he half appreciated the sense of humour involved; though his dignity did not permit a visible acknowledgment thereof.

Madame la vendeuse de café, I shall remember you for more than a little while.

— from The Enormous Room, by EE Cummings.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The radish

A week on, almost two, I don't know where to start in discussing this book: Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. And I came this close to crying.

[Spoiler alert.] The nihilist died! I can't believe he died. And the irony is: he wasn't a very likable person. He was an ass to his parents — and most people, really — but they have always thought of him and will remember him as a perfect son.

So what happens when a nihilist falls in love?

"Do you see, it's sometimes a good thing for a man to take himself by the scruff of the neck and pull himself up like pulling a radish out of its bed."

What makes the nihilist sympathetic is that he finds love. And it does lift him out of his nihilistic self, a bit.

But he's rejected! (Kind of.) Which makes makes him embrace his nihilism all the more! (Kind of.)

"Let bygones be bygones," she said, "especially as, to be quite frank, I was also to blame, if not by being coquettish, then in some other fashion. In short, let us be friends as we were before. The other was a dream, was it not? And who ever remembers dreams?"

"Who indeed" And besides, love . . . is a purely imaginary feeling."

"Really? I am very glad to hear you say that."

So spoke Anna Sergeyevna, and so spoke Bazarov, and they both believed they were speaking the truth. Was the truth, the whole truth, to be found in their words? They themselves did not know, and still less does the author. But in the conversation that followed each appeared to have complete faith in the other.

It's a wondrous moment.

(I can't believe the nihilist dies!)

Interesting, too, that it is the only instance, I believe, of the author inserting himself into the text.

There's an ease in the writing, in the dialogue — the story is shown, not told. So there's this beautiful love story, and another, and even another, unfolding, but all the while life, beautiful life, is happening. Turgenev exercised remarkable restraint in not waxing philosophical on the issues this novel encapsulates — he lets them speak for themselves, without passing judgment.

As the title suggests, this is a book about a generation gap. And while it's very firmly rooted in a specific time and place, I was struck by how modern, or rather how timeless, the family relationships are. The young upstarts, radicals and intellectuals, think their parents (in their 40s) have had their day. The Russian aristocracy is on the way out, the serfs are emancipated; to varying degrees all the characters see a need for reform yet still are tied to tradition. The older generation moves toward modernism as well, and in some ways more tangibly (the continued but new economic relationships with previous serfs; one father's love story transgresses class and traditional expectations) than the talk at the universities might accomplish.

Great book. If Russian literature intimidates you, if Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are too "big" for you, read Fathers and Sons.

Plus, there's a duel! (With a nihilist!)

Postscript: I did treat myself to more Turgenev last week. First Love. I first read about it at Reading Matters — a thoughtful review of an at times painfully exquisite novella.

Friday, February 13, 2009


One lunch hour this week, I took advantage of the full hour and ran out to church. For the music, of course.

Chamber Music Without Borders (CMWB) is a Montreal music outreach program created and run by McGill University music students, bringing music to the community, making music a part of everyday life. Music!

What is the point of living in the city, working at city centre, if not to take advantage of all the city has to offer. Too often I forget.

It's well and good to listen to CDs on your expensive sound systems in the comfort of your dens, but however well connected you are, you are a degree removed from the music. To be in a room, a hall, in the presence of another human being with a box, with holes or strings, with a stick... and the air you breathe vibrates with music — this is a miracle!

For the last two weeks I have been listening, extensively and repeatedly, on my commute, at work, in the evening at home, I know not why, to Paganini's Caprices (as played by Midori). It could not be a happier coincidence that Caprice No 11 was on the menu, played by Jeffrey Dyrda.

When such music is played there, I can almost believe that the church is where god might actually reside.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The oyster of imagination

So I finished that little Turgenev novel (more on this on the morrow), and then I finished off that little work of juvenile fiction I'd left off, and I found myself sitting around the house wondering what the hell I'm to read next, it being the first occasion in months where I didn't have a plan, or some next great thing beckoning me — I have instead a very modest selection of somber, or at least soberingly intimidating, works on my shelf awaiting their right time and my proper attention (Bolaño! Lem! Pynchon! and more Lem!) — and all the while there is a recent nagging itch in the corner of my mind telling me, "More Turgenev," that is not eased by the most rational retort that simply there is none on hand, and I almost resort to imploring you, dear Reader, to suggest something — You who are never short on suggestions, but, frankly, more likely to leave me feeling confused and unfocused (no offense; it reflects poorly on me, not You) — when I realize it's late, time to turn in, sleep on it, something will come to me in time for the morning commute, but nothing has come but great fever upon my child, which does save me from braving the métro bookless, or unsuitably or irresponsibly booked, but brings with it, combined with the difficulty of dealing with work issues in a manner not face to face, instead a plague of other worries from which by noon I am in desperate need of relief: a respite of fiction with a cappuccino, please; when my eye should fall upon a book long discarded, abandoned, no — I'd merely set it aside awhile. I speak of The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalive Lahnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, my bookmark at page 311, propitiously the start of Book Two:

The imperious pen departs to conquer the dominions of rhetoric, girding itself to trek the blank stretches of paper, and delivers the account of Amir's journey, painting a host of new episodes and choice encounters before the mind's eye.

What a lavish feast! Too rich to be devoured in one sitting.

Today Amir comes to a fork in the path and is tricked into taking the one by which his army surely will die of thirst; his "obedient servant" proffers a poisoned goatskin, from which Amir is saved, by fate, by luck, by chivalrous manners and in good humour, and by a voice upon the wind, from drinking.

Really. All that in just two pages.

I am faced with a fresh problem: wanting to know what happens next versus the encumbrance of this very big book. It will not commute easily and I'll have to plan ahead: no room for a packed lunch in my bag, I'll have to dress to wear the shoes I left under my desk, and work will have to stay at work — I won't be able to carry the laptop too.

"Divers of the sea of traditions extract treasures of discourse from the oyster of imagination, and bear forth the luminous offering of the pearls of narrative..."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A quiet life

Russians! In winter! Makes for excellent reading!

"No," she decided at last. "God alone knows what it might have led to; this was not something to trifle with. After all, a quiet life is better than anything else in the world."

Her peace of mind was not deeply disturbed; but she felt sad and once even burst into tears, though she could not have said why — certainly not because she had been outraged. She did not feel that she had been outraged: on the contrary, she had a feeling of guilt. The pressure of various vague emotions — the sense of life passing by, a longing for novelty — had forced her to a certain limit, forced her to look behind her — and there she had seen not even an abyss but only a void . . . chaos without shape.

— from Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev.

Turgenev, now, and this Turgenev, finally, because it was referenced in Orhan Pamuk's Snow. Thoughts already germinating...