Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That blue time of year

The 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival takes place April 22-26, 2009. This year's theme: words that matter.

The programme is now online.

A.S. Byatt is to be honoured with the Grand Prix. Her new novel, The Children's Book, will be launched at the festival.

The event I'm most looking forward to: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! author Jonathan Goldstein (WireTap) interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Le phénomène politico-littéraire

I love this story. I first read about it the other week, but my mind keeps returning to it.

The citizens of France (vive la république!) protest their government by reading.

In 2006, Sarkozy expressed his distaste for La Princesse de Clèves, by Madame de Lafayette, a 17th century novel that most students at some point find on their curriculum:

L'autre jour, je m'amusais, on s'amuse comme on peut, à regarder le programme du concours d'attaché d'administration. Un sadique ou un imbécile, choisissez, avait mis dans le programme d'interroger les concurrents sur La Princesse de Clèves. Je ne sais pas si cela vous est souvent arrivé de demander à la guichetière ce qu'elle pensait de La Princesse de Clèves... Imaginez un peu le spectacle !

It's a triple-edged insult, really: at the book itself, at the officials who devised the exam, and at the low-level civil servant hopefuls who would write it.

Recent sales of the book are way up. According to The Telegraph it has "a new role as a symbol of dissent"; there are public readings and many French writers are declaring it a favourite.

Curiosity got the better of me; I finally procured myself a copy:

Set towards the end of the reign of Henry II of France, The Princesse de Clèves (1678) tells of the unspoken, unrequited love between the fair, noble Mme de Clèves, who is married to a loyal and faithful man, and the Duc de Nemours, a handsome man most female courtiers find irresistible. Warned by her mother against admitting her passion, Mme de Clèves hides her feelings from her fellow courtiers, until she finally confesses to her husband an act that brings tragic consequences for all. Described as France's first modern novel, The Princesse de Clèves is an exquisite and profound analysis of the human heart, and a moving depiction of the inseparability of love and anguish.

Scandal! Unrequited love! I think it promises to be a real page turner.

(Meanwhile, Stephen Harper still isn't reading much of anything.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lost books

In last night's episode, young Ben brings Sayid a book with his sandwich: A Separate Reality, by Carlos Castaneda. Has anybody read it?

Here's an interesting blog concept: Lost Books Challenge reviews books related to Lost. Many of them are those Sawyer is seen reading; but others read as well (Ben is reading Ulysses on the plane), and literary references turn up in all sorts of places.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Make a noise

(This is book commentary 2.2 on Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers, now seen through the haze of days. Weeks! It's been weeks since I read it! My thoughts needed to gestate, but what do I have for it? A bunch of interesting quotations, but everything's slipped out of context. If I had the head for it, the right mindset, I'm sure I could work that to say something meaningful about neural connections, how real life settles into one's mind, but I don't.)

This book feels like a roadmap. How to translate life experience into words, to make a book.

There are echoes of the Variations everywhere, without ever trying to be the Variations. I never expected this book, any book, to live up to the Variations; this one is quietly satisfying, thoughtful.

U. was the place where I first saw how paint might encode politics, first heard how a sonata layered itself like a living hierarchy, first felt sentences cadence into engagement. I first put myself up inside the damp chamois of another person's body in U. First love smelted, sublimated, and vaporized here in four slight years.

I betrayed my beloved physics in this town, shacked up with literature.

When did I shack up with literature?, I wonder. Did I, in fact? I gave up math, but I don't think there was betrayal. But there was no whirlwind romance either. I'd always had literature on the side, since I was 6.

So here I have a selection of quotations I thought poignant, or beautiful, or worth thinking about. Without anything much to say about them.

The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it.

This Lentz, I reasoned, had a neural network buried in that mountain of equipment. One that he was training to recognize beauty. One that would tell him, after repeated listenings, how that simple reed breathing made and unmade the shifting signal weights that triggered souls.

At bottom , at synapse level, I was far more fluid than I'd ever suspected. As fluid as the sum of things that had happened to me, all things retained or apparently lost. Every input to my associative sieve changed the way I sieved the next input.

We humans are winging it, improvising. Input pattern x set off associative matrix y, which bears only the slightest relevance to the stimulus and is often worthless. Conscious intelligence is smoke and mirrors. Almost free-associative. Nobody really responds to anyone else, per se. We all spout our canned and thumb-nailed scripts, with the barest minimum of polite segues. Granted we're remarkably fast at indexing and retrieval. But comprehension and appropriate response are often more on the order of buckshot.

These weird parallaxes of framing must be why the mind opened out at all. Meaning was not a pitch but an interval. It sprang from the depth of disjunction, the distance between one circuit's center and the edge of another. Representation caught the sign napping, with its semantic pants down. Sense lay in metaphor's embarrassment at having two takes on the same thing. For the first time, I understood Emerson's saying about the use of life being to learn metonymy.

Life was metonymy, or at least stood for it.

The interval. The disjunction. I'm seeing all relationships in these terms now. White space. Negative space. The space between. The need to conflate it.

Then there's this: "the only two careers worth striving for were doctor and musician." I think it's true. I think. Heal the body. Heal the soul. We need to be healed.

Helen did not sing the way real little girls sang. Technically, she almost passed. Her synthesized voice skittered off speech's earth into tentative, tonal Kitty Hawk. Her tune sounded remarkably limber, given the scope of that mechanical tour de force.

But she did not sing for the right reasons. Little girls sang to keep time for kickball or jump ropes. The little boy soprano I had played onstage at twelve had been doing that. Singing the tune I'd taught Helen, keeping imitative time by bouncing a ball against a pasteup shop door.

I'm wired, of course, to hear "Helena" in "Helen." And I wonder about my girl's singing. She is always singing. (Days I wish she wouldn't. Days she doesn't, days she's not there, are empty.) Making up words to known tunes. Devising new tunes for as yet untold stories. About the cat, or spiders in the bathtub, or how much she loves me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lost reading

This is why I love Sawyer.

JACK: So where do we go from here?

SAWYER: I'm working on it.

JACK: Really? Because it looked to me like you were reading a book.

SAWYER: [Chuckles] I heard once Winston Churchill read a book every night, even during the Blitz. He said it made him think better. It's how I like to run things. I think. I'm sure that doesn't mean that much to you, 'cause back when you were calling the shots, you pretty much just reacted. See, you didn't think, Jack, and as I recall, a lot of people ended up dead.

JACK: I got us off the Island.

SAWYER: But here you are... [sighs] right back where you started. So I'm gonna go back to reading my book, and I'm gonna think, 'cause that's how I saved your ass today. And that's how I'm gonna save Sayid's tomorrow. All you gotta do is go home, get a good night's rest. Let me do what I do.

I'm gonna go back to reading my book now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A special gummy hell

Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the back. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime to which adhere the dust and fluff of ages, making me wish for a special gummy hell to which the inventor of these stickers would be condemned.

— from The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel.


Helena thinks I'm smart.

"You're so smart, Mommy."

It doesn't take all that much to impress a 6-year-old, but when I hear her say it, I feel like a million bucks.

I wonder why she thinks it's so. So I ask.

"Because you know so many things. You know everything!"

I hope she understands there are different ways to be smart, and I start enumerating them.

She cuts me short, but in so doing indicates where her values lie: "You know how to do music!"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Life, this week

Coming up out of the metro, making my way to the exit, I glance up — the stairs are swarming with grey-brown huddled masses ever so slowly writhing in the direction I'm headed.

Montreal cannot shake winter, yet. It's trying to emerge, but is still cold, tired, dirty. Slugs we are.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The first time it had ever been thought

And each vast shapeless Thing had two little eyes, just like the tiny eyes of the old Clefts there, lost in the loose flesh of their faces, old Clefts sprawling and dozing on the warm rocks, and the thought in both girls' minds now, and perhaps it was the first time it had ever been thought in that long-ago time such ages ago, came: "I don't want to be like them" . . . the idea that had made revolutions, wars, split families, or driven the bearer of the idea mad or into new active life . . . "I won't be like them, I won't."

— from The Cleft, by Doris Lessing.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Lately having encountered difficulty in accessing bit-torrent files and for years frustrated with the limited and disagreeable channel selections offered by our cable provider, notwithstanding the fact that J-F is out of town and the necessity of accompanying the child to some 6-year-old's birthday party, my entire weekend is centred around the possibility of streaming Doctor Who in bed Sunday morning. Finally!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Moral conduct at 6

Consumer Ethics
Her tone isn't accusatory; she wants confirmation of her understanding. "You don't shop at Wal-Mart."

"No, I don't." I'm not sure how she knows this. It's because we don't go that the name is rarely mentioned. Times, driving around, looking for some product or other, J-F and I may roll our eyes at each other: "We could always try Wal-Mart." Helena evidently hears our mocking scorn loud and clear.

She tells me her grandmother shops at Wal-Mart. Is that OK? Helena's new outfit — the raincoat (pink), umbrella (pink), and galoshes (mauve and pink) — comes from Wal-Mart. Is that OK?

There must be a slight grimace in my smile.

"Why don't you shop at Wal-Mart?" I keep it simple, but honest: I don't think the employees are paid much or treated very well. And a lot of smaller shops have had to close because of Wal-Mart, so a lot of people have lost their jobs. Not shopping there is my way of saying I don't like the way Wal-Mart does business.

Helena the conciliator, the diplomat, rationalizes her grandmother's actions. It's close to her house, and they really needed to buy slippers (for Helena) in a hurry.

Virtual Morality
It was bound to happen. All the travelling and adventuring, the whistling and dancing. They really like you, they want to marry you, I tell her.

For weeks she's somewhat horrified by the idea. "But we're already married!?!" But someone must've caught her fancy.

Fable II has brought us all to consider our worldviews in a new light.

For weeks, Helena has been transporting the citizens of Westcliff and Bloodstone — Lee the Thug, Victor the Drunkard — to nicer environs. "How can they live there? It's not very nice. And it's not safe either."

And so, our character comes to marry one of the poor sots. A new family in a new town. I question Helena about it. She's coy: notre amoureux, lui qui habite à Bowerstone — he doesn't have to know. Besides, she tells me, Papa in his game has 4 or 5 families.

The thing is: she knows it's a game. Why not, then, play out something you wouldn't dream of doing in real life?

The consequences for Helena's bigamous character: blackmail. I explain it to her, and it seems that worry actually crosses her brow. You can ignore the letter or pay the man (I leave out a more violent alternative).

Pay him, she insists after careful thought. No one has to know. Not in this game-world anyway.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Books I'm suddenly excited about

I'm sitting here, thinking about writing, thinking about reading, thinking about blogging, thinking about making and freezing some crêpes for when the girl gets home. But mostly I'm just sitting here, having a beer and a cigarette and not scrubbing the toilets.

I haven't been very excited about new book releases in a while. Nothing grabs me. Maybe I'm just caught up in working my way through some of the not-yet-read eclectic treasures I've amassed.

But I am unreasonably delighted to learn of the forthcoming publication of the following:

May 5, 2009: Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold. For years I've been pining that he write a new book for me to read. I'd heard rumours of one such book, but the publication dates were vague and postponed. But at last it seems imminent:

From the author of the acclaimed best seller Carter Beats the Devil comes a grand entertainment with the brilliantly realized figure of Charlie Chaplin at its center: a novel at once cinematic and intimate, thrilling and darkly comic, that dramatizes the moment when American capitalism, a world at war, and the emerging mecca of Hollywood intersect to spawn an enduring culture of celebrity.

Sunnyside opens on a winter day in 1916 during which Chaplin is spotted in more than eight hundred places simultaneously, an extraordinary mass delusion. From there, the novel follows the overlapping fortunes of three men: Leland Wheeler, son of the world’s last (and worst) Wild West star, as he heads to the battlefields of France; snobbish Hugo Black, drafted to fight under the towering General Edmund Ironside in America’s doomed engagement with Russia; and Chaplin himself, as he faces a tightening vice of complications — studio moguls, questions about his patriotism, his unchecked heart, and, most menacing of all, his mother — to finally make a movie "as good as he was."

May 26, 2009: The City & the City, by China Miéville. Not a Bas-Lag novel, but still! An existential thriller!:

When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger.

Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel's equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

May will be a merry month.

Friday, March 06, 2009

La relâche

The kid is away this week, most of the week. March break. Helena is staying with her grandmother.

It's one thing to have the occasional child-free weekend, but it's quite another to endure regular workdays without the myriad of tiny tasks that fill time. Laying out clothes, preparing breakfast, wiping up spills, packing lunch, "Did you brush your teeth?," checking her backpack for assignments and messages, completing forms, choosing snacks, untangling hair, fixing various minor catastrophes. Six million things before my own day begins.

My mornings are strange this week. Not entirely unpleasant, but foreign, if faintly familiar. My synapses fire on all cylinders, but with no external focus; the energy is trained simply on being. The world moves so slowly around me.

She phoned the other night. Past her bedtime. In tears, gasping for breath: "Je m'ennuie de toi, maman. I love you TOO much. I want to dream about you."

The days since have passed without incident.

I thought she'd be back by now, but my mother-in-law decided to go to the cottage. They'll be back in a couple more days.

The cat's been looking for you.

You know what, kid? I miss you too.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The most prodigious of all universes

There is poetry in it, in this enormous room of a novel, in the enormous room of Cummings' mind, in the enormous room of his imprisonment (France, 1917), in the dining room with its "dinosaur-coloured sweating walls."

I didn't know ee cummings had ever written a novel, but Ella knew it: "[...] ee cummings, too, isn't exactly an unknown, but his memoir The Enormous Room is, and that's probably the book I'd save from a burning bookshelf. It's a luminescent and wonderful thing."

Some 2 years after first hearing about it, I found a used copy, Modern Library no less, of which 1934 is the latest date it bears. And now I've read it.

It's a great title, ripe with metaphor, which Cummings spells out in his introduction of 1932:

When this book wrote itself, I was observing a negligible portion of something incredibly more distant than any sun; something more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes —


The individual.

This is a fictionalized account of an actual biographical event in Cummings' life. In France as a Red Cross volunteer, it's never entirely clear why he is taken away for questioning and held beyond for association with a suspicious character (his friend and fellow American), whose own transgressions we never know. It's the red tape of le gouvernement française. But the book is not about B, or even about Cummings per se; it's about this finite space teeming with infinite life. And that space includes the mind that must cope with regulations and unsanitary conditions and the tedium of such a daily life.

But Cummings is a poet. He glories in it, all of it, and above all in people.

When Cummings is first being transferred, he is almost excited to be travelling through Paris (though all he is to experience of it is la gare and the sidewalk just outside) on his way to what he hears as "Mah-say." Marseilles! At last, they (he with his guards) reach the town, and this passage stops me dead:

I was too tired to think. I merely felt the town as a unique unreality. What was it? I knew — the moon's picture of a town. These streets with their houses did not exist, they were but a ludicrous projection of the moon's sumptuous personality. This was a city of Pretend, created by the hypnotism of moonlight. — Yet when I examined the moon she too seemed but a painting of a moon, and the sky in which she lived a fragile echo of colour. If I blew hard the whole shy mechanism would collapse gently with a neat, soundless crash. I must not, or lose all.

The punchline comes a few pages later, when he learns that this, as it turns out, little shithole of a town he's arrived in is in fact: Macé.

He paints beautiful portraits:

"Assieds-toi là" (graciousness of complete gesture. The sheer kingliness of poverty. He creased the indescribably soft couverture for me and I sat and looked into his forehead bounded by the cube of square sliced hair. Blacker than Africa. Than imagination).

I mean: blacker than imagination! How black is that!

He is humble, before others, before his art:

His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless spontaneity which is the prerogative of fairies perhaps, or at any rate of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort — things which are always inside of us and, in fact, are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them — are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.

[. . .]

He could not, of course, write any language whatever. Two words of French he knew: they were fromage and chapeau. The former he pronounced "grumidge." In English his vocabulary was even more simple, consisting of the single word "po-lees-man." Neither B. nor myself understood a syllable of Polish (tho' we subsequently learned jin-dobri, nima-zatz, zampni-pisk and shimay pisk, and used to delight The Zulu hugely by giving him

"Jin-dobri, pan"

every morning, also by asking him if he had a "papierosa"); consequently in that direction the path of communication was to all intents shut. And withal — I say this not to astonish my reader but merely in the interests of truth — I have never in my life so perfectly understood (even to the most exquisite nuances) whatever idea another human being desired at any moment to communicate to me, as I have in the case of The Zulu. And if I had one-third the command over the written word that he had over the unwritten and the unspoken — not merely that; over the unspeakable and the unwritable — God knows this history would rank with the deepest art of all time.

His language, whether poetic, descriptive, or waxing philosophical, is true:

When we asked him once what he thought about the war, he replied, "I t'ink lotta bulshi-t," which, upon copious reflection, I decided absolutely expressed my own point of view.

Cummings! Enormous!