Thursday, July 30, 2009


I particularly like Helena's hair when done up — braided to crown her — in the fashion of a medieval princess, and I tell her so. She takes offense at being called an evil princess.

I'm revelling in Helena's language lately. It is an endless source of both awe and amusement.

We no longer simply use language; we can talk about it.

Helena named her stuffed cat toy "No-one." I can't decide whether it's more weird or clever.

I've corrected Helena's "human bean" to "human being." "What's a being?" I'm not sure my explanation hit the mark. Days later we're talking about Batman, for some reason; she tells me he's human, but stipulates he's not a human being — because he doesn't exist.

From time to time I worry that her English isn't as good as it should be — some odd vocabulary choices, and still trouble with irregular verbs — but hey, I remind myself, she's completely bilingual! So what if she misses a conjugation here or there!

(Some errors are initially mystifying. I puzzled for some time over "He's not being have" (pronounced "hayv"), finally to realize she meant he's not behaving.)

I'm in no position to judge her French, but I suppose it must be similar. (Certainly for some time now her French is superior to mine. I almost trust her when she supplies a missing word or assures me that I have the correct construction.)

I've favoured reading English books to her only because it's far easier for me. At school, her books are in French, of course. Helena herself doesn't show a consistent preference for one language or the other. When she suggests a book to read, she does not readily recall what language it's in and has occasionally recalled incorrectly (my point being that the language in which it's communicated is secondary to the story being told).

So. Completely bilingual. Which has tremendously complicated the reading situation.

I explain that certain sounds are represented by these letters in English, but the same sounds in French use different letters. Times I've thought it was hopeless, and hoped it would sort itself it out. And it mostly has.

I'd say she can read now, finally. Helena won't say it yet, cuz she's a bit of a perfectionist, but she'll say it soon. In two languages.

Children do become bilingual easily, and scientists are starting to understand how:

"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, Kuhl explains — or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.

It's remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.

Italian researchers wondered why there wasn't a delay, and reported this month in the journal Science that being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible.

Helena's brain is flexible indeed; she plays with English, with French, and various combinations thereof. But bilingualism, and the problem of translation, brings its own class of errors.

Helena persists in flatting the kitty — the kitty likes to be flatted, we should all flatte the kitty. Flatter is to pet, but the English "to pet" just won't stick. We have French roots with English inflections.

Helena tells me a story, posits an alien, from another planet, "like March." Since the French month mars is March in English, quite logically she assumes the planet would be translated in the same way.

When something does not go according to Helena's expectations — be it a person's reaction, verbal or physical, or the work of the cat or of gravity — she regularly stops to remark, "C'était pas prévu." In recent weeks she's come to translate her commentary to English: "That was not prévu." And refined it further, "That was not previewed." I've explained that that simply doesn't sound natural in English, no one would say that, "preview" just doesn't work. With my input, she's modified her translation, and uses it often. "That was not foreseen." Which is just interminably cute coming out of the mouth of a 6-year-old.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Spare parts

I've taken quite a break from 2666, to break away from all the rotten death of part 4 (The Part About the Crimes), and just to be able to read something — finish something! — less than 1000 pages long. But I find myself starting in on the last volume (The Part About Archimboldi), and I'm wildly excited about this, I want to take notes as I go, things are gelling.

(Really, I shouldn't read more than one book, or maybe two, at a time. I'm no good at it, never have been. It makes me feel uncentred.)

(Especially when there's no time, there hasn't been any time, where does the time go?, my sister came to visit, and J-F went off for a camping weekend, and the kid and I play and play (she's off to day camp next week), and the weather's shitty rainy the whole time so we can't just go to the park where she'd play and I'd watch and read, we have to do indoor things, which takes a lot more ingenuity and patience, plus you have to clean up, meanwhile work is a little crazy, and there must be 83 loads of laundry to do, the closet shelving is falling down, and I think the bathroom is starting to smell, there's just no time.)

I am currently playing catch-up on the Infinite Summer project; I've re-read the first 80 odd pages of Infinite Jest, which I'd read a couple years ago, and some beyond, but I'm not quite up to schedule yet.

Also, for some reason I thought now would be a good time to finish up The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which I'm not even half-way through, and I can't begin to estimate just how many bathroom trips it might take.

So, between volumes of 2666 seemed like an excellent time to squeeze in some actual reading, of the kind where you actually get to close the book after a few days, maybe feel a faint sense of accomplishment in so doing.

Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Sun Over Breda, which, sadly, bored me, in the way that I'm just not into the minutiae of battle, no matter how glorious the language, but it was quick and it's over. (He's an interesting writer for being so visual. Very obviously he's knowledgeable about fine art and greatly inspired by it.)

And I closed Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, which was nice — just in that kinship you feel with Manguel, that love for and comfort in books and libraries.

(I never did write about my brief encounter with him, my seeing him deliver one of the Massey Lectures. Apart from the lecture itself, which was fascinating and for which I still have notes lying around somewhere, he's a lovely man. He signed my book for me and I asked him what he was reading back then in November 2007: He smiled shyly and apologized before answering. "It sounds so pedantic." Locke's On Tolerance. Yes, for pleasure. But his face lit up in telling me he'd just finished the latest Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. Manguel highly recommends Dalziel and Pascoe: "You must start at the beginning. They're wonderful!" (I've never read them, but I might.))

And poetry! I'm making my way through a volume of Janusz Szuber, and while I can't say it gives me a sense of accomplishment exactly (poetry causes for me something more like befuddlement), my brain feels stretched in all the right places for it.

Things are gelling. I mean ideas are, in my head.

I whipped across the street to Indigo at lunch yesterday to hear Lewis Black, shilling for his latest book (Me of Little Faith). He didn't read from the book, but talked quite soberly (albeit entertainingly) about the craft of writing, his basic advice being, Just write. Don't think about it. If you start thinking, you realize it's crap, and so you don't bother to write it down cuz it's crap, you feel you have to think it through, and so you go have a think and before you know it you're napping, and you wake up and give up on the whole crap idea of writing. But if you write it down, at least you know where it might go, even if you have to rewrite everything to get there. Basically.

Also he noted that he thinks differently whether he's typing or writing longhand — a different process entirely. And then he answered questions for half an hour.

But about things gelling. I guess I mean associations are gelling. Cuz the whole time I'm listening to Lewis Black, I'm thinking about Infinite Jest. Particularly as Black rants about the fact that television and computers haven't been fully merged yet — it's the same screen!, the problem is money, they haven't figured out how to distribute the money they'd make yet — and I'm thinking teleputers! Wallace had the TP all figured out. And Black goes on about this human urge for entertainment, and really, whether you're flaked out on the couch watching Comedy Central or lolling away the afternoon reading Chekhov, it's really the same thing. And I'm thinking, yeah. And I think about asking Black for his thoughts on Wallace, but I realize I know next to nothing about either Black or Wallace to be able to gauge whether I might be on to something so I discard the impulse, but some kind of neuronal connection has already been made and I can't shake it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Worth murdering a world

It occurred to him suddenly that she might even get up and leave him, go back to Snow's with her secret for the first comer who questioned her kindly: he had to conciliate her, they were walking out, he'd got to do the things expected of him. He put out his hand with repulsion; it lay like a cold paddock on her knee. "You took me wrong," he said, "you're a sweet girl. I've been worried, that's all. Business worries. You and me" — he swallowed painfully — "we suit each other down to the ground." He saw the colour go, the face turn to him with a blind willingness to be deceived, saw the lips waiting. He drew her hand up quickly and put his mouth against her fingers: anything was better than the lips: the fingers were rough on his skin and tasted a little of soap. She said, "Pinkie, I'm sorry. You're sweet to me."

He laughed nervously, "You and me," and heard the hoot of a bus with the joy of a besieged man listening to the bugle of the relieving force. "There," he said, "the bus. Let's be going. I'm not much of a one for the country. A city bird. You too." She got up and he saw the skin of her thigh for a moment above the artificial silk, and a prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness. That was what happened to a man in the end: the stuffy room, the wakeful children, the Saturday night movements from the other bed. Was there no escape — anywhere — for anyone? It was worth murdering a world.

"It's beautiful here all the same," she said, staring up the chalky ruts between the To Let boards, and the Boy laughed again at the fine words people gave to a dirty act: love, beauty . . . All his pride coiled like a watch spring round the thought that he wasn't deceived, that he wasn't going to give himself up to marriage and the birth of children, he was going to be where Colleoni now was and higher . . . He knew everything, he had watched every detail of the act of sex, you couldn't deceive him with lovely words, there was nothing to be excited about, no gain to recompense you for what you lost; but when Rose turned to him again, with the expectation of a kiss, he was aware all the same of a horrifying ignorance. His mouth missed hers and recoiled. He'd never yet kissed a girl.

— from Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene.

OK. Wow. I didn't think much of this book when I first cracked it open, but it got intense fast.

I feel so sorry for Pinkie! I mean, he's only 17. And his Catholicism is of no help to him at all. He believes firmly in Hell, there's evidence of damnation all around, but he can't commit to the idea of there being a God, because, well, I'm not really sure why, but things seem pretty hopeless.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say there's a murder committed in the early chapters of the novel, and the rest of book follows Pinkie (yes, Pinkie) as he tries to cover his tracks. Guilt, and possibly the first inklings of tenderness or love, is chipping away at his hardened gangster-wannabe exterior. But it's fear and paranoia that lead him on a reckless and devastating path.

[If you don't like spoilers, don't read JM Coetzee's introduction — thanks goodness I didn't till just a few moments ago.]

Oh, and poor Rose! She really believes he loves her! Reading what Pinkie recorded for her on the gramophone was like a punch in the gut. I can't bear to imagine how her life will crumble when one day she listens to it. Poor Rose... Talk about rose-coloured glasses!

Aside from Pinkie and Rose, there's a lot of pink in this book. Little shots of pink throughout the noir, a paler shade of the blood on Pinkie's hands that occasionally comes to surface. (His full name's Pinkie Brown.)

There are no words or dialogue that don't need to be here. It's a tight little novel about grim circumstances, complex characters grappling with the differences between right-and-wrong and good-and-evil, shown to vary according to age, experience, religion. Great book!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gipsy girl

"I suppose I shall have to tell you," I said slowly. "I'm not ashamed of it. You can't be ashamed of something that just — happens to you. That's what he did. He was detestable — rude and ungrateful — but that I think I understand. It's like a dog that's been chained up — or badly treated — it'll bite anybody. That's what he was like — bitter and snarling. I don't know why I care — but I do. I care horribly. Just seeing him has turned my whole life upside-down. I love him. I want him. I'll walk all over Africa barefoot till I find him, and I'll make him care for me. I'd die for him. I'd work for him, slave for him, steal for him, even beg or borrow for him! There — now you know!"

Suzanne looked at me for a long time.

"You're very unEnglish, Gipsy girl," she said at last. "There's not a scrap of the sentimental about you. I've never met anyone who was at once so practical and so passionate. I shall never care for anyone like that — mercifully for me — and yet — and yet I envy you, Gipsy girl. It's something to be able to care. Most people can't. [...]"

— from The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie.

I'd forgotten what a pleasure Christie is to read.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The part about Amalfitano

It's been some time since I read part 2 of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (I'm near the end of part 4, and reading some books alongside this one). I made some notes as I went along (from which most of the below is constructed), but this section, to judge by the vividness of it in my memory, seems not to have made as much of an impression on me as The Part about the Critics.

While this part has more "story" to it, it's also somewhat more surreal.

Lola has assimilated what she learned from Amalfitano into her own memory. She believes the poet is a former lover of hers, but it was from Amalfitano that she first learned about him.

It's never clear if her letters to Amalfitano relating her history with and her meeting with the poet are complete fabrications, or whether any portion of it is grounded in her actual experience.

Amalfitano himself becomes increasingly unreliable as a narrator, casting double doubt on Lola's story.

A handful of allusions again in this section, again that I'm unable to make anything of.

- "Sometimes she [Lola] felt like Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, wandering in disguise in Mycenae, the killer mingling with the plebes [...]
- Other times the mother of Medon and Strophius
- Pylades, Orestes stand for the faces of many men

Amalfitano and Duchamp
Amalfitano finds a book in his possession and goes through some mental contortions to place it. (I can relate: Imagine finding a book that you have no inkling how it got there! It would drive me crazy!)

On the front flap, the reader was informed that the Testamento geométrico was really three books, "each independent, but functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole,' and then it said "this work representing the final distillation of Dieste's research on Space, the notion of which is involved in any methodical discussion of the fundamentals of Geometry."

Much the same could be said of 2666's first 3 parts, triangulating on Santa Teresa.

Amalfitano hangs the book out on a clothes line, in the spirit of a readymade conceived by Duchamp, who meant for the wind to go through the book and find (and deal with) its own problems or, as Amalfitano interprets it, to see if the book learns anything about real life.

It's Art, I guess, but I don't think Amalfitano's intentions are artistic ones, exactly. The act has the feeling of an I Ching. It seems to affect Amalfitano via osmosis, in that he starts producing drawings, quite unconsciously, diagramming, possibly, relationships between philosophers.

At which point it appears that Amalfitano is losing his mind. He considers that the voice in his head may be a product of telepathy.

Lola imagined she was establishing telepathic contact with the poet.

Amalfitano relates the voice in his head to telepathy and reads about the Araucanians, who had refined telepathy as a viable means of communication, as well as sending messages by the movement of branches.

Morini in his dream (in part 1) faced Norton "and she said: 'There's no turning back.' He heard the sentence not with his ears but in his head. Norton has acquired telepathic powers, Morini thought. She isn't bad, she's good. It isn't evil I sensed, it's telepathy."

Mostly I think this passage is funny:

One of the employees was a young pharmacist, barely out of his teens, extremely thin and with big glasses, who would sit up at night reading a book when the pharmacy was open twenty-four hours. One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential words, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and tench.

However. There's something going on here: refusing to take on literature (or reality?) head on.

There's a lot of magic in this book, in different forms. The magic of dreams, telepathy, superstition, art and literature.

Boris Yeltsin — "last Communist philosopher" — appears to Amalfitano in a dream, with wisdom to impart:

And he said: listen carefully to what I have to say, comrade. I'm going to explain what the third leg of the human table is. I'm going to tell you. And then leave me alone. Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, that's what it all boils down to, but that's no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it's also sex and Dionysian mists and play. And then Yeltsin sat on the crater or the latrine and showed Amalfitano the fingers he was missing and talked about his childhood and about the Urals and Siberia and about a white tiger that roamed the infinite snowy spaces. And then he took a flask of vodka out of his suit pocket and said:

"I think it's time for a little drink."

(This dream sequence really stood out for me, and weirdly, there's a bit in part 4 that I just read that makes reference to it: a highly respected serial killer profiler "dreamed of a crater and a man pacing around it. That man is probably me, he said to himself in the dream, but it didn't strike him as important and the image was lost." So I'm thinking it's not the identity of the man that matters so much as the existence of the crater (or latrine — Amalfitano considers that it may be a latrine), some void left by a force of destruction, something blatant, which still they circle, as if to stare into that abyss, or acknowledge it, would negate their existence.)

Lola spends her time circling the poet, daring to meet him only twice (or was it more than that? either way, I think my point stands). She seems always to be waiting for a sign (sign of her friend Imma) before taking action, or taking for signs some mundane thing to justify her action. Amalfitano has his own disconnect from reality, circling round his career, his daughter, the city he lives in without daring a head-on confrontation. Is he waiting for the book to give him a sign? Or the voice? Bolaño certainly is circling round the murders at Santa Teresa.

The epigraph of 2666 comes from Baudelaire: "An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom." I'm beginning to see what this means.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

From nowhere

It's a disconcerting feeling to watch the blue arrow leave the road, the only road, on the GPS, watch the road drop out of the bottom of the screen, and know that you are that blue arrow, with no point of reference, moving, or not moving, across a vast plane of nothing, a screen that looks like it's waiting for images to load, a landscape that's waiting for civilization to tame it.

We stayed not long. Armies of insects laid in wait for us. Helena complained of the itching and I lifted the hair off her neck to inspect the damage. I had to stifle my horror at the trails of blood from the dozens of bites, trying not to alarm her.

The fish weren't biting at all.

Then it rained; it stormed. I slept, and read.


I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson). I'm still puzzled by the decision to use this title for the translation over something more literally accurate (something like "Men Who Hate Women"); a marketing decision, no doubt, but curious that the English-speaking world should be deemed to have a unique sensibility in this regard.

It's a most interesting experience to have read this alongside part 4 of Bolaño's 2666, because really, they're both about men hating women, making the point about a certain kind of woman, foreign or transient, socioeconomically disadvantaged, psychologically predisposed to victimization — someone marginalized so that no one much notices her absence, any investigation would be half-hearted, no one much cares. This is our horrific reality (see Pickton).


The kitten came with us. It seems a good idea to accustom her to car travel at young age. She travels well.

Helena has renamed the kitten. Her name is now Action.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

To defend its honour

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is already destined to be a bestseller — it doesn't need my help in the slightest.

You should know: I hated The Shadow of Wind. I thought, and still think, it's one of the most overrated pieces of crap I've ever read. Sure, it starts of with a lovely bookish feel but it quickly fell apart for me: the characters, the plot, the language — everything about it was a bit too farfetched.

I don't know what possessed me then to accept an ARC of The Angel's Game. I fully expected to hate it. Though The Shadow is now but a shadow in my memory, I very clearly remember fuming about reading it and the time I was wasting reading it (while continuing to read it).

Maybe because my expectations were so low... I found myself loving this book and unable to put it down.

"You have more zeal than good taste, Martín. The disease afflicting you has a name, and that is Grand Guignol: it does to drama what syphilis does to your privates. Getting it might be pleasurable, but from then on it's all downhill. You should read the classics, or at least Don Benito Pérez Galdós, to elevate your literary aspirations."

"But the readers like my stories," I argued.

"You don't deserve the credit. That belongs to your rivals: they are so bad and pedantic that they could render a donkey catatonic in less than a paragraph. When are you going to mature and stop munching the forbidden fruit once and for all?"

I would nod, full of contrition, but secretly I caressed those forbidden words, Grand Guignol, and I told myself that every cause, however frivolous, needed a champion to defend its honour.

This book is full of exuberance. The reader is propelled forward because of (not despite) its Grand Guignol elements. While the plot does spin out of control (and the body count climbs), the author has much better control of his material here than in The Shadow. The writer knows he cannot do the reader's job. He is smarter to leave things unanswered and ambiguous than to supply tortuous explanations that couldn't possibly hit all the right notes. Those are the things this reader revels in.

One thing really bothers me: Isabella marries and has a child and never writes again. The headstrong girl who essentially stalked an author, who went to great lengths to extract a critique of her work and for writerly advice. She just stops. Her son becomes her everything. I don't know if this is meant to be realistic, or if this is the author's thoughtless brushing aside of the character once her purpose had been served. But it strikes me as wrong.

Incidentally, my sister went to hear Zafón a couple weeks ago. He came across as personable and had entertaining anecdotes to share regarding his first forays into publishing as a youth. He named a couple authors whom he reads, respects, admires: Joyce Carol Oates and China Miéville, the latter in particular for his defiance of genre stereotypes.

My final verdict: The Angel's Game was wonderfully entertaining and makes for a great summer read.