Thursday, September 30, 2010

Discovering Simenon

I must've read some Simenon, way back when, I'm sure I did, at least one Maigret book, and the more I think about it, I think I recall I read something in high school French class, something abridged or in graphic novel form, I learned the word clochard.

But I couldn't've seen any great appeal in it. Certainly, nothing's compelled me to pick up a Maigret story in the last 25 years.

New York Review Books, though, has a way of making me lust for books I've never heard of, authors I'd dismissed. By my count, they've published 8 books by Simenon to date, none of them featuring Maigret, all of them sounding bleak and psychological and fascinating.

Finally I gave in to temptation and ordered myself a couple, just to see. The first arrived last last week, and once I'd made up my mind to set other books aside, I couldn't put it down.

(I was surprised to see it had a glossy cover, setting it apart from the trademark look of NYRB Classics. I've since learned he's the only author to have this treatment (and also usually with last name only) because "the series editor wanted a "none more black" feeling for those covers.")

The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon, is indeed bleak and psychological and fascinating. The language is deeply evocative, the setting is oppressive, the story is surprising. Throughout, Simenon is the perfect host, full of charm and always in control. No character is minor. It strikes me as, if I may, very French.

Rossigart was no doubt at that moment telephoning to Mme Dossin and the latter was no doubt reclining on a sofa draped in muslins that were probably mauve. She'd be looking distinguished of course. Looking distinguished and being in delicate health combined to provide her with a full-time occupation, leaving her perhaps just sufficient energy to arrange a few flowers in a vase.

(There's a lot in this book that reminds me of Fred Vargas: the charm, the philosophizing, the wry observations, the character quirks.)

The story is this: Loursat is a lawyer who's pretty much stayed holed up in room, drinking, for the last 18 years, since his wife left him. One night he hears a noise, and it awakens something in him. It's not a noise he should be hearing in his house — it's a gunshot, it's a murder. So Loursat comes to learn about his daughter's goings-on, her crowd, and the secret life that persisted under his own roof.

What's beautiful is watching Loursat wake up from his drunken stupor, climb out of hole, and live again. He finds he has a reason to after all, and it may be as much to shake up this small town as it is out of love for his daughter.

My second Simenon arrived in yesterday's mail. I hope to save it for when I'm travelling next weekend, but I don't know if I can hold out that long.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amazing things my daughter says #23,834

I'm having a hard time at work these days, and as a result I'm finding it hard to feel present in almost anything else I do (certainly blogging). The kid, though, does an amazing job of keeping me grounded.

I'm looking through Helena's homework assignments for the rest of the week, and I mention tomorrow's, she doesn't need to do it yet, but maybe she should think about it, think about how to approach it, what topic to choose to make it easier.

"It's not good to choose what's easy, Mom. You won't learn anything that way."

Thanks, kid.

(It would've been easier to do it today, but I guess we'll learn more if we do it tomorrow.)

Life in Russian

My Life as a Russian Novel, a memoir by Emmanuel Carrère, recounts the author's attempt to film a documentary in the Russian village of Kotelnich, about nothing in particular. "The Hotel Vyatka [...] is one of those places familiar to travelers in Russia, where not only does nothing work (heating, television, elevator, all kaput), but you get the feeling that nothing has ever worked, not even on the first day." You get the feeling that the whole of Kotelnich is much the same.

Life is, as we all know, what happens while you're busy trying to make a documentary about something else entirely. Somehow, Carrère's book (and his film, apparently, too) managed to capture something of it.

She threw us out, but as we were putting on our coats, determined not to hang around any longer, she forgot about having thrown us out and wanted us to drink some more, talk, wanted to show me the curtains. She'd taken the curtains — with a design of red and green circles on a white background — from Sasha's and her daughter's apartment, curtains streaked with blood and brains. Galina had boiled them several times, so that most of the stains were gone, but not all, and she traces with a fingertip the outline of the brownish spots, more visible in the lamplight, and she draws the lamp closer so that I may see them. Look, Emmanuel, look, she says tenderly. It's the blood of my daughter and my grandson. Every time I draw the curtains, which protect my eyes from the moon and the streetlights outside, it's the blood of my daughter and grandson.

Life does happen in Kotelnich, but it's hard to nail it down. Fortunately for us, Carrère doesn't force his film in one direction or another; he keeps waiting for something to grab him by the throat, and if you wait long enough, it kind of makes itself.

The memoir feels a little bit more forced, in some respects. Carrère is ostensibly tracing his roots, wanting to know his Georgian grandfather and discover his mysterious end. To this end, Carrère does little beyond poking through some old letters his uncle kept, and while he harps on his grandfather's circumstances, his stance is not investigative. Merely, he's working out how to come to terms with his family's past and its dark secret. Frankly, the details concerning his grandfather bored me. The facts were spilled out quite dryly. Carrère is right to call that story "a tragedy, yes, but an ordinary tragedy," by which I think he means, all families have them, and this story is not any more special but for being his.

But there are two particularly fascinating aspects of this book. One is Carrère's reflections on his relationship to the Russian language, which he spoke as a child — his comfort level, how his fluency depends on mood and circumstance, that language is clearly more than academic and the problem of immersion is more than linguistic.

The other is his dissection of his relationship with the woman he loves and who for the most part is in Paris, while he is not. I previously read his erotic open letter to Sophie as a standalone piece, as originally intended, and found it, well, pretty erotic. In the fuller context of his domestic drama, however, it becomes a little uncomfortable, and you see that his intent was perhaps misguided.

They say Carrère is best known for The Adversary, which I have not read. But I did read Class Trip, which I don't remember, and The Mustache, which I loved, along with its movie adaptation. You don't need to be familiar with Carrère's other work to be swept up in this memoir. The story is in the telling.

The Washington Post
The Complete Review

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kennscht mi noch?

C, by Tom McCarthy, is a very demanding, very rewarding novel. It took me a couple weeks to read it (and more than another week to work up the courage to write something about it) — it demands your time and attention. If you want entertainment, I encourage you to read the other Booker Prize nominee I read earlier this year. That said, I think C (or at least aspects of it) will stay with me for a lifetime.

What it reminds me of
As I progressed through the novel, I was reminded of each of the following books to varying degrees and for quite possibly very superficial — but meaningful-to-me wrt the conversations my books have with each other (and me) — reasons:
  • AS Byatt, The Children's Book, for the time period, the focus on children's life in an atypical adult world, their games, the staging of a play riddled with symbolism;
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (which I haven't finished reading, but), for the sanatorium setting, of course, but also a morbid fascination with all manner of effluvia, and there's this scene with the x-ray (although where Hans sees his mortality and his eventual inanimate state, Serge sees something organic and primordial), and also, a humorous but enigmatic tone, trying to figure out the workings of the place;
  • this tone segues very nicely into that section that reminds me of EE Cummings, The Enormous Room, what with the war experience, and the maneuvers, the barracks, prison, the sense of camaraderie and loss;
  • Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations, for how the text gets scientifically physical and metaphysical, and sentences like "The restlessness, he comes to realise, is in truth an attempt to achieve its opposite: stasis." — something still and deep;
  • even Julian Barnes, Arthur & George, for the spiritualist aspect;
  • José Carlos Somoza, ZigZag, because of the idea of being able to tap the residual energy of Christ on the cross, to be able to see it, hear it;
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault, for the Egyptian setting, similar concerns regarding authenticity;
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, for obvious reasons.

I love all these books (well, maybe the Barnes not so much, but my point stands). I found it a strange sensation to be recalling them, or certain parts of them, while reading C, and so strongly too. I doubt that McCarthy had it in mind to emulate any of these. My point, though, is that there's something about McCarthy that feels intensely familiar to me. He speaks to me. He taps into those same moods or ideas that have captured me before.

What the C stands for
I'm not sure I like the idea that it can represent so many things: Carrefax, communication, Cairo, caul, crash, copper, connectivity, cocaine (with a C even placed in shop windows to indicate its availability). So many vague associations make it feel more like a cop-out of a title. There is a strong indication, relatively late in the book, that carbon is it. I hope McCarthy's the kind of writer who'd say, yes, C is for something in particular, yes, carbon. The basis of all life after all.

What it's about
This is what I get out of it: Situating yourself in time and space. Grounding yourself, even. Despite the fact that there's nothing to really ground yourself to. This whole world is one big dummy chamber.

I loved Remainder, and I admit to at first being someone disappointed to find that C was nothing like it. Only, that turned out not to be the case at all. The whole authenticity question is huge (to my mind), but it's not concerned with just some random guy; it's the whole state of our being, all humanity.

(Of all the books C reminds me of, the closest in theme and in tone is clearly Michaels' Winter Vault.

What I like about it
I love the wordplay. There is a lot of humour. There are some mind-bending meta-moments of awareness. I love the giant Monopoly-like game the children play, that grows from a board, to the grounds, into something purely abstract, extending over the ether. I love passages like this one:

Versoie seems smaller. Its proportions are the same: the surface area of the house's side-wall in relation to that of the Maze Garden above which it rises, or the width of the maze's paved path in relation to the garden's lawn; the height of the Crypt Park's obelisk-topped columns, or the sightline above these into the park itself afforded by attic window — all these are correct. But, taken as a whole, they seem to have shrunk. The left-swerving passage from the house's from door to the Low Lawn, then through the Lime Garden with its beehives and, beyond these, past the green slime-topped trough-pond towards the long, conker-tree-lined avenue that skirts the Apple Orchard as it heads towards the spinning sheds and Bodner's garden — a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity — now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It's as though, in Serge's absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he's now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche...

Versoie seems smaller, and the world seems smaller, seems like a model of the world. It's not just that the distance between, say, here and Lydium has shrunk (and done so almost exponentially thanks to the motor car his father's purchased and now lets him drive whenever he feels like an outing), but, beyond that, that the inventory of potential experiences — situations in which he might find himself, conversations and interactions he might undergo — has dwindled so low that they could be itemised on a single sheet of paper. The exchanges he has in shops or in the post office, the movements and gestures these involve, seem so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined — as though they'd already happened and were simply being re-enacted by two or more people who'd agreed to maintain the farcical pretence that this was something new and exciting. He's taken to walking out on the charade halfway through: stepping into, for example, the cheese shop, responding to the usual questions about how his parents or the Day School pupils are, agreeing how nice it is to be back after serving his country so bravely, admitting that the weather isn't quite doing what might be expected of it at this time of year, and so on — then, just as the shopkeeper shifts his stance above the rows of Lancashires and Stiltons and asks him what he'll have, turning round and pushing the door open, leaving its ting! hanging in the air behind him with the ruptured conversation. He once did this on three premises in a row — neighbouring ones: newsagent, baker, fishmonger — not out of maliciousness but simply to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of...

[I marvel over this phenomenon, how everything looks smaller when you go back. Somehow, a place, a house or a whole city shrinks as your experience expands. Plainly, it's actually physically smaller, but there's more to it in one's perception of a place. It changes how you interact with your space. It can take days to shake.]

Nice packaging!
Certainly nice enough to elicit a response from the designer guys around the office. They utter, "Nice," and "Neat," and pick it up and turn it over. And very excitedly I say, "I know! Check this out," and I open it up to exhibit the flaps, on which the text runs, gasp!, vertically, oriented perpendicular to the usual. And the page margins — the text starts a bit high on the page. I found this a bit distracting first — like why isn't this sort of thing standardized? — but I got over it. Anyway, neat how such little nothings can make you feel like you have something in your hands.

The Casual Optimist has a wonderful interview with the jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, about how it came to be it and what it means and why it works.

Honestly, I find the cover kind of unsettling, but Mendelsund has me sold on what a perfect fit it is for the book. Also, reading the interview makes me feel pretty stupid, as a reader, as other levels of C are brought to light that I had no idea even existed.

What's so avant-garde about it
I have no idea. If anyone can explain this to me, why McCarthy and this book are being touted as the future of literature, please do. Don't get me wrong — I like it (a lot, even), I just don't see how any of this is new, or cutting-edge. Did you see my list of what it reminds me of? Others have done this before. There's a surreal ending that I can't quite place in terms of influence, or what it reminds me of — in fact, it's a good deal more "filmic" than literary (David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch?) — but that's all of, what?, 8 pages. The book's reputation can't fairly rest on that. Anti-realist anti-novel? (But it is realist (very much of the time), isn't it?) I can appreciate C's being Important, but how is it so out of the ordinary?

How about that ending?!
Can I say? [Possible spoiler alert.] What an immense release it was to find Sophie on the scene at the end! I mean, the whole book, since that first section, she was just hovering between the words, and I was certain she would make an appearance, or make herself felt, I mean in the sense that Serge would address the fact of her, as a memory or a story to tell someone, I kept waiting, she was always somehow present, with Tania, deep in the earth, in the air, with Cécile, at London parties, and at the seance. I think the writing's pretty awesome, that McCarthy could make her presence so palpable even though she's so absent, which makes the climax all so bloody climactic. Wow.

See also
Surplus Matter: a site dedicated to the work of Tom McCarthy
International Necronautical Society


Friday, September 24, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two social documents

I recently read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (originally published under a pseudonym), and I have to admit, I'm a bit mystified why so many people (well, mostly anonymous-to-me online readers, grown women who read it when they were moody teenagers) think of this book so fondly.

I didn't know anything about The Bell Jar, except that it was the only novel Plath wrote. (The Biblioracle suggested it to me months ago, and I thought, huh, there's a gap in my literary education.) Talk of it never seemed to address the novel itself, but rather was steeped in the "romantic" circumstances of Plath's life and suicide.

It's often described as chronicling Esther Greenwood's descent into depression, which I think is a bit false; there is no descent into madness — the depression is always there. It's not a gradual progression, nor does it appear to be due to a particular trigger. Esther's just wired that way. And in that way, I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal of what I understand clinical depression to be. Also, the account of the experience of undergoing electroshock treatment is fascinating.

The first portion of the book tells of Esther's adventures in New York City. They're kind of crazy, not in a psychologically abnormal way, but in a wild-life-of-college-girls-let-loose-in-the-big-city way, and this is fairly comic and entertaining. The tone is quite similar to that in a couple other books I've read lately: Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado and Rona Jaffe's Best of Everything (more on this in a bit).

And then Esther starts trying to kill herself. This is where the novel stops working for me, because I just can't connect with this character. I take this as a fairly sure sign that I don't have clinical depression, but it also makes me question how good is this novel as a novel. Forget its worth as a sociohistorical document, insight into Plath's biography, the breaking of taboos regarding mental illness, for there's no doubt the novel has great value in this regard. It just leaves me cold. And a good novel makes me feel for who peoples them, whether or not I have anything in common with them. With Esther I feel a kind of blankness (and maybe this is the point? that this depression, the suicidal ideation, is really unknowable unless you're in it?).

I'm now also seriously worried about all the young women who relate to this book. Really?

For all this, The Bell Jar is a quick (less than 200 pages) and relatively entertaining read, not depressing at all. Esther's voice is light and chatty; it's not the "poetry" I was expecting, but there are some wonderful, sometimes startling, descriptions:

That was another thing — the rest of us had starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that doubled as beachcoats, but Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could half see through, and dressing-gowns the colour of sin, that stuck to her by some kind of electricity. She had an interesting, slightly sweaty smell that reminded me of those scallopy leaves of sweet fern you break off and crush between your fingers for the musk of them.

There's a throwaway line in the opening pages: "last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." Later, when Esther's steeped in her illness, I questioned whether I'd read that line at all, or if I'd understood it correctly, and I wonder now how much it contributes to the attitude I'd formed toward the rest of the book, that Esther will survive this, everything's going to be all right.

But as far as depicting the recklessness of the young American woman of the 1950s, The Dud Avocado (though set a few years later) conveys something more meaningful to me, with more comedy and tragedy, and in a much stronger, fresher, more distinctive voice.

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, is another fascinating sociohistorical document, much more accessible, and in my opinion, an all-round better novel.

I've only recently started watching Mad Men, and at the beginning of episode 6 (Babylon) of season 1, Don Draper is in bed with this novel as Betty is chattering about the movie adaptation and whether Joan Crawford's looks are holding up. The beauty of the ereader is such that minutes after the episode finished, I myself was reading The Best of Everything in bed. (I'd be reading Leon Uris's Exodus now too if it were available as an ebook.)

No doubt Don was reading it to complement the advice of the review in the New York Post: "Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom."

It follows the lives of a handful of women, most of whom work in a publishing office, and offers a glimpse into the workings thereof. While it might be said to focus on their romantic adventures, it's a lot more complicated than that. Office politics, gender politics, career ambition, the pressure to marry. These women have a lot to deal with, and Jaffe dispenses a fair measure of philosophical wisdom in her commentary:

Change in a person's character structure is slow and almost imperceptible, and although many people look back and say, This was the day that changed my life, they are never wholly right. The day you choose one college instead of another, or decide not to go to college at all, the day you take one job instead of another because you cannot wait, the day you meet someone you later love — all are days that lead to change, but none of them are decisive because the choice itself is the unconscious product of days that have gone before. So when April Morrison, looking back, said, "The day of the Fabian office party in 1952 was the day that changed my life," she was wrong. The day she cut her hair because she wanted to look like Caroline Bender, the day she saw her first movie and dreamed of New York — all were days that changed her life, and if it had not been for all of them she would never have become involved with Dexter Key.

(And a tragedy that turned out to be!)

Anyway, The Best of Everything is a novel that had me up late at night and snatching coffeebreaks at work just to see what happens next. It even made me cry. It had seemed to me that the only way to close off the story would be either in utter devastation or else with an unrealistically fairy-tale finish, but Jaffe surprises in offering up a perfect ending. It's completely hopeful that a balance can be struck between career and family, and that a woman's independence, whether sexual or financial, can be asserted. Sadly, I think this novel is still very relevant today.

If you're one of the many who love The Bell Jar, I'd love to hear why! Then go read The Best of Everything.

Teaching America how to read

"Do you realize there are towns in America where there are no libraries at all? Not even a bookstore! The only place the people in those small towns can get a book is at the drugstore. And what do they read? Our books."

"My heavens," she said.

"We are responsible for the changing literary taste of America," he went on. "People have to learn to crawl before they can walk. First they won't read anything but the most obvious kind of lurid adventure stories. Then we sneak in a good book or two. We train them. Eventually all our books will be as good or better than the best so-called literary hard-cover books. Do you think all hard-cover books are good literature just because they cost four dollars? Most of them stink."

She smiled a little at his vehemence and took a few healthy gulps at her drink. It made her feel more confident and finished it off.

"It's our books, with our sexy covers, and our low cost, and our mass distribution that are teaching America how to read. Let people who don't know anything say Derby Books are trash. They'll see."

— from The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe.

Rona Jaffe in the early 1950s worked at Fawcett Publications for Gold Medal Books, innovators of the paperback original.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The hat

She loved the hat. She had to have the hat, the hat's so cool, would I buy her the hat? It was always the hat, from the moment she laid eyes on it.

I thought I'd dissuaded her (the hat is silly and frivolous!), but evidently Helena came away with something very different from those conversations. Anyway, I finally caved. We went back for the hat. We made a special trip for the hat.

Now the hat is becoming her trademark.

She's growing up to be a regular clotheshorse.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

This is happening right now

The scene occurs about a hundred years ago:

Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It's the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug's responded. [...] This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself "Wireworm" is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General's plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.

"...tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-kn0n I mslf hv don this," Wireworm's boasting, "als0 I cn trn pian0 wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing s0da n a needle mst I obtain lcnses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs chcking r pots n pans 2 C tht they confrm 2 rglatns I sgst cmpaign cvil ds0bdns agnst such impsitions..."

Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm's not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word "fashion."

— from C, by Tom McCarthy.