Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions."

I give up.

I haven't been able to connect with Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis. Despite really wanting to. This failure, on the book's part, to click with me, is making me angry. I'm trying to understand my reaction to this book; it's like I'm determined not to like it now.

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions (p145)."

As of this writing, I'm on page 191 of 485. I feel like I need to write about this book, but how can I, fairly, if I haven't read the whole thing? I thought, I'll finish part 1 at least, that'd be a fair sample. But I can't do it. It's a tough slog. And it's colouring my life. It's making me cranky. I owe it to myself to read something I enjoy, don't I?

I have no idea what Vilnius Poker is about.

In most descriptions of the book, much seems to be made of the fact that Vytautas Vargalis, the narrator of the first section, works in a library, cataloguing stuff to which no one will have ever access. It adds a level of absurdity to his circumstances, to life under Soviet rule, to his worldview, but only a few paragraphs here and there deal with the library. As far as I can make out, it's a nonessential layer.

Just a little bit of research makes some of the symbolism in the book quite obvious.

Gediminas (Gedis for short) Riauba, friend of Vytautas, and murder victim (I think), I sometimes confused with a location, a street. Gediminas Avenue is named for the 14th century Grand Duke, a pagan who resisted Christianization and cultural assimilation. Quite clearly he is brought back to life by Gavelis as Gedis, symbol of all that is true and right. ("They even call our Gedis 'The Grand Duke of Lithuania' (p150).")

The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania (situated on Gediminas Avenue) is named for the author and the editor of the first printed book in the Lithuanian language (16th century). It can't be a coincidence that the keeper of this library's secrets (I mean, the one in Vilnius Poker — is it ever clearly identified by name or by geography as being the national library? No, I think it's the city library.) is named Martynas (also a writer).

As for the Matrix-like workings of reality, all under the tight control of Them, well, that's just the great Soviet metaphor.

I came here looking for something: a thing, and animal, or a person. A thing, an animal, or a person? It's trivial, it's all nothing. A mysterious object that means something to me couldn't turn up here. The only life her is the cockroaches, dazed by the light, crawling out of the cracks. The gray ruler of Old Town's streets, the short, neckless spiderman, will surely not show up her. So why should I find an answer in this universe of boiled cabbage, vodka, and deformed faces? However, something tells me to wait just precisely here. The memory of the neckless spiderman won't give me peace. I sit and look at everyone in turn, not putting my hopes on anything until my glance stumbles upon an unusual, unexpected figure of a man who doesn't fit in here. I could swear he wasn't here a second ago. He sprang from the earth every wrinkle in his face every fold in his clothes, screams and shouts that he didn't get here the way everyone else did. He has some sort of secret purpose. And his purpose can only be me. I feel a sharp pang in my chest; my hand pours the rest of the tumbler into my mouth of its own accord. The man looks straight at me. His eyes are brimming with quiet and . . . wait, wait . . . yes, a sweetish smell of rot. I have already seen his beautiful, elegant hands, so out of place next to the dirty shirt and frayed remains of a jacket. I already know he's come for me, but I have no idea what he could want from me (I don't want anything from him).

Don't tell me he'll simply take me out to the street and push me under a passing truck? I'm not Gedis, after all. Gedis knew something, and I'm just barely beginning to speculate. Perhaps he came to intimidate me, to break me, to take away my will? The man stands up, rises to his full, gigantic height, and approaches. I look only at him, at his glassy eyes with narrow pupils, and I know him, I know him well.

"Hello, Vytie."

It seems a hundred thunderclaps should roar; it seems the entire Narutis should sink straight into the ground. The man pats my hand. I don't pull it away because across from me sits my father.

There are some interesting aspects. There is beautiful conspiracy-minded paranoia. There are surreal dream sequences. There are some lovely, crazy passages, regarding the meaning of life, as well as both sense of self and sense of national identity. But I read Vilnius Poker as an immature mess, and I don't understand all the praise it has garnered.

Some readability problems. For example, the use of "pathologic" as a noun. It took me 100 pages of repeated stumbling to realize this was meant as a play, on a type of logic. As much as I disdain the senseless use of hyphens after prefixes, and in my work I attempt to eradicate them everywhere, here's a case where a hyphen might've proved useful. I get a lot more sense out of "patho-logic." Or how about a translator's note? The one note so far, regarding Stalin/Sralin, seems like a translator's cop-out, and a missed opportunity to create something clever. Typos also, like "a release value" (for "a release valve"). And why not translate "Tuteiša" (the title of part 3)? (If that's the same as what it sounds like in Polish, it's local, or native, or one from around these parts (feminine).)

So, I'm hating this book. For trying to be enigmatic without being subtle. For the angry-young-man posturing. For the disturbing sexual images, to which I hesitate to ascribe any misogyny per se — for me the tone is merely juvenile, it has the tone of a 14-year-old boy's masturbatory fantasy, like the cover art of genre paperbacks — although, it seems the treatment of women is much more offensive later in the book.

For using the excuse of a Lithuanian soul to pass off unformed ideas as high poetry, as grand literature.

To me it has all the immaturity of the newly realized Slavic and Baltic states. The sense of entitlement, of being overlooked, of demanding some acknowledgement, of demanding to be treated like a grown-up while needing your hand held. This feels like literature that has yet to grow up, though it does seem to capture rather neatly a certain zeitgeist throughout an affected area at the tail end of the Soviet era.

Vilnius Poker reminds me of something Polish I read in the last decade (oh, what was it?), something overflowing with anger and directionlessness, almost like it's outside of the author's control, like it really is a symptom of diseased times.

It reminds me also a little of Victor Pelevin, the chaotic mood of Homo Zapiens, completely out of control. But, while I appreciated the frenzy of that book, I think (if I may say so, based on my having read a grand total of two of his books) Pelevin evolved, matured, to show a more measured control (in Helmet of Horror, anyway).

There's a hint of China Miéville here too, although in The City & the City Miéville puts the paranoia and the politics and the philosophizing to the service of great storytelling. Gavelis meanwhile piles it all up with shit and just dumps it on you.

Perhaps it is because I have a faint family connection to Polish Lithuania, to Wilno, that I am unable to see the real Lithuania. I connect to Vilnius only through the eyes of its oppressors.

"Vilnius, the city of Polish poets: the city of both Mickiewicz and Miłosz (p28)." I suppose these names are called up rather disparagingly, but they are strong names, claimed by Poland, and somewhat ironic emblems of (Polish) national identity. "Now Gedis is playing solitude, a sodden, slow Vilnius solitude, he plays so sadly, softly, sadly, almost Chopin, but the others don't want to allow it (p154)." Chopin, Polish. A couple references also to Roman Polanski, Polish, as creative genius. Granted, genius transcends the boundaries of nationality, but why then does it matter at all that this is Lithuania, that this is Vilnius?


I give up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today she is 8

and sweet and smart and funny and thoughtful and sensitive and daring and clever and kind.

We had pizza and cake and fun and games and a restful bit of movie-watching. Some running around, indoors and out, plenty of singing, and lots of giggling.

(I like your friends, Helena — they're about as sweet and lovely as your are.)

Happy birthday, Kid!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inertia and continued employment cease to be mutually tenable

Arthur's cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.

He arrives at work, flops into his rolling chair, and remains still. This persists until inertia and continued employment cease to be mutually tenable, at which point he wriggles off his overcoat, flicks on the computer, and checks the news reports.

No one has died. Or, rather, 107 people have in the previous minute, 154,000 in the past day, and 1,078,000 in the past week. But no one who matters. That's good — it has been nine days since his last obit, and he hopes to extend the streak. His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.

— from The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.

I'm barely a quarter of the way into this book, but I'm loving it. It's funny and poignant, and a whole lot of other things besides.

At this point it seems more like a series of connected stories than a novel per se, but we'll see how it unfolds. The stories, the people, all circle round an English-language newspaper in Rome.

It feels right to be reading this just as I'm starting a new job in an editorial environment completely different from what I'm used to. It's not a newspaper, but the publication cycle for a good deal of the work is close to every-other-day-ly, so there's a buzz and a busy-ness that make going to work kind of exciting.

Editorial is just a small part of this business in a sector that I know rather little about. I am relying on osmosis to get up to speed, but that shouldn't be such a feat when the people around me spend their days talking, hashing out ideas and problems and other ways of thinking about things in a fairly passionate way. They are not imperfectionists. We have several watercoolers.

Overheard the other day: "The granularity of the content is one." I don't know what that means, but I can't wait to find out.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Rock Crystal, by Adalbert Stifter, reads like a fairy tale. Once upon a time, two children set out across the mountain to visit their grandmother. On their way home, it snows, and they get lost.

Simple, right? Well, it's Christmas Eve, and combined with the whiteness of the snow and the blueness of the ice and the innocence of the children, the story takes a near mystical turn.

The fairy tale setup had me in a state of high suspense for the appearance of some great lurking evil. But I won't tell you what happens.

Eventually, the sun comes up:

A gigantic blood-red disc climbed the heavens above the sky-line and at the same instant the snow all around flushed as though bestrewn with thousands of roses.

There's so much more to Rock Crystal than beautiful landscapes. There's more to the quaint histories of the picturesque villages — so near each other yet worlds apart — that nestle there. Nature is both enemy and saviour. The children are victims and also agents.

I look forward to that part of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain (an ongoing read) — Hans lost in a snowstorm — which pays homage to this work.

Review: New York Sun.

This book has secured a place on my (very short) list of fine Christmas stories without sentimental treacle.

I almost wish I'd saved this slim novella for one of those snow-blanketed evenings I'm sure aren't too far off. I suspect I'll be reading it again when those still days are upon us.

NYRB Reading Week continues at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Un roman dur

The Engagement, by Georges Simenon, is a compelling, obliquely told story about a creepy little man.

Mr Hire lives on the outskirts of Paris in an apartment complex currently under watch by detectives. Just a couple weeks previously a prostitute had been found murdered in a nearby vacant lot.

We don't know much about the course of the police investigation, what led them to suspect Mr Hire, what other leads might've been exhausted. But it seems Mr Hire is the victim of a slow-motion lynching. Nobody likes him; nobody really knows him either. He's a very convenient scapegoat.

He's not very likable. He's pasty and flabby. He's a creature of habit. He earns his living running a barely legal mail-order scam. His daily routine finishes with him sitting in his chair in his room in the dark, watching a girl undress in the apartment across the courtyard.

None of the other characters — the girl, the concierge, the detectives — are much likable either, so it's curious that everyone should have it in for Mr Hire. There's just something about him...

We do learn a very little bit about Mr Hire's past, but he remains more pathetic than sympathetic. His only success is at the local bowling club, but even there, the respect he's given is devoid of any real human connection.

It's a deeply psychological novella, but as John Gray points out in the afterword, there's very little psychology in it. It's all action, or inaction; Simenon never lets us into Mr Hire's mind. He sits still for hours, but we never know what he's thinking, if he's thinking anything at all. He's a blank for the reader to fill in.

When the blood finally stopped flowing, Mr Hire had no choice but to move around carefully, holding his head very still so as not to reopen the cut. One side of his mustache was drooping, and the mixture of blood and water had stained his face pink, like a watercolor.

There's a lot of rain in this book, you see everything like through a curtain of rain, giving the whole novel the feel of a watercolour, the outlines running into and over each other, dingy and smeared. For all Mr Hire's volume, he has no solidity. He's no innocent, he's passive and impassive, but neither is he what others make him out to be.

This is the third Simenon novel I've read recently, and I want more!

NYRB Reading Week continues at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.

(I saw Monsieur Hire years ago, not realizing it was based on this novel. That haunting music is Brahms' Piano Quartet, Opus 25.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My reading is in a way pointless

I must confess that in all the times I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine's rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can't for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkies's reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it's not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know... time?

— from Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes.

I'd wanted to read this novel for ages, but part of me held back, thinking I should properly acquaint myself with Flaubert first. Fresh off Madame Bovary's heels seemed like the perfect time.

Well, the first 50 pages or so I found dreadfully boring, and it took longer still to fully realize this opening passage was meant as a kind of satire of academic literary criticism. The narrator's an amateur critic, a doctor. I haven't yet decided whether his being a doctor is at all relevant.

I'm in the final stretch of the book and am glad to have stuck with it, even if only to discover this fabulous — my new all-time favourite — quotation, from Flaubert: "Whatever else happens, we shall remain stupid."

There are some insightful and funny passages about the art of criticism (the above passage hit me just as I was getting angry with Terry Castle's introduction to Maude Hutchins' Victorine), with examples of how a biography might be reconstructed from mere snippets of fact.

But I can't imagine anyone not interested in or familiar with Flaubert and his work enjoying this book at all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rozsądną trzeba być

And now, a musical interlude, brought to you by the fact that I don't have to go to work today and in the spirit of my night last night, drinking and smoking and footprints on the ceiling.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

For one line that scanned

I didn't think I'd have much to say about Victorine, by Maude Hutchins. I picked it up months ago, remaindered, because I loved the cover and figured, on the basis of it being published by New York Review Books Classics, that it must be fine literature of some worth, but quite honestly, it sounded like some run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story, exactly the type of thing I don't generally go in for, and a quick scan of the opening pages didn't disconfirm that opinion, but I bought it anyway.

So I finished reading Victorine days ago, and I decided I would say a few things about it after all, (and happily I realized that by the time I would have time to get around it, it would coincide with the start of NYRB reading week,) for two reasons: 1. It turns out that I loved this book — it just goes to show that books have their own time, they must be read at the right time. Well, I guess it doesn't show any such thing, but I do firmly believe that if you read a book at the wrong time, you're bound to miss out on a lot, and if you read a book at the right time, you're very lucky indeed, but really, there's no way of knowing often until it's too late. The early November chill was exactly the right time for me for this book. And 2. When I finally read the introduction, it made me angry, and I thought Terry Castle (whoever she is) really didn't get this book at all, and I need somehow to rectify this.

This book makes me want to be 14 again, which given any objective thought isn't a very reasonable wish. Hutchins knows this, Victorine knows this. "Had she been aware of her childish happiness when it was present, or only now, when it was gone, did it look pretty? [...] Childhood was a myth!" I think Hutchins gives a similar tint to adolescence. The novel is pleasantly erotically charged with anticipation, but that works for me, as an adult, only because I know what potential delights it's in anticipation of.

There's not much plot to speak of: Victorine has a few odd encounters (the priest or maybe even Jesus depending how you look at it, her childhood imaginary friend, a hobo riding the rails, the village idiot, the lady who isn't really a lady — she married beyond her station — all of which sounds much odder when listed out this way than it really is), and her older brother, Costello, has some too (with his father's mistress, and the glamorous divorcée who flies through town one summer). It's a kind of sexual awakening, for more than just Victorine, and what actually happens is less important than how it's told, how it's remembered, how it makes you feel.

No one knows why Victorine's father's mother, not talkative or given to reminiscing in her old age as some old people are, named him Homer, but she did and it stayed with him and he rather liked it, and it did somehow become him. She, bookish and shy as some remembered her when she was a young woman, may have hoped to produce a poet, who might just possibly say the thing that, tongue-tied and frightened, she dared not pronounce. Her almost total silence as an old lady, lately passed on, may or may not have been the result of her disappointment. In any even and be that as it may, Flora, or Victorine's paternal grandma, had given birth and surprisingly easily to five successful businessmen one after the other, the youngest of whom is that Homer who is Victorine's father, whose adventures and illicit meanderings he never put paper or set to music. As if she recognized in his crib, in spite of his ambitious nom de plume, just one more average man, Flora had given up, and on the advice of her doctor, some years later, submitted to the removal of those battered and bruised internal organs which were of no more use to her. All, it seemed, that the five boys inherited from their mother was speechlessness, hers. But not for the same reason. Flora had not spoken because the overwhelming beauty of her visions frightened her. The boys were fearless, uninhibited and ambitious and would have certainly learned to talk if it had been to their advantage. But even as little boys they found that at dead pan and silence gave them a prestige among the barbarous little chatterers who often found themselves in trouble because they were just that, and later, strong silent men, they were an asset in Wall Street and highly respected along Beacon Street and Worth and found themselves listed in Dun and Bradstreet without having opened their mouths. Women, too, with the exception of their wives, hung on their lips, as it were, and imagined how sweet it must be — what they didn't say — to be unutterable; and they were handsome and tolerable lovers, devoted husbands. It follows that not one of them was ever sued for breach of promise, no vulgar publicity ever followed a change of heart. No love letters would ever be found in any trunk in any attic. In truth, the only literate papers left behind by the five L'Hommedieu brothers would be, we figure, stock transfers and contracts, leases and seven years of cheque stubs in neat brown envelops, and even on these the signatures indecipherable. A hundred years from now the five will appear never to have existed, possibly because, unlike Caesar, they scorned the use of code as well, and no no oak and no tortoise will be found even the initials of the L'Hommedieu boys. No one ever guessed that they did not speak because they might have had nothing to say.

There's something pretty breathless about the prose (maybe not so much in the excerpt above, but that still gives you an idea of the convoluted syntax), which makes me want to put it in a class with Roberto Bolaño (but not so wild or savage) and Patrick Hamilton (at a different level of wit and without the cynicism).

What Victorine reminds me of most of all, weirdly, is Franny and Zooey, I think because of the sibling relationships.

I'm not sure what pissed me off so much about Terry Castle's introduction. Everything, for her, has to do with Hutchins's biography, and aside from that I don't know a thing about Maude Hutchins except for what Castle has chosen to tell me, and that I don't much go in for that kind of criticism, I came away with the sense that Victorine bored her, and that she doesn't have much respect for or understanding of how Hutchins lived her life.

Castle seems to be calling Victorine's mother oblivious, to her marital catastrophe as well as her children. I think that goes too far. Allison is a bottomless well. I think she takes in more than she lets on; simply it fails to make an impression on her. Allison just wants to feel.

The novel's as simple as adolescence itself: a yearning for an ideal love, a deep-seated need in the soul for poetry.

But how few people achieve what they anticipate so strongly. Victorine's grandmother had "longed for just one poet and would have gladly castrated the lot of them for one line that scanned." Costello too: "It wasn't a letter he wanted to write, it was just some words — a line that scanned? [...] did Flora sigh in her grave?" Hutchins is kind enough to throw away a line to let us know that Victorine's younger brother would become a famous poet.

Here's one of my favourite sentences, for how it blends the wonder of childhood with some other surreptitiously burgeoning awareness: "The cadmium-yellow forsythia branched out in every front yard like fireworks, and the lawns, protected by snow all winter, were covered with succulent tender tiny leaves of grass, the kind that is slippery and makes a vivid stain on your sneakers."

NYRB Reading Week is on at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Il faut corriger la dictée

Vampire child went to school on Friday in place of my usual blood-sucking daughter. (Really, they don't look a bit alike.)

First snow yesterday. Patches of it still with us, hiding in dark corners.

Faintly relieved that child decided not to go trick-or-treating, that candy at school and at home was sufficient. Massively guilt-ridden that we have not ever yet been trick-or-treating, except for that time when she was 2, and we were at my mom's, and toddled over to the neighbours' houses, but I don't think that counts.

Helena's dictée this week had 4 fautes. It brought her to tears. An occasional faute will slip through, but she usually aces it. Four slips was devastating. I showed her the PDF I was marking up for work, riddled with simple spelling errors, and bigger problems besides, created by a grown-up, for work she's paid well enough for. This actually made Helena feel a great deal better (I caught her sneaking peaks at my laptop, showing an interest in my work she hadn't before). It made me feel somewhat worse.

I leave my crazy job in a week's time, soon to start on a new adventure. The new job is maybe not so different from the old job (though my concience may sleep a little better now that I'll be marketing business software rather than pharmaceuticals), but it speaks volumes to me that among the questions asked of me at my job interview was, "What are you reading?": it thrills my soul that there are editorial environments in which that question is still asked and the answer valued.

I'll have a few days off between jobs. How serendipitous that I should have time off during NYRB Reading Week!