Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Conrad and me

"Drop this! I won't fight with you. I won't be made ridiculous."

"Ah, you won't?" hissed the Gascon. "I suppose you prefer to be made infamous. Do you hear what I say? ... Infamous! Infamous! Infamous!" he shrieked, rising and falling on his toes and getting very red in the face.

My grade 11 history teacher wore a brown leather jacket, Lennon specs, and a beard. He was a Harley-riding born-again Christian. Mr Osgan encouraged all sorts of strange ideas. For example, we did a unit on Ancient India, which may not sound so strange in these enlightened times, but back in my day, the classes of my peers were essentially limited to the big three: the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Naturally, the course material lent itself to discussion of philosophy and religion, and really, that's all your typical hormonal teenagers really want to talk about. I don't think it was just me; most kids thought he was pretty cool, laid-back, like, he got it, man.

He'd go off on all sorts of interesting tangents. It seemed to me they were all about road trips, and meeting hippies and drinking tea and playing sitar. No, he probably didn't tell us any stories quite like that, but he may as well have, man, that was totally the aura he exuded.

For some reason, Mr Osgan seemed to think I was pretty bright, and he gave me A++s (that's double pluses) on my essays. I wrote something on Lucretius and Epicureanism. Then there was this thing on Pythagoras's Table of Opposites and how Pythagoras was clearly(!) influenced by Eastern philosophy. I had to present that to the class. Mr Osgan told me he was giving me bonus points for having conducted the whole seminar barefoot, that it somehow enhanced the material. But I hadn't given it any thought. I was just reckless that week. That was the week my mom went to visit my sister, and I stayed home alone with my big brother, though you can't really say my brother was very present. I had friends over, and stayed out late, and didn't prepare for my project at all. I just left my shoes somewhere, or my feet hurt or something. It was spring, and warm and sunny.

Anyway, before all that stuff, on the very first day of class — history was my home room — Mr Osgan had us fill out some basic information about ourselves, things related to culture and language and religion, I think, and we had to respond to something like, I dunno, "How would you describe yourself," or "What do you want me to know about you?" — something like that. And I remember I wrote that I was "a prolific reader" and I think I was going through my Somerset Maugham phase and I said something about that, but then I worried a long time, for days, about whether I'd used the word "prolific" correctly.

So Mr Osgan notes that I'm Polish, and he starts to tell me, and the whole class, about Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, and how remarkable it is that he should write so remarkably well in a language (English) other than his mother tongue (Polish), and, really, I should read him. I'm pretty sure he noted Nostromo as being particularly good. And then he went off on a tangent about some commune where they drank tea and read Conrad or something.

Shortly thereafter I had my very own copy of Nostromo (did our rinky-dink local bookstore actually have it in stock? did my mother special order it for me?). I'm sure Mr Osgan noticed me carrying it around for a while, but he had the sense never to ask me about it.

I still have that book somewhere. Dogeared at page 17. It bears the distinction of being the first of very few books I never finished.

University was a lot harder than high school. In first year, I was a math and philosophy major, but everyone still had to take English. Everyone was tested and placed according to their abilities. I was exempt from all the basic grammar and composition stuff, and ended up in a lit survey course, which was one of the very few lit courses I took in university.

Of course, Heart of Darkness was on the syllabus, and nothing in the world could convince me to read it. I'm not sure I even tried. Maybe I tried. Maybe I read a page. I'm pretty sure I didn't even try. I totally faked it. I hadn't even seen Apocalypse Now.

And I've felt this gaping lacuna in my literary education ever since.

I tried to read Nostromo again later, in my twenties, which served only to grant it the the distinction of being the only book I never finished twice.

Enter The Duel. I received my e-book for free when I subscribed to Melville House's mailing list (offer no longer available).

Conrad's Duel. It's funny! And absurd — the extent to which honour may be insulted and defended. I'm not quite finished, but finish it I will. I may even try Nostromo again.

Thank you, Melville House, for reconciling me to Joseph Conrad. Otherwise this standoff might've lasted to the death (mine).

Congratulations, Frances, for all the extraordinary reading you accomplished this month — the Art of the Novella reading challenge — and thanks for the nudge in this direction.

Sorry, Mr Osgan, that I never appreciated Conrad the way you hoped I would. But look at me now.

Saying these words the chief spun round to seize the truth, which is not a beautiful shape living in a well, but a shy bird caught by strategem.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It ran out of my arms and eyes like lightning

First, let me say that this is my favourite of all NYRB Classics book covers to date. The image (Susan Bower, Downhill in a Pram) is wonderfully eerie and funny and wicked all at once (kind of like the novel itself).

I'd love to recommend this book — The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer — but, honestly, I haven't the foggiest to whom. I suspect that those people who would find it engaging and relevant are also likely to find it emotionally difficult, and I'm not sure I want to wish that on anyone.

I took my time with this novel; 222 pages but it took me a couple weeks. Having reserved it for my commute (A Dance with Dragons is a bit cumbersome to be lugging about on the metro), I read it in 15-minute spurts here and there, and since I've spent several days working from home lately because of my knee injury, well, it took even longer. This book bears the distinction of having ruined my day, on at least two occasions. I'd come home fuming: I can't believe Jake, what a jerk! So it's a book that manages to spill its emotions over into real life.

We never know the narrator's name. She's on her fourth marriage and has a lot of children — we don't know how many, and Dinah's the only one of them with a name. And she wants another one.

The novel starts off on her therapist's couch, and through flashbacks and choice glimpses of her day-to-day, Mortimer touches on not only (obviously) marriage and motherhood, but also depression, (in)fidelity, sexuality, abortion, sterilization, death, fulfillment (all kinds), and the Cold War. Throw in some complicated relationships with her own parents. Oh, and the nature of happiness. Heavy stuff, but the voice is honest and witty.

Bear in mind that The Pumpkin Eater was originally published in 1962, and it still feels a bit scandalous. It reads a lot like Doris Lessing, and maybe a little bit like Sylvia Plath (but without so much hysterical exuberance).

I realized that for the first time in my life I could make love without danger. Danger? For the first time in my life I could make love. It was an amazing thought, as though I suddenly had the gift of tongues, the ability to fly. I could hardly contain my love, it ran out of my arms and eyes like lightning. "Be careful," Jake said, "You'll hurt yourself." I laughed till the tears came and it really did hurt. "You're crazy," Jake said. "What's the matter with you?" "Nothing. I love you. I've been such a fool."

This novel asks what more do people want — from marriage, from life, from other people. What more can you possible want when there isn't any more? This is it, it's all there is. Some people derive happiness from that; others...

It's said that we're born alone, and that we die alone. The fact of the matter is that ultimately, no matter how many lovers or children, or friends or parties or marriages, we also live alone, though some of us by our natures feel it more keenly than others, and some circumstances make it more keenly felt.

– Daphne Merkin's introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue, in Slate

I learned from Emily that this novel was made into a movie. The introduction confirms this (I tend to save these for last, as I've been burned a couple times, by if not exactly spoilers then too much information), and informs me that the screenplay was by no less than Harold Pinter. I'm betting it's worth looking up.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

One must seek to become human and to love the fact of one's humanity

Inspired by NPR's recent list of top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, a coworker and I have been comparing notes on our respective SF educations, and trying to help each other other close up some gaps. So I was scanning my shelves the other night, looking for a copy of something or other, and was delighted to find a beat-up old paperback, which I immediately set about rereading.

The War Hound and World's Pain, by Michael Moorcock, is not on NPR's list (though, his Elric saga is). My copy was printed in 1982, and it's likely I acquired and read it that same year, or the year after. The pages are severely yellowed, the spine cracked, with whole sections of pages breaking free of their gluey bonds, and the book smells intensely of that used-book-shop smell, though it's only ever been used by me, and a friend or two (the books on either side of it don't smell at all). I wrote my name inside it; I recognize my highschool penmanship.

The language of the book, quite deliberately, is stilted and somewhat formal, to mimic the style of a journal as written in 1680. I am surprised that my 13-year-old self would've got on with it. But it must've been hard to resist the callout on the back cover:


Now, at 13, I'm sure I knew about the holy grail, King Arthur, Monty Python, and all that, but I think I thought of it more as a treasure quest — the "holy" part of it eluded me.

Yet, I connected with this book. (I've held on to it for almost 30 years, and think of it as a favourite, but haven't really examined why until now.) I read it at a time when I no longer believed in God (hadn't done so since I was 4), I was mystified by the hold organized religion had over so many, and it was increasingly difficult to come up with excuses to get out of church on Sunday mornings (without resorting to the actual truth and devastating my mother). At the same time, this book opened my eyes to the curiosities of religious mythology — I realized I could be interested in and educated about religion and religious culture without actually being religious, without taking sides. (And so began a lifelong fascination with the story of Lilith.)

So in retrospect, I think this novel helped me to consolidate my atheism, to begin to glory in my humanness, to be true to myself.

"All I have learned, lady, is to accept the world's attributes as they are. I have learned, I suppose, an acceptance of my own self, an acceptance of Man's ability to create not sensations and marvels but cities and farms which order the world, which bring us justice and sanity."

"Aha," she said. "Is that all you learned, then, young man? Is that all?"

"I think so," I said. "The marvellous is of necessity a lie, a distortion. At best it is a metaphor which leads to the truth. I think that I know what causes the World's Pain, lady. Or at least I think I know what contributes to that Pain."

"And what would that be, Ulrich von Bek?"

"By telling a single lie to oneself or to another, by denying a single fact of the world as it has been created, one adds to the World's Pain. And pain, lady, creates pain. And one must not seek to become saint or sinner, God of Devil. One must seek to become human and to love the fact of one's humanity."

I became embarrassed. "That is all I have learned, lady."

"It is all that Heaven demands," she said.

I still don't believe in heaven, but I am glad to be reminded of von Bek's lesson in humility and humanity.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Restless as maggots

When Jake and I were first married — after the three eldest children had been taken away — we lived together in the evenings. Like actors, our lives began when the curtain went down. We ate and quarrelled and made love, cooked and drank and talked through the night, while the audience slept. Then, beginning with Dinah, the children began staying up later. They needed help with homework. They needed food. They needed conversation. They needed more and more of our lives. In a useless attempt to keep something for ourselves, we gave them bed-sitting rooms, television sets, new electric fires; but at eight o'clock, then nine o'clock, then ten o'clock they would be sitting in a patient row on the sofa preparing to talk to us or play games with us or perhaps just watch us, their eyes restless as maggots, expecting us to bring them up. My guilt and Jake's exasperation loaded the atmosphere until, to me, it became unbearable. But the children breathed it in placidly. There were now more great bored ones staying up in the evening than there were small, manageable ones asleep with their teeth cleaned. The nurse went off duty, as she called it, at half past seven, seldom failing to remark that she had had a twelve hour day. We went out, in order to be alone, to the great dirty pub on the corner, to the cinema, anywhere where we might be anonymous and behave, if necessary, unsuitably to our age and situation. That night, after I came home, there was no question of going out. We waited, with bad grace and burning impatience, for them to go to bed.

At last, lingeringly, with sad backward glances at the glorious day, they went. They could well look after themselves, but because I had been away I went about picking up socks, opening windows, telling them to hurry, tucking them in. Encouraged, they clung to my hand, each jealous of another, demanding to know about death and sex and other subjects which they hoped might interest me. When one of them pestered unduly, another would demand that I was left alone; when one of them called for me to go back and listen, another said crushingly, "You are a beast, can't you see she's tired." By the time I left Dinah, dazed by the possibility of a Supreme Being, my longing to be alone with Jake had cooled and hardened into a longing to forget, to postpone, to sleep.

— from The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer.

I'm guessing (with desperate hope that I am not alone) that anyone with children, no matter how many, will find something to relate to in this passage.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Artificial silk

I'm sure Hubert didn't see me, but it still hit me like a bullet — his black coat from the back and his fair neck — and I had to think of our outing to the Kuckuckswald, where he lay on the ground with his eyes closed. And the sun made the ground hum and the air was trembling — and I put ants on his face while he was sleeping, because I'm never tired when I'm with a man I'm in love with — and I put ants in his ears — and Hubert's face was like a mountain range with valleys and all and he would pucker his nose in a funny way and his mouth was half open — his breath came out of it like a cloud. And he almost looked like a looney, but I loved him more for his sleepy face than for his kisses — and his kisses were quite something, let me tell you.

The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun, was written in 1932 in Germany. An English translation was recently republished by Other Press.

Comparisons to Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City totally miss the mark. A single girl's romantic-sexual adventures in the big city — there the similarity ends. Bridget, Carrie, and friends are fun-loving, ambitious, independent-minded (and Doris is all these things), but they are at times (often) also pathetic. Doris, on the other hand, the eponymous artificial silk girl (a woman should never wear artificial silk when she's with a man, it wrinkles too quickly), is tragic. She shares more with Holly Golightly (both the literary and film versions) and Letty Fox.

[I haven't given a whole lot of thought as to what I see as the difference between pathetic and tragic. I'm using these words with their common meanings, not as precise literary terms. I dunno, I just feel there's a difference. Kind of like what Arthur Miller said.]

Doris is of a time where women were out in the world, they could make a living if they had to, or if they wanted to. When the novel opens she's working in an office ("True education has nothing to do with commas!"). But that's not to say it was easy. Opportunities are limited, and it's hard to be taken seriously.

Then there's love.

If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she's called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she's a whore and a bitch.

Contemporary chick-lit heroines should be sobered by Doris's account.

So this novella makes for a fascinating historical document as regards women in society, circa 1930. But it also paints a vivid picture of a certain slice of society in immediately pre-Nazi Germany, and it's impossible to read the comments about Jews (Doris didn't care if you were or you weren't, but some of her men did) and about politics without a historical eye.

Doris toys with the idea of educating herself about politics, but it bores her, and it never really sticks. But I wouldn't say she is clueless abut politics; simply, she prefers not to bother with it, it's too much trouble. ("Politics poisons human relationships.")

Is there any reason to read this book, then, aside from its historical interest? I think, yes, for its voice. Certainly, it would've been unique in Keun's time. And it's still fresh now, and fairly compelling.


Keun has a gift for startling images. I highlighted several of these:

"Dear God, my letters are trembling on the paper like the legs of dying mosquitoes."

"He had the voice of a bowling ball that made my blood run cold."

"And with my last paycheck, I bought myself a honey brown dress with smooth pleats, quiet and serious, like a woman who forgets to laugh when she's being kissed by someone she likes."

"There's someone playing the harmonica next door with his forehead as crumpled up as his life."

"It's not always the face that makes a whore — I am looking into my mirror — it's the way they walk, as if their heart had gone to sleep."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

They sit moony, staring up at the bloody blue

I'm very excited to be finally starting A Dance with Dragons! I was pretty ambivalent about book 4 (A Feast for Crows) for the first few hundred pages, but some of the newer characters did manage to draw me in and pull me along.

I must say I found the violence in that book somewhat more difficult to stomach (Asha Greyjoy. Brienne.). It didn't feel gratuitous exactly, but since the nature of it has changed (has it? or am I just now noticing it?) it's natural that my relationship with it has changed too. In addition to genuine concern for character outcomes, I'm driven along now also by sick curiosity.

Anyway, the final couple hundred pages of book 4 made it all worthwhile (Arya — I love that kid! Cersei — I hate that bitch!). Every now and again I bemoan that these books are ssooo llooonng, but it's been great to have something so escapist to turn to over the last week as I've spent time in several waiting rooms and was otherwise housebound (torn meniscus), and for the coming week as well, since all childcare plans for the final days of summer have gone to pot.

I'm still a bit puzzled by the labels this series of books is associated with: epic fantasy, high fantasy, magic. To my mind, the books read like historical romance, with a bit of other stuff thrown in.

The fantastic creatures that "people" the books are not the kind humans rub shoulders with at the village fair. The creatures are outsiders to the established social world. That nudges the books toward horror. The elements of magic — isolated incidents — are looked upon with great scepticism. The creatures, the magic, the shamanism, the supernaturalism, they are not viewed as the normal state of the world. This is nothing like the Piers Anthony or Michael Moorcock I read in my youth. In many ways, this world feels more real, more like our own.

I'm betting that the page count covering all those traditionally fantastic elements is paltry relative to the thousands of pages of "history" being related.

So it comes as a surprise (even a treat) that the prologue to book 5 should look more closely at one of those fantastic/horrific aspects.

Dogs were the easiest beasts to bond with; they lived so close to men that they were almost human. Slipping into a dog's skin was like putting on an old boot, its leather softened by wear. As a boot was shaped to accept a foot, a dog was shaped to accept a collar, even a collar no human could see. Wolves were harder. A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf. "Wolves and women wed for life," Haggon often said. "You take one, that's a marriage. The wolf is part of you from that day on, and you're part of him. Both of you will change."

Other beasts were best left alone, the hunter had declared. Cats were vain and cruel, always ready to turn on you. Elk and deer were prey; wear their skins too long, and even the bravest man became a coward. Bears, boars, badgers,. weasels . . . Haggon  did not hold with such. "Some skins you never want to wear, boy. You won't like what you'd become. "Birds were the worst, to hear him tell it. "Men were not meant to leave the earth. Spend too much time in the clouds and you never want to come back down again. I know skinchangers who've tried hawks, owls, ravens. Even in their own skins, they sit moony, staring up at the bloody blue."

Friday, August 12, 2011

How to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.

— from The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun.

I'm almost done this short novel, and I have her After Midnight lined up to read soon.

For a little bit about Keun, her books, and the climate in which they were written, see:

Deutsche Welle: "But Keun's "The Artificial Silk Girl" is more than just a diary of dancing and dalliances. It also contains subtle but scathing commentaries about life under the rising Third Reich."

Melville House Publishing: "Much fiction has been written about the Nazis in the years since World War II, but it is incredibly rare to have a novelist of Keun’s talents and first-hand knowledge describe the day-to-day reality of an evil empire while it was still in power."

The Millions: "She was a best-selling debut novelist at twenty-six, published a second bestseller a year later, was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and in exile by the spring of 1936."

Sarah Blogwell's Bake: "She observes all: an eternally naïve narrator who misunderstands what is going on, but who — of course — really understands more than anyone."