Saturday, March 31, 2012

What exists, exists

There just came a moment when I began to look around me with different eyes and I saw a city that looked strange to me, a pretty city, very neat, very luminous, very clean, a city in which everybody greeted me affably.

Why did I have that sensation of emptiness then?

I began looking at my house too and I asked myself why it was my house, what connexion there was between these rooms, this garden, this wrought-iron gate adorned with a brass plate bearing my name, and me.

I looked at Armande and I had to keep telling myself that she was my wife.


And the little girls who called me Papa . . .


What was I doing in a peaceful little town, in a charming comfortable house among people who smiled at me and cordially shook my hand?


And I was the only one to see the world in this way, the only one to be troubled in a universe that had no idea of what was happening to me.

In fact, for years and years I lived without being conscious of all this. I had scrupulously done the best I could, everthing I had been told to do. Without trying to know the reason. Without trying to understand.

A man must have a profession, and Mama had made a doctor of me. He must have children, and I had children. He must have a house, a wife, and I had all these. He must have distractions, and I drove a car, played bridge and tennis. He must have vacations, and I took my family to the seashore.


We have been so conditioned to think that what exists, exists; that the world is really as we see it, that we must do this or that and never act otherwise . . .

I shrugged my shoulders.

— from Act of Passion, by Simenon.

Just like David Byrne shrugs his shoulders through Once in a Lifetime. Yes, Georges, there is water at the bottom of the ocean.

So here's an obvious similarity between what might be my favourite pop song ever and Simenon's romans durs, with which I'm mildly obsessed: How did I get here?

I was afraid I was losing my Simenon mojo, right when I need it most. I set aside Tropic Moon, which was starting to feel like homework, and was richly rewarded with Act of Passion.

Act of Passion is told in the first person, taking the form of a letter from Charles Alavoine, a successful doctor, written from his prison cell, to the judge who presided over his trial for murder. It is not a confession or an apology; merely he wants to be understood.

The mystery is first how he should come to abandon his comfortable life, and then how when living his second comparatively idyllic life — poorer but in love, and feeling finally alive — he should be driven to murder the object of his affection.

That's all and it's not all, your Honour. It is all because nothing happened that was not perfectly commonplace. It is not all, because for the first time I was hungry for a life other than my own.

The song Once in Lifetime calms my general life-panic, gives me the feeling that everything's going to be OK (just once in a lifetime ask yourself these questions? just once in lifetime step outside of yourself? just once in a lifetime take a once-in-a-lifetime chance?). But when a Simenon character asks these questions, steps outside of himself, takes a bite out of life, things spiral out of control and go horribly, horribly wrong.

You are afraid, to be precise, of what has happened to me. You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mad Men gets literary again

Season 5 of Mad Men is off to a fine start. Episode 1 culminates in a surprise birthday party for Don. And it's a fabulous party: drinks for everyone, boys looking at girls, marijuana on the balcony, a little yé-yé, and a heated political discussion in the kitchen that references in great detail Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.

[I read Johnny when I was about 14 and it blew my mind. And boy, do I know it — talking about that book is a great way to kill a party. But then, at 14, I was going to a different kind of party.]

No blatant literary references in episode 2, but I couldn't help but pick up a little Lolita vibe as Lane Pryce obsessed over a photo of aptly named Dolores.

Maybe it's a sign that Simenon is too much on my mind, but it strikes that a couple characters are potentially deeply Simenonesque.

Pete Campbell, junior partner. I don't find him sympathetic, or even likeable, but mostly he's just trying to catch a break. He tries hard. In these episodes I'm noticing a look in his eyes. When he rides in to work on the train in the morning, there's a look like it might be his last ride, he's not riding home ever again. When he returns to his suburban home one evening there's a look of "how did I get here?" (I mean, "how the hell did I end up here?") and for a moment I thought he might snap his wife's neck.

Lane Pryce, finance guy. British, but also deeply sympathetic. He keeps wanting to step out of his box, but always ends up squarely in his box. Now he finds a wallet, finds a photo inside the wallet, calls about returning the wallet and talks to the girl in the photo, returns the wallet, but keeps the photo. It's so small, but it's a transgression, and it's pervy. The others may topple secretaries over their desks, but Lane's innocuous actions are more loaded. My money's on Lane absconding with the company funds. For a girl.

Now, all the characters cross lines, social and ethical. So why do I point to these two as typical Simenon antiheroes? For most of the characters, their morals fall whichever way the 60s are blowing. They fill an immediate need, resolve an immediate problem; they scratch an itch. They're not, on the whole, acting out of any deep-seated unhappiness; they're just reacting. But these two! It's like they're prodding some existential bruise.

Is Simenon colouring the way I look at the world? Am I reading too much into Pete and Lane? Are they any different from the rest of the Mad Men? What do you think makes them tick?

See my list of books referred to in Mad Men's first 4 seasons.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Comparing two books

I'm not sure to what extent it's fair to compare these two books: These Days Are Ours, by Michelle Haimoff, which I read recently and about which I have mixed feelings, and The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood, which I'm not quite halfway through and which I'm loving.

There are some superficial and thematic similarities. Haimoff writes about recent college grads, while Wood's characters are largely still students. They both deal with privileged classes among whom there's an interloper — a regular, working guy. Both feature several social events. Same time period.

So why is it that I really like the one (Wood) — I think it's literary, I can't think of a better way to spend these cold, grey March days — and I'm so quick to dismiss the other (Haimoff) as chick lit (or something like it)? (And when I apply these labels, have I already made my judgement?)

For starters, it's clear to me that The Bellwether Revivals has a plot. I'm not entirely sure where it's going, but things are happening, and I want to know what happens next.

These Days Are Ours has less plot — a lot of chatting and meeting up, but not much to drive the reader, beyond wondering whether she'll get the job she interviewed for and which guy should she end up with — more an over-arching theme of directionlessness. In one sense, the novel might be said to be clever for its mostly plotless form matching its content.

For another thing, I'd much rather attend one of Wood's dinner parties than Haimoff's. The Bellwhethers (for that is the name of the family of interest) actully talk about ideas, like mind-body dualism. Hailey's crowd talks small talk, about people, clubs, nothing much at all. Come to think of it, they do as much texting as talking, and I think this reflects the depth of their engagement. Haimoff writes about people of influence; Wood writes about people of intelligence.

When I say I prefer Wood's book then, is it because I like the people in it better? Do people in real life talk about mind-body dualism and debate the existence of God at the dinner table? Yes, but how many? Is Haimoff's dinner conversation more realistic?

Is either book an accurate reflection of the society it takes on? Can they both be right? Is this New York (Haimoff) versus London (Wood)? Haimoff's feels like a small novel, about a small character at sea, small perhaps in contrast to New York and 9/11. Wood's novel feels big and important even though the story doesn't go far beyond the circle of friends. Is Haimoff too subtle for me to appreciate?

I wouldn't be comparing these books at all, I don't think, if it weren't for that I'm reading them within a couple weeks of each other.

I can't wait to get back to The Bellwhether Revivals.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

These days

I'm not sure what it is that initially drew me to These Days Are Ours, by Michelle Haimoff. The story follows Hailey, a recent college grad, jobless and somewhat directionless — drinking, supping, and hooking up — in post-9/11 New York City. Haimoff sounded kind of smart, and I thought I could relate to directionlessness.

But it turns out I have little else in common with a privileged Jewish 20-something-year-old, born and raised in New York to famous and connected parents.

It's Catcher in the Rye meets Sex and the City, which made for pleasant vacation reading, on planes and poolside. While I was certainly engaged by the writing, I'm not sure what, if anything, lifts it above chick lit. Or maybe, at 20-something plus 20, I'm just too old to appreciate this kind of story — not exactly coming-of-age, not exactly maturing into adulthood... although, I guess there's something to how 9/11 made us all grow up in a way.

In the supplementary material at the back of the book, Haimoff states:

Often female character fall into the Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, Miranda paradigm where one is the outrageous one, one is the uptight one, etc. But in real life, women are much more nuanced than that. While the characters in the book have their moments of outrageousness, uptightness, etc., these qualities don't define their personalities. It was important to me to have the dialogue between female characters be almost interchangeable. When my friends and I talk, we often can't remember who said what funny thing or who came up with which insight. These chracters are the same way.

I think it's true to a degree, but (and maybe it's my age showing again) I think my groups of friends over the years have consisted of distinct personalities. If not their qualities, what does define their personalities then? And even if real people do blur together sometimes, I expect more definition from art. I mean, character! Or is Haimoff saying that literature should strive for more realism?

Or maybe real people don't have distinct personalities anymore (let alone character).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The rain of your city

Every time I went to Caen it rained. And I liked the rain of your city. I like it for being fine, gentle and silent; I like it for the halo it throws around the landscape, for the mystery with which, in the twilight, it surrounds everybody you meet, especially the women.

— from Act of Passion, by Simenon.

I like the rain of my city too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blue Metropolis 2012

The Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation this morning held a press conference to announce its line-up for the 2012 Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. The Festival once again changes venue this year. It will be held at the Opus Hotel on Sherbrooke, April 18-23.

This year's theme: Le pouvoir des mots [The power of words]. This comes through strongly in the emphasis on the children's portion of the festival, promoting literacy and the culture of reading in youngsters. (I'll see if I can get my daughter to attend an event and report on it.)

The 2012 programming for the main festival has a couple main areas of focus. One is Cuban literature, and the other is crime writing.

The 2012 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix winner is Joyce Carol Oates, who, coincidentally, has a large body of crime-related novels. She will be awarded the prize at a special event on Saturday, April 21. (I have not read any Joyce Carol Oates. Where do you recommend I start?)

(Past winners include some of my favourite writers: A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster.)


For those of you who are unable to attend, I will be blogging the festival, so you can live it vicariously through me. I'll have access to several events and festival participants. So let me know if you have an interest in a particular event and I'll see about attending it for you. (For those of you who are able to attend, well, maybe we can compare notes.)

Finally, I'm excited to announce that I'll be hosting a Lunch and Literature event: A Georges Simenon Salon, at noon on Sunday, April 22. Held in the Koko Restaurant, the event itself is free but the purchase of lunch is required.

If you've ever read Simenon — whether his romans durs or his Maigret novels — please come out for lunch and contribute to the conversation. I've nurtured a mild obsession with Simenon since I first discovered his romans durs about a year and a half ago, and I'm curious to know what other readers see in him.

Sadly, I cannot attend the panel discussion on translating David Foster Wallace (Scott Esposito is on the panel), as it conflicts with my Simenon lunch.

You can find full program details on the festival's website (which has been given a long overdue facelift).

Also check out Programming Director Gregory McCormick's blog, Azure Scratchings, for more festival-related news and commentary.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Infinity as a limit

Then he smiled into her eyes and asked, in the dry academic tones of an astronomer discussing a theoretical point with a colleague. "How long do you suppose I can go on loving you more every day?" And he devised for her a calculus of love, which approached infinity as a limit, and made her smile again.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is one of the most fantastic books I've read in some time — the kind where I spent much of my non-reading time not only wishing I were reading it, but talking about various concepts in it to anyone who would listen.

Such concepts include:
  • A habitable planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, a planet with three suns, and three distinct dawns and sun settings, and the visual this creates in my head (especially on the tail of having listened to poetic descriptions of a comparable setting in an audio version of Solaris) is mind-blowing.
  • The privatization of orphanages and the common practice of a kind of indentured service, whereby orphans or other unfortunates could be educated and put to work, and in limited circumstances could buy out the rights to their life from the person or coporation who de facto owned them.
  • Anthropological linguistics, and an alien grammar that voices a distinction between objects that are seen and objects that are not seen or nonvisual, this latter category including both things that are temporarily out of view as well abstract concepts.
    "The ability to speak a language perfectly does not necessarily confer any linguistic understanding of it," Sandoz said, "just as one may play billiards well without any formal understanding of Newtonian physics, yes? My advanced training is in anthropological linguistics, so my purpose in working with Askama was not merely to be able to ask someone to pass the salt, so to speak, but to gain insight into her people's underlying cultural assumptions and cognitive makeup."
    (One of the most common questions I had in response to telling people I studied linguistics was, So how many language do you know?. Aurgh. I wish I could've replied as succinctly as Sandoz.)
  • A world economy in which Polish zloty are a valued currency.
  • The whole Jesuit mystique, and that there be a religious order that might put academic pursuit before God. I feel compelled here to mention the time I met three Jesuits in a bar in Krakow, a couple of whom were visiting from Ireland and were working on translating Ulysses into Polish, and we proceeded to drink bottles of vodka together and talk about rescuing 20th-century Polish literature from obscurity, and they told stories about the Pope, among other things, and I decided, hey, Jesuits are cool.

The Sparrow is about first contact, but like all the best science fiction novels, it's deeply philosophical. While it fully realizes a completely believable yet wholly alien society, it's as much about our own cultural assumptions. It also envisions a future where religion and space travel are both going strong, and where the ideas of God and of alien life are not mutually exclusive.

Once, long ago, she'd allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God's presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdon, was isnstructive either as myth or as history, she'd decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf, God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple choice question. If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs,or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.

Speaking as an open-minded atheist, albeit one raised Catholic, I was worried at times that the novel might end up siding with the existence of God. Although some characters do side with God, most of them maintain a healthy skepticism and some sway between belief and nonbelief, with the very reasonable attitude that "it's difficult to tell from the way people behave whether or not they believe in God." However, it is my one criticism of the novel that there is no affirmed atheist in the bunch.

So, yes, there's much discussion of faith in this book, and I hesitate to recommend it to some of my atheist friends, but I'm pretty sure I'll go ahead and recommend it anyway.

The characters in this novel are delightful — I want them all over for dinner next weekend. Despite most of them having had difficult upbringings, they're all very smart and energetic and lively, that it's only as I write this that I realize they may be a little too good to be true. But, boy, did I enjoy spending time with them. One thing that struck me, and I guess it ties in with the God question, whether life is random or by design, is that most of them had experienced an event in their life about which you could say they were picked up out of their life (by a person) and dropped somewhere else entirely. And I think this is awesome. To some degree I think it's true of all of us, that people nudge us onto paths that lead to vastly different places than we might otherwise have ended up in, and then there's something like love, which can transport you to a completely different life. (Well, how did I get here?)

Russell did write a sequel to The Sparrow, but I've heard from other fans that it is disappointing. I may pick it up someday, but I'm quite content for the time being to let The Sparrow stand alone in my head.

Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

On the other hand, if you like your fiction realistic but are the least bit SF-curious, I think you'll find this group of characters so vivid and likeable, you'll willingly follow them to another planet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Three minds

Yesterday I attended a vernissage — the showing of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, illustrated by Claudia Gómez, a friend of mine.

Many of you may recognize the title as a poem by Wallace Stevens. While I wasn't previously familiar with the poem, I was delighted to find that it is the source of lines that I do hear cited occasionally.

Claudia chose to illustrate the poem with a series of drawings in pen and ink, black and white. There is an obvious Native American influence on these, but Claudia mixes it with something that reminds me of William Morris — the kind of patterning that would lend itself well to woodcuts, textiles, wrought ironwork. The lines have a great deal of movement and something I can describe only as musicality — a lilt and a wonder.

I've heard of the blackbird in Stevens' poem as being interpreted as God (and this puts me in mind also of The Beatles' Blackbird), but there's also something very common about the bird — it's not hard to believe that the bird is just a bird, which because it is so common lends itself to being used in the formation of analogies. The blackbird is not usually associated with bad luck, but might be a sign of vigilance.

One stanza in particular of Thirteen Ways speaks to me, and I'm happy to have acquired a print of Claudia's interpretation of it.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

I don't know what it means. It's so beautifully simple.

I like this stanza because I often say I'm of three minds myself. But it also reminds me of the time the priest came to dinner after my father died, and he tried to explain the Trinity to me in terms of Kratynski the mother, Kratynski the sister, and Kratynski the little girl. I want it on the wall of my current life, where my own family trio lives.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Library at sea

I'd brought plenty of reading material with me, but as a public service to you, I embarked on a bit of research while on vacation. Yes, boys and girls, I've sailed the high seas — where by "sailed" I mean lounged by the pool with a margarita in hand on a boat so big you can't feel it moving, and by "high seas" I mean just the one Caribbean sea — and made my way, after a midmorning round of miniputt and margaritas, across the boardwalk, past the carousel, through Central Park, picking up another margarita en route, to scope out the library on the 11th deck (which housed nothing else worth remarking) — all so you wouldn't have to.

So just what exactly does the library of luxury cruise ship have to offer?

Monica Ali and Margaret Atwood through Iain Banks and JK Rowling to Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Mostly in English, though I spotted a few Spanish and French titles (unless all the foreign-language books were out on loan?).

There's a key posted to explain the system by which the bindings are colour-coded. A solid half of the library is fiction, but there are healthy sections of biography, history, travel, and self-help. I counted 15 books on ships and navigation.

You sign out a book by recording it in the log book by the door, but essentially it works on the honour system. There's a drop box for returns. Presumably there's an employee assigned to straightening up and reshelving.

In the few minutes I spent there, I saw a handful of people come and go, to browse, check out, and return books.

I had expected a flourescent-lit metal shelf strewn with tattered paperbacks. I found instead a cozy, traditional wood-panelled study quite at odds with much of the larger-than-life bluster splayed across the other 17 decks.

I spent most of my days as close to the sun and the water (and the bar!) as possible, but if I were confined to the boat for months, I'd be relatively content to have this library at hand.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Faith in the old human brain

"Humans," said R. Daneel, "have their own peculiar make-up. They are not as reasonable, in many ways, as we robots, since their circuits are not as preplanned. I am told that this, too has its advantages."

The first and only time (till now) I read Isaac Asimov was as a kid, some 30 years ago. I read I, Robot then, and I felt my young brain stretched in exciting ways.

Since then, I learned that Asimov is revered by some as a god, and this intimidated me.

Someday, I thought, I'll get around to The Foundation Trilogy, even though it sounds so big and... foundational. But I have a coworker now egging me on to check off the sci-fi classics, and she's acting as my supplier of sorts. What a surpise to see the trilogy wrapped up in three slim volumes.

But of the handful of Asimov my coworker lay before me, I opted first for The Caves of Steel, based on the reference in a blurb to a "womb-city" and, of course, the cheesy cover art.

I was afraid it would feel dated — the language, the science — but it's highly readable and inventive (some quaint concepts of, for example, data storage are easily forgiven).

The story concerns a murder investigation, which appears to be related to strained human–robot relations.

The most surprising thing about this novel — and I think it's telling that I find it surprising at all — is the sense of optimism Asimov conveys — for science, humanity, the future. (There's a hint of religion in it, a guiding Christian principle, but I'll call it a brand of humanism.)

Baley muttered, "Eight billion people and the uranium running out! What's unlimited about it?"

"What if the uranium does run out. We'll import it. Or we'll discover other nuclear processes. There's no way you can stop mankind, Lije. You've got to be optimistic about it and have faith in the old human brain. Our greatest resource is ingenuity and we'll never run out of that, Lije."