Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fresh as a daisy

Ah, love.

This is how the story ends:
To the accompaniment of Victor's snoring, Ali-Baba reviewed her life and swallowed the pills. The next morning Victor found her lying facedown on the desk. He read her note and called an ambulance. Paramedics pumped Ali-Baba's stomach, then took her to a mental hospital. Shaking with a hangover, Victor pulled on some clothes and trotted off to work to wait for the liquor store to open.

Ali-Baba was lying in a clean bed in a ward for the insane. She would stay there at least a month. Soon there would be a hot breakfast and conversation with a family doctor. Later, as she knew, her neighbors would swap life stories. Ali-Baba also had a story or two to share. She wanted to tell them, for example, about the first time she took pills, when she went blind for twenty-four hours. The second time put her to sleep for two days, but the sixth time she woke up in the morning fresh as a daisy.

That's how one of the stories ends. But all the stories end like this, just life continuing without end. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's slim volume of love stories, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself, is brutal and true.

In the introduction, translator Anna Summers writes:
Petrushevskaya's genius as a literary artist lies in her ability to make the strangeness of her mothers, her would-be mothers, her once-were mothers, and her other characters worthy of our sympathy in the partial absence of our understanding. The changes she introduces in vocabulary, perspective, rhythm, and intonation sneak up on us, and before we know it we have implicitly forgive bizarre, bewildering, and often vulgar behaviors and qualities.
These stories are small, as small as the lives they depict. Very many of them are forgettable lives. They are also surprisingly light; they waft away.

I read these stories last month, even though my husband had just left me for a younger woman. And they made me feel better. Because other people's lives are so much more tragic than mine. Although, I was drunk for much of the time I was reading.

Life, love — all of it is so inconsequential.

A.V. Club
New York Times

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Screen test

I've been watching some of Andy Warhol's screen tests on Youtube.

Some of them are very boring. Indeed, I lose interest in most of them by about the 30-second mark. This surprises me, because I'm generally a patient person who gives my undivided attention to things (like very long books and arthouse movies).

But a few of them really intrigue me — those with particularly interesting faces, or whom I know something about (like Edie Sedgwick, and everything I know about her I learned from Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs).

As part of a course on Andy Warhol, we were invited to use the Vine app to create our own screen tests.

So I "screen-tested" my daughter for a full 6 seconds. And what I got out of the exercise is something I've always known in theory, but here I felt it firsthand: that the picture or video is more about the relationship between the watcher and the watched than it is about the image itself being captured. A kind of still portrait but over time.

The Vine exercise was part of the MOOC's opening unit, on celebrity. And the ensuing discussions continue to be quite provocative, on the nature of celebrity, on cultivating persona, on the phenomenon of social media. Has our promised 15 minutes in fact shrunken to mere seconds? And I wonder how interested I would be in Warhol's art if it weren't for the fact of his own celebrity.


Warhol Mania is on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until March 15. It's a small exhibit (2 rooms) but tightly focused on Warhol's posters (including for Perrier) and magazine work.

Because it consists entirely of "printed" work, there's no real "aha" moment such as I've experienced in seeing some other artworks (say, in terms of the colour and texture of a painting). However, it's interesting to see Warhol's works grouped: e.g., his illustrations of shoes and accessories for ladies magazines. And I learned, sadly, that much of Warhol's original work would've been destroyed — typically, the magazine itself is seen as the finished product, and working files aren't retained.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Understanding how to live the experience of a garment

I can recognize a disciple of La Sape from miles away. This watchman is a master at applying the foundational principles of the society, including the sacrosanct rule of the Trilogy. Three colours for an ensemble, not one more, not one less. Dressing in accordance with principles of La Sape means knowing how to display flamboyant arrangements: a three-piece Dior suit with Weston crocodile shoes, why not. It's showing off your white merino wool tailcoat, your McQueen tie, your mahogany pipe, your cane with a "system" that includes, in the handle of the shaft, a compartment for storing cutlery, sometimes a weapon. Being a good sapologist involves exploring fabrics, patterns, accessories; it's about understanding how to live the experience of a garment.
— from Ravenscrag, by Alain Farah.

La Sape: la Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Serious sociological reflection

Georges Simenon was born on Friday, February 13 — 102 years ago. Last Friday, A Different Stripe posted a great quote about it:
"It's a boy," she stammered. As for him, with a complete lack of self-restraint, he said, crying all the while:

"I shall never, never forget that you have just given me the greatest joy a woman can give a man..."

"Désiré... Listen... What time is it?"

The child had been born at ten past twelve. Élise whispered:

"Listen, Désiré... He's come into the world on a Friday the thirteenth... Nobody must know... You must beg that woman..."

And that was why, the next morning, when Désiré, accompanied by his brother Arthur as a witness, went to register the child's birth at the Town Hall, he told the clerk, with an innocent expression:

"Roger Mamelin, born at Liége, at No. 18, Rue Léopold, on Thursday 12 February 1903."
That's from Pedigree, Simenon's novelization of his own life, which I have not yet read.

As if to chide me, there's also an excellent essay by Elliott Colla on "Maigret's Jurisdiction" in the LA Review of Books:
By mapping out the emergent networks of French modernity as a sprawling social geography, Simenon turned crime writing toward serious sociological reflection. Take, for instance, the enigmatic opening lines of Pietr the Latvian: "ICPC to PJ Paris Xvzust Krakow vimontra m ghks triv psot uv Pietr-le-Letton Bremen vs tyz btolem." Maigret translates the phrase, which, we learn, is composed in the language of a continental network of police agencies. Rendered legible, the words read: "International Criminal Police Commission to Police Judiciaire in Paris: Krakow police report sighting Pietr the Latvian en route to Bremen." The next memo reads: "Polizei-Präsidium Bremen to PJ Paris: Pietr the Latvian reported en route Amsterdam and Brussels." These memos and others sketch a colorful map of overlapping networks: a rail that could take a Latvian national through Poland and Germany, then Holland and Belgium and on to France; a police network linking the national polices of these various countries in a single system of knowledge and surveillance; and, of course, a communication network linking these two systems — rail and policing — to one another in real-time.

The rest of the novel fills out this geography, and indicates just how exhilarating and terrifying it was for Simenon to witness the emergence of this interwar landscape where polyglot nations intersected and interpenetrated each other by way of crime and interdiction. Bodies, goods, and information travel back and forth across borders with near infinite possibilities. This movement is what makes crime possible, by allowing men to leave their pasts behind or to inhabit more than one identity at a time.
All those Maigret reissues to explore. And I still have a few old Simenon paperbacks that I dug up in second-hand shops lying around, unread. And there are several untranslated works also available to me to practice my French. I have a feeling I'll be getting back to basic, serious sociological reflection with Simenon very soon.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do?

Do you use an online dictionary? Have you ever "liked" a word, or shared it on social media? Have you ever commented on a dictionary entry? I mean, by leaving a comment that satisfies the prompt (What made you want to look up ___? Please tell us where you read or heard it.). I've often wondered why anyone would be motivated to do that, apart from students of English as a second language, who seem quite genuine in their queries regarding usage. But what if you could vote a word up or down? What if its definition were crowdsourced? What if its shape, meaning, sound, morphed as data was received?

What if it all happened with the aid of the technology of our very near future, with a kind of Google Glass or a chip integrated directly into our neural network? Among its other functions for day-to-day living (hailing cabs, making payments, checking contact details, researching background info — with less than a blink of the eye), it would fulfill linguistic services, not only looking up unknown words and supplying their meanings but suggesting entire conversational tacks. What if you could devise a business model that earned you money for every look-up, while dumbing down the culture and creating a dependence on your service? You might need a monopoly on the dictionary industry first, of course.
It is comforting to believe that consigning small decisions to a device frees up our brains for more important things. But that begs the question, which things have been deemed more important? And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do? Express ourselves? Concentrate? Think? Or have we simply carved out more time for entertainment? Anxiety? Dread?

We fear that Memes may have a paradoxical effect — that indeed, contrary to Synchronic's claims, they tend to narrow rather than expand consciousness, to the point where our most basic sense of self — our interior I — has started to be eclipsed. Our facility for reflection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking. And another change is taking place: our capacity for communication is fading.

In the most extreme cases, Meme users have been losing language. Not esoteric bits of linguistic debris but everyday words: ambivalence, paradox, naïve. The more they forget, the more dependent on the device they become, a frightening cycle that only amplifies and that has grown to engulf another of Synchronic's innovations, the Word Exchange.
The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, is on its surface a mystery story — a search for a missing person. But soon enough it takes on thriller-like aspects, with corporate intrigue on an international stage. But it's also a linguistic nerd's dream. It covers synchronic versus diachronic approaches to language study, the basics of lexicography, Hegel's philosophy of language (Graedon acknowledges guidance from Jim Vernon), the theory of universal grammar, book burnings, Jabberwocky-type nonsense and countless references to Lewis Carroll's wonderland ("When I use a word, [...] it means just what I choose it to mean.").

Also, secret libraries and pneumatic tubes!

What if the Word Exchange were hacked, and everyone who used the device were infected with Word Flu, effectively losing language?
Maybe Hegel had it wrong: laber there's no mystical link between the speaker of a word and the recipient of its sound. Maybe language isn't unity but domination. Unilateral. Unkind.
Fantastic premise, wonderful vocabulary usage. Mostly interesting characters. Somewhat uneven pacing, but it's Graedon's first novel.

Bustle: Q&A: Alena Graedon on 'The Word Exchange': The Influence and Influenza of Words

New York Times: World Wide Web
Slate: When Smartphones Attack Science Fiction Saves the Dictionary: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
Toronto Star: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon: review

Sunday, February 08, 2015

New books from Anansi

The kind people at House of Anansi Press, have been sending me some lovely books over the last couple of months that I haven't had a chance to read yet. I'm still playing catch-up with reading books received at Christmas, and otherwise generally drowning in life.

(One of the best things about Anansi books? French flaps! I love French flaps!)

The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout, is about Edith, who believes she saw a unicorn. She takes a job cataloguing art where she meets a cryptozoologist searching for "Gauguin's mystery bird."

Ravenscrag, by Alain Farah, takes place in Montreal but spans two time periods separated by 50 years. Nefarious psychiatric experiments and a gothic manor. It's billed as a blend of retro science fiction and autobiography.

The Other Joseph, by Skip Horack, is a journey across America in search of redemption.

When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen, explores the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II. Passion and betrayal!

So, which one do I read first?

Friday, February 06, 2015


"I think the artists who aren't very good should become like everybody else so that people would like things that aren't very good. It's already happening."
— Andy Warhol

This week I got back into the MOOC swing, after a couple months' hiatus, with a course on Andy Warhol. The course is structured around the major themes that framed his life and art. After providing a brief introduction to pop art, the focus of week one is celebrity, and touched on topics such as the star system and the appropriation of images in the media. (I'll have more to say about this course in the weeks to come; as well, I'm set to see a Warhol exhibit at the museum this weekend.)

So it's an interesting coincidence that every morning on my way to work I pass through what is currently a portrait gallery of artists as children, and one of those children is Andy Warhol. The exhibit is Voix d'ailleurs, by Quebec artist Louis Boudreault. Already the course material has given me a new perspective on this collection.

Taken individually, the paintings are fairly nondescript, in a neutral palette, and subjects that are almost expressionless. As a collection, however, they fare somewhat better — to stand amid child-Picasso, child-Pollock, child-Kandinsky, child-Disney does in fact give pause for thought about the seeds of greatness.

These portraits recently replaced another set of Quebec icons as children, among them such greats as Maurice Richard and Emile Nelligan. Frankly, the Quebec set was more interesting, with a hairstyle or the turn of a collar readily evoking a different time and place. The collection of artists, on the other hand, has a bland uniformity, as if all art springs from the same place. To me this indicates that Boudreault is closer to his Quebec roots than to the artist community, perhaps a better Quebecker than he is an artist.

I think a lot my current self was present in my childhood self. What do you think: can you look at a child and see what they will become?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The book cover that judges you

The cover that judges you.

I'm not convinced that a book should demand neutrality from its reader.