Monday, March 30, 2015

To study myself with precision and cruelty

I spent the warm months of early autmumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that's what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces — I said to myself — I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. In reality the thoughts revolved around the question that Carrano had suggested to me: was I like Mario? But what did that mean? That we had chose each other because of affinities and that those affinities had ramified over the years? In what ways did I feel similar to him when I was in love with him? What had I recognized of him in myself, at the beginning of our relationship? How many thoughts, gestures, tones, tastes, sexual habits had he transmitted to me over the years?

In that period I filled pages and pages with questions of this type. Now that Mario had left me, if he no longer loved me, if I in fact no longer loved him, why should I continue to carry in my flesh so many of his attributes? What I had deposited in him had surely been eliminated now by Carla in the secret years of their relationship. But as for me, if all the features that I had assimilated from him had once seemed to be lovable, how, now that they no longer seemed lovable, was I going to tear them out of me? How could I scrape them definitively off of my body, my mind, without finding that I had in the process scraped away myself?
— from The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante.

The hard part is telling us apart. And what of the ossified bits? How do I scrape him off without marring any bit of my real self? What is my real self, anyway?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Skin deep

"You know," he said, almost dreamily, "I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss."

"Yes," snapped Isserley, "like why some people are born into a life of lazing around and philosophizing, and others are shoved into a hole and told to fucking get busy."
I read Michel Faber's Under the Skin over a month ago, but I put off writing about it, wanting to see the film adaptation. Now I'm at a loss — they are so completely different, yet also compelling and weird. They're both also nigh impossible to talk about without giving anything away.

The weight, weightiness, of them comes out of the title. We're immediately invited to question: What's under Isserley's skin? What's under Scarlet Johansson's skin? The character in both the novel and the film is somehow off, out of place, other.

The only thing seemingly clear from the outset is that we're dealing with a female predator. In the film this is highly sexualized, because ScarJo; in the novel, Isserley is weird-looking, but men are distracted by her massive breasts, because men. But she's a very good predator; she studies her prey, their habits, and their environment intensely.

The film does a great job of focusing on the predation. The novel goes far beyond female-male relations (not that the film does just that) to cover a lot more territory, a whole other culture, in fact.

Under the Skin is also very much about the relationship between hunter and hunted. What's under the skin of her victims, anyway? What constitutes our humanity?
The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why.

If you were looking clearly, that is.

So, that's why it was better that Amlis Vess didn't know that the vodsels had a language.
It's the sort of talk that could turn you vegetarian. The novel might also be read as a warning about the dangers of disturbing an ecosystem ("A few drops of chemical soap into such a vast reservoir of natural purity wouldn't have much effect, surely?"). The problems of overhunting. How economics factors into our moral choices.

Most reviews of the novel give away the story, and that's okay in the sense that that's not really what the book is about. However, I really loved the discovery of the story as the novel unfolded. It changed tack several times; it started off as a thriller, turned scifi, took a romantic twist, and mused on socioeconomic structures, before finally settling into an existential introspection — the problem of otherness and the impossibility of genuine communication.
That's what lying had done to the world. All the lying that people had been doing since the dawn of time, all the lying they were doing still. The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust. It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach one another like two animals. Civilization!
Reviews (with spoilers)
New York Times


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bookclub, anyone?

If you're in the Montreal area and interested in meeting downtown (in person) every 2 months or so (starting at the end of May) to discuss a book of note (probably fiction), please contact me for more details.

The bookclub I'd been attending quasiregularly for about a year and a half recently had to disband (it was associated with a bookstore, and there weren't the resources to maintain it any longer).

A couple of the readers, along with myself, are interested in continuing the club, but we're looking for fresh reader blood.

The previous club had focused on books published under the NYRB Classics imprint, but had begun to branch out. Selections spanned centuries and cultures.

Future bookclub choices will very much depend on the dynamics of the group, but if your reading tastes at all jive with mine, consider joining us. Email me at

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bug music

With dusk begins to cry
the male of the Waiting-insect; —
I, too, await my beloved,
and, hearing, my longing grows.
— from Kokinshu, by Tsurayuki (~900 AD)

Graeme Revell (once best known for fronting industrial band SPK, now probably more readily recognized for his soundtracks) produced The Insect Musicians in 1987. (I listened to a lot of experimental music in the mid 80s.)

This orchestral wall of sound consists entirely of modulated insect sounds.

I owned and loved that album, and shared it and it was lost. (All praise the Internet, restorer of lost treasures!)

The liner notes summarize Revell's concept and describe the techniques used in transforming insect "noise" into "music."

To me this album signified a world of (alien) beauty at our feet, if only we cared to look, listen.

Insects feature in Consumed, by David Cronenberg, inhabiting the left breast of the woman who as the novel opens is found apparently to have been murdered and cannibalized. The book embraces entomologists and state-of-the-art hearing technology. So this music formed the soundtrack for my weekend reading.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Word neutrality is destabilizing

We were enclosed in Audio Booth 4, basically an audio recording cabinet floating on foam and designed to be sound-neutral. Words spoken in Booth 4 sounded unnaturally deadened, like inanimate objects. The walls of the booth, the floor, the ceiling, none of it added any energy or shape by reflectance or geometry to the sounds that came out of our mouths, and this had a mysterious effect on the meaning and the impact of the words themselves that was hard to calculate. It made me realize that word neutrality in human communication is destabilizing; there is a paper to be written there.
— from Consumed, by David Cronenberg.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Things my 12-year-old says

"Can it be storytime? I'll read you the story. Only, I warn you: it's more descriptive than narrative."

Apparently also she's scouring the Internet for tips on doing homework.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Two kinds of readers

Sometimes I think there are two kinds of readers: readers for whom books are bread and coffee, and readers for whom books are magic mushrooms. The bread-and-coffee people prefer to read about real life (marriage and parenthood, vocations and vacations, adultery and war), while the magic mushroom readers live for the shadow in the corner, the mysterious figure on the train, and the eerie music floating over the darkened lake.
This comes from a review of The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, an anthology edited by Marjorie Sandor. The book sounds wonderful — thirty-one stories that cover two centuries and sample the world, including a couple authors I particularly admire, China Miéville and Bruno Schulz. (You can read Sandor's introduction to her anthology here.) I'm very likely to pick up a copy to have on hand in the event of a dark and stormy night.

But it's the dichotomy of book readers that my mind keeps wandering back to. Hands down I'm a magic mushroom kind of reader. But I've noticed a disturbing trend in my reading choices of late — easily half of the year's reading to date is books directly about love gone wrong, marriages gone bad, and almost all of them tangentially so.

It was purely coincidental at first, reading I'd lined up before Christmas, before everything soured. Then it was a subconscious draw. And now I'm realizing the full value of bibliotherapy, of living lives other than mine, of living variations of my life, of examining marriage (all marriages, not just mine) from all angles. Now I'm seeking these books out. It's been somewhat cathartic, it's kept me remarkably steady, but it's becoming obsessive, like picking at a scab.

As much as I love the magic mushrooms, I think sometimes my body and mind are telling me I need bread and coffee, just for a little while, for grounding. (But not too much; I'll have to fly again sometime.)

What kind of reader are you? Are your books bread and coffee, or magic mushrooms?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Like versions of truth, like versions of love

"Is that not always the case? Given any two people in a relationship, one will always love more, the other less. Right?"
I haven't yet figured out how I feel about Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. It's complicated. I don't like Anna. I don't like her at all. I don't feel a bit of sympathy for her. I'm also slightly troubled by the fact that I don't feel for her. I don't thinks she's sad; I think she's stupid. I want to slap her. Yet. There's something compelling about the inner drama Anna creates (and she does create it, all by herself).

The titular housewife is Anna, an American ex-pat married to a Swiss banker, living just outside of Zurich with their three children. Anna is bored or possibly depressed — although to me she seems affectless — so she goes to therapy and has affairs.

A little of this, a little of that
According to some booksellers, Hausfrau is for readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill. I've never read Gaitskill, but I can see the comparisons to Messud's Woman Upstairs, though I don't quite agree with them. Messud's novel was famously about an unlikeable character, though I liked her quite a bit, certainly more that I like Anna (whom I don't like at all). Messud's character also had my respect, for trying, for engaging, for being an interesting, deep, thoughtful, and honest person. Essbaum's Anna has none of that; she's just boring, and I can't decide if that's a novelistic flaw or if that's the bloody point.

It's "Madame Bovary meets Fifty Shades of Grey." I can't speak to Fifty Shades per se, but I can say Hausfrau offers some steamy scenes. Part of me thinks they're entirely gratuitous, but hell, sex is part of life, why shouldn't those scenes be included? Do these scenes contribute to the development of Anna's character? No, they don't let me know her any better. But again, maybe that's the point. The influence of Madame Bovary, however, is obvious. But Emma has gained my sympathy over the years; Anna, to whom I should be able to relate on some level (marriage, child, mother-in-law, transplanted residence, living in a second language), leaves me cold.

It "recalls Marguerite Duras's The Lover and Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac." I haven't read either, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, particularly as Duras experimented with form. Hausfrau gives us scenes from psychotherapy. Anna is completely inside herself; other people barely register on her.

"For readers of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train." Maybe. I dunno.

And don't forget Anna Karenina. Hausfrau Anna arguably shares more similarities with Tolstoy's Anna than with Flaubert's Emma.

According to Book Riot, "the novel itself feels more like the heir apparent to Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill." But Offill's character is highly sympathetic and observant; the novel is meditative. Anna on the other hand is merely flat.

The rest of it
The language is lovely.
That morning's German lesson left Anna pensive. The German language, like a woman, has moods. On occasion they are conditional, imperative, indicative, subjunctive. Hypothetical, demanding, factual, wishful. Wistful, bossy, of blunted affect, solicitous. Longing, officious, anhedonic, pleading. Anna tried to make a list of every mood she's ever been in but ran out of words before even half of her feelings were named.

The ending is inevitable. There's no other way for it to end. It's easy to see it coming. In principal, it is the perfect ending. In practice, the lead-up is a little over-wrought, and even in all Anna's emotionlessness it's too emotional, somehow out of step with the rest of the novel.

The Frisky:
"What I enjoyed the most about the first two-thirds of the novel was that Anna was a fairly ordinary woman with some serious emotional complications, but who wasn’t a mustachioed supervillain or an anti-hero – just a woman with lower-than-average ethics in a life situation that would be genuinely difficult for almost anyone."

The Guardian:
"I liked the fact that Essbaum gives us no sweeteners in the matter of Anna’s character. She is difficult. She is boring. She is narcissistic. She is so very sad."

The Independent:
"That, in the end, is the subversive thing about Anna: not her libido or her secret affairs, but her refusal to feel quite as copiously as women are expected to, her refusal to make herself likeable."

Make no mistake: everything has a variant. Like versions of truth, like versions of love, there are versions of sleep. The deepest sleep is meant only for children and perfect fools. Everyone else must pay each night her restless due.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Space opera

Solaris, the opera, has just premiered in Paris, music by Dai Fujikura (sung in English), based on the classic science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem.

However, it seems to have been not particularly well received (verdict: boring).

Interestingly, it seems this isn't the first time the story has been set to music. Detlev Glanert's version was staged in Germany in 2012 (and I'd go see that, given the chance).

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Being your whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your "Good Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, is not the sort of book I usually read. I'd call it pop psychology. Its tone was such that I was ever afraid of it veering toward self-help territory, but I think that's more an artefact of how it's marketed than the intent of the actual text.

It was given to me as a gift, because I've had a lot of dark looming up in my life lately, in both my home and work lives.

Its starting point is the American obsession with positive thinking: the right to the pursuit of happiness has been confused with an obligation to be happy, all the time.

I've been obsessed with the notion of happiness since I was in grade 7. Not that I wanted a direct path to it. I just wanted the idea of it defined. (Were we reading Brave New World?) I wanted to establish the difference between thinking you're happy and really being happy. Cuz goddamit I know there's a difference. And real happiness is an elusive, if not altogether imaginary, beast. I've known all my life that it is not possible to live in a state of constant joy. Contentment is another matter. Which is where the problem of definition comes in. In fact, for some 30+ years, I've been a proponent of happiness being just one aspect of living a full life. Which is what this book is about. (Gosh, I was a smart kid.)

So the fact is: people get angry, or sad, or bored, or frustrated, all the time. When we experience physical pain, we tend to take it seriously. But we're generally pretty dismissive of emotional pain and view it simply as wrong, without ever listening to what that pain is telling us about ourselves or our environment.

The upshot: it's OK to feel angry, sad, mean, selfish, whatever, in certain contexts, and it's better for us to acknowledge those feelings, even indulge them, than to mask them because we're supposed to be happy all the time. These "negative" feelings are shown to fuel creativity, heighten awareness, and enhance performance.

But you already knew that, right?

Regarding one study conducted in a workplace setting:
The take-home lesson is simple: do not create a culture based on the assumption that positivity must reign supreme. Instead, create a culture where everyone knows that it's safe to be real, and that depending on the situation it's sometimes better to feel something other than happiness.
I worked for a company some years ago where the gung-ho, go-get-'em, go-go-go all-American attitude just didn't fly with us Canadian counterparts. So I can see how HR departments could learn from this book, to build the right corporate culture for the right skills to flourish.

In addition, the book is full of little insights on sprawling topics, like:
Love is about adopting another person's perspective of the world, and when overvaluing your happiness gets in the way, it leads to unfortunate by-products such as loneliness.
Research suggests that you, like everyone else, think that you are better than other human beings. This so-called better-than-average effect shows that most people believe that they are above average, which, of course, is a mathematical impossibility.[...] The average person lives inside a narcissistic bubble, a self-serving bias that gives most of us the confidence we need to face a complex and uncertain day.
So I don't think I learned anything, but the book is full of interesting research studies, and it's nice to have my intuitive thinking validated. A pleasant-enough way to while away a train ride on a wintry afternoon.

Huffington Post
Positive Psychology


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Words will change nothing

Those who claim to know her, or know of her, have talked of poems whose syntax and diction twist language into new shapes, forming tiny bright daggers sharp enough to pierce the heart. Others have spoken of a novel so compendious and yet so precise it would change our thinking about the form, the last true revolutionary work, a thing that would turn lives inside out after only its first page. Some have claimed she wrote short stories, brief tales that twist and turn, things that would checkmate Chekhov, carve Carver into pieces. Stories that need but a few brief pages to reconfigure our soul.

The ephemeral, evanescent, scarcely believable career of Sara Zeelen-Levallois shows us, if nothing else, one important, terrible thing: words will change nothing. Write how we may, the arrogant and corrupt will still run the world, people will starve needlessly, your lover will still leave you.

And yet.

The power of writing is one of the greatest things we have, whether it is read or not.
— from "Sara Zeelen-Levallois" in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, edited by C.D. Rose.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The hotel library

Yes, my hotel has a library. And there's a fireplace in the library, but not pictured here because there are strangers sitting beside it, and I didn't want to make them uncomfortable.

Weirdly, most of the books are German, with some French and English, but nothing that grabbed me. Still, a great place to sit, read, rest.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Sunday, March 01, 2015

So finely ground it appears homogenous

Duras, in Écrire, deplores that too may books are lacking in freedom. She admonishes writers for acting like cops, whereas writing is a breeding ground for delinquents. By being content with conformist little books, scribblers take pleasure in their own neutralization, they make books with no night, pastime books, books for travelling, not books that sink into the mind, not books that speak the dark grief of all life.
Ravenscrag, by Alain Farah, is a perfectly bizarre novel. Duras would approve.

I have a hard time summarizing its plot. And I'm not sure whom I would recommend it to, except as a literary curiosity. Only now that I've finished reading it, I like it more. This novel gave me a hard time, but that's a good thing.

I love that the narrator is reading Emmanuel Carrère's I Am Alive and You Are Dead. That he admires Jean-Patrick Manchette. That he plagiarizes William Burroughs's Blade Runner. I love that Umberto Eco is a character in this novel. I love the references to Edgar Poe and Lady Gaga.

I love that Rilke is quoted. (Why is it that everyone I read these days is quoting Rilke?)

Then there's the Bologna enigma, Aelia Laelia Crispis. That this is a mysterious inscription famously translated by Jung reinforces the oneiric quality of the novel.
[In] the novel I was then writing, I peppered the narrative, without knowing why, with references to the city of Bologna, whose name designates a mortadella so finely ground it appears homogenous, with no visible trace of the assorted bits from which it's made: pork snouts, rooster fee, beef anuses.
It leads one to think that the whole novel is bologna. Very finely ground. Admirably so.

Ravenscrag is weirdly reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. It's also a direct descendent of La Dolce Vita and Last Year at Marienbad.

Mind-wiping, the CIA, and some oddly anachronistic scenes that conflate 2012 with 1962 and 1912.

Ravenscrag is the name of the mansion that sits just up the mountain, atop of McGill. Today it's known as the Allan Memorial Institute. The novelized version has only half the rooms of the real-life prototype.
With some difficulty, I manage to leave Ravenscrag, with its architecture of thirty-six doors arrayed on either side of a long central corridor, none of which leads out of the building, as if one had to agree to invent a thirty-seventh in order to exit.
I feel on exiting this book that I am bound by a similar contract.

I want to read it again.