Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Leading me by circumlocution

I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loves to wander from its subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, reminds me hugely of my dead cousin Peter. Everything about it. Well, not everything. I mean, it's not the dead body at the beginning of book that reminds me of the deadness of Peter. But Peter's world was academic — and we connected. He was my favourite cousin, my closest — we were just a year apart.

We would talk for hours in theoretical terms about politics and the law, about literature and philosophy, about music and film, about artificial intelligence and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We talked about how theory could be implemented in practice.

I wonder if he read The Secret History before he died.
It was funny, but people never seemed to notice at first glance how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that "bookish" Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a questions of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible — in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialize at will — and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling to the viewer.
Peter had that gift too.

His air of being moneyed. His cultivated persona, in how he wore his clothes and his hair, whom he was seen with and where, what he was seen to be reading and studying, what he was seen to be drinking, the drugs he did. How he would deem you with a glance for inclusion or exclusion. Yet he was charming. I wanted to be in his club — when I was 9 and visiting his family's cottage, hen I was 19 and hanging out in downtown Toronto. We all wanted into his club.
Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated, atmosphere made it a thriving black petrie dish of melodrama and distortion.
Peter claimed his mother was prone to hysterics. I knew our grandmother had "episodes," but bloody hell, two world wars, a philandering husband, and exile from her homeland... hysterics seems like a perfectly reasonable response. So it seems reasonable too that one of the daughters might've learned that behaviour (my own mother tended toward melancholic). And I never figured out if any of it was true, or if his perception was the product of male entitlement, dismissal of the feminine, mommy issues, or simply drug-addled revisionist personal history. But then, I kind of think he inherited the hysteria gene himself.
I could say that the secret of Julian's charm was that he latched onto young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality of — even in the light of subsequent events — I still have an overwhelming wish to see him the way that I first saw him: as the wise old man who appeared to me out of nowhere on a desolate strip of road, with a bewitching offer to make all my dreams come true.
Julian is a suspicious character. Well, they all are really. But him maybe more so. The professor. Because we don't know anything about him, yet he's an older authority figure — we have the sense he should know better.

This whole book is very Hitchcockian, I find. It's not about the crime; it's about the psychology of the people involved. Specifically Rope. But also Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt and others. In Hitchcock, it's about the idea of a perfect crime. In The Secret History it's that too, but it starts as something purer: simply, putting theory into practice.

The Secret History reminds me of the classes I never took, at the college I never went to, with the people I never knew.

I think I'm a modern mind, Peter was classical.

Ten reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History

Friday, June 24, 2016

Immersed in the things of before

Thus she returned to the theme of "before," but in a different way than she had at first. She said that we didn't know anything, either as children or now, that we were therefore not in a position to understand anything, that everything in the neighborhood, every stone or piece of wood, everything, anything you could name, was already there before us, but we had grown up without realizing it, without ever thinking about it. Not just us. Her father pretended that there had been nothing before. Her mother did the same, my mother, my father, even Rino. And yet Stefano's grocery store before had been the carpenter shop of Alfredo Peluso, Pasquale's father. And yet Don Achille's money had been made before. And the Solaras' money as well. She had tested this out on her father and mother. They didn't know anything, they wouldn't talk about anything. Not Fascism, not the king. No injustice, no oppression, no exploitation. They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille's son's and at the Solaras', and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.
— from My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante.

I was slow to warm to this novel, to find its rhythm, it didn't have the urgency and desperation of The Days of Abandonment, or the abandon of The Lost Daughter, and I wasn't sure I was in the right state of mind, but then I had a brilliant porchetta and provolone panini, and I washed it down with a pinot grigio, and thought how funny it was to look back on childhood, cuz the only way to do it is through a veil of age. We're not good at knowing the before, except maybe while we're in it, and even then we either fail to recognize it or quickly forget. So I'm reading about a teenage girl and watching my daughter be a teenage girl, albeit nearly 60 years later than the novel takes place, and everything just clicks while I'm watching Helena's now, and recalling my own before, and reading Ferrante's before, Latin lessons and the other demands of school, declarations of love, friendship struggles and parent struggles, it's all very complicated.

School's out now, but last week during exams, one of the boys in Helena' class essentially followed her home. Two days in a row. And he told her he liked her. She was mortified. But when she was telling me, she was smiling at the fact that he told her to her face, not by text. All our befores are the same, but different.

I know Ferrante's point in the excerpt above is much bigger, I mean, we're not talking about a teenager's feelings, this is Fascism, Ferrante is saying something on the scale of Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, we are talking about our neighbours and our day to day, how one of them wrote poetry, how one of them killed another man.

In typical fashion, Ferrante weaves something that feels dangerous — something familiar and slightly uncomfortable. I'm barely halfway through this first book of the Neapolitan quartet. Summer has just begun.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The science of food

I was thrilled to learn about The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science a short while ago, and I'm thinking this might be the cookbook for me, although for some months I've been bemoaning the fact that the book I want does not exist and steeling myself to do the research and write it myself. But maybe now I don't have to.

I want to know things like:
  • When a recipe says to use a wooden spoon, is that because someone's grandmother used a wooden spoon, or is there something fundamental in the utensil's woodenness that improves either the contents being stirred or the way I actually stir? Can I use a rubber spatula?
  • What happens if I don't wait for the oven to preheat to the required temperature? If I put something in earlier, that means it will take less time, right? How am I paying for it in terms of texture or flavour?
  • The recipe calls for an egg at room temperature, but I just pulled it out of the fridge, and I can't wait. What does it change?
  • What exactly is wrong with the way I stir-fry?
  • Why are most recipes written so I can't tell what are the essential instructions and which ones belong to the "that's how it's always been done, with a wooden spoon in a glass bowl" ilk. How am I supposed to know what I can safely modify or ignore?

The author is director of Serious Eats, and if that's anything to go by, with such gems as Why Do I Cream Butter, and What Happens If I Don't?, this may be the answer to all my culinary quandaries.

I haven't had a chance to track down a copy of The Food Lab in-store so I can look it over properly. Is anyone familiar with it? Will it tell me everything I want to know?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

We were light, so light. . .

There are some mysterious persons — always the same ones — who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.
Who are these people? The same people, over and over, across the course of one's life? Or the same people standing across many people's lives? Are some people marked to be sentinels? Who is my sentinel who is here now, and who was there then? Am I someone's sentinel?

For Victor Chmara, the sentinel is the hotel reception clerk. It seems odd, but also not, that the narrator should remark on this while recollecting the summer he was eighteen. The clerk had made an appearance in his life ten years previously, just a compelling figure at the Tuileries. And probably never again.

Why do some people leave an impression on others? It is rarely felt mutually, always imbalanced, one party remember a moment of great significance, the other does not.
We spent lazy days. We'd get up fairly early. In the morning, there was often mist — or rather a blue vapor that freed us from the law of gravity. We were light, so light. . . When we went down Boulevard Carabacel, we hardly touched the sidewalk. Nine o'clock. Soon the thin mist would be burned by the sun.
Villa Triste, by Patrick Modiano, is a strange little book. The whole time I was reading this novel I was confused by what time I was in; what is the time of the narrator, what is the time he is recollecting? It was an eternity of a summer, but maybe only a few weeks. Reading it felt like watching Last Year at Marienbad; moments of clarity amid a haze of people, of comings and goings, and suddenly everything dissolves again.
We were floating. Our gestures were infinitely slow, and when we moved, it was inch by inch. Snail's pace. Any abrupt movement would have broken the charm. We spoke in low voices. The evening invaded the room by way of the veranda, and I could see motes of dust languishing in the air. A cyclist passed. I continued to hear the whirring of his bike for several minutes. He woo was advancing inch by inch. He was floating. Everything around us was floating. We wouldn't even turn on the light as the dark came on. The nearest streetlamp, on Avenue Jean-Charcot, cast a snowy brightness. Never to step out that villa. Never to leave that room. To stay where we were lying on the sofa or perhaps on the floor, as we did more and more often. I was surprised to discover in Yvonne such an aptitude for abandon. With me, that corresponded to a horror of movement, and anxiety about everything that passes and changes, the desire to stop walking on shifting sands, to come to rest somewhere, to petrify if necessary. But with her? I think she was simply lazy. Like algae.
The biggest mystery to me is the identity of the narrator. He calls himself a count, but we learn that he borrowed his name, and the story he tells as his past. A few years of his childhood in Alexandria. He assumes an air of familiarity among the luxurious surroundings, a fashionable spa resort. Has he been here before, or not? He had fled Paris, "convinced that the city was becoming dangerous for people like me." The summer of 62, I believe. The Algerian war is drawing to a close. A deserter? There must be more to it. He has only one tie, and passes himself off as a Russian count of precarious health. He is not the bored rich boy people take him for. But who is he? "Who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers?"
At the hotel reception desk, I exchanged my 50,000-franc notes for the equivalent in bills of 500 francs, which I carried upstairs in a beach bag. I emptied them all out on the bed. She put all her banknotes on the bed too, and together they formed an impressive pile. We marveled at that mass of paper money, which we wouldn't be long in spending. And I recognized in her our shared taste for ready cash, I mean for money easily won, the wads you stuff in your pockets, the wild money that slips through your fingers.
His love affair with Yvonne is founded on illusions. She is a great beauty, and there is no doubt regarding the passion he feels for her. But to most readers it will be obvious as the fleeting passion of youth, fueled by circumstance, little more. She is an aspiring movie actress, but she is clearly of humble origins and a pretender looking forward to a brilliant season at the resort. (How does she afford this lifestyle?)

The eponymous villa doesn't feature till late in the novel; as a symbol, it is something small that becomes much bigger.
In fact, the Meinthe villa didn't exactly radiate good cheer. No. Nonetheless, at first I thought the adjective "triste" unsuited to the place. Eventually, though, I realized Meinthe had been right, provided you could detect something dulcet and crystalline in the sonority of the word. Upon crossing the villa's threshold, you pervaded by a limpid melancholy. You entered a zone of calm and silence. The air was lighter. You floated.
In the frame story, our narrator has returned to the town, twelve years later, wondering about the people who pass through our lives, perhaps deliberately trying to seek some of them out, but he maintains a fairly anonymous presence. Monsieur Meinthe, the "older" gay man who saw them through that summer is now thirty-seven, with more mysterious dealings than ever. Perhaps the narrator is marked as a sentinel on Meinthe's life.

This is the second Modiano book that I've read, and I'm sure to read more. Beautiful and strange. All melancholy.
The uncle made no move to turn the radio off, and since I didn't dare intervene, I heard a continuous crackle of static that eventually sounded like the rustling of the wind in eaves. And the dining room was invaded by something fresh and green.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Other people's babies

In her short essay "The Beginning of Misunderstanding," Rivka Galchen observes:
It's as if babies don't grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception.
Babies are all potential. Their acquiring the ability to communicate shatters this illusion of endless possibility. Their personhood is limited and delimited, made concrete. They become someone specific.

Helena is now very much someone specific. This fills me with relief, pride, astonishment, trepidation, and a little sadness. She's a teenager now.

Every so often, I realize she's grown, she's someone different. It's like I meet her anew, and have to reestablish a rapport; I have to get to know her all over again. Obviously, we don't continually restart from zero. But every day she's something more than the day before, and I spend the day identifying what the more is and determining how to deal with it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Little Labors. The book's beauty is in its juxtapositions: Small things, like the orange snowsuit, nosy neighbours, The Pillow Book, and Lucille Ball's pregnancy. And big things, like women writers and a whole world of maternal anxieties and deeper truths.

Little Labors warped time a little for me, and made me meditative and introspective. Which is, in my view, one of the best things a book can do.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

Lingua franca

I wave to the crowd, focusing on an imaginary space where my family ought to be standing. In these situations, I have to remember that I'm not a child who's won a prize; I'm an unpopular man whose contribution to humanity has been to diminish its worth. It's difficult to gauge the nature of the crowd. It's not exactly a mob. There are too many neutrals for that. But certainly there is a minority who would probably wish death upon me.
Lingua Franca, by William Thacker, is a terrifically entertaining novel.

Miles Platting is that blight upon humanity, founder of a successful agency called Lingua Franca. It specializes in branding. So Miles is busy partnering towns around England with corporate sponsors. (Miles lives in Stella Artois.)

His (kind of ex-)wife, meanwhile, is a high-school English teacher, a profession Miles left behind. So they have some pretty heated discussions about the importance of language, debating whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And so on.

But one town's citizens don't take to being renamed after a frozen fish retailer. They stage a revolution the only way they can. They take back the language. Their ZipIt campaign promotes silence:
If you've ever visited the Sistine chapel, you'll know how much nicer it would be if everyone would shut the fuck up.
(I love that line, because it's true. I vividly recall the boom of the priest, Silencio!, failing to hush the multitudes.)

Language is this magical thing that's imbued with meaning and allows us to communicate. But it's also the source of miscommunication, and when misused can be meaningless. This novel is chock-full of linguistic theory, and takes sharp aim at marketing language and corporate practices.

This book brings to mind Tom McCarthy (Remainder and Satin Island) — about the same level of absurdity. Lingua Franca is more comic, a little less cerebral. It's clever, funny, fast, and fun.

I will definitely be watching for more from this author.

Annabel's House of Books
The Bookbag
Little Bookness Lane
A View from the Balcony

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Her fearlessness

From Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen:

My own little labor of 23 hours, now a work in progress of thirteen and a half years, is away on a school trip for a few days, so when I'm not working long hours, I'm reading little things.

This little book makes me unreasonably happy, just looking at it, all orange joy with pink and yellow, so small and tactile and easy.

I bought this book on the basis of having read Galchen's essay in the New Yorker, The Only Thing I Envy Men.

So it's about motherhood and the creative process, and the intersection and interruption of those things, their juxtaposition, and the ambivalence of feeling in Galchen's relationship to those things.

I'm surprised by how strongly I relate to this book, being that I'm no longer the mother of a baby, that that experience is not immediate. I want to buy this book for nonmothers to say, this is what it's like, but for mothers too, to say, remember?

It's about creation, and other things. Fresh and lovely.