Monday, July 30, 2018

World cannot be grasped

World was in the face of the beloved—,
but suddenly was all poured out.
World is outside. World cannot be grasped.

Why, when I raised to my lips the full,
beloved face, did I not drink in world,
which was so near I tasted its bouquet?

Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But already I was overbrimming
with too much world, and as I drank I spilled.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
[Another translation here.]

I'm putting this volume of poetry to bed.

It's a beautiful edition. I love having the German side by side with the English. I love pretending I can read it aloud competently. If nothing else, it gives a good sense of the rhyme and rhythm of the original.

I don't like all of Rilke's work — much of it even bores me — but that which resonates with me utterly transports me.

I much prefer his later uncollected poems, which I would characterize as more spiritual and more sensual both, less identifiably about anything.

I've been dipping into this volume for years, but gave vast sections of it a more concentrated look this summer and now I feel glutted.

Too much world.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The goby and the shrimp

"The pistol shrimp digs out a little hole to live in. But every once in a while, something else comes and sets up camp in the shrimp's hole — a little fish, called a goby. The goby isn't a freeloader, however. In exchange for a place to live, he hangs out at the entrance to the hole and wags his tail whenever enemies approach, letting the shrimp know what's coming. It's what biologists call a symbiotic relationship."
In Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, Detective Sasagaki has been watching the shrimp for twenty years, hoping to catch out the goby.

It starts with the murder of a pawnbroker. The shrimp is a little girl at the time, whose mother has an undefined relationship with the victim. And grim events seem to follow the girl throughout her life. She grows into an enterprising woman whose calm demands respect, or fear.
"You know how the sun rises and sets at a certain time each day? In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it's not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole lives. When people talk about being afraid, what they're afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade. That's why you're frightened, isn't it?"
It's a mostly enjoyable read that covers a lot of aspects of a changing society, from dance clubs, tea ceremonies, and matchmaking services to booming financial markets, pirated video games, and fringe sex trade operations.

This book sprawls more than the other Higashino books I've read, and has a large cast of characters. Apparently, the novel was originally published in a serialized fashion, which goes a long way toward explaining the pacing. Every chapter switches to a new scene, and for the first part of the book to a new set of players. To my mind the chapters were overly long and bogged down in stage-setting unnecessary to the main story. It makes sense for serialization but as a novel it could be tighter — it shouldn't take 200 pages to get one's bearings and feel invested in the outcome.

Still, the characters are mostly well drawn, and the at-times heavy subject matter is balanced with moral insight and good humour ("It was Akemi's stated belief that a life lived in fear of stinking like garlic wasn't worth living."). The title remains enigmatic to me.

An interesting perspective in the South China Morning Post:
Journey Under the Midnight Sun isn't a whodunnit or even a whydunnit but a what-exactly-is-being-dunnit. It is also an extraordinary work of popular fiction. You could read it as a potted history of modern Japan, an exploration of a crumbling social order (gender, class, money, obedience), a ludic literary puzzle that plays with genre expectations: Higashino's many allusions veer from mysteries to "classic girl's school story". But at no point does he forget his fundamental raison d'ecrire: to provide a tantalising mystery that keeps the pages turning.
See Contemporary Japanese Literature for a fantastic review that covers the problematic elements of this novel — notably the author's treatment of women and the detective's less-than-credible obsession with the case. While I definitely noticed these flaws, I chose to overlook them in my pursuit of entertainment.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The air itself is one vast library

What a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motion which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will.
— from The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, by Charles Babbage.

This quotation serves as a springboard for appreciating the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The exhibit Unstable Presence is showing at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) until September 9.

In Vicious Circular Breathing, for example, the participant steps into a glass box and breathes, breathing in the air breathed by previous participants. The breath is represented by bellows which, via respiration tubes, inflate and deflate a number of brown paper bags.

Other works are more purely sound-based. You can step inside a sphere and here all of Bach's works at the same time. In another room voices are "translated" into light and layered on top of each other.

I am reminded of a couple of Wim Wenders' films — the angels that perceive everything at once (Wings of Desire); sound that is removed from its context, distilled (Lisbon Story).

All of which stands to complement my reading of Rilke...
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The mezzanine of parentheses

Rilke to Tsvetayeva, May 10, 1926:
You, poet, do you sense how you have overwhelmed me, you and your magnificent fellow reader; I'm writing like you and I descend like you the few steps down from the sentence into the mezzanine of parentheses, where the ceilings are so low and where it smells of roses past that never cease.
— from Letters: Summer 1926, by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am finding Rilke's correspondence more interesting than his poetry.

Most of his poetry no longer resonates with me the way it once did. Perhaps I feel the glut of it; I feel the pull of only rare scraps. Most of it feels too much like a riddle to be solved.

How my mindset has changed over the years. Today I seek clarity (even if it is parenthetical).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What I fall in love with when I read dating profiles

[Actual lines from various profiles across several dating apps. A found poem of sorts.]

Dear future girlfriend,

Fantastically flawed human being looking for same.

Two-time winner of Monopoly beauty contest.

Spicier than vanilla. Often accused of being addictive, even in small doses.

Mostly happy with occasional spurts of go-lucky.

Passable credit.

I want a princess by day and complete submissive whore behind closed doors. Ultimately looking for long term.

Research shows the best way to know if you'll want a second date is to go on a first date.

I live on my own, and I smell nice.

Epic poet.

You agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but also value life enough not to share the hemlock with him.

Life without music is pointless.

You: [this space intentionally left blank]

Please don't message me if you're a scammer who expects me to send you money. Had 2 of those already in my first 3 days here, and I wasn't born yesterday. It won't work.

Looking for friends on this planet.

Reassure me that you do, in fact, exist.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Redolent of coffee

When he got home he found in the mailbox a postcard from Claire that had been sent from Bonifacio the preceding week. The news was out of date but the thoughtfulness pleased him. In fact it was this time lag that made the card valuable, as if the words had mellowed in the space of a few days. The e-mails were precious because they provided almost instantaneous reports, but they would never have that slightly aged flavor. On a postcard, the words had been weighed while staring into space and chewing on the pen. They were laid down with care and measure, since there was limited room. The cards were redolent of coffee and fruit juice drunk on a terrace, the perfume of flowers in the shade of a public park. The e-mails smelled of a dirty keyboard and a poorly ventilated office.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored. This has got to be one of my favourite titles ever. Because cats! In summertime!

The story itself, a mystery set in Southern France, is somewhat quiet. Methodical, both in laying out the crime and investigating it. It's credible, not gratuitous in the slightest. Which makes it nice and easy. This novel succeeded in gently easing me back into reading fiction.

Inspector Gilles Sebag is a very ordinary cop who enjoys spending time with his family, lounging by the pool, eating, making love, sleeping. He is a coffee connoisseur. He finds time for work, but has the best work-life balance of any investigator I can recollect. He doubts his abilities.

And he is drawn into a game of cat and mouse. Somebody's life is at stake, and this finds the right priority amid office politics and potential marital troubles.

I am these days somewhat preoccupied with the phenomenon of the midlife crisis. "Where did adultery begin?"
When you know each other by heart, you can read your partner's body language, smiles and grimaces. You start by no longer needing to look at each other and end up not seeing each other at all. You no longer even bother to look up.
The subject is treated here in a mature and altogether French way.

There is only one actual cat in this book, belonging to Gilles' neighbour, whom he lures over to his side with bowls of milk. The other cats must be metaphorical. I guess they're bored.

I am pleased to note that Philippe Georget has written more novels, and some are available in English. I'll be watching out for them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Something long and difficult to fathom

Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgement of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman's face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savouring each drop.

Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover's face, for dispersing a crowd.

It was all just like a Borges story — except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying knowledge.

By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something long and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying? I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation.
— from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.