Tuesday, December 31, 2019

There are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred

The other day Dizzy told me that in a small bookshop in the Czech town of Náchod he found a nice edition of Blake, so let us now imagine that these good people, who live on the other side of the border, and who speak to each other in a soft, childlike language, come home from work in the evening, light a fire in the hearth and read Blake to one another. And perhaps, if he were still alive, seeing all this, Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to impose the shackles of daily oppression, but helps people to realize their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature. That's what was passing through my mind, making my bed-rest almost a pleasure.

Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, surprised me by being so funny.

The narrator is bright and quirky. Actually, she's downright crazy. Janina Duszejko. She hates her given name, thinks she ought to have been named Irmtrud or Medea. A person's name ought to reflect their Attributes, and they rarely do. (The reviews I'm perusing now, and I refuse to link to any of them here, insist on referring to the protagonist as Janina, which would piss her off and to which she might not respond, rather than Duszejko.)

A former engineer, she lives on the Plateau (hey, I live on the Plateau!), is employed as the winter caretaker for some of the homes in the area (that serve primarily as summer residences), teaches English classes at the school in town, is helping a former student translate the works of William Blake. She sees the ghosts of her mother and her grandmother in her boiler room, and she's an astrologist, intent of predicting people's date of death.

She's a vegetarian, and an animal rights activist, to the extent that she complains about hunting and poaching and reports her neighbour to the police for abusing his dog. This neighbour starts the novel off dead.

She has her Ailments, suffers Attacks, and is visited upon by Anger.
Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed limits.
What makes her so sympathetic is her directness. As she says, "One has to tell people what to think. There's no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it."

Although sometimes, she speaks with a Blakeian crypticness.
I didn't yet know what I was going to do. Sometimes, when a Person feels Anger, everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it's hard to attain in any other state.
She talks to herself ("The best conversations are with yourself. At least there's no risk of misunderstanding."), and while she resents being invisible, as women of a certain age are, she plays it to her advantage. She is dismissed as a madwoman, and she's stopped caring.

But this is a murder mystery! More dead bodies turn up! Duszejko's theory, about which she is very vocal, is that the animals are taking revenge on the poachers in the area.
The human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system — it makes sure we'll never understand what's going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even thought the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.
This is not the book I expected to read based on its description and the tone of the reviews ("existential thriller"). I expected something weighty and noirish. Instead, I found a light and accessible story (with serious underlying themes) told in a fairly traditional way, peopled with colourful characters, and narrated with a touch of crazy. I recommend it as an entrypoint to Tokarczuk's work.
In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind — that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that's constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality — its inexpressibility.
Excerpt.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Slightly to one side of reality

For a moment I forgot what I was doing and where I was going: so it seems to be anytime I experience happiness, it always has to be slightly to one side of reality.
There is a quality about Optic Nerve, by Maria Gainza, that I find compelling and elusive, much like art itself. There's something about it I need to work out.

Looked at from one side, this book is a series of essays of art criticism, each focusing on a particular painting of an artist's oeuvre and sprinkled with anecdotes of the artist's life. This novel is perhaps an attempt to rectify the narrator's observation that "Carelessly administered, the history of art can be lethal as strychnine." Here, the lesson is by turns sedative and invigorating, therapeutic for the narrator. For me, this jumble of fact and opinion poses a puzzle to be sorted out.

From another angle, it relates episodes from the narrator's life, in some ways only very tangentially related to her encounters with specific artworks. I can't say whether the art essays complement her biography or if it's the other way round. They feel to me very separate, and the points of intersection confuse me. "You write one thing in order to talk about something else." So which is the thing, and which is the something else?

I wasn't swept away by this book, and there are bits I thought boring, and I don't understand how the thing as a whole hangs together, yet I want to return to it someday. I feel there might be hidden here some key — to art, to seeing, to the stillness and joy and understanding I think art should bring, and even (as seems to be the narrator's quest) to happiness.

It's a slim novel, densely packed. Cándido López thought that in order to touch the heart of reality, it had first to be deformed. When the world is precarious, Hubert Robert's paintings seem to say to her, the idea of finishing anything stops making sense. She struggles with the coexistence of dogmatism and sensuality in El Greco. She dismisses Monet as a one-trick pony. She plumbs Toulouse-Lautrec's depth in the floating Paris he saw from his unique perspective. Rothko leaves her "fuck me" dumb.
People say you have to approach a Rothko in the same way you approach a sunrise. The work has a clear beauty, but that beauty can be either sublime or decorative.
The story of Rothko is, for me, the centrepiece of this book, and his life's battle of "stopping the black from swallowing the red." Clearly the narrator relates and is deeply affected by Rothko's work.
It gives me a feeling of my singularity: a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me. I'm alive, I remember, and I can't help but immediately feel saddened, like anytime happiness is promised and you embrace it, but you know it isn't going to last.
She is unhappy with her husband, with her pregnancy, with her mother, with her clients. She's seeing a doctor about the twitch in her eye. She seems impregnable in conquering physical illness, but is lost in the face of emotional difficulties.
Light red over dark red, 1955-57, Mark Rothko
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Yeats spoke of the Celtic twilight, and warded off his melancholy by pouring himself into Greek translations. Dead languages have never been your forte, but you have other things, a manicure being the cheapest option you've come up with to keep your darkness at bay. And in general it's worked, helping you to stay present, restricting your focus to that tiny portion of your self. Nowadays, if you let yourself become distracted, if there is some pause in the application of the nail varnish, why lie? You're the very first to let ruins enchant you. Some days you are liable to be devastated by a broken nail, or a cuticle that's ever so slightly too big, or the nail varnish chipping; and cracks suddenly appear in the dam that keeps all of your sadness in check.
She starts out in the fog of ash from nearby meadow fires, but she feels something like "poetic joy" in the end, in the snow.

"Isn't all artwork — or all decent art — a mirror?" So this is a book about how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. Maybe this is why I'm struggling with — I'm having a hard time seeing myself these days.

I'm feeling very arty lately — doing sculpture workshops and some crafty things. But I absolutely aspire to the sublime, not merely decorative. In fact, I don't even want a thing at the end of it; it's the process that's sublime, something sublimated into something else. I just don't know what the thing is.

Gainza as an art critic may be onto something in terms of how we talk about art. I went to a gallery yesterday and the curatorial statement was just so much bullshit. Because art is so subjective, we couch it in all this academic jargon to objectivize it. But by creating this distance, we're diminishing the thing, the meaning, the significance, the "fuck me," that makes it art. The only way to talk about art in any significant way is deeply personal.

From The Nation:
Optic Nerve’s episodic iridescence—the way each chapter shimmers with the delicacy of a soap bubble—belies its gravity. Gainza has written an intricate, obsessive, recherché novel about the chasm that opens up between what we see and what we understand. Late in the book, María is asked to write an essay for the retrospective catalog of an artist she’s only just met. Unenthusiastic about the work, she nevertheless agrees, fascinated by his tales of religious fervor and gay ’80s nightlife. “Deep down I think I am a destroyer of images,” she says, an incredible admission for someone in such obvious thrall to art. But María destroys images only insofar as she refuses their interpretation, at least initially. Like any good critic, she is less interested in the static image than in that image’s nexus of potential connections. We lack a satisfying name for that first confrontation with meaningful art—the gleaming, white moments of wordless perception. This is María’s state of grace. Optic Nerve, a radiant debut, enlarges that moment and invests it with ecstasy.
Excerpt: The Red and the Black (translated by Jane Brodie)

(Also, how much do you love this book cover?)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"Languages that are not our mother tongues are like cats"

Slavic languages, with the freedom proffered by their declensions, presented an added difficulty for the writer faced with a blank page, for if an Antarctic writer was met with innumerable possibilities, then a Polish writer came up against infinity.
The Palimpsests, by Aleksandra Lun, is funny and clever. It's also pretentious as fuck, but charmingly so.

Read for yourself how it starts.

I'd almost forgotten having ordered this book. There it was, sitting on my desk when I arrived at work one morning. A slim, brown envelope. When the contents were revealed to me, I was disappointed. I set it to the back corner of my desk and eyed it suspiciously. I'd been anticipating a tome, not this pamphlet. I'd planned on losing myself in the palimpsests, not skimming across them. I'd hoped for a book I could burrow inside for the length of Christmas vacation. But this would last me only a couple hours. Now I was burdened with not only determining which hours would best be suited to the endeavour, but also finding other reading to fill the days.

And so I opened it as the train pulled out of the station.
"You're a writer," the psychiatrist was making a note in her notebook, "you have to belong to a culture. All writers belong to one."
Who does a language belong to, anyway? What gives some people more than others a right to a language?

Our protagonist, Czesław Przęśnicki, finds himself in a Belgian lunatic asylum undergoing Bartlebian therapy with the aim to stop him from writing in a language that is not his mother tongue. He writes in Antarctican, which he studied when he travelled to that continent with his lover, Ernest Hemingway. He is working on his second novel, scribbling it across the pages of a Flemish newspaper, while obsessing about his unsatisfactory sex life. His roommate is a Polish priest upset over his canary that was killed by sparrows in the same spot Hitler used as a pretext for invading Poland. And the asylum is peopled with several notable writers.

(What language do the birds speak, and the dogs?)

There are several running gags about Belgium not having had a government for the past year, Karol Wojtyła trotting the globe in a white dress (the Polish pope being referred to always by his birth name, a very Polish thing to do, lest we forget he was Polish), Eastern European communism in general and the privileged shop assistants who had unlimited access to toilet paper, and Hitler receiving radiofrequencies from the past.
"What gives you the idea that you can invent whatever you feel like and write it in any language you fancy?"

"A writer, doctor," Kosiński shrugged his shoulders, "is issued a special license, a poetic one, and that license is good for own life too."

The doctor made a note in her notebook.

"If I wrote in my mother tongue," continued Kosiński, "what I wrote would become personal. I write in my stepmother tongue, so that it may be universal."
Lun is clever to have her protagonist write in Antarctican — it avoids being political, which it easily could be. I wondered for a while if there was a statement being made in the fact that the characters were all male, with the exception of the woman psychiatrist. That is, until Karen Blixen turned up with her straight-shooting talk. And then Ágota Kristóf. So no, the gender imbalance is just the world, not a commentary.

There is a parade of mother-tongue-forsaking writers barging in on Czesław's sessions: Vladimir Nabokov, Jerzy Kosiński, Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen, Eugene Ionesco (why do we even call him a Romanian writer?), Ágota Kristóf. Most of them remark on the pretentiousness of the plot of the novel he's working on. Witold Gombrowicz also makes an appearance, despite having written in Polish. And Simenon also plays a role in our protagonist's story.

Beckett: "You and your kind have never been foreigners, that's your bad luck," he lowered his voice, "and you don't know that the mother tongue is always burdened with automatism and that, to simplify things, exiling oneself from the language is necessary."

Cioran: "For a writer, to change language is to write a love letter with a dictionary."

Writerly references abound, and I'm sure plenty more zipped past me. Czesław also reminisces about the many writers with whom he never got close: Melville, Zweig, Bruno Schulz, Witkiewicz, and others.

The Palimpsests is lively and madcap. It's a thoughtful frolic through the philosophy of language, the absurdities of our world, and the joys of our reading life.

I read this book in English translation. It was written in Spanish (by a woman born in Poland but living in Belgium, and working as a translator of multiple languages), but I'd venture to say it's a very Polish book.

Interviews
Godine
csyty

Excerpt.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Only if this were a film would I consider it real

Saturday, November 23
I started reading Of Walking on Ice today, Werner Herzog's journal of his pilgrimage from Munich to Paris, to the deathbed of Lotte Eisner.

It begins with a diary entry on Saturday 23 November. Today is also Saturday 23 November, only 45 years later.

I'm at a spa near Orford National Park, and the world is white here. The ice on the lake is thin, but blanketed in fresh snow. The book is white against my white robe. I look up from the white page to see white everywhere, whitewashing the dirty secrets of this world.

There is an indoor Turkish sauna circuit and an outdoor Finnish sauna circuit. The air is subzero. Last night we sat in the pool outside as the snow fell. I love this feeling, being bathed in warm but exposed to the cold.

"Only if this were a film would I consider it real."

Sunday, November 24
This morning I light a fire in the hotel suite and crawl back into bed to read.

Herzog's prose is visual and loaded, somewhat opaque. I like the idea of the daily diary entry, written by Herzog at the end of his day, reading it at the start of mine.
From a hillock I gaze across the countryside, which stretches like a grassy hollow. In my direction, Walteshousen; a short way to the right, a flock of sheep; I hear the shepherd but I can't see him. The land is bleak and frozen. A man, ever so far way, crosses the fields. Phillipp wrote words in the sand in front of me; Ocean, Clouds, Sun, then a word he invented. Never did he speak a single word to anyone. In Pestenacker, people seem unreal to me.
I can see through the camera lens of his eyes, how the camera pans into the distance, and lingers, how the cuts imply a relationship between things and so form a treatise on the vastness of the world and the passage of time, how we are alien here.

Monday, November 25
I realize that when Herzog wrote this text, his film career was still ahead of him. He had not yet produced the work that he would be most known for.

Today his feet are blistered, and the crows are constant.

Tuesday, November 26
The man at the petrol station gave me such an unreal look that I rushed to the john to convince myself in front of the mirror that I was still looking human.
Thing are all too real, or seemingly unreal. As in film.
The cigarette packets on the roadside fascinate me greatly, even more when left uncrushed, then blown up slightly to take on a corpse-like quality, the edges no longer sharp and the cellophane dimmed from inside from the dampness, forming water droplets in the cold.
More crows.

Wednesday, November 27
"Why is walking so full of woe?" Werner's walk is woeful as he is walking toward death.

I have not yet figured out if my own sometimes compulsive walking is toward something. Maybe I am walking away.

Why is he walking? Surely he wasn't living in poverty at the time. Hitchhiking was something of a lifestyle in those days. But I think there'd be some urgency to see a dying friend. By walking he is postponing the death, or prolonging it.

Friday, November 29
I skipped a day. Such a slim book, and I couldn't manage a day's entry. At three and a half pages, it's a relatively long entry, but still. I worked from home: no commute, no reading.

He has been spending nights in barns, breaking into holiday homes. But he buys a cap and long johns. He changes in a church. Is he testing people's charity and goodwill? To what end? Did he not bring more money? Did he not think he needed more money? Was 1974 Germany so different that it didn't occur to him that he might need to pay for lodging, incur expenses?

On Thursday he writes:
Haile Selassie was executed. His corpse was burned together with an executed greyhound, an executed pig, and an executed chicken. The intermingled ashes were scattered over the fields of an English county. How comforting this is.
This isn't true. Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. He didn't die till the following year. But on November 23 of 1974, Wikipedia informs me, several former high officials of the imperial government were executed by firing squad without trial. Did Herzog confuse the facts? Or was the news so confounded, without the instant self-correction our uberconnected world demands? Is this merely a symbolic dream, a kind of wish? Why even mention it? I cannot read anything further as true.

On Friday, he telephones. Who?

From Friday's entry I learn that Herzog has a young child. They've begun showing his film (Kasper Hauser, I deduce). "I don't believe in justice." Why not? For whom?

Saturday, November 30
Is it memory or dream? A film or an idea for a film? I know better than to believe it to be true.

Snow still storming. "Trees and bushes seem completely unreal, with even the thinnest twigs cloaked in fluffy snow."

Sunday, December 1
An almost toothless cat howls at the window.
How closely has Herzog examined it to affirm its state of toothlessness?

Monday, December 2
Is the Loneliness good? Yes, it is. (In this text translated from German, whose decision is it to capitalize "Loneliness"?)

Tuesday, December 3
Who's M?
I suddenly ask myself seriously whether I've lost my mind, as I hear so many crows but see so few.
Wednesday, December 4
This is a season that has nothing to do with the world anymore.
Very little has anything to do with the world anymore. Something about Sighing Trees. And Bruno. He must be scripting something. But it's never clear. What is real, what is dream, what is past film, what is future film?
Three people are sitting a glassy tourist café between clouds and clouds, protected by glass from all sides. Since I don't see any waiters, it crosses my mind that corpses have been sitting there for weeks, statuesque.
This sounds like a movie I've seen. Not a Herzog film.

Friday, December 6
Cows loom astonished.
I cannot express the joy this weird sentence gives me. I repeat it to myself all day long, like a mantra.

He says the loneliness is deeper than usual today, but I don't feel sympathetic. I can't get past the fact that it's of his own making. Is it really deeper? It's hard to tell.

Sunday, December 8
Me: I am restless. I feel burdened, I need to shake things off. The sun sets early and I go for a walk in the cold. I walk and I walk and I walk. It's back, the walking urge.

I realize that is was just the day before that Herzog "walked, walked, walked, walked."

Wednesday, December 11
I am reading, but I am not paying attention. I'm in the waiting room of the psychotherapist's office. I arrived on time, a few minutes early, I'm sure I did, and I doublechecked the email to confirm that I had her instructions straight, that she would come call me in the waiting room to the right of the main entrance.

I think the babbling brook babbles a little too loudly. This ambient noise, is it to make it impossible to listen at anyone's door? But I close my eyes and feel myself begin to calm down.

It's ten minutes past the appointment time. I am reading again, and still not paying attention. I think I detect shadows moving across the crack at the bottom of her door, but then I realize that all the cracks of all the doors are stuffed with black foam. Is it to muffle the noise or to prevent people from peeping under the door? Is it to prevent me from detecting the therapist's whereabouts?

At twenty minutes past the appointment time, a woman sitting near me makes a telephone call. She and her daughter were there before I arrived. She is calling the same therapist I am to see, wondering what's taking so long. I engage the woman in conversation as it seems that not only is the therapist late, she's double-booked. The therapist said she would be there in seven minutes. Oddly specific. After seven minutes elapse, the office door opens and the therapist emerges. She calls the mother and daughter, and I wonder if this is a test, is this what psychotherapy is like? We spend tedious minutes rescheduling, but I'm not sure I'll come back.

Saturday, December 14
Evening approaches. It's cold and raining. I spent a portion of the day preparing my mask for the office Christmas party masquerade. I'm feeling nervous anticipation about the party, as I don't know many people who are going. It's too early to go yet.

I suddenly realize that today is the date of the book's end. I should take a few minutes to read, as I may not return before midnight. I arrive to the party fashionably late.

All the snow is being washed away.

After
Since the early days, I have been continually reminded of Béla Tarr's Satantango. The walking, endless walking, in wind and rain, and the cows. I wonder if Herzog made a film like that.

One review astutely notes:
For Herzog, art and life are inextricable. That would be too trite to write in connection with most people, but it seems wrong not to say it about Herzog.

It's only in passing that Herzog mentions Eisner. While she is ostensibly the reason for this walk, she is absent from this journal. We think something is about one thing, but it's almost always about something else.

I was unable to keep pace. Most days I wanted to rush ahead, but I was content also to let the days pile up. This may not be the right content for me to undertake slow reading, thoughtful and careful reading. Reading is either too much an entertainment and escape to warrant much thought. Or it is altogether too close and intimate and verging on impossible to reflect upon coherently. (I had considered reading Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries in "real time" but am grateful that I decided against it.)

Werner Herzog Takes a Walk

Excerpt.

Monday, December 16, 2019

A hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it

One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red's hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by El by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is an incredibly poetic time-travel story.

Red is an agent of the Commandant; Blue is of the Garden. "My viney-hivey elfworld, as you say, versus your techy-mechy dystopia."

Red:"Red likes to feel. It is a fetish."
Blue: "She wears antique typewriter keys on her fingertips in veneration of the great god Hack."

Some reviews liken it to The Time Traveler's Wife (of which I'm not a fan). I have yet to see a review that makes something of the obvious Doctor Who reference. Whatever the inspiration for this novel, it is beautiful, romantic, fresh.

Two agents on opposing sides leave letters for each other across time and space as they manipulate strands of time. The type of beings they are is suggested rather than explained, and the nature of the war is never addressed (and I like that it's open to interpretation). Similarly their letters take on very creative forms (e.g., one message is read in tea leaves).

In this regard it is similar to Basic Black with Pearls: the agents see everything as having a coded significance, but they can never be certain of it.
All that supposing Blue even sent this message — that Red has not manufactured it, groping in despair for meaning in broken images the next braid's twist will wash away. Art comes and goes in the war. The painting on the subway wall might be an accident. She might be making this up.

But.

There is a chance.
At least here, the feeling is mutual.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic s a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review you words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours.
The language at times pulled me out of the story. Nouns disguised as verbs led me down garden paths; I had to retrace my steps to unravel the syntax. But the poetry of it led me through the maze of my own heart.

Love:
"I want to be a context for you."
"Only in this nonexistent place our letters weave do I feel weak. How I love to have no armor here."

And hunger:
But hunger is a many-splendoured thing; it needn't be conceived only in limbic terms, in biology. Hunger, Red — to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth — is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out.
Blue has deep hunger inside her, and they have yet to learn what timey-wimey role Red had in inspiring it.
I remember a kiss and something to eat. It was so kind, I couldn't fathom it as unfriendly. As fairy tale as it gets, really. I remember bright light, and then — hunger. Hunger that was turning me inside out, hunger in the most primal way imaginable, hunger that obliterated every other thing — I couldn't see, I was so hungry, I couldn't breathe, and it was like something was opening up inside me and telling me to seek. I think some part of me must have been screaming, but I couldn't tell you which; my body was an alarm bell sounding. I turned all of myself toward Garden to be fed, to stem this, to me from disappearing —
Love somehow feeds itself.
My own folk are great gardeners. Our games are long and slow, and our maturation also. Garden seeds the a past us — your Commandant knows this already, whether or not it's considered need-to-know for you — and we learn from and grow into its threads. We treat the past as trellis, coax our vineyard through and around, and harvest is not a word for swiftness; the future harvests us, stomps us into wine, pours us back into the root system in loving libation, and we grow stronger and more potent together.

I have been birds and branches. I have been bees and wolves. I have been ether flooding the void between stars, tangling their breath into networks of song. I have been fish and plankton and humus, and all these have been me.

But while I've been enmeshed in this wholeness — they are not the whole of me.
By losing the time war, they win time and each other.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Disagreeing with your own destiny

It was interesting to consider, said the long-haired boy – Georgeou, as my diagram now told me – that a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all. He himself had noticed nothing on his journey here: he habitually did not notice things which did not concern him, for that very reason, that he saw the tendency to fictionalise our own experiences as positively dangerous, because it convinced us that human life had some kind of design and that we were more significant than we actually were.
I'm not sure what Outline, by Rachel Cusk is. Some readers claim it is the mere outline of a novel. For some reason, I had high expectations of this book; I feel like I was led to believe that it revolutionized the form and how we talk about the female experience. But it is not angry or devastatingly emotional (it doesn't pull any strings; it's a rational work). It doesn't hint at anything bigger than itself.

I found in Outline something quietly beautiful and meditative. And it was sometimes boring.

The narrator relates encounters, mostly discussions, she's had while in Greece teaching a writing course. Her life back home in England is hinted at, such that the mood of her whole time away is one of displacement, unsettledness.

If there is a theme to the conversations, it is about the creative writing process, the "tension between what's inside and what's outside."
I suppose it's a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that's never repeated.
And so it's about marriage too.
It was impossible, I said in response to his question, to give the reasons why the marriage had ended: among other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.
[What is the narrative I had outlined in my mind when I first embarked on something like marriage? At some point, the characters took on a life of their own.]
I told him that his taking a photograph was, in fact, the thing that stood out in my mind from that day. I remembered thinking that it was an unusual thing to do, or at least a thing I would not have thought to do myself. It marked some difference between him and me, in that he was observing something while I, evidently, was entirely immersed in being it.
As an aside, one writer character sweeps in with commentary about Poland:
The publishers there can't afford to invite many writers to come, she said, and it is a pity, because they need writers there in a way that people here do not. In the past year, she said, I have visited many places for the first time, or for the first time in my own right, but Poland was the tour that affected me the most, because it made me see my books not just as entertainments for the middle classes but as something vital, a lifeline in many cases, for people – largely women, it has be admitted – who feel very much alone in their daily lives.
Why do they need writers? Why does Poland need writers over any other Eastern Bloc country? If there's one thing Poland has always had, it's writers.

I have stayed away from reviews of this book, as many of them cover the whole trilogy. Touted by some as a top read of the century so far, I'll work my way through the rest in the coming months.

While this novel didn't blow me away, it gave me a quiet place to consider the story of my life and its next chapter.
I realise there's no point me trying to get back to that place because I never could. I could never reproduce that particular tension in myself: life is sending you in one direction and you're pulling away in another, like you're disagreeing with your own destiny, like who you are is in disagreement with who they say you are. Your whole soul is in revolt.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

What it meant to touch pleasure

Seth and his co-workers were born imperialists, and so would pillage the city for tiny, cash-only ramen places or Thai restaurants that had a secret, ultra-authentic room behind the kitchen where the staff also ate and where they would insist on eating, too. They were the best and the only and the highest and the chef was trained in Beirut as a prisoner of war and the waitstaff had to get scuba training so that they could understand what it meant to touch pleasure and the restaurant itself used to be a church or a secret meeting place for the Illuminati or a Tibetan monastery that only the hottest, most favoured Tibetans were invited to. It was not just about owning the city. It was about owning everything beneath and above and behind the city, too. Finance guys were the fucking worst.
— from Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Point of contact

I have always regarded the feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It's in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with the body that the whole mystery is located — the fact that we're built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet — those are our plugs into the socket. And now those naked feet gave me proof that his origin was different. He couldn't have been human. He must have been some sort of nameless form, one of the kind that — as Blake tells us — melts metals into infinity, changes order into chaos. Perhaps he was a sort of devil. Devilish creatures are always recognized by their feet — they stamp the earth with a different seal.
— from Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The broad, noble idea of the walk

On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me, while shut in at home, I would lamentably wither and dry up. Walking is for me not only healthy, it is also of service — not only lovely, but also useful. A walk advances me professionally, but also provides me at the same time with amusement; it comforts, delights, and refreshes me, is a pleasure for me, but also has the peculiarity that it spurs me on and allures me to further creations, since it offers me as material numerous more or less significant objectivities upon which I can later work industriously at home. Every walk is filled with phenomena valuable to see and feel. A pleasant walk most often veritably teems with imageries, living poems, attractive objects, natural beauties, be they ever so small. The lore of nature and the lore of the country are revealed, charming and graceful, to the sense and eyes of the observant walker, who must of course walk not with downcast but with open, unclouded eyes, if he desires the lovely significance and the broad, noble idea of the walk to dawn on him.
The Walk, by Robert Walser, was not the kind of walk I wanted it to be. That is, it wasn't my walk. It wasn't my morning walk to the metro when I'm trying to formulate some thoughts on the book I'm reading, or the correspondence I shared; it wasn't my lunchtime meander around the office or around the office building where I try to find some new approach to a work problem; it wasn't my after-work stroll home from the metro when I blank my mind or when I replay or imagine conversations with lovers.

More manic than minimalist, The Walk is a high-detail view of very pedestrian things. Walser describes the streetscape and his encounters with the bookseller, the bank official, children, dogs, a beautiful woman, a mournful acquaintance, the tailor, the tax inspector. It's very florid but in a controlled way, without the exuberance of other writings. It rings less sincere. He holds himself apart from all people and things, like he's not really in his walk.

Susan Bernofsky writes in her introduction:
If Walser chose to tone down the first version's chattiness at certain key points, I believe it was for the sake of minimizing the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.
When I write in my head while walking, things feel alive, but by the time I commit anything to paper, it's deadened a little. I haven't read the original translation of Walser's original text, but I feel like that's what happened here, he poked and prodded the life out of it.

To be sure, walking is a part of writing (or, for some writers, sitting and staring, or cleaning their desk). I wonder if by trying to minimize the divide, he only made it more obvious.
But one realizes to be sure to satiety that he loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.
About
Quarterly Conversation
The Rumpus
Three Percent

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory.

Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you're a lot of kinds of women, you're still always just a woman, which is to say you're always a little bit less than a man.
I just finished reading a fucking amazing book and I want everyone to read it, I want to press it on all my friends, but I'm afraid that they won't get it, that they won't get me. I sobbed all morning, I sobbed into my pillow when I woke up way too early and couldn't fall back asleep, I sobbed into my morning coffee as I settled into the novel's homestretch, I sobbed over my keyboard as I swallowed up the final pages between work emails.
When I told people what I did, they'd say, "Being a mother is the hardest job there is." But it wasn't. The hardest job there was was being a mother and having an actual job, with pants and a commuter train pass and pens and lipstick.
But this is not about being a stay-at-home mom or a working mom.

I want to sob on someone's shoulder, not by myself.

I want to talk to all my friends about it, but my friends are all single and childless, or married and childless, or happily married with kids, or lesbian, or newlywed, or with a newborn, or young, so young. Not a single middle-aged divorced working mother among them (how did that happen? how do I not have friends within my own demographic?).

I want to give my ex a copy, a passive-aggressive attempt to give him a piece of my mind, to yell at him without inhibition, without fear of child support payments being withheld, to give him shit for being absent as a father to our child, then and still, and for taking so much of me and then just vanishing into freedom, not when I asked him to but when it was convenient for him.

And, oh yeah, fuck the patriarchy.

It's actually a male friend who brought this novel to my attention. It was early-going for him. He doesn't know yet.
If you don't ask too many questions and just let people talk, they'll tell you what's on their mind. In those monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored. the way I felt ignored. They felt like they'd failed. They had regret. They were insecure. They worried about their legacies. They said all the things I wasn't allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic. [...] I realized that all humans are essentially the same, but only some of us, the men, were truly allowed to be that without apology. The men's humanity was sexy and complicated; ours (mine) was to be kept in the dark at the bottom of the story and was only interesting in the service of the man's humanity.
That's it, isn't it? The female experience. The thing I discovered just last week.

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is not what you think it is. It's whip-smart, it's funny, it's oh-so-relatable in so many ways, and then it turns everything you think you know on its head. Suddenly it's a whip-smart, scathing indictment of... Fleishman. But also dating culture, porn culture, smartphone culture, marriage, careerism, consumerism, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, yoga retreats, and sweatpants. That is, life today.

Poor Fleishman. On his way to divorce. He didn't know what hit him. Neither did I. He started dating. So did I. It both excited him and exhausted him. Same. The unfairness of it all. Full-time single parenting. How would he (I) even find time to date? Or the energy and commitment to better his (my) work circumstances? It takes his lawyer to point it out to him — he's the wife in all this.

Where's Rachel in all this? What the hell happened to Rachel? Rachel Fleishman only matters as an extension of her ex-husband. It's there in the title, it's there in the table of contents. I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, but still I couldn't bear it.
When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something particular and unique about us and that we could achieve anything — the last vestiges of girls being taught they were special mingled with the first ripples of second-wave feminism. All that time, even as a sixth-grader, I remembered thinking that it seemed weird that teachers and parents were just allowed to say that, and they they'd say it in front of the boys and the boys didn't seem to mind. Even back then I knew that the boys tolerated it because it was so clear that it wasn't true.
The thing is: I didn't know it wasn't true. I believed it. And then I believed it was my own shortcomings that held me back. It's my own fault that my career and salary were held back when I had a baby, that's a choice I made.

[I ranted this very rant at work a few months ago, to my (male) boss no less. Somehow it seemed relevant. I work for a company that skews heavily male. This summer, allegations of inappropriate conduct were made against the CEO. I wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to talk about it. And so one day I ranted about the lie I'd been sold.]

The older women I know, they're fighting the same fight they always were, or they've shrugged their shoulders and moved on, they know what's what, and they've done what they can. The younger women — I don't think they were lied to, they just assumed it to be true, and they haven't woken up yet. They're just starting to wake up, #metoo. Me, I'm just angry.

The lie belongs to a very specific window of American history, along with the promise of a 4-day workweek, and even Freedom 55. Reaganomics ruined us.

So that's in the book too, I think.
That these men could be so delicate, that they could lack any inkling of self-examination when it came time to try to figure out why their women didn't seem to be batshit enthusiastic over another night of bolstering and patting and fellating every insecurity out of them — this was the thing we'd find intolerable.
After I sobbed for a day, I decided to find a therapist, to help me deal with my anger and resentment and how tired I am by it all. So here's the book that made me seek out therapy.
If you are a smart woman, you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.
Fleishman was allergic to crazy. That's why he fell for Rachel, not crazy, not at first. But to hear him tell it, most women are crazy. At least he stands up for his women patients, and he stands up for his daughter. But poor Fleishman, he doesn't seem to understand that that doesn't make him a hero. And he really didn't stand up much for his wife.

The narrator of this story refers to a (fictional) hero of journalism, one whom a later generation was embarrassed to teach. He was finally recognized as a misogynist, or a man of his times.
He hated women, they said, even as I could count a hundred examples in his writing of the way he worshipped them. Yes, the young women said, it looked like worship but it was actually something uglier. It was an obsession with sex and a wholesale contempt for what he saw as the condition of the sex, or its barrier, or its delivery device: the actual women. The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory. He wrote about them the way he'd written about Vietnam — ugly, romantic, poignant, unwinnable.
Reviews
Electric Lit: The Women Who Write Themselves Out of the Story
HuffPost: "Fleishman Is In Trouble" Investigates The Gender Sympathy Gap
New Yorker: "Fleishman Is in Trouble" Turns the marriage Novel Inside Out

Excerpt.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I felt my own body obliterating every thought

It is written that one meeting is worth ten partings. Yet one parting is of greater consequence than ten meetings. For if lovers keep regular hours, then meeting and parting are as the comings and goings to the supermarket.
Basic Black with Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, is one of my favourite reads of the year. It comes at the perfect time for me, resonating in three distinct pillars of my current thinking.

1. There's the whole question of what makes this a feminist landmark. From the afterword:
These novels describe women not only breaking away from conventions but filled with desire and ambition that are almost too much to bear, a secret from themselves. Weinzweig had to search out these books to counteract decades of reading male-dominated narratives, which she needed to reject to construct her own style: "One of the things I had to learn after reading all this male fiction was, what do I as a woman feel like," she said in a 1990 interview. "All the literary forms were men's, all the philosophies were men's philosophies ... I had to translate these forms into the female."
[I'm still not sure I understand. Is this the female experience? This banging around inside oneself? If men live in the world, do women live in their heads, like I do? Screaming to get out. Let me be in the world the way I need to be in the world, lovestruck and emotional and responsive to stimuli, unabashed and unafraid. Let me be in my head if I want to be in my head, without having to explain myself. Is that it?]

According to Quill & Quire, Weinzweig's publisher was hesitant about her idea for the book,
but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, "That's what I want to capture in prose."
Is that a feminist notion? Weinzweig's interpretation of the concept might be. But Snow's, I think not: "The Walking Woman was never the representation of a woman but the representation of a matrix."

Weinzweig's heroine is trying to claim some independence and adventure, turning her back on domesticity and domestic abuse. Possibly she's just flailing against a label of mental illness.

When finally she meets a new lover, he offers her some kind of heretofore unknown utopia:
There are no mirrors where I live. With me you can be whoever you are.
2. Then there's the story itself, which got under my skin in ways it may not for most readers. I find it highly relatable. [Yes, relatable; I have an imaginary lover.]
When I see that stance of Coenraad's all fears disappear: babies don't die, cars don't collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.
What matters is the way I feel, not whether the lover is real or not.

Shirley (aka Lola Montez) and Coenraad have separate families. He's a secret agent, always in disguise. We're not sure what she is, at first, always in a black dress with pearls. Their affair has lasted decades. She has collected postcards as souvenirs of their far-flung encounters. It's an unspoken rule not to bring the domesticity of marriage into their conversation or their hotel room. He has the advantage of knowing what she looks like, always in her uniform, despite using a false name.

Does he exist? She sees him, or suspects him, in tourguides and winos. But she is never sure of him.

[I have never met my lover in person. I have seen pictures, but they change in my mind. Besides, photos are manipulable. I feel sometimes that he may be watching me, even testing me in the guise of other personas. I suspect him of being not who he says he is. But to the extent that he fills me with this feeling, he is as real as any other lover.]
In the midst of it all, just as I was concluding that I would know this man's face, this body, from now on, anywhere, with or without clothes, I felt my own body obliterating every thought.
But we are clearly outside the realm of reality and mining her memories.
Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined. And were it to be a love story, the hero would be Coenraad. Therein lay another problem: since Coenraad was always in disguise, in order to authenticate him, fictionally speaking, I would have to reveal him in his essential characteristics. I was not certain I wanted to do that. It was no use pretending that I could tell anyone else's story, so I might have to tell my own. For that I must rely entirely on memory.
There is something pure in this love story, that it cannot be described by its external trappings. And it points to the wider truth that we cannot validate anything that exists outside our own minds, that our reality is constructed by our experience of memory. It does not matter what is real.

3. The search for meaning is pointless. The search is random, and the meaning is nonexistent.

The novel opens with Shirley awaiting word from Coenraad ("It takes a great deal of energy to wait."). She deciphers the coded message she uncovers to mean they are to meet in Toronto. Their code is utter nonsense. They usually rely on a National Geographic to transmit messages, but as none is available, she interprets the pamphlet she finds to be the vehicle, and repetition of the word "abdicate" is a clear indication to meet at the King Edward Hotel. (Is it a simple copyediting error that the brochure is impossibly tucked between pages 25 and 26? Or is that a clue for the reader.)

She engages in all kinds of magical thinking and waits for messages that never come. She collects tribal stories of black magic. She wants her future told by the gypsy fortune teller (Coenraad believes their love was predestined; she wants signposts for what lies ahead). She ritualizes her postcards, they are a tarot that blend memories of her husband Zbigniew into shining moments of romantic fantasy with Coenraad.
This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one's very life were in danger, even in paradise.
The baker woman reads to her a letter to the Editor, from the Jewish Daily Forward. Is it laden with secret messages about Shirley's past?

What about how art speaks to us, individually, in code? Or mythology — she's desperate to understand why Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos.


Shirley goes back to her house to find her previous role has been filled by Francesca. I wonder if she is, like Lola, another alterego from whom Shirley has dissociated. Zbigniew's life has been entirely uninterrupted by Shirley's absence. Her evening in the house takes a strangely erotic turn, but a fulfilling one for Shirley, such that she can decisively leave this household behind forever, the blank canvas of her basic black replaced by multicoloured urban abstract (like a Hundertwasser).

And she recognizes that her time with Coenraad has also ended. (Perhaps Zbigniew and Coenraad are not so separate.)
I will not miss being a stranger from whom nothing is wanted and from whom nothing is expected.
[It is liberating, sometimes, to be a stranger. I would miss it. I'm not ready to leave it behind me yet.]

You can read Sarah Weinman's afterword in its entirety in the Paris Review.

New York Journal of Books:
In the end, it could be said that the most important woman Shirley meets is herself, although Weinzweig smartly complicates that cozy theory by including Shirley's history of hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns.
New York Times: Her Lover May Not Exist, but Her Doubts About the Patriarchy Are Real
The more reasons we're given to doubt whether Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there's something admirably ornery about Weinzweig's refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role model — as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Living life more meaningfully

I mean, people have actually said to me, "Wow, I guess having cancer so young must have given you a whole new perspective on life?" And I always nod and try to look inscrutable, but in fact, if I am completely honest with myself, I have the same old skewed perspective I've always had, except now I get to feel guilty about it. Likewise with living life more meaningfully. What the fuck does that mean anyway? How do you actually do it, in reality, besides taking up yoga?
The Bus on Thursday, by Shirley Barrett, is laugh-out-loud funny, kind of dumb and possibly offensive.

Eleanor is diagnosed with breast cancer, has a mastectomy, undergoes reconstructive surgery (but not the nipple yet). When she finally feels ready to get back to work (although it's more about avoiding support groups), she take a job as a teacher in some remote village, where the previous teacher — beloved by all (that is, Eleanor hasn't got a hope in hell of stepping into her shoes satisfactorily) — had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Weirdly, no one's really bothered enough by the event to have gone looking for her.

Meanwhile, her BFF gets married and pregnant and is generally insensitive to her situation, particularly as far as dating goes. And her ex-boyfriend — they broke up because he definitely didn't want kids, and isn't it ironic that now Eleanor possibly won't be able to have kids anyway — has been dating some busty girl who is now very pregnant.

And work is just horrible. It's a one-classroom situation and she can't live up to her predecessor, she's always saying the wrong thing, and really, some of the kids, the people in this town are just shitty.

She starts "dating" the guardian, the older brother, of her problem student. A body turns up. Townspeople continue to be incompetent. Everything seems... inappropriate.

A large number of people seem to think the cancer is her own fault, to the point where she starts thinking, "Am I so despicable a person that even my own body can't stand me?"

It's a comedy horror story, which is often the way with life with cancer — it can be a real mindfuck. And then the story gets weird.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A kind of rough sketch of it

The sound of her voice in the empty house reassures and splits her: she's both a woman preparing for lunch and a woman watching a woman prepare for lunch, objectively observing her actions, putting down a record of their purity and triviality, her innocence. Nothing to see here.
Happy Like This, by Ashley Wurzbacher, is a collection of stories about smart, perceptive, and mostly self-aware women.

The first story, "Sickness and Health," takes the form of a dissertation by a sociology student embedded within a group of students with factitious disorders. But of course, the line between the observer and her subjects breaks down. I would happily have spend an entire novel within this sociological breakdown. At first I was disoriented by the form of this story, but I found it wholly engrossing and was disappointed that it came to an end.

I'm writing this weeks after having read this book. It's probably not fair of me. But this is how I feel. These stories have promise.

I'm turning into a woman of a certain age, the kind of woman who says, but you're so young, you don't even know what love is, you don't know what death is, you just wait and see. I'm not sure I like that about myself. I've always taken some pride in being open-minded and non-judgemental.

Some stories are definitely stronger than others. The first two are excellent. But most of them, I realize now, were fairly forgettable. They are all about women, and the different forms (un)happiness takes — what they think happiness might look like. But they are about youngish women — Wurzbacher is observant, but limited. I couldn't help but think that these stories embraced a relatively naive view of love, death, relationships, happiness.

That said, I'm not a big fan of short stories in general; I think it's hopelessly difficult to pull off a satisfactory resolution to a short story. Wurzbacher at least kept me reading, while inside I might have been stewing about how she has so much yet to learn — in life, if not about writing. I look forward to reading full-length work from her in a couple decade's time.
She brought him with her to carry the machinery, and that was where it began: the two of them twisted between flannel-lined sleeping bags. He often brought along a case of beer, and on one particular night, she had drunk too much and he just enough, and they made — not love but a kind of rough sketch of it, like a rehearsal.

Monday, October 28, 2019

This instant-now

A few weeks ago the poster in the metro caught my eye. I had to go see it. Momenta 2019, Biennale de l'image, presented works around the theme. The Life of Things. "The exhibited works testify to the different ways in which objects are experienced and what they tell us about how we think and live. Objects sometimes bear the fragments of the living, and, in other contexts, they have their own life."

Elisabeth Belliveau, Still Life with Fallen Fruit (after A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector), still, 2017-19, video, 4 min 15 s.
The image that so engrossed me was a still from a video, Still Life with Fallen Fruit, by Elisabeth Belliveau, after A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, as it turns out. I took it as a sign. Time to read more Lispector...

I opted to order Agua Viva, I don't know why, and when I opened it and began to read, I slammed it shut, holy shit, it's so eerily perfect for my now. Am I ready for the now?
Let me tell you: I'm trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it's already gone because it's already become a new instant-now that's also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now. Only the act of love — the limpid star — like abstraction of feeling — captures the unknown moment, the instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air and life is this untellable instant, larger than the event itself: during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in the trembling of the instants — and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high, joy, joy is time's material and the essence of the instant. And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is.
— from Agua Viva, by Clarice Lispector.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo

I'm reading The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington, and for such a slim book it's slow going. It started off riotously funny and clever but then I was stopped cold by the winking nun.
While he spoke I was able to examine a large oil painting on the wall facing me. The painting represented a nun with a very strange and malicious face. [...] The face of the nun in the oil painting was so curiously lighted that she seemed to be winking, although that was hardly possible. She must have had one blind eye and the painter had rendered her infirmity realistically. However the idea that she was winking persisted, she was winking at me with a most disconcerting mixture of mockery and malevolence.
I thought, I need to pay careful attention, so for a few days I lived my life and danced my dance and read something "light" and "escapist" (though that book turned out to be neither really), until I thought I was ready to devote some energy to understanding what Carrington had laid before me.

And I read the words and I read more words and I flipped back the pages and I carried it with me, even while I skimmed other texts about eloquence and nonmainstream sexual practices and pearls.

The early pages of the novel put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49 — the humour, the secret society, the sense of conspiracy and paranoia, and the reference to Remedios Varo.

Once Marian arrived at the institution, I couldn't get Yoko Tawada out of my head, these people with their strange manners, these surreal images.

Where I'm at, the text is a correspondence within a secret book within the book, folding in on itself. I love these buried-treasure texts — reading becomes an archeological dig, a trip down the rabbit hole.

I thought perhaps some research might enlighten me on this section of the book before I backtracked my way through it. Most summaries of the book gloss over this episode entirely, leading me to believe that it is insignificant. Some readers confess to finding it boring. I wondered briefly if anyone had actually read it, apart from the handful of academics who wrote their thesis on obscure subjects: Carrington's surrealist treatment of space and time, gothic aesthetics in Carrington's surrealist use of myth, that surrealist women could be both muse and creator, something about gender and the divine.

Internet searches for the winking nun eventually led me to René Magritte. In the May 1933 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de révolution there appeared a drawing by René Magritte of a sexually transgressive nun, entitled Vierge retroussée (Trussed-up Virgin)
Winking beneath a halo, the robes of this "virgin" are pushed back to expose a pair of gartered black stockings and a provocative pair of pumps, indexing both her sexual transgressiveness generally and her residence within a homoerotically charged convent environment more specifically.
While my searches began to procure more and more references to his drawing, it was days before I managed to track down the image itself.

In the meantime I learned that "winking nun" might be a veiled reference to a vulva. Certainly Magritte's nun's draped robes have a certain vulvular aura about them, topped by a hooded clitoral winkle.

Carrington's nun is not obviously sexualized, at least, not on the surface. In fact, Marian surmises she has some physical affliction that contorts her face.

Confined to a patriarchal institution and not bound by societal norms, what could she possibly be winking about?
"It might be the Zurbarán school," she said, looking uncommonly thoughtful. "Probably painted in the late eighteenth century. Spanish of course, an Italian could never have done anything so enchanting sinister. A nun with a leer. Unknown master."

"Do you suppose she is really winking, or is she blind in one eye?" I asked, anxious for Georgina's opinion on a more personal aspect of the lady.

"She is definitely winking; the bawdy old bag is probably peeking at the monastery through a hole in the wall, watching the monks prancing around in their knickers." Georgiana had a one-track mind. ""It is beautiful," she added. "I wonder the Gams let it hand amongst their hideous possessions. Everything in the house ought to have been burnt long ago apart from the leering abbess."

Certainly the painting had a force all of its own.

[...]

"Yes," said Georgina, "how those Spaniards understood the painting of black drapery. So much more superbly blackly depressing than anyone else's black. The old Lady's habit had the texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo. It really is a wonderful painting. Her face surrounded by that white starched frill is as luminous as the full moon, and just as bewitching." Somehow I felt that Georgina understood the painting of the leering abbess better than I ever could.
I think my obsession with the winking nun is enhanced this week by my having attained some tangential psychological epiphany in a highly sexualized context. I'm learning how to be in my body and outside of my body at the same time. This is one of the magic tricks of great sex, but it's also a lesson learned from aging. I think Carrington knew it.

As for the abbess's tractate, it tells of falling into ecstasies and a witchcraft of salves; sexual acrobatics, cross-dressing, and a sinful ointment. Nocturnal restlessness, inner turbulence. Ultimately the abbess's body is bloated with death and bursts, giving birth to an angel.

As yet I can find no lay explanation of this history, but if I understand the summaries, it sets off something like a grail quest. Perhaps the body is the vessel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts

English teaching at school is, unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer. A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.
— from The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Blessed is he who leaves

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time's passage. They want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for others.

What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry.

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.
– from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Last weekend I saw Memory Is Our Homeland, a documentary film charting the story of Polish refugees during World War II. This film covered the journey of Poles through Siberia and Iran to Africa. My mother's story is similar, though it veered east to India.



I've always known this story as part of my family history. It's a personal narrative. What this film helped me understand was its broader political significance. Most people don't know the history of the Soviet invasion of Poland and the deportation of Poles by Soviets, because the Soviet government wanted to keep it quiet. How tightly that government (no doubt with a little help from the British) controlled the release of images once Poles were allowed to mobilize. How they propagandized their involvement in the

It's still a bit puzzling to me how it was determined who left and who stayed. (Which was privilege and which was punishment?) Did some people not hear the news in the street? Did they miss the train?

Flipping through Tokarczuk's Flights in recent days reinforces my interpretation of events. They were homeless, even while the tyrants directed their trajectory. The tyrants redrew the borders. It's no wonder people chose not to return, for it would be to a different geography, land they'd never known, under the tyrants' control.

(It's eerie how Tokarczuk reflects many of the issues of home and identity and belonging and memory, as if these attitudes are embedded in the Polish psyche, the cultural subconscious.)
Far from home, at a video rental shop, rummaging around the shelves, I swear in Polish. And suddenly an average-sized woman who looks to be about fifty years old stops beside me and awkwardly says in my language:

"Is that Polish? Do you speak Polish? Hello."

Here, alas, her stock of Polish sentences is at an end.

And now she tells me in English that she came here when she was seventeen, with her parents; here she shows off with the Polish word for "mummy". Much to my dismay she then begins to cry, indicating her arm, her forearm, and talks about blood, that this is where her whole soul is, that her blood is Polish. This hapless gesture reminds me of an addict's gesture — her index finger showing veins, the place to stick a neeedle in. She says she married a Hungarian and forgot her Polish. She squeezes my shoulder and leaves, disappearing between shelves labelled "Drama" and "Action".

It's hard for me to believe that you could forget the language thanks to which the maps of the world were drawn. She must have simply mislaid it somewhere. Maybe it lies wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers, squeezed into a corner like sexy thongs acquired once in a fit of enthusiasm that there was never really an occasion to wear.
To what extent are you your language?

If you can't speak Polish, are you still Polish? If you haven't been to Poland in 80 years, are you still Polish? If the only land you knew as Poland is no longer Polish territory, are you still Polish? Yes.

Monday, October 14, 2019

We are the individual nerve impulses of the world

And Frankfurt? That great air travel hub, that state within a state? What do you associate that with? Yes, yes, the spitting image of a chip, a computer chip, a razor-thin plate. Here there can be no doubts — they tell us what we are, dear travellers. We are the individual nerve impulses of the world, fractions of an instant, barely that part of it that permits the change from plus to minus, or maybe the other way around, and keeps everything in constant flux.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I was thrilled to hear that Olga Tokarczuk was the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her Primeval and Other Times currently ranks as one of my favourite books ever.

And Flights... I realize that while I posted excerpts from Flights, I never wrote about it in full. Partly because I don't know how to. It sprawls, in a most beautiful way.

Also, it's a book that I read over many months, making it harder to synthesize. Its fragmentary nature leant itself to these bursts of attention, after which I could consider at leisure. However, this method of reading means I have trouble seeing how the novel hangs together; for me, its parts were more valuable than the whole.

It's about... travelling, flying, airports, encounters in airports, things overheard, taxis and hotels, guidebooks and maps ("nothing cures melancholy like maps"), the Earth's nipples, the passage of time, and here I find a fragment on overnight trains ("for cowards")...
Coffee or tea? That's the closest to freedom the railway gets. Had these passengers just got one of those cheap flights, they would have been there in an hour, and it would have cost them less money, too. They would have had a night in the arms of their longing lovers, breakfast at one of the restaurants on rue je-ne-sais-quoi, where oysters are served. An evening Mozart concert at a cathedral. A walk along the riverbanks. Instead they must fully surrender to the time taken by rail travel, must personally traverse every kilometre according to the age-old custom of their ancestors, go over every bridge and through each viaduct and tunnel on this voyage over land. Nothing can be skipped, nothing bypassed. Every millimetre of the way will be touched by the wheel, will for an instant be part of its tangent, and this will be an unrepeatable configuration for all time — of the wheel and the rail, of the time and place, unique throughout the cosmos.
As I skim through it now, I am losing myself in this book again. Language, anatomy, the anatomy of airports, anatomical drawings...
Drawing is never reproducing — in order to see, you have to know how to look, and you have to know what you're looking at.
Obsession, obligation, women who walk away, whales drowning in air. The journey of Chopin's heart.

Memory and perception (isn't that what all books are about?).

You can read a beautiful review of Flights in the Glasgow Review of Books.


Last year, I convinced my sister to go see Tokarczuk at her local bookstore, and she was gracious enough to record some of that conversation for me. Politics and Prose has now posted Tokarczuk's talk in full. But one of my favourite segments is the clip above regarding an aspect of the writing process, immersion in one's subject, the controlled psychosis.

Tokarczuk says that egocentric obsession is narcissism, and she contrasts this with the interest and research in something outside yourself, which is therapeutic — writing frees you from yourself. (But when the subject of examination is the self, the self in relation to the world, as my writing has been of late, what kind of obsession is this? Can I be freed from myself by going into myself?)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Singing myself into stupidity

"Scientists have even begun studying the chants," said Frère Sébastien, "trying to explain the popularity of the recording these monks made. People went nuts for it."

"And have they any explanation?"

"Well, when they hooked up probes to volunteers and played Gregorian chants it was quite startling."

"How so?"

"It showed that after a while their brain waves changed. They started producing alpha waves. Do you know what those are?"

"They're the most calm state," said the Chief. "When people are still alert, but at peace."

"Exactly. Their blood pressure dropped, their breathing became deeper. And yet, they also became, as you said, more alert. It was as though they became 'more so,' you know?"

"Themselves, but their best selves."

"That's it. Doesn't work on everyone, of course. But I think it works on you."

Gamache considered that and nodded. "It does. Perhaps not as profoundly as the Gilbertines, but I've felt it."

"While the scientists say it's alpha waves, the Church calls it 'the beautiful mystery.'"

"The mystery being?"

"Why these chants, more than any other church music, are so powerful. Since I'm a monk I think I'll go with the theory they're the voice of God. Though there's a third possibility," the Dominican admitted. "I was at dinner a few weeks ago with a colleague and he has a theory that all tenors are idiots. Something to do with their brain pans and vibration of the sound waves."

Gamache laughed. "Does he know you're a tenor?"

"He's my boss, and he sure suspects I'm an idiot. And he might be right. But what a glorious way to go. Singing myself into stupidity. Maybe Gregorian chants have the same effect. Make us all into happy morons. Scrambling our brains as we sing the chants. Forgetting our cares and worries. Letting the world slip away." The younger man closed his eyes and seemed to go somewhere else. And the, just as quickly, he came back. Opening his eyes he looked at Gamache, and smiled. "Bliss."

"Ecstasy," said Gamache.

"Exactly."

"But for monks it's not just music," said Gamache. "There's also prayer. The chants and prayers. It's a potent combination. Both mind altering, in their way."

When the monk didn't say anything, Gamache continued.

"I've sat here for a number of services now and watched the monks. To a man they go into a sort of reverie when singing the chants. Or even just listening to them. You did it just now, just thinking about the chants."

"Meaning?"

"I've seen that before, you know. On the faces of drug addicts."
— from The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

It's one of few memories I have of my father. I was 4, and he took me to church. My mother must have been not feeling well, it was just him and me. I'm sure I fidgeted; I was a good kid, but even then I remember not believing in God. A stern look from my father was enough to still me. But what I remember is him, afterward, amused, telling my mother that I hum along with the priest's chanting. The chanting – that was the only reason I tolerated mass.

I've been self-conscious about my humming ever since. It's stronger than me, the instinctive urge to hum along with almost any type of music. Humming, chanting, is weirdly both physical and spiritual, whether I'm practicing yoga or blissed out on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Home sick in bed for a couple days last week, I glutted on Louise Penny, downloading whatever my library had readily available. In brief:

The Beautiful Mystery is set in a monastery in Northern Quebec, completely removed from the village of Three Pines and its inhabitants. Featuring a small, reclusive order of monks once thought vanished, the rule of silence is lifted so that the brothers can help the investigation into the murder of the choirmaster, who was responsible for the recording of chants that brought the order out of obscurity. Although they indulge in chocolate-covered blueberries, Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Beauvoir wrestle with powerful personal demons in this one. Monks, music, and manuscripts — this book was heaven for me.

The Long Way Home, on the other hand, is dependent on some familiarity with the cast of regulars in Three Pines. Gamache's wife plays a larger role than I remember in other books, but this is only natural as she is now a resident of the community, the couple having decided to retire there. While the cast travels first to Toronto and then across Quebec to the stony mouth of the Saint Lawrence, the story journeys into the heart of Quebecois art, with a layover at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

The Hangman is disappointing. You need to know that this story was written as part of a series designed to encourage adult literacy. It's simplistic, not nuanced at all. It has the kernel of a good story, but the plotting and characterization are thin. Chronologically the events of this book fall between numbers 6 and 7 in the Inspector Gamache series, but it hardly matters, as there are no developments in the greater character or story arcs. It's short, easy to read, and still compelling, and therefore suitable for its target audience, but you won't miss anything if you skip this one.

If I had a cottage, I'd be sure to stock its shelves with a complete set of Penny's books.