Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Perhaps the cinnamon shop was the only mystery left in this world

We'll just pause the second crash for a moment to go back and think about the old woman who crashed into the big van earlier on. She's crashed into a van, she's waved away some ladies in white coats, but what no one knows, other than us, is that this is the last day of her life. And yet she's not going to play a bigger role in this novel than that, she's just going to float in the water, just like the novel's only little log. All she does is wave off some ladies n white coats and then: disappears from the story, which is quite symbolic, really, given that the day we meet her, this day, is the day that she dies. So what about this old lady? What about this old lady's entire life? What about the fact that she's taught French grammar at the University of Bergen ever since she got her degree, that she likes coffee with brown sugar, that she doesn't have children, that she's sharper than most people and that her specialty is the French imparfait tense, which can be translated as the "past continuous," and that she'll shortly have a fatal heart attack in a parking lot, possibly triggered by the stress of crashing into another car, and thus, forever, pass into the passé simple, the "simple past" tense? And what about what she was doing early this morning, not knowing that it would be the last time she's do it, those little, everyday things, like drying herself with a hand towel? What about the fact that the old lady, as she walked to her car to drive into town and find a lot that was slightly out of the way, which was where she was heading when she turned onto the road and hit a reversing van, what about the fact that she was thinking about something she'd dreamed during the night, something very strange: that she was at home in Ørsta and that is was December and dark and there was snow everywhere. And that she walked down the small pedestrian street with shops on either side, and everything was closed and there were Christmas stars in all the windows and plastic spruce garlands with yellow and red lights strung between the shops on either side. And these crisscrossed the street with their yellow and red lights as far as the eye could see, and she passed a shop she'd never noticed before, a small green storefront squeezed between the other stores, with a sign that said CINNAMON SHOP. And she went over to the window and looked in and saw that it was true, there was cinnamon everywhere. Cinnamon in small glass bottles in the window, cinnamon in small glass bottles and small paper bags on the shelves behind the counter. Cinnamon in kilo bags. Loose-weight cinnamon under the glass counter. How, she thought, does a shop like this survive? Don't people buy cinnamon in the supermarket? Where they can buy whatever else they might need, cookies, coffee, and bread, she thought in her dream as she stood in front of the window. How much cinnamon would you need in different forms and weights to make you go to the cinnamon shop to buy it? This is what the old lady was pondering, very much awake now as she headed to her car for her last drive in this life. What does one say, she wondered as she pulled her car keys out of her pocket, when one goes into a cinnamon shop? I'd like some cinnamon, please? Isn't that obvious? Or should you say: Do you have any cinnamon? Not, that would make a mockery of the cinnamon shop. The person standing behind the counter would give you a look that clearly said: Idiot. This is a cinnamon shop: of course we have cinnamon! Perhaps, for that reason, it was a silent shop, where there was no need to say anything other than please and thank you, which could be alternated, depending on which transaction was being made (handing over money) (handing over cinnamon) (accepting money) (accepting cinnamon)? The old woman didn't know, but she thought about the feeling she'd had in her dream as she walked away from the cinnamon shop that stood alone in the middle of the pedestrian street, in the December dark one evening in a dream, after closing time, with Christmas stars shining in every direction, and the cinnamon shop's green wooden facade gently illuminated by all the stars: perhaps the cinnamon shop was the only mystery left in this world, and thank goodness for that, thank goodness for the cinnamon shop, thank goodness that it was there, squeezed in between the multitude of other consumer stores, and only sold the one thing, cinnamon, and was so baffling, so utterly baffling, and yet at the same time totally banal and simple and obvious in its existence.

Yes, what about that? What about the fact that the old lady was thinking about all this before she died? And, taking a wider perspective, what about the role that such dreams play when you're going to die? What kind of existence could one say they'd had? They've existed, because they've been in someone's head. But they've never been shared with anyone else. They've existed, they were vibrant and vivid in their existence. What happens to the dreams on's had when one forgets them the minute after one's woken? What happens to the dreams one's had and never told to anyone because one dies before one gets the chance? Did they fly out of her, did she forget? Did they fly out of her like small butterflies when her heart crashed, when all that remained of her was a dream about an absurd cinnamon shop, something invisible that disappeared out of her body, along with herself? Sadly, we will never know the answer to these questions.
— from Wait, Blink, by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Who wants to fall? So much better to climb into love.

There's a review I read over a year ago about a book I'd never heard of that struck a chord. It had taken months from the time I'd dipped in a tentative toe to being fully immersed in online dating and recognizing its erotic potential. According to the LA Review of Books, Allegra Huston's Say My Name was about
a woman's emotional and physical reawakening after half a lifetime trapped within both a stale marriage and the limits of her own perception about who she is and what she ought to be.
So, relatable.

It's been retitled as A Stolen Summer; I don't understand the reason for the change — neither title is particularly fitting or evocative.

I read it in one sitting. Part of me wants to justify my guilty feeling of indulgence in this book. On some level I am dismissive of this novel — both the story and the manner of its telling. It's a love affair between a 48-year-old woman and the 29-year-old son of an old friend.

Here, Huston describes How To Write a Sex Scene, and demonstrates some smarts and humour about it. (There's also an excerpt.)
Sex is one of the great motivating factors of life on earth. Yet in the past, women writers couldn't describe it frankly without being considered "loose." (Some didn't mind, but they lived in Paris.) Men didn't dare write good sex out of fear that they might out themselves as being not very good at it. And thus the mark of quality literature became, not great sex scenes, but scenes of morose men drinking in bars.
The truth is: I wholly enjoyed the evening I spent with this book. Beyond a doubt it was compelling, and despite some quibbles, it's given me a great deal to think about. While I don't find it exactly enlightening, it's given me an outlook on how some women my age and some younger men approach their sexuality, and their life.

A few things strike me as unrealistic in this novel.

Eve is my age (a year younger actually) with a 24-year-old son. No one in my college-educated crowd got married and had children that young. People tend to "settle down" at an age slightly older than in generations past. So this scenario makes the book feel a little outdated, and a little incongruous with the otherwise instant-download and text-infused modern setting.

Micajah is a truly exceptional young man. Not so many men are attuned to the workings of the female body at the age of 30; it takes a great deal of enlightenment, and experience and confidence. Most don't even express an interest in learning till years later, when they somehow begin to see outside themselves. Younger men often turn to older women in the hopes of learning something.
"It's hard to explain."

"Try. I'm good at this kind of thing."

"What kind of thing?"

"Understanding baffling concepts that make no sense to anybody but the person who has them." He He places his finger in the crook of her elbow. "I already know you don't cheat."

"Actually, you know the complete opposite," she says slowly, feeling that she no longer knows herself.

"No. What you did — what we did — was absolutely true. That was you."

He's right. Looking back from the perspective of that rooftop, it's her life with Larry that was, in larger and larger proportion, a lie.
Even though this novel sets out out to turn common elements of the romance novel upside down, to do so it has to acknowledge them. So, while Eve is aware that this romance has no future, she has to consciously work at being OK with that. This is a broad generalization, I know, but it seems women think about love and romance in terms of forever instead of in the moment, they think about the future of things instead of the now. Huston and her protagonist are relatively smart about this, but it makes me sad that love isn't easier for more women. Maybe I'm just lucky to live among a more enlightened group of friends, and not among suburban Jersey housewives. We know we don't need a man to be fulfilled.
"We could stop and get takeout," he says.

This is the step that will bring her into the sunlight — as long as she's strong enough not to care how big the patch of sunlight is or how long it will last. She will be agreeing to premeditated sex with a man she barely knows, someone shockingly unsuitable who has already shredded her self-control — yet who makes her feel, wen she is with him, like herself, in a way she cannot recall ever feeling before.

She remembers her mother hanging out five children's worth of laundry on the clothesline in their backyard, the tired corners of her mouth weighing down her smile. What would she say? Eve is suddenly overcome by a longing that her mother could have taken a lover, seized even an hour purely for herself.

"Okay." She smiles. "Chinese."

Fate has given her a gift. In honor of her sacrificed, sacrificing mother, she will allow Micajah to break her heart.
(Even if it's short-lived, why does it have to be heartbreak?)

Is this an erotic novel? I don't think so. Yet it's suffused with something. It's never cheesy, it's mature, and still sexy.

One thing that drew me to this novel is that it features a musical instrument, a badly damaged, intricately carved viol d'amore. I would've loved to hear more about its history and restoration, but that would've been a very different novel.

Coincidentally, this week I read about a book of poems about walking and the poet talked about how love is about falling, it's a different motion and momentum. So this line from A Stolen Summer really stuck me:
Who wants to fall? So much better to climb into love.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"Man must not lie. Man has a small head."

He tossed the book away and turned over to lie on his back.

France was to blame. Yes, France was most definitely to blame. He was never like this at home.

[...] Here in Biarritz life was completely different — mad, fun, even a little seedy. Yes, that was the word: seedy. And there was the perpetual rush of the ocean. And the bracing air. And these stupid books. And the eternal waiting, the constant premonition of love...
Isolde, by Irina Odoevsteva, is a gem of a book, unexpected and a page-turner. Originally published in 1929, it is gut-wrenching and tragic. It's mostly about Liza, who is just fourteen years old at the novel's start. That summer in Biarritz, Cromwell falls in love with her, and christens her Isolde after the novel he's reading. She adores the attention, and her brother Nikolai is quick to recognize the opportunity to milk Cromwell for extravagant evenings at the casino and the use of his car. When they return to Paris, Liza's boyfriend Andrei joins in the excesses.

Liza and Kolya's mother, meanwhile, is mostly absent. She insists they call her Natasha, never Mama, as she presents herself as their aunt charged with the orphans' care. She is always on the lookout for a man to fund her lifestyle. One such lover is the hapless Bunny – married and irresponsible, driving his own family to the poorhouse for Natasha's sake. He has difficulty accepting that Natasha prefers another, and that she has no use for him with his money gone:
His desperation and pain had disappeared. He felt quiet, calm and light. He felt like it wasn't Fanny lying next to him, not his wife, but his grandmother, and they had wrapped themselves up in her chequered shawl. It smelt of cinnamon and onions. And it wasn't Fanny sighing and sobbing at his ear, but his grandmother teaching him in her monotone voice:

"Man must not lie. Man has a small head. He'll lie and then he'll forget what he's lied about. Not like a horse. A horse has a big head. A horse can lie if it wants to."
(Oh, the foolish men, who never consider the consequences.)

Even while Liza condemns her mother's behaviour, she emulates it. Sadly, Natasha begins to see Liza's youth and beauty as a threat. And she leaves with her lover for Nice, never to be seen again.

There's probably a thesis in here about women's age and sexuality — the women are grandmothers and asexual, or caretakers and asexual, or they are young, beautiful, and privileged and burgeoning with sexuality. We encounter Cromwell's mother only two or three times, but have a very clear picture of the kind of woman she is:
She got back into bed. As she pulled up the cover, her hand brushed her naked breast and immediately recoiled in disgust, as if she had touched a toad, so repulsive was her naked body to her.
About midway through the novel, we flash back to Liza's early childhood. I felt this section lagged a little. On the whole, Natasha's motivations are already quite clear; this background made me mildly more sympathetic toward her. But this section goes a long way toward explaining Liza's relationship with Russia and some of her actions later in the book.

Liza is itching to grow up, but she still longs to be mothered. How differently she might've fared if her mother had not abandoned her.
She reaches out a hand and plucks an apple from the fruit bowl.

She no longer has a heart in her breast. It's empty and silent there. Her heart is this red apple. This is it — her heart. It's sitting in the palm of her hand. It's exposed, it's beating, it flutters and it loves. It feels everything. She squeezes it with her fingers, and her heart feels pain. What should she do with it? What should she do with her heart?

She holds the apple out to Andrei.

"Eat this Andrei, it's a gift from me to you."

Andrei takes the apple indifferently, rubs it on his sleeve and then digs his strong white teeth into it, taking a big bite.

"This pain is going to be horrible," Liza thinks. "He's eating my heart." She clenches her fists to stifle a cry of pain. But it doesn't hurt at all. She looks at Andrei in surprise and watches his white teeth chomp on the apple. And it doesn't hurt at all. "It's not my heart. I'm just drunk. Drop it. Don't eat it, Andrei."

Andrei throws the apple core on the floor.
She doesn't love Cromwell, or his cousin. She doesn't know Russia enough to love her, but she loves the idea of Russia. I think she loves Andrei in a similar way, for what he represents. And Liza's heart is eaten alive.
"You know, Andrei, I keep thinking," she said slowly. "I keep thinking how difficult and dreary life must be if childhood is as good as it gets. And if it's all downhill from here, I don't want to grow up." She shook her head. "And, you know, I don't think I ever will."

"Nonsense, Liza. It's only because you're fourteen. Fourteen is the worst age. You'll be fifteen in March and it will all be much easier then."

She shook her head again.

"Oh, no, no. I don't believe that. It won't get any easier, or any better."
It doesn't get any better.

Monday, September 16, 2019

At the intersection of truth and wishful thinking

Then he'd gotten back up, and walked some more. For hours.


He only stopped when he'd met himself again. The Armand who'd been standing on the side of the quiet road, in the middle of nowhere, waiting. At the intersection of truth and wishful thinking.
I showed up at bookclub a couple years ago, for a book I hadn't entirely enjoyed. The usual bookclub host was out sick and couldn't make it — she'd asked one of the other bookstore employees to fill in, someone who hadn't read the book. One other reader showed up. It was a quiet evening at the shop, so the bookstore clerk on duty sat down and had a beer with us.

That other reader though. I want to say her name was Marion, it was — she was — of another era. She must've been seventy-something, elegantly grey, incongruously carrying a plastic shopping bag to haul some notes, a shawl. She couldn't possibly have ever worked, apart from arranging tea or some fundraising down at the club. She was visiting from Texas, and had a night in Montreal before embarking on her adventure. What better activity than attending a book club about a book she happened to have recently read. The book in question was short stories by Teffi, but that doesn't matter.

She drawled loud and slow, her head bobbing gently. And she told us she'd stopped in Montreal on her way to Three Pines. Of course she knew it was a fictional place; but she needed to see the village that inspired it. Marion was on her way to the Eastern Townships to meet Louise Penny, and to celebrate the launch of the latest instalment of the Inspector Gamache books. That would've been Glass Houses.

This is only the fifth book I've read of the series, now fifteen strong. But it's peopled by characters so familiar, in a place just down the road. They don't call these cozy mysteries for nothing.

Louise Penny is a frightfully astute observer of the human condition.
Men and women going about their lives. Apparently quite normal. On the outside. Their skin stretched across the void inside.
Glass Houses has two main narrative threads. The "present day" courtroom drama in a sweltering July, and the events of the previous November, including the murder for which someone is now standing trial. We don't know the nature of the crime, who the victim is or who the perpetrator, until we are quite a way into the book (some readers may find this frustrating).

As is typical of Penny, there's a healthy dose of real-life Quebec politics thrown in, this time a drug crisis, the organization of the drug's trafficking within Quebec and across international borders, and the failure of authorities to clamp down — all issues in the news in recent years.

At the core of the book is the concept of the cobrador, a debt collector who dresses like Darth Vader (or Death, or a plague doctor). Penny's version is a collector of moral debts. It turns out almost everyone believes the cobrador could be there for them.

Gamache and others have to decide if their job is to uphold the law or to do what's right. Gamache is Churchill allowing Coventry to be bombed, for the greater good.
And Lacoste remembered the advice given to Mossad agents. Advice Lacoste had found abhorrent, wrong on every level. Until it had been explained.

The instruction given the Israeli agents, if they met resistance during an assault, was kill the women first.

Because if a woman was ever driven so far as to pick up a weapon she would be the most committed, the least likely to ever give up.

Kill the women first.

Lacoste still hated the advice. The simplicity of it. The baldness. But she also hated that the philosophy behind it was almost certainly true.
To be honest, I thought Marion at bookclub was crazy. Maybe because I'm afraid of becoming her. But I haven't forgotten about her. In fact, I rather admire her. Why shouldn't I be like her, following the paths of my favourite imaginary people?

And let me admit now how much I loved to be enveloped in the world of Three Pines. I could stand to spend a little more time there. I'm going back to read the ones I've missed.
It wasn't really, he knew, about less fear. It was about more courage.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Sex short circuits all imaginative exchange

C: Ann thought it was a great project, more perverse than just having an affair. She thinks it'd make a good book! When Dick calls shall we tell him we're considering publication?

S: No. The murder hasn't happened yet. Desire's still unconsummated. Let the media wait.
It didn't occur to me when I started writing letters a year and a half ago, unsent, that I was working within an already established art form. In fact, I didn't think of art or work at all. It was therapy.

What makes it a letter and not a diary entry is intention and direction. I needed to say something to someone in particular. At first it was the recovering heroin addict ex-boyfriend. But as those feelings resolved themselves, I wrote to some version of myself. Finally the letters became stories I tell my (mostly) imaginary lover.

This is not quite how I Love Dick unfolds, but Chris Kraus has done something similar, projecting an impassioned love affair on a man she barely knows.

So. Highly relatable.

Chris and Sylvère, together some ten years, are dining with Dick, an academic acquaintance of Sylvère's, and they go back to Dick's place and drink some more, by which time Chris is totally crushing on Dick, and when she confides in Sylvère the next day, they begin writing letters to Dick that they never send. They create ménage à trois where none existed, and explore its outcomes, without any basis other than Chris's love (imaginary or real?) for Dick.

My coworker noticed it on my desk — she's read it — asked me how I liked it, but when I said relatable, she gave me a funny look.

I mean the imaginary love affair part. I have no idea what else this book has in store. Oh god, they joke about a murder, maybe that goes somewhere. I hope she doesn't think I plan murders.
Have Chris and I spent this past week in turmoil just to turn our lives into a text?
On the car ride home I started reading Research Into Marriage, then underlining, footnoting and annotating all the passages that could relate to me and you. It's an exercise both adolescent (me!) and academic (you!) ... my first art object, which I'll give you as a present.
I want to go back to the beginning and annotate this book as it relates to my own imaginary love affair. So badly. Every bit that makes this book so relatable. I will make an offering of it.

I'm about halfway through this book when I start rereading, pencil in hand. I had been swept away by this book as a model of what I could do with my own writing; I want to slow down to better understand it. On rereading, this book is not what I was experiencing at all. The text was merely, magically, a trigger for my own interior experience, but already it's not a story I recognize, it's telling a different story from the one I thought I was reading. Those lines of insight I thought would stay with me, the passages I wanted to mark when no pencil was in reach — I can't find them anymore.

There's a comment about Schoenberg and I remember the lovely novel I read last winter that I never got round to writing about.

I Love Dick. I Love Dick. I Love ... (I need to make this book my own.) I Love Marc. Making My Marc. Making My Mark. (That's not clever, it's cheesy.)

[How would he react to having his name changed? I don't think he'd like it, it's no longer the truth. Maybe he'd rather remain anonymous. Of course, him being imaginary, I don't even have to tell him, he'd never find out about this. I'll tell him. Of course I'll tell him. I tell him everything. That's almost the fucking point. Does he know that he's now an art experience? Maybe I've always subconsciously known that that's what he was meant to be, what we were meant to be. He has no agency of his own, only that which I bestow upon him. I create him.]
And then Chris went alone into her room and wrote a letter, thinking she would send it, about sex and love. She was all confused about wanting to have sex, sensing that at this point if she slept with Dick the whole thing would be over. THE — UNEXAMINED — LIFE — IS NOT — WORTH — LIVING flashed the titles of a Ken Kobland film against the backbeat of a carfuck 1950s song. "As soon as sex takes place, we fall," she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange. The two together get too scary. So she wrote some more about Henry James. Although she really wanted both. "Is there a way," she wrote in closing, "to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?"
And this makes me sad because it becomes clear to me that she does not understand sex the way I do, it is complicated and not grotesque and it is entirely cerebral, my imaginary lover and I agree that creative juices and sexual juices flow into each other, the nature of exchange need not be verbal, it becomes something else.