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?)

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