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.

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 it — 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.



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.

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


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.


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 as 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.

"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.