Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The blessed consummation of memory made real

The Divorce, by César Aira, is not about a divorce. This realization came as a minor disappointment, as a divorce story stumbled upon in a village bookshop during a weekend getaway while processing heartbreak felt serendipitously appropriate, to serve as potential inspiration for a writing project of my own.

In fact, the stories here revolve around Enrique, who owns the guest house in Buenos Aires where our divorcee, Kent, is staying.

The center, for me, was Enrique's guest house. It was the radiant source of a life composed of ever-new, constantly changing images. Because of my personal circumstances, principally the sense of impermanence that followed the divorce, I had gone in search of some kind of eternity. [...] Time seemed to rule everything. And yet it was not so. Time was merely the mask that eternity had put on to seduce the young.

Enrique is accidently doused in water and stopped in his tracks beside a sidewalk café, when Kent's companion recognizes him from a strange night at boarding school that marked the end of their childhood.

It had been a meeting and a parting in one, precipitated by an accident or an adventure that, over time, had grown in their memories, taking on cosmic proportions, like a galactic explosion.

The school was on fire, and the paths of these two lost souls converged in their desperation to escape amid hordes of Jesuits. The laws of physics went up in flames around them as they fled into an architectural model of the building, risking infinite recursion. But there they were, a chance meeting in a cafe, fifteen years later.

What they were experiencing in that moment was something like the blessed consummation of memory made real.

Enrique finally notices Kent, and then sees his mother at the next table. These encounters inspire further tales from Enrique's past. We learn about a sculptor apprenticed to another sculptor, neither of whom showed any proof of ever practicing the art.

It was interesting as a lesson: people can sincerely believe that they are something they are not, and even govern their lives according to that belief.

Part of the book circles around this theme of how force of personality overpowers depth of character or accomplishment,  and I wonder if that's meant to extend to a commentary on storytelling as a display of style over substance, or maybe it has something to do with divorce.

The mother's role in life was to head the family business, for which she consulted a manual, which may or may not have had a key, which each individual may or may not possess. Other aspects of her life had short shrift: 

Her sex life began late but was clamorous and chaotic, as if she were expressing herself in a foreign language.

[I love that line. Love is always a foreign language, vaguely familiar.]

Maybe divorce, by fixing one's status as individual, makes one perceive everything as being about oneself. We sees our own themes repeated in the people around us, entire societies reflecting our individual dynamics backs to us.

Finally we hear about Enrique's tragic love affair (not Kent's) with a supernatural woman imbued with Mystery, that ended right there in that moment on the sidewalk in a torrent of water. It is poetic, mythic, whimsical, sad, and just so.

Acquiring an education in love could happily occupy a whole life ("life" here being understood as a synonym for "youth"). The succession of lessons was endless. Everything was love, but love itself was synonymous with the anticipation of love. [...] The prospect of true love graced his encounters with emotion and poetry.

I'd been reluctant to hop on the Aira bandwagon — despite the acclaim for his novellas, no description grabbed me enough to pick one up. Maybe that changes now. A little bit Borges, a little bit Perec, not too mentally taxing, slightly awesome.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Kill the King and fuck the Queen

Caissa, the muse of chess, was no less ruthless than the muse of poetry. Muses had a way of killing those whom they inspired.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville, originally published in 1988, is a rollicking thriller full of puzzles and esoteric plot points that starts with a chess match — one minor faceoff in a tournament for the ages. With symbols enough to make Robert Langdon's head swim, Neville takes us on a tour of the corridors of power connecting Napoleon and Catherine the Great with ancient Masonic orders as well as America's founding fathers. 

One must never lose sight of the big picture. And remember: a pawn that reaches the eighth rank can be promoted to Queen. (I mean, Caïssa wasn't one of the original Nine.)

"Chess, my dear, is such an Oedipal game. Kill the King and fuck the Queen, that's what it's all about. Psychologists love to follow chess players about to see if they wash their hands too much, sniff at old sneakers, or masturbate between sessions. Then they write it all up in the Journal of the AMA."

From 1970s Manhattan, our (female!) computer wiz protagonist sets off for Algeria on a work contract. The story slips through time, spanning cultures and continents — from Phoenician mythology and the French Revolution to the Colonies and the looming OPEC crisis. 

Basically, The Eight has a serious Assassin's Creed vibe, only the Pieces of Eden are pieces of a legendary chess set (fictitious), gifted to Charlemagne by the Moors, scattered across the globe. There's no overt alien angle, but it brushes up against arcane formulas like the Music of the Spheres that unlock secret knowledge like the elixir of life.

Neville imagines an encounter between Leonhard Euler and Johann Sebastien Bach in which the composer has translated the mathematician's knight's tour to music, producing philosophical alchemies where physical transmutations are wanting for proof.

Cameo appearances feature William Blake, Benedict Arnold, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, painter Jacques-Louis David, and William Wordsworth, among others.

"This one — the man with the head of a bird — is the great god Thoth. He was a doctor who could heal any illness. He invented writing, too. It was his job to write the name of everyone in the Book of the Dead. Shahin says each person has a secret name given him at birth, written on a stone, and handed to him when he dies. And each god had a number instead of a secret name...  [...] We believe the universe is comprised of number, and it is only a question of vibrating to the correct resonance of these numbers to become one with God."

Caïssa, by Domenico Maria Fratta
[When I was in grade 8, in the early 80s, my teacher was something of a computer enthusiast. We were the only grade-school classroom in the region with a computer "lab" — three monster machines we took turns on. I wrote a program in Basic to complete the calculations for an income tax return. Our teacher was an immovable force, physically resembling a very tall, thick brick wall. He had a bushy black moustache and a Ukrainian name, and he spoke softly but forcefully, like he might be holding you at gunpoint. Because he maintained our student records on computer, he argued that it was easier to call us by number than to remember our names. I was number 8. I've held an affinity for this number ever since.]

The novel is about chess the same way Alice Through the Looking Glass is, with no great insight into the game or its players, but it pauses to ponder whether to play the man or play the board, and speculates that chess's popularity in America is not evidence of intellect so much as of morality.

Neville quotes Polish Grand Master Savielly Tartakower: "Tactics is knowing what to do when there something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do." I realize I am becoming a master strategist of life.

The secret was not hidden beneath a rock in the desert. Nor was it tucked inside a musty library. It lay hidden within the softly whispered tales of these nomadic men. Moving across the sands by night, passing from mouth to mouth, the secret had moved as the sparks of a dying bonfire are scattered across the silent sands and buried in darkness. The secret was hidden in the very sounds of the desert, in the tales of her people — in the mysterious whispers of the rocks and stones themselves.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Raw earth and full bellies

Priestesses smelled like forbearance and cheap incense, not raw earth and full bellies.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is an exquisite thing, the second book in the Singing Hills Cycle by Nghi Vo. This time the cleric Chih is accompanying Si-Yu and her mammoth when they are waylaid by hungry shapeshifting tigers. To stave off sleep, and to stay alive, Chih tells the tale of the love affair between legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao and human scholar Dieu.

She had turned out to be a better traveler than she had thought, or at least, she had not been eaten by hungry ghosts or had her skull stolen by fox spirits yet. She had mostly stopped panting whenever she needed to climb a rise, and she had learned early on that you never passed a priestess and her road shrine without offering something, even if it was only a tiny coin, a bun, or a prayer.

[I read the first book with a heart full of sadness, while staycationing in my own city. I read the second book with a heart full of hope while vacationing just outside the city. I wonder how much my state of mind contributes to my overall impression of these books. How much of the serendipity is actual, how much have I constructed?

I read the above before venturing out to the monastery. The lady at the cheese shop confirms they take cash, credit, even prayers (but if that's the preferred payment, she may have to charge extra — prayers aren't worth what they used to be). I seriously consider buying a zither at the antique shop down the road from the inn where I'm staying; then I read about the tiger queen correcting Chih's facts, "her voice as taut as a zither string." The countryside shapeshifts around me.]

The royal felines interrupt Chih regularly, so Chih can annotate the story with the cultural context they provide. The versions of the legend differ depending on who is telling it and whom they are telling it to. Even a love story is propaganda embodying guiding principles.

"When she shared the food that Scholar Dieu offered her rather than eating it all, she was expressing... fond feeling and fascination. When she offered her name without asking for Scholar Dieu's, she was opening the door."

"Opening the door for what?" asked Chih, fascinated in spite of themself.

Sinh Loan waved a thick hand. "To any number of things. To a courtship. To a single night of love. To something that would last far longer. To an opportunity to know her more and better. For more."

The fascination and infatuation flourishes, in spite of or inspired by their species and cultural differences.

As the sun grew ripe and started to drop towards the horizon, Scholar Dieu read the poem, and as she did, it came to Ho Thi Thao how very beautiful she was. She had been beautiful in bed for three nights, which was important, and she was beautiful now, when she was angry at having her way blocked. It came to Ho Thi Thao that perhaps she wanted to learn how else the scholar was beautiful, and even in what ways the scholar might be ugly, which could also be fascinating and beloved.

I feel overcome by love and beauty (even the ugly is beloved). These books are mythic: weightless and transportive. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

A museum to the absence of love

The Ancestry of Objects, by Tatiana Ryckman, tells the story of a woman having an affair with a married man.

We lean against the counter and leak onto the linoleum floor. We think of the stain he's made in the house, in us, and wait for the moment when he will leave and we can toy with the lonely wetness of our cunt and the house, the whole house holding us in a warm echo. We will come fondling the bruises he's left.

It's precious. It's a slim novel(la?), but dense — the sentences need unravelling, the meanings are cryptic. It feels like the kind of book academics love to admire and aspire to write. The narrator's use of the first-person plural does not draw me into her universal(?) experience; rather it alienates me — I can't decode her character readily enough to be able to relate to it. 

We know she is alone, burdened by the ideas of sin and guilt, and suicidal. 

The plot of our days takes on a beige vacancy. The house is a hair shirt, and we have grown accustomed to being unable to scratch the itch. A lifetime of summers spent punishing ourself between bedroom and kitchen and living room floor has prepared us for the special ennui, though this time we have no one to blame but ourself.

We're not sure what she does with her days (nor is she). The narrator lives in her grandparents' house. They're now dead, but the house has been preserved. She's encased in an obsolete worldview.

We could teach the ancestry of objects preserved as a museum to the absence of love, to tenderness stored more faithfully in hairpins collected in mason jars than in our lineage of fallible hearts.

[Honestly, I don't know what that means.]

It is in many ways the exact opposite of Annie Ernaux's Simple Passion, and it is a startling coincidence that I should be reading these books essentially back to back. Ernaux' s take on her affair is an examination of her own behaviour, in awe that she could be driven to such action and that she took pleasure in it. There is no joy in Ryckman's telling. Her affair is heavy, her despair permeates every breath.

Ryckman is sometimes quite graphic, if poetic. (I wonder if the narrator knew anything of love or sex before David; it seems unlikely that her character has ever loved before, yet there's a worldliness in her attitude that is out of sync with what we know of her past.)

He fastens his pants, ashamed, and kisses our mouth full of his come and, standing, pulls us to standing and holds us for a moment very tightly, the come still the loose wet muscle of an oyster in the shell of our mouth.

Many passages stood out not because they were erotic, but because they were odd. (One reviewer called the sex scenes gross. That's a step too far, but it underscores the difficulty of writing anything that hopes to embody human desire.)

The fantasy is not to have David but to be known by David. That he will leave no stone unturned in his need to see more of us more deeply, that nothing he finds could diminish his desire. That even in our darkest recesses, we are acceptable, okay. That we will be okay. That, more than searching for an answer, he will be consumed by the curiosity to ask.

But David does not ask questions. David does not peer into the cavern of our heart. There is nothing he wants to know, and so he says without saying, we are not worth knowing.

Of course, every story these days serves as a reflection of my own plotlessness. What did I want from my latest love affair? To be seen. To be known (in the biblical sense?). To be worth knowing.


We stay like this until the bitterness and sadness and loneliness and many adjectives of our affair settle into the boredom of waiting for it to pass.