The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Sunday Salon’ Category

It’s a beautiful Sunday spring morning here which I enjoyed earlier in open-toed shoes even though my toes curled a little at 10°C. Life was made better by the internet re-launch of First Magazine a Jamaican publication that defies easy categorisation. Because it isn’t trying to be anything else but excellent you get an attention-grabbing mixture of literature, photography and journalism that encompass a variety of styles: hard-edged photojournalism, Paris-Vogue-tacky editorials, better-than-New Yorker-short stories (I know this because my eyelids didn’t start to droop after the first paragraph), on-the-spot interviews of “regular” Jamaicans, history articles, –whether it’s about controversial African-American boxers or older, dapper Jamaicans posing with their vintage vehicle (reminded me a bit of Sartorialist shots) –, music, and who knows what the contributors will come up with next. Jamaica — the good, bad and ugly — is all there open to censor, appreciation, critique, laughter; there’s a strange dissonance that’s created when you move from pictures of a murder scene to a glam shot of Miss Jamaica (which reminded me of Marlon James’ The Miss Jamaica Mulatto Factory). But it’s working for me.

The only thing the staff needs to do is get those older issues out in PDF! I could only make it through two of those slideshows, eyes straining at the 1 point, blurred font before I gave up.

*****

Many bloggers have noted that it’s Poetry Month in Canada & the USA. Kate is hosting a Modest Poetry Challenge: all you have to do is write a critical post on a poem, not just the poem itself, in order to encourage us to develop the skills and vocabulary for a task that most of us avoid because we don’t feel confident enough to do so. I’m not officially joining the challenge but I do intend to do more posts on Paradise Lost. Reading Lorna Goodison’s memoir on her mother put me in a Caribbean frame of mind so I ended up picking up Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes one of his 70s collections. I studied him for A-levels but never really got him — the teacher constantly bleated about his “ambivalence” towards the two apposite cultures he inherited and then got annoyed when we bleated the same thing back to her — and I’ve become less enchanted with “Collected” editions, more interested in reading single titles from beginning to end and get a feel for the product, the way I do with fiction.

Sunday Salon

Eva in her Striped Armchair came up with a fun description of the different kinds of ways the habitual reader relates to books, how she groups them. I thought it would make a fun meme so I decided to tackle it. You should read hers first because it’s funnier than mine.

The guilt read – Translations and Caribbean fiction used to fall under this category but now picking them up is becoming a habit and the urge springs from natural cravings rather than guilt when I peruse my recent reads and notice I’ve fallen into the white American/UK rut again. For example Geoffrey Philp’s highlighting of Kwame Dawes’ artistic project on HIV/Aids in Jamaica at the Pulitzer Center (unfortunately?) made me rub my lips and think, Hmmmm…I could totally go for a Jamaican novel right now.

I think the only guilt reads I have left are the unread books I want to and should read but for which I can’t quite summon up the mood so I check my bookmarks for new books. :p Oh, and contemporary fiction. Sometimes I have a natural craving, a lot of the time I am comfortably settled in to a whole range of classics…and then I hop over to Dan Green’s site and feel wretched for not picking up Stephen Marche’s or Jesse Ball’s latest yet. *squirm* (He often advocates the importance of covering contemporary fiction.)

However, I picked up Lydia Millet’s latest of my own free will! It doesn’t seem to be getting half the excited attention Oh Pure and Radiant Heart did so that must earn me extra brownie points with…my imaginary literary supervisor.

One of my favourite bloggers really liked this book/author read: I have quite a few favourite bloggers with wholly different tastes from me so I don’t have this problem since I just don’t read the books. :P Of those who do we are curious about or appreciate the same or similar authors. And, to be perfectly frank, I adore you all but am quite careful about following up on recommendations about authors new to me because I prefer to buy rather than borrow books and I know I’m a moody reader. It’s doubtful that I’ll get to a new book before the return window closes so I like to think I made good investments. There are about two bloggers who can send me to the book store to try an author I don’t know that hasn’t received much blog or print attention. So my records been perfect so far.

I’ve been reading a bunch of 20th century lit recently, so now I need to read a classic: For Eva it was YA lit that sent her for the classic, and for me in this category “classic” means anything pre-20th century. This happened recently and is what sent me to Austen and now to Brontë because I’m still craving female authors.

I regularly become weary of modern prose and wish for more archaic rhythms and formal, repetitive structures. It’s what I was raised on and what I first respected.

well, I haven’t enjoyed a single book by this author ever, but s/he’s really popular, so I ought to give it another go: No, no. If I didn’t like it it sucked or wasn’t my cup of tea. Passes are only given if I didn’t finish the book abandoned it for other reasons besides the possibility that it was so godawful I could not get past page 3. (Gallant, Rusdhie and Vonnegut have this pass. In light of that replace “popular” with “respected”.)

Of course, there’s the why does the world suck so much? read, whose main job is to make me completely forget all of my problems. Romances may fall under this category, as do fantasies and favourite pre-20th century classics. Basically, I guess, the books I loved when I was a kid.

Then there’s the I’m going somewhere and need a book small enough to fit in my purse/suitcase/etc choice: Yeah, this is why Don Quixote will never leave my bedroom. I always carry a book around and since I find myself out and about doing so much research these days, or doing office hours etc. I am less inclined to purchase hardcovers. Why big publisher persist in producing hardcovers in GINORMOUS dimensions is beyond me; they even curse some of their trade paperbacks with hardcover-like lengths and widths. I suspect they want to justify charging me $30+ for a tiny 200+ pager so I tend to flip the bird and silently inform them to pray that I remember their precious tome when it comes out in paperback. Indie publishers produce saner hardcover sizes that cost less so I feel kinder towards those.

I was anxious to get my hands on Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg and Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson until I saw the brontosauruses the respective publishers expected me to lug around. (The second one is also obscenely expensive even for a hardcover. I don’t know if the publishers thought that J.K. Rowling wrote the book? How else do they expect it to sell? Huh.)

the random seduction read: This hasn’t happened to me in a while. I have so many ideas about the kind of books I’d like to try…even when I’m randomly browsing I typically have a criterion in mind.

I bought this X years ago, and I still haven’t read it, which is a horrible waste of money read, which provides a strong incentive to get those books off the TBR shelf: Yeah, as mentioned up top, I have a lot of those. But not as many as Danielle.

I call X one of my favourite authors, and I haven’t read anything by him/her in forever read: I have a few of those: Borges, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Cicero, Proust. Dubus recently fell off that list. I try to get through my Borges’ Collected Fictions but the arrangement of everything just pushed together is overwhelming, I think, so I decided to gradually collect individual books. I do that for Ted Hughes because his Collected Poems is a whopper at 1333 pages. I’d like to know the jokers who bought that with the intention of actually reading it… The individual collections are packaged more nicely, anyway.

If you’d like to take this and adapt it to your specifications feel free.

My small press reading tally for the month was unspectacular. Out of 9 (!) reads only two could count unless one stretched the definition to include university presses. (OUP’s Persuasion classics edition which I can’t say I was too impressed with.) The two romances were impulse reads finished within a day each. (One great, one blah.) Three books were for for a requested review and the SF novel was a surprise appearance.

Excuses out of the way I can pay attention to one of my reads that did count, Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, translated by Norman Rush. (Yes, imprints are “small presses” on my blog for March.) He is an in-house favourite at NYRB classics or at least the editor’s favourite. The imprint is fairly successful at getting periodicals to direct some attention to his work when it releases a new edition, the NYRB itself a sure retainer of the books’ introductions. For the first time I hit on a female author from their catalogue whose work did not immediately impress — I intend to try again — so I decided to favour a male.

Comparison of the French and English titles along warrants some fruitful attention. Coup de chaleur means heatstroke; the book’s French title is Coup de lune. However, “Moonstroke” isn’t a very fetching title. “Tropic Moon” may at first seem inexact, a bit off-target, except that it isn’t once you start reading. One already gets the heat factor from the word “tropic” and throughout most of the book the naive, beleaguered young hero, Joseph Timar, complains about the sun’s harrowing intensity in Gabon. At the end the meaning is clinched when an unravelled Timar leaves Libreville, the country’s capital, on a shop, and overhears someone ironically ask a lieutenant still wearing his sun helmet at night: “Afraid of moonstroke?” Even without the original French one could piece it all together — it was because I had that I sought out the novel’s original title to see if it confirmed my ideas.

Why all this fuss about the title? At that aforementioned moment near the story’s end Timar fits rather neatly into the addled, crazy definition of moonstruck, fresh from a bout of dengue fever and a mental breakdown from living in a corrupt, racist French colonial outpost. Even then Simenon’s choice of using the moon is curious because the sun is the book’s more prominent celestial body, if you go by by the number of times its mentioned. Set in the early 1930s Europeans still retain that curious view that the tropical sun had harmful psychological effects. They looked down on creoles (Caribbean persons of European descent) as strange others not quite as refined, civilised and as normal as true Euros and this was partly explained by the hot climate. Charlotte Brontë incorporated this view into her depiction of Bertha Mason and her Jamaican family; Rhys expounded on (and undermined) it in Wide Sargasso Sea. (I’d like to review it but I lost my notes.) Using “moonstruck”, wholly appropriate on one hand with the moon as a symbol associated with illness and the female gender which links to Timar’s disastrous relationship with Adèle (to name a few instances), on the other hand serves as a diversionary prop there to shift attention from all the serious events that transpired in daylight. Yet that fit as well because Timar, at the end, was in full denial, cryptically announcing to himself and others that “It doesn’t exist!” His brain, perhaps, in retreat to protect him from past experience, to allow him to heal.

Simenon steadily lays the pressure on from the beginning. The novel opens with Timar worriedly asking himself, “Was there really any reason for him to be so anxious? No. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened.” But the anxiety behind each word is palpable as he recalls the excitement he felt during his arrival only to have it collapse two pages later in acknowledgement of a yet unexplained danger. You can tell this isn’t going to be a story with a happy ending; the story justifies it though, makes it a necessity, rather than some dourness thrown in to lend the tale faux gravitas. (A problem in some contemporary fiction: Haweswater was great up until the epilogue when Hall threw in a random death to force some arbitrary pattern on to the text. ) Timar’s uncle got him a job in Gabon with SACOVA, a logging company, and at first he tries to approach the trip as a kind of vacation or adventure, out to experience the strange but thrilling colonial life.

What a sight! This was the real Africa! In the café with the African masks on the wall, Timar cranked up the old gramophone. He felt like a real colonial.

He quickly gets a reality check on how things are run, the disconnect between the head offices and the lowly minions, when a SACOVA employee in Libreville laughs at his unexpected arrival, explains that there is no able boat to get him into the interior which will remain so for many weeks and, anyway, the man he is supposed to replace threatens to shoot anyone who makes the attempt. After four days of aimlessness, familiarising himself with the very small town, there was little left to do than to end up in bed with Adèle, the hotel owner, a married woman about twice his age (he’s 23) who walks around in a long black silk dress under which she may or may not be naked. In fact, she seduces him.

She is his main entry into Libreville’s world, not least because she allegedly slept with every able bodied (white) man available. Timar is largely passive through it all, observing and being manoeuvred into stranger and more shocking experiences; similar to Murakami Haruki’s heroes except that Simenon’s created world is claustrophobic and the character’s passiveness is a vital survival mechanism.

Expectedly, he does not initially see the African’s as three dimensional persons like himself. His first of one who carries him from his ship to the shore when he arrived is of a “naked arm, a black arm” that pulls him into the boat, who then is simply a “black” who takes him to shore. The problem is that the French residents are as strange, a strangeness of moral turpitude; damaging because the white workers are untroubled by their part in it but the government officials disingenuous superiority mask their own active enforcement of the underhanded system. Because Timar is an outsider with no fervent hatred of black Africans (he passively absorbed the prevailing ideas as most everyone else) when one of Adèle’s black servants is murdered he cannot blithely shrug it off like the rest. He has an inkling of who the murderer is, which grows into a certainty. Everyone else knew from the start who did it, including the police, who are willing to entertain other explanations since the murderer is white.

He does not expect this. Well, no one expects murder but he does not expect to recognise it as a symptom of the society’s more malignant condition. His inexperience makes him vulnerable and his infatuation with Adèle leaves him even more exposed because, despite the needling anxiety, the relentless sun beating down through the flimsy protection of his sun helmet, he tries to live in the miasma. The sun figuratively does its best to pierce through Timar’s assumptions about colonial life and his futile hopes and desire about his future prospects with Adèle. Ironically, the moments when this does occur and he gains further insight result in physical sickness. He joins with her in a risky scheme, with the help of family influence and money, to buy a concession miles from Libreville, accessible by boat. During the trip on the river they make a stop at a village and Adèle keeps an appointment that she initially refuses to admit happened and then denies its importance. In frustration and anger he is careless about skin protection and contracts dengue fever. Near the end he eventually buckles under the pressure of carrying on the act in an oppressively hot courtroom where Adèle is on the stand at the trial for Thomas’ murder. An African man from the same village as Thomas is the defendant in the case, sold out by a bribed tribal leader. Adèle’s husband fell sick and eventually died from a recurrent illness on the same night Thomas was murdered. It was too much to hope that Timar could have taken it for omen it was.

In what I think is characteristic of Simenon’s roman durs moral enlightenment, truth and virtue are not liberators but simply harbingers of other miseries. In Tropic Moon no one else but the hero is interested in such unworthy pursuits and they will turn viciously turn on anyone who dares to do so. It’s grimly humorous that it is Adèle who simultaneously entangles him in her affairs yet tries to foster his ignorance to protect him from its effects out of what I think is true affection. She is attracted to him because of his adolescent air and wishes to somehow preserve that quality.

It’s a very short novel, almost a novella at 133 pages, written in a simple prose like Murakami except that Simenon’s isn’t plain at all. His descriptive prose is light on the details but the absence is enigmatic. His withholding of information forces one to concentrate on what he does point while constantly wondering about what he’s only implied or left out altogether. It creates a mystery both out of the sentences, words containing hidden meanings; the brief scenes pregnant with clues, the characters making hidden gestures and coded remarks; the plot itself as Simenon dabbles the murderer’s identity here and there. It heightens my interest in his mystery books, his “entertainment” novels — they must be very good.

The brevity also acts as a way to measure Timar’s changing attitudes toward the black locals. From the abstract black arm at the beginning to the more fully drawn sailors who take him down on his last trip on the river from the concession back to Libreville.

An immense feeling of peace, that’s what he was experiencing, but he peace tinged with sadness — he didn’t know why. He had tenderness to spare within him, though it lacked a precise object, and it seemed to him that he was on the verge of understanding this land of Africa, which had provoked him so far to nothing but an unhealthy exaltation.

The river was calm, and the blacks steered the canoe to the bank and tied it up. Timar wasn’t scared, he didn’t feel the least twinge of apprehension, though he was the only one there who didn’t speak the language. To the contrary — he felt as though they’d all taken him under their wing, like a child entrusted to their care.

He doesn’t turn into a humanitarian but his familiarising time with them plays a role in the courtroom scene where he cannot stand to be silent as everyone seems set to ignore the confused accused and his mother, there with only a translator to help them, as they plead his innocence.

This impression may be coloured by the biographical articles I’ve read on Simenon but I detected a confident arrogance in the story’s short length as well, as if he wished to prove to himself and to others that he could create a complex, weighty work without resorting to 500 pages of elaborate sentences and an extensive vocabulary. That grabbed my attention, making me more alert from the beginning.

Timar’s alertness is more costly. His growing “understanding of this land Africa” leads him to what he feels is a temporary rejection of its existence as he leaves its shores, kicked out by annoyed officials who don’t really want the right answers to their questions. French West Africa was a land and represented a future that he wanted nothing to be a part of and seems to hold a French bourgeois life as the antidote.

Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case has a somewhat similar theme and plot: a famous Catholic architect abandons a successful life in Europe for the numbing anonymity of anywhere, Congo just happening to be the destination available when he went to the airport. Timar is Catholic too. The difference is that Greene’s book is more hopeful despite the tragic ending. He allows his defeatist protagonist to temporarily achieve a reconciliation with his past. Greene, from the beginning, does not even spare him from the lightly mocking tone he applies to a narrow-minded Catholic priest who likes to fancy himself a martyr, or a bellicose, egotistical colonial. For Simenon religion is just another part of the setting with no impact on the thoughts or morals of any characters. Your conscience is your only guide and if it does it’s job it will be a painful process from beginning to end.

Yeah, yeah, my entry is late, what’s it to ya? ;) This weekend I was entirely snowed in. I devoted my time to eating, sleeping and…on work, I’m afraid, but it was relaxing if not idyllic.

Sarah Hall’s latest successful effort fired me up to cram in two other books before I completed the review’s first draft. I went looking for her first novel, Haweswater and, despite the dreaded adjectives “lyrical” and “poetic” — isn’t that what they thought 0f Electric Michelangelo? I shuddered — placed a hold on a library copy.

I don’t know what use the aforementioned adjectives have any more. They’re used to describe so many writers of different styles and often the reviewer uses it without expanding upon what she means in it’s relation to a particular writer. But in their other worn out pronouncements the (largely British) reviewers were on target: Haweswater did declare the presence of a gifted new novelist worth watching and her attention to her character’s natural surroundings is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s own writings. (This marks one of the few times I’ve ever been able to detect a classic writer’s influence in a reviewed author’s prose.)

Haweswater also explained why Electric Michelangelo turned out the way it did. Sarah Hall loves the fictional worlds she creates. There is a strong sympathy and devotion to every sentence to every nature or character portrait, to every dramatic scene or quiet moment. It reminded me of a computer nerd’s obsessive dedication to her past time. Brand new, fully accessorized hardware is passed over in favour of customizing one’s own system, for only she could give it the kind of minute attention it deserved. In Haweswater each word carefully holds each unit of that enthusiastic passion; in Electric Michelangelo Hall doled out more and more words to try and contain it but they all went to waste.

Occasionally Hall’s hand slips and you get the sort of saccharine, overly reverential scenes of northern England rural life that (sorry Hall) remind me of Nora Roberts similar tactic when writing about Ireland or things in relation to it. Hall also has a bad incomplete sentence habit (again, like Nora Roberts) which, rather than placing an idea or image in stark relief, just forces me to rescan lines in confusion. Break the rules, by all means, but make it feel necessary. I could only find this minor example with the time I have:

At first she will not let him touch her. She bangs her head back off the bark of the tree trunk when his hand reaches for her waist. Her scalp is cut on the sharp wood, as if she is demented, trapped in an asylum with walls of precipitation….Her banging head damaging the seduction that she cannot otherwise articulate no to. He waits for her. Rigid with anticipation as she calms.

It’s not a terribly bad example but to me, that period between “her” and “Rigid” doesn’t do anything that a simple comma (or no punctuation mark at all) couldn’t have managed. The word “rigid” alone, I feel, works wonderfully to convey his body’s extreme tension, especially since he is a character who is almost never so, who excels at appearing and being comfortable, settled, capable, relaxed yet alert in whatever situation he finds himself in. Even the word’s pronunciation, the sound of the “g” followed by the hard “d” helps to evoke the meaning of the word and conjure the image. That break there is the kind of faux poetics I can’t stand and helps to ruin it for other authors. I tend to be really suspicious of “poetic” novelists: if I’m not familiar with your work chances are I read two pages of that and throw you under the bed (or look for my receipt).

Everything else about the novel is so good, though, that I was able to pass over such instances without too much trouble. I read it, as I said, for the strict purpose of situating it in relation to The Carhullan Army so, in an effort not to write out my review here, I can’t say much more on it, except that I do think it’s worth your time, especially if you appreciate writers able to infuse their natural settings with as much vitality as their human characters without indulging in a lot of sappy, grandiose nonsense.

I also read V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd because I noticed the similarity in how Hall and Moore envisioned the response to an authoritarian state. But first, could we get rid of that silly “graphic novel” misnomer? I turned the first page of the Moore book and laughed aloud because it was clearly, and unashamedly, a damn comic book. Everything, from its structure to the visual style, points to it. I know it’s more sophisticated than an Archie strip but then, so is a Sorrentino book over a Dean Koontz and no one’s clamouring to give the latter populist fare a new name. I feel silly when I use it to describe a book I’m reading to someone — I smile sheepishly, with lowered eyelids, as if I were sporting one of those stupid (and uninspired) adult Harry Potter editions. But, damn it, whenever I say comic book, the person assumes I’m reading Betty & Veronica and when I reply with, “No, it’s Maus by Spiegelman” they roar, “But that’s not a comic book then it’s a graphic novel.” Mofo, please.

That over with I say…this Moore doesn’t pull punches does he? The beginning starts out in a conservative, fairly uninteresting fashion: Neo-Nazi govt is ruining Britain and our intrepid hero goes around saving damsels and blowing up buildings, hurrah freedom. Moore admits in the introduction that his story writing abilities were a bit shaky when he started out so one should pardon the weakness of the beginning and anticipate the story coalescing better as it went on, for it was written over a number of years. The story and themes did get stronger but they also became more…I don’t know. Incomprehensible? No. Absurd, maybe. Abstruse, although not obstructively so. Denser, certainly, woven with political philosophy and literary references, some of which I could identify, some I couldn’t. I definitely did not take it all in on a first reading which I could not say even for Spiegelman’s respected Maus. (That, in part, may because I’m still adjusting to comics and can’t read them as closely or as insightfully as prose.)

It didn’t fit in as neatly with Carhullan as I had expected, not on a story-line level anyway, a notion I had based on the film adaptation. What does it mean when a movie has to simplify a comic book to take it to the big screen? (Not a complimentary assumption there about comic books but just go with me for a minute.) In the film Natalie Portman’s character Evey is a journalist, I think, or has some job in the media world, anyway. In the comic book Evey is a 16 year old reduced to factory work for minuscule pay and is forced to prostitute herself. On her first awkward attempt she offers herself to an undercover vice cop and he and his goonies are about to rape her and then, so they promise, kill her when V swoops in to save the day.

The book’s a lot bleaker, as you can see, and its characters a little more ruined, more twisted, and less easily admirable or hateful, even the Hitler stand-in, Mr. Susan. V is crazier. I mean the movie V is rather dashing, even while espousing worrisome rhetoric, and fabulous more of a gallant figure and, because of his background in the resettlement camps where he was used as a human guinea pig, more sympathetic. In the comic Moore gives more room to the possible interpretation that V’s genius — his elaborate, fool-proof stratagems, his copious artistic knowledge — bends too close to fucking mental territory for one’s comfort. And perhaps that view is also tied into how seriously one regards anarchist philosophy, of which V is an emphatic promoter.

The two books though — V for Vendetta and The Carhullan Army — do raise the important question for authoritarian countries with a recent democratic past: in such situations is the most effective anti-government resistance one that doesn’t fit a democratic vision at all? Must it be violent and to what extremes? And — oh crap, I’m writing out my review again. See you. ;)

Or is it? I intended to give my attention to only two books today — Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall — but now I’m looking at the shelves and wondering if I shouldn’t bother with something else. I do have two lovely LRB issues to look forward to.

I’m a bit horrified at myself for not feeling more enthusiastic about the Gallant. It was that Russell Banks guy who wrote the introduction. He started off with a lot of daft declarations about what makes the short story, many of which I didn’t even understand, but I had a very good time out last night, so maybe I’m the daft one this morning.

The tension — and sometimes outright conflict — between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all the great short stories. It’s the argument that generates plot and structure, which, finally, gives a story meaning.

What? Are we talking about fiction here or awesome memoirs? Is he describing the characters’ experiences or the authors? And why is this the basic composition — between memory and experience — of a masterpiece short story? Is that what made Kafka great? Andre Dubus is the writer who legitimized and justified the entire form for me and that’s not the aspect of his writing that bowled me over. His skill was in rendering complex, dire emotion in a simple prose. He balanced the every day with the inner turmoil, in some instances as mundane as anything else, and gave his ordinary characters experience the weight and potency of Greek tragedies. His writing voice was as clear as a bell. And although his stories could be wrenching — I was sobbing, outright sobbing at the end of “Rose” in his collection The Last Worthless Evening — I’d never say they were depressing. They just felt….real, honest, true, whatever that means, not in a documentary-like sense but just the emotional experience he created, the spirit of his work, of his characters, of every sentence felt…authentic. And…I’m getting ahead of myself because I was thinking none of these things at this point as I hadn’t read any of Gallant stories, yet.

I love Derek McCormack’s, absurd, violent, horrific, comedic work and I’m telling you, he’s not so much interested in exploring the tension between recollection and “the known truth”. (Which how do you know if you can only depend on memory? The omniscient narrator? That’s easy, isn’t it.)

Banks name checked Gogol and Chekhov and since I haven’t read their work yet, who’s to say. What I will say is that even if that’s the remarkable quality of their work I don’t see why that has to be the specific standard that all must work up to.

The other odd thing about Banks’ introduction was that he seemed determined to present Gallant to me, a first time reader, as the literary equivalent of a handmade quilt — of the absolute highest quality! — with which I could cover myself and revel in its comfort and familiar sensation, maybe from childhood. Seriously! Don’t worry, he assures me, she’s not obscure, or esoteric for everything, “characters, settings, situations, and language are always instantly familiar, intimate, and homegrown, whether planted in Montreal an Eastern Township village, Paris, Moscow, Florida, or the French Mediterranean”. That sounds exciting. I don’t mind a bit of strangeness in my fiction and, considering the book’s title, I was kind of betting on…at least one story element being strange. I wonder, though, if it’s not that he expects the typical NYRB classics reader to have already travelled to such marvellous places. It reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s review of Coetzee’s latest in the NYRB where she suggested that the book might nudge readers to “reread” Brothers Karamazov. (Of course.)

Then he makes possibly the most ridiculous statement in the entire essay. After giving brief descriptions of a few of the stories in the book he writes

None of these characters has money or property or much education; none of them is secure in society. Characters and situations like these seem peculiarly American, North American. (ed: I wonder if that includes Mexico?) It’s not easy to imagine them in the hands of a British or European or Latin American writer. I fear they would be treated far less kindly.

What’s THAT supposed to mean? I ask you. Those foreign writers have it in for America’s poor and dispossessed? Or are they all too busy writing about lords and ladies and rich oligarchs and wouldn’t know what to do, bless their hearts,with a poor ol’ American high school drop out or –

He continues his paean to “North” America (minus that pesky country that speaks that funny language hanging off the bottom there), proclaims that the New Yorker‘s regular printing of Gallant’s stories justifies it existence (I thought that was Munro? Or is it vice versa in her case?) then graciously allows that Gallant is only a “writers’ writer” in the sense that she “honours in every sentence…the deepest, most time-honored principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision” not because her work is highfalutin’ and exotic.

So one good thing out of this is that I now know how a “writers’ writer” is defined. Hitherto, I thought it denoted a writer popular among other writers but not well-known in the reading public. I didn’t know they also attached on to it a reason for the status ie too complex for regular folks. If I like a “writers’ writer” can I become an honorary writer in recognition of my superior taste? Let’s see…I think I saw Steve Stern given that description once. Donald Harington, definitely. Lydia Davis probably counts, so if I enjoy her book, I can mark her off too.

I started “The Fenton Child”, first story in the collection, prepared to be stripped bare by Gallant’s greatness. (Or bundled up in it’s fuzzy wuzziness.) After all, Banks had declared her one of the greatest living “story writers” in English, with only maybe William Trevor and Alice Munro deserving similar accolades — Americans, you’re up for zero. What I got was…an ok story. Pretty good! It’s about the life of two middle-class families in Quebec and they’re depicted with a tender, quirky kind of humour that makes you laugh for a bit, which is nice. I enjoy a writer with a good sense of humour and I’m always puzzled at why many critics never mention this in their commentary unless their subject has a comedic rep.

The story’s corner stone was its narrative structure which Gallant cleverly handled. The beginning of the story starts at an orphanage run by nuns at which a doctor, his friend an upper-middle class Anglo, Mr. Fenton, and a young Quebecois girl, Nora, who is supposed to take care of the baby for a week or so before a foreign nursemaid arrives. The child’s mother is not well, it seems, suffers from “depression” and cannot come for the babe herself. It’s something of a mystery as to why they’re there to pick it up an orphanage if they were the birth parents. Gallant interspersed tiny scenes from Nora’s memory as we follow the small group to Fenton’s house and then she halts that story line to write the scenes that directly lead to that moment and then we get the finish.

I’m sure I could uncover more if I dug a little deeper but I’m not interested. Nothing has any weight for me. I read and it’s as though the wind could blow the words off the page and what was left would hold as much substance and be as interesting. Oh, that poor Anglo’s introverted outlook is funny ha ha, and oh that Quebecois family shunted their daughter off to some convent because she had tuberculosis, the poor man’s disease, and forgot about her, ho hum. Oh, that’s how this baby came about, oh dear. Turn the page. Shrug.

Now I’m in the middle of “The End of the World” and, so far, it’s as unpromising. Here we have the story of a father who abandoned his wife and three sons, the oldest was 12, after WWII, ended up in France, and his son was called for to be there with him in his last days. This should be bitter, possibly farcical, poignant, tempestuous, tragic, something, but I’m kind of just reading along. Maybe Paris Stories is better? Or do I have to be North American to appreciate Gallant’s grandeur?

I shall have to reread the Dubus collections I’ve already read and buy the rest. Whenever I read articles about American short story writers I never see his name mentioned and I’m always railing my fist in frustration and wondering if I dreamt up my intense reaction to his prose.

Sunday Salon

“But he isn’t in love with you.” – Garret in “Love is a Thing…”

I started Tao Lin’s Bed: Stories this morning because I needed a burst of some contemporary fiction that wouldn’t annoy me. You know how I feel about Hall but Sobert’s weird, self-involved, circular, constant commentary on his own every move, word and thought is getting on top of my nerves.

After finishing “Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists”, the first story in the collection, I decided that this is kind of post-911 fiction I prefer. If you set a tale in Manhattan and mention terrorists you automatically get dropped into that category, right? I haven’t tried any of the other stuff out there and only hold interest in Mohsin Hamid’s latest (which I didn’t know belonged to that category until the reviews came out) but, for the most part, they sound either dull or trite. Mostly dull.

Lin, on the other hand, had me chuckling from page one.

This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America, set up underground tunnels in the rural areas, like gophers. During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb. This was a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound. They would whisper into the wind something mordant and culturally damning about McDonald’s, Jesus, and America — and then, if they wanted to, if the situation eschatologically called for it, they would slice your face off with a KFC spork.

Other ways the terrorists might be out to get you?

  • Pipes: Entire terrorist families are hiding within the walls of your house, scrambling up pipes ready to…errr…ruin your plumbing without warning. That sounds familiar.
  • Free cruise: They could attach “outboard motors” to Manhattan island and take the inhabitants on a free world cruise with virgin piña coladas and, I’m assuming, indoctrination classes.

That and the vibrant anti war supporters — whose most profound statement so far has been, “Fuck war, fuck, war” — are side trimmings for the main story which centres on Garret and Kristy, a college aged couple who live in Brooklyn and aren’t having the time of their lives, partly because Kristy is always late for everything. I didn’t really know what to make of it and I expect that will be my reaction to a lot of Lin’s stories, but I don’t mind being stumped as along as I think I’m getting something out of it.

*****

As I read more of the Idylls I discover that it’s potentially a little more interesting than fun chivalric tales espousing a predominantly Christian and patriarchal perspective (although there’s a lot of that). The things that make this so may not count much for others if they have more than a passing knowledge of the Arthurian myths. All of my knowledge has been gained through Hollywood and a couple of fantasy authors, one of whom had used it in such a way that was actually closer to the myths literary sources than I thought.

As I read the two poems about Geraint and Enid I noticed a sprinkling of Welsh mythological references here and there, thanks to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their presence struck me as odd, particularly since it seemed to limited to their story, and it added to the epic’s crazy mishmash of Christian and pagan elements. I figured that the couple had some specific ties to Wales that Tennyson was acknowledging.

It turns out that the whole darn Arthurian myth came out of Welsh mythology. Wtf? I thought it had something to do with the French? It appears that Arthur’s incredibly jumbled literary history started from when Christian monks wrote down his story from a variety of different sources and was swollen “by the confluence of rivers of romantic Euro-drivel“. It’s a bit difficult to decipher from internet resources how the tales truly differ (websites one after the other present it in such different ways) and I don’t know that I’m intrigued enough to borrow a hefty academic text to wade through. I’ve decided to simply enjoy the bizarre product.

There were also sombre elements at work that stood out prominently amongst the more fantastical elements. Two of Arthur’s knights, so far, have been depressed to the point of contemplating and courting suicide and in both cases Tennyson wrote of their situations with pathos rather than just romantic flourish.

Edyrn, son of Nodd, is the dastardly figure in “The Marriage of Geraint” who harboured affections for his cousin Enid which she did not return. Rejected and hurt he turns the entire town against her family, stealing most of their fortune and encouraging the residents to loot the rest. Geraint comes to save the day as Edyrn had the fortune of offending Queen Guinevere via her maid, who, in a friendly manner, tried to discover Edyrn’s identity from his rude and ugly dwarf servant. (Poor dwarfs. They rarely catch a break in these sort of tales.) As any Don Quixote reader should know the victor always orders the defeated foe to return to the offended lady to seek pardon (and stuff) and so Edyrn willingly does as, if there’s anything he understands it’s brute strength.

Naturally, he converts into a good God-fearing knight and dies in battle, so one is tempted to write him off. But he returns in returns in part two, “Geraint and Enid“, to tell Enid and therefore the reader what happened to him when he went to Camelot. As is characteristic of Tennyson (and needful in a poem, perhaps) he did not spend a lot of words on the matter but it was enough to provoke my sympathy and to bring in a darkness that, for a modern reader, is more general than Camelot’s inevitable doom because its apogee was wholly idealised and symbolic anyway.

But once you came,–and with your own true eyes
Beheld the man you loved (I speak as one
Speaks of a service done him) overthrow
My proud self, and my purpose three years old,
And set his foot upon me, and give me life.
There was I broken down; there was I saved:
Though thence I rode all-shamed, hating the life
He gave me, meaning to be rid of it.
And all the penance the Queen laid upon me
Was but to rest awhile within her court;
Where first as sullen as a beast new-caged,
And waiting to be treated like a wolf,
Because I knew my deeds were known, I found,
Instead of scornful pity or pure scorn,
Such fine reserve and noble reticence,
Manners so kind, yet stately, such a grace
Of tenderest courtesy, that I began
To glance behind me at my former life,
And find that it had been the wolf’s indeed

Enyrd’s frank acknowledgement of his past madness, as he called it, and present contentment is delivered in a matter-of-fact manner that made his situation more poignant and sympathetic. I was not so much focused on the lesson parcelled up in the Queen’s Christ-like, forgiving attitude but on Enyrd’s understandable shame and wretchedness in the face of such magnanimity. The chance to get to hear his side of things also gives his glorious death, as predicted in the previous poem, more resonance and saps some of its eye rolling cheesiness.

The next Roundtable Poem, “Balin and Balan“, features another suicidal knight, Balin “the Savage”. He had been exiled for 3 years from Camelot for killing a dude who had badmouthed him. You mess with Balin in a bad mood at your peril. Unlike Enyrd, Balin is less a predatory sparrow-hark — Enyrd’s nickname in his town — and more of a violent depressive fuck up, which I found to be pretty modern too. No evil fairies cursed him at birth or anything like that, Balin just seemed to suffer from a chemical imbalance that plagued him since birth and which grew into a paranoia; it’s a rare day, during his bad periods, when he doesn’t think everyone except his brother has a problem with him. (That bit of info, revealed by Balan, invites speculation that Balin’s first victim’s worst crime could have been looking at Balin a little too hard.)

Unfortunately for Balin there are no pills in Camelot. In its stead Tennyson offers weak-willed women. After a judicious test in which Arthur, disguised, defeats both brothers in single combat — a scene which Tennyson short changed two (two!) lines to the whole thing — he accepts both into Camelot and Balan to the Order of the Roundtable. Balin is resolved to cure himself of his self-destructive behaviour and “learn what Arthur meant by courtesy,/ Manhood, and knighthood”. Tennyson loves to set up terribly ironic situations so he has Balin look to Lancelot and Guinevere’s wonderfully devoted but entirely chaste relationship which inspires Lancelot to perform all kinds of magnificent deeds. Surely Guinevere, “the sunshine that hath given the man/A growth, a name that branches o’er the rest,/And strength against all odds, and what the King/So prizes–overprizes–gentleness” was the fitting symbol which he could use as a calming, restorative influence. In lieu of having a similar relationship with her he requests that she and the King only allow him to put her heraldry on his shield in place of the more savage one he sported.

One can’t help but think that Camelot, for all its glory, was populated with a lot of stupid men. They worship and place all their hope and ideals in men and women who are then raised to an impossible height from which they inevitably fall. (Arthur has yet to reveal any flaws but my theory is that he’s precursor of that alien the Raelians like to talk about. More on that later.) Balian is excused, for obvious reasons, but to me the whole lot of were just a set of blasphemous idol worshippers who God couldn’t wait to screw with. What does it mean when the eeeeeevil Vivien in the next poem is the one who offers the most sensible commentary on their hierarchy?

“This Arthur pure!
Great Nature through the flesh herself hath made
Gives him the lie! There is no being pure,
My cherub; saith not Holy Writ the same?”

Makes sense to me. More on Balin and the awesomeness of “Merlin and Vivien” later. Maybe. I might nap first and who knows how long that could take.

6:40 PM: Book haul

  • The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate
  • Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos, translated by Helen Constantine
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts – Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
  • The Library at Night – Alberto Manguel

Acquired earlier this month

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (I read a library copy so I picked up a pristine Norton edition at the used book store.)
  • Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys
  • The Last September – Elizabeth Bowen (I broke my rule and bought this, motion picture cover and all as it wasn’t very obnoxious (and had Dame Maggie Smith and Harry Potter’s aunt). A few readers blogged about Bowen novels for the Outmoded challenge.)
  • Dracula – Bram Stoker (To my shame I did not know that Stoker was Irish until I read the brief bio.)
  • Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born (I had to use Amazon’s “search inside” feature to find out the name of the translator. Banville persuaded me about this book in something…LRB? Bookforum? *Googles* Ha! New York Review of Books of all places…you should probably check out the January 2008 issue, if my opinion means anything to you. High ratio of well-written articles on intriguing topics and books that did not necessarily fall within the predictable Iraq/Iran/American history categories.)
  • The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy (Prompted, perhaps, by NYRB classics request (which was refused) to reprint this supposed gem, Virago has sent this one out to Canadian stores.)

Current mood: sleepy.

12:56 PM: Ah. I opted for an entertaining night outside of my room last night rather than a pleasant evening by the heater with the cat toiling over Walsh’s literary theory. This early afternoon I am sleepy and content, my stomach in a perfect state of fullness blueberry tea and a yummy breakfast. I will be off to the book store soon to pick up, among other things, a little thing by Kundera. So for this post I’m taking it easy.

Many took to my short excerpt last week from the Como Conversazione: On Translation panel published in the Summer 2000 Paris Reviewedition. To pick up on a thread in my “Another Phase” post (a hop down the page) I expressed doubts about this constant universalizing of foreign texts in Western classroom. It is linked to an idea in less assured parts of the world that one’s literature must be successful in Europe or the USA to be considered worthwhile by the author’s country of origin. The translators, mediated by Jonathan Galassi, explored this idea and came up with answers a little more thoughtful than one usually comes across. Again, my favourite bits involve particular details about how it is in specific countries.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: If you look at a list of bestsellers or even recommended lists in The New York Times you will find that it is ninety-nine percent homegrown. So the upshot is that the bigger an empire is, the less it will need outsiders. It’s rich in productions, it’s more easily accessible so why go to the trouble. If we talk about the politics of translation, there are some feeble attempts to convert this difficulty. More and more countries have systems of subsidizing translation. This is mostly export oriented, by and large it’s the only way you can achieve at least a symbolic presence in a big empire. But without being fatalistic, it’s just a fact of life, so we have to live with it. In Germany, it’s the opposite. We have about sixty-seven percent of literature imported from England and America.

Jonathan Galassi: It’s worth asking: Why is it that in Italy, say, or in Germany, so many of the best-selling books are from the English-speaking world? The Anglophones are blamed by some for dominance, but Italy is a willing victim.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: German novels haven’t been very entertaining, for one thing. And, of course, in England and America there are experts for this. They can almost make them to order.

Tim Parks: To be successful in Italy you have to be successful abroad first. Umberto Eco was not successful in Italy until he was successful in the USA. And that’s happened with other Italian writers: they’re so convinced that the real literary judgments take place outside Italy. The publishing houses generally do not read typescripts coming from Italian authors if they don’t know them; they have absolutely no tradition of bringing in people except through a kind of capillary system of knowing people. Even with the very best students I’ve had who were good translators generally, I thought, intelligent and sharp people, I found it absolutely impossible to even get their work read, even at the level of the smallest sample, by any of the people whom I know quite well in Italian publishing. The other thing is that the Italians, when they start to write, have a different project in mind, more like the Germans, perhaps. They want to be sages. There are few Italians who actually want to write in the sense of best-sellers.

Barbara Bray: A sinister element in all this is who makes the selections, and for what reasons. One explanation of why there’s such a huge amount of translation — in France, for example, of English and American works — is that, as ever, the people who are publishing books or making TV or radio programs don’t want to take the first risk on anything. That’s the real blight. Whether it’s a matter of translation or of original writing, the idea has to be revived that every generation has a duty to help filter what is worth perpetuating and transmit it to the generations who come after. Somebody’s got to go out and find it before anyone else does, has got to take a risk and use his own judgment.

[…]

Eva Hoffman: I would make another, perhaps provocative point. I can think of two Polish novels I read recently that are terribly good which probably won’t be translated for a very long time…I wonder whether we should make American publication the only measure of success.

Tim Parks: It is a little disturbing to think that the whole thing is this constant competition for total international attention. I see no reason why national literature shouldn’t exist fully on its own, as long as it doesn’t become totally enclosed, which is hardly likely.

Adam Czerniawski: There is a difference between living happily with your Swedish literature, or your Norwegian literature, and being a Pole living in a country that doesn’t exist or that is constantly threatened in it existence. It’s threatened in its existence partly, or mainly, because there is a view — the Germans held it for a good while — that we’re racially expendable, and the West came to accept that view. I often reflect on the fact that Poland suffered under German occupation and the French didn’t. If you happened to be a Parisian writing plays or producing films or writing things for radio, you could do it. French culture was tolerated, while to publish anything in Poland at the time, even as little as a pamphlet on a duplicating machine, meant that you could be hanged or sent to Auschwitz. So this is a political and ideological reality in which I grew up, and I had this sense that so long as Polish culture lacked international recognition, the country could be treated like a colony inhabited by savages.


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