Thursday, October 12, 2017

A belly entirely new and made for the ground

What is there to forgive?

[Whom is she addressing as "my love"? Her lover? The reader? The cockroach? The maid?]

G.H. is compelled to organize, to organize hope. She needs some organizing principle by which to recover. She is aware that she managed to leave the room, but recovery is still required.

She lives so far above the world, she knows her life may suddenly collapse.

She questions why this happened to her. "What was it that called me: madness or reality?" (p 66).

She feels unclean. "And why was the unclean forbidden?" (p 67).

She comes to understand: "Becoming unclean with joy" (p70). Joy without redemption, joy without hope. (Is this a purer joy, or a more sinful one?)
More and more I had nothing to ask for. And I was seeing, with fascination and horror, the pieces of my rotten mummy clothes falling dry to the floor, I was watching my transformation from chrysalis into moist larva, my wings were slowly shrinking back scorched. And a belly entirely new and made for the ground, a new belly was being reborn.
What new being is this?

She lowers herself to the roach's level, and sees it as it is, beyond ideas.

And then there's more white matter spurting out! "The roach wasn't seeing me with its eyes but with its body." (p 73).

The wings are receding. "My convictions and my wings were quickly drying up" (p 73).

And she's just looking at the roach, and it's hideous and beautiful. And completely feminized: "Its two eyes were alive like two ovaries. It was looking at me with the blind fertility of its gaze. It was fertilizing my dead fertility" (p 74). Is G.H. indulging in a lesbian fantasy? [So the roach is meant to symbolize the maid, then?]

More white matter!

[How can this not be sexual?]

G.H. confides that she never experiences this — this slowing of time — by day; only at night. She is feeling pleasure in all this. "My love."

She claims to be asking for help, but it's not clear of whom or for what purpose exactly: what does she need help for?
But what I'd never experienced was the crash with the moment called "right now." Today is demanding me this very day. I had never before known that the time to live also has no word. The time to live, my love, was being so right now that I leaned my mouth on the matter of life. The time to live is a slow uninterrupted creaking of doors continuously opening wide. Two gates were opening and had never stopped opening. But the were continuously opening onto — onto the nothing?

The time to live is so hellishly inexpressive that it is the nothing. What I was calling "nothing" was nevertheless so stuck to me that to me it was... I? and that's why it was becoming the nothing. The doors as always kept opening.

Finally, my love, I gave in. And it became a now.

Monday, October 09, 2017

I, whatever that was

At long last I've returned to Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. This book deserves focus, which I feel I can now give. Part of me has delayed this moment: truly, I do not want this book to end, and part of me does not want to know how it ends.

At this point, the novel is all potential: me (because of course the reader relates to G.H.) versus the cockroach.

When we last left off, the cockroach began to emerge.

Here it is, causing such fear, "a fear much greater than myself," a catalyst to G.H. realizing herself, her power, her "I, whatever that was" (p 46).

And, oh my god, she slams the door shut on the creature! Because she can!
Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris, I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I'd done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?
For G.H., it's not about her capacity to kill so much as what she's killed. But no, it's not dead yet! Can she slam it again? No, G.H., don't look at it! She looks at it. All is lost.

She looks at it, and it is ancient. "It looked like a dying mulatto woman" (p 49). (Like the maid?)

"What I was seeing was life looking back at me" (p 51). Something primordial, raw matter. She fears it, and she recognizes herself in it, and she hates it for doing so. (She hates herself?)

Silence opens within her, and she's looking for the courage to abandon hope. The cockroach makes her do this. What does one achieve by abandoning hope? A truth beyond conventional expectations?

G.H. is reminded of the time she saw her own blood outside of herself, recognizing herself as existing in something external. As if this cockroach too is constituent of her lifeblood.
So I opened my eyes all at once, and saw the full endless vastness of the room, that room that was vibrating in silence, laboratory of hell.
To enter the room, G.H. must pass through the cockroach. This is not physically true. Unless she means another room, of a spiritual kind. Or to earn access back to the reality of the room we already know to exist.

The room is a places beyond "he" or "she," beyond "I." The room is an existential abyss, a desert that seduces. The cockroach seduces. G.H. becomes irreducible.
I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.
Good god, the cockroach is oozing! Something thick and white and slow. She needs to scream a secret scream that will unleash all the screams. It sounds to me like a scream of sexual awakening — abandoned. To depart civilization (enter the desert?), scientists have permission, priests have permission, but women do not.

And the tension snaps (p 59). (Did she scream or not scream?)

G.H. is in the room. She is in the drawing on the wall. She is there with her fifteen million daughters (p 60). She is finally outside of herself. And by everything looking at everything, everything knowing everything, forgiveness arrives.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

My heart was beating at a slight remove

I didn't realize it at the time, I told myself, but Ange's shadow was already very discreetly darkening this room where the three of us used to sit, happy and serene, it was already there, lurking in a corner, remaking our future, because, though I surely didn't realize it at the time, my heart was beating at a slight remove from the two others, imperceptibly less innocent, less constant, less convinced.
I read a review of this novel one morning, and bought myself a copy that very afternoon.

My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye, is an intensely claustrophobic, paranoid novel. I carried it with me in my soul, it weighed on me, it dragged me down.

This is how I felt all week long:

What? What's going on? Why are people treating me this way? What did I do? Did I do something? What happened? Why does everyone think I know what happened? Why don't they believe me? Why won't anyone be straight with me? Are they afraid of me? Repulsed be me? Why won't they tell me? Why has my period stopped? What happened?

This was a spiritually exhausting read. Brilliant.

It starts with Nadia and Ange, teachers, on their way home from school. As they settle in at home it becomes evident that Ange has been seriously injured. Narrated by Nadia, we're as much in the dark as she is. Who did this (and what is it exactly they did) and why?

It seems everyone — the neighbours, the pharmacist, the school principal — is well aware of what transpired. Nadia alone is oblivious. And it's hinted that it's all her fault.

Nadia admits that she and Ange were guilty of arrogance. It's also suggested that they are outsiders to this community. But is that sufficient to bring on this level of harm and ostracization?

Is she an immigrant? But she was born in a nearby Bordeaux neighbourhood. Is it because she's fat? (Or possibly pregnant?) Does her ex-husband have something to do with it? Nothing is clear.

I was sympathetic toward Nadia at the beginning, but she can be inappropriately brash (a sign of weakness?) and she makes some odd decisions. While the sentiment expressed toward her seemed to be part of something bigger, at some point I had to consider whether she as an individual had in fact brought any of this on herself.

She's not exactly likeable.
I extend an uncertain hand. She brushes hers against it, not squeezing it, and I shiver at the touch of a warm, tender skin, telling myself that my own dry, dimpled, frightened little hand must make her feel like she's touching a lizard.

"Good trip?" she asks.

But she's already turned around, uninterested in my answer, or even whether I answer, and so I say nothing, impotent and desolate, feeling my capacity for reflection and judgment and perspective being drowned by the tidal wave of unconditional admiration and painful obeisance that hadn't washed over me for so long, protected as I was by Ange's assurance, he who could never be felt to feel reverence for anything or anyone.

This reading experience called to mind a few other novels:
  • Magda Szabo's The Door, for it's depiction of "community" from one specific — and warped — perspective, as well as the narrator's way of introspection — self-probing but somehow still always at a remove or missing the point.
  • Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. (which I've not finished), for it's distortion of time, it's urgency, but also the sense of the self being swallowed by the self — all that introspection having a deleterious effect.
  • Herman Koch's The Dinner, to a lesser extent, for that pressing sense that this story is bigger than just what happens to one or two little people — that it's important. Also possibly because I was on some level aware of the a racist element in this book.

The ending is quite baffling, but that comes after a long string of bafflements.

1. Why the italics? Is that her heart talking? Is it what's muffled, screaming to get out? Is this her innermost voice? But no, it expresses some very banal things.

2. Who is the great Noget? A writer of treatises on education, he espouses something like tough love, but his treatment of Nadia and Ange could be construes as the opposite. He coddles them, shields them. At times, it seems, with sinister purposes. Is he taking revenge on Ange, or rewarding him? Is he trying to teach Nadia a lesson? What lesson?

3. What happened to Yasmine? Nadia's mother hints at something terrible? Did Wilma devour her? Metaphorically or literally? Why must Nadia not eat the meat?

4. Food plays a role. Nadia eats Noget's food, despite feeling there's some hideous intention in his cooking. Such rich food, she's been tricked. There's the charitable food of a stranger. There's the meat, bloody meat at her son's home. At long last there's the restorative food at her parents' house, prepared by honest fingers.

5. So many smells! The ongoing and intensifying smell of Ange's putrefaction. "He can't smell the stench of his own infection, but he's repelled by the aroma of fine food." The fog, permeating the city with a metallic smell. A woman's accent like a revolting smell. Some healthy, sweet smells, and warm intimate smells. The smell of the dog's saliva, strong and sour. The way the dog reacts to her, Nadia must smell like a dog.

6. There is no humour in this book, just absurdity. Trams don't pick her up. Streets become unrecognizable. The very city seems to want to expel her.

7. What exactly happened? (I have some ideas now.) Nadia may have missed something in the news, because they don't have a television.

At heart, this is a book about owning one's self, owning one's heritage, one's past.

Oh, her poor heart!
This is a figment of my overwrought mind, and I know it. I'm perfectly sane, perfectly capable, even in my mistrust and trepidation, of grasping its outlandishness. But knowing that doesn't stop my heart, my poor fat-encased heart, from racing ach time someone pops up before me, looking slightly haunted (is that real or feigned?), and fixing me with the wide-eyed stare of someone who doesn't see the person he was expecting.

No, I'm not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can't rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me. And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it's hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart.

How does one come to know one's own heart? Or anyone else's?

The heart of the city: "I've been walking the heart of this city, its black old heart, its cold old heart, for the past half century" — "its old, dark, ungrateful heart," "dark and perversely changeable, the heart of my city.""

Her son's heart: "("my little heart," I so long called him, and now here he is forsaking his mother's old heart)."

Her ex-husband's heart: "his devoted but unformed heart, his rudimentary heart."

Nadia's "petty old heart." "My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat!"

"I find I have to stop and rest until my heart, my scandalized, insulted heart, starts to beat a little slower." "But my heart is uneasy, the side of my heart that's still decent, appalled, and humiliated, but meek, so very meek." "My heart clenched, a heart that's not so old anymore, my old heart now young again, stupidly beating in time with what inhuman heart?"

"I feel my agitation and doubts, my confusion and hatred, flowing away with my tears, draining my fat, heavy old heart of the questions that had been choking it."

In the end, Nadia expels the tumour (whatever its nature — rancor?) growing inside her.
Because I say to myself, where could that thing — that black, glistening, fast-moving thing I saw slide over the floor of my room one night as I was undressing for bed — possibly have sprung from if not my own body? A quick, black, glistening thing that left a faint trail of blood on the floor, all the way to the door.
It's a bloody horror novel.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A sort of mute, craven respect

"This is all intolerable," I say.

I fall to my knees by the bed. I bury my burning face in the mattress, pressing Ange's hand to my forehead, my hair.

"You see, you see," I say, as softly as I can, and there's almost a rusted sound to my voice, a withered sound, "we're respectful people, my darling, and it's a fact, yes, that we couldn't help respecting even the wrongs that were done to us, yes, a sort of mute, craven respect, and we felt that respect even for those set out to hurt us, because whenever there's a rule or a semblance of a rule we respect it, that's right, and if that rule offends us, if it attacks us and makes us unhappy, we tell ourselves that rules aren't made to please absolutely and necessarily everyone, that rules, and even semblances of rules, don't have to make us happy, us specifically, and that on the other hand there are already a great many rules that do suit us, or favor us. And isn't that just what you were thinking, my love, my poor darling, when you were walking behind me, trying to hide your wound with your satchel, isn't that more or less what you were thinking: after all, nobody's expected to want to please me by treating me exactly as I deserve, there are times, unquestionably, when I have to accept being treated in ways I don't deserve, for the sake of a greater good I don't see? Oh yes, it's true, that's more or less what you were thinking, out of pride, and that's not good, that's not good at all..."
— from My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye.

I can't remember the last time I read a book that affected me so deeply, burrowed under my skin like this one. All week I've been feeling paranoid, anxious, weak, claustrophobic. And I know it's this book bringing be down and distracting me, it's a scab I keep picking at, I have to know what's going on.

I'm about halfway, and, like the narrator, I have no idea what's going on, why this is happening. (Although, maybe she's deluding herself.) It's a bit of a meta experience as a reader, I'm questioning my own understanding and assumptions with each turn of a page.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Living among dirt and chaos

"I don't like the fact that eventually every conversation between Catholic Poles and Jews goes back to events from almost seventy years ago. As if there hadn't been seven hundred years shared history before that, and everything after it. Just a sea of dead bodies and nothing else."
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the second mystery novel featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. I stayed away from this novel for a few years precisely because I didn't want to read about that conversation.

But Miłoszewski handles it judiciously. Since World War II, and even before then, Polish-Jewish relations have been complicated and strained. The plot of this mystery hinges on those tensions, which persist today.

The murder has the characteristics of Jewish slaughter, and the story is linked to the myth of blood libel. As such, the prosecutor has to confront the anti-Semitic past of his adopted town, Sandomierz: xenophobia and violence and resurgent nationalism. The investigation delves into archives, symbols, and local legends.

A Grain of Truth also features a painting in Sandomierz cathedral, which for years was covered up with a cloth because it was considered offensive. Since the novel was written, the painting is again on display, but with an informative plaque. Here's the thing about owning your past.

Read the excellent review at NPR.

What I particularly like about these novels is the cultural touchstones Miłoszewski offers me: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Jacek Kaczmarski. Julian Tuwim.

I'm not even sure why I know those names. My mother doesn't know those names. It's just luck that my social and educational path at one time crossed the Poland Miłoszewski references. For this reason, I find these books highly relatable. Surely someone who has no Polish heritage would also enjoy these books, but maybe they wouldn't resonate in the same way.

Szacki's failed marriage and his general uncertainty about life (in any realm beyond his profession) also contribute to the feeling of relatability. He's just a regular, fucked-up guy.

I also like how he disses both small-town life and Warsaw. I never much liked either.
All those years living in Warsaw he'd sensed that something wasn't right, that the ugliest capital city in Europe wasn't a friendly place, and that his attachment to its grey stone walls was in actual fact a sort of neurotic dependence, urban Stockholm Syndrome. Just as prisoners become dependent on their prison, and husbands on their bad wives, so he believed that the very fact of living among dirt and chaos was enough for him to bestow affection on that dirt and chaos.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fatal whirlpools

I went looking for a fragment of one poem, but found something else entirely. And when it comes to poetry, it's usually just as well.

I'm reading a mystery novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The text is liberally sprinkled with pop-cultural references along with some classical ones, a lot of them very, very Polish. When he quoted Wisława Szymborska, I went looking for the source.

Instead I found "In Praise of My Sister," which I've since been reading over and over, all while (silently) actually praising my sister (for entirely unrelated reasons).
There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she'll have
so much
much to tell.
I love this poem.

It makes me wonder where poetry comes from. I don't think my sister ever wrote poetry; I'll have to ask her. To my knowledge, my parents weren't afflicted. But my brother was. He wrote on napkins and coasters and the insides of cigarette packages. Filled with mystical symbols and romantic angst. My attempts were more academically driven. (And far superior.) Have we opened the genetic floodgates? Pity my daughter.

But also I've been reading three different translations of this poem, and puzzling over them.

While in the fragment above (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) the sister has much to tell, Adam Czerniawski says "she'll tell us / all / all / all about it." and according to Magnus J Krynski and Robert A Maguire, "she'll tell us, everything, / everything / everything." They're none of them... perfect.

I wondered also about Peter Piper — I couldn't be sure how meaningful or not that reference was to me ("And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as Peter Piper," Barańczak & Cavanagh). The original Polish (see Pochwała siostry) names Adam Macedoński, an activist, artist, and (minor?) poet. One translation leaves the reference, obscure as it is, intact ("and though it sounds like a poem by Adam Macedoński," Krynski & Maguire); another evades the issue entirely ("And — this begins to sound like a found poem —" Czerniawski). And I still don't know who Adam Macedoński is, and what Peter Piper is supposed to mean.

Days like this I hate poetry, and I love it. I have too much time on my hands, and not enough.

Days like this I praise my sister for being an accountant.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt

The Goldens all told stories about themselves, stories in which essential information about origins was either omitted or falsified. I listened to them not as "true" but as indications of character. The stories a man told about himself revealed him in ways that the record could not.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, is about Nero Golden and his three grown sons, living the life in New York City. It begins the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and ends some eight years later.

It is not the book I thought it would be.

While it mocks The Joker who eventually won the country, it takes a few jabs at Obama along the way. Nero Golden, meanwhile, is himself a kind of golden-boy caricature, one young wife after another, his spoiled progeny, so much gold it's garish.
I assumed he had brought serious funds with him when he came west, but there were persistent rumors that all his enterprises were highly leveraged, that the whole mega-business of his name was a flimflam game and bankruptcy was the shadow that went with his name whenever he took it for a stroll. I thought of him as a citizen not of New York but of the invisible city of Octavia which Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan in Calvino's book, a spider-web city hanging in a great net over an abyss between two mountains. "The life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities," Calvino wrote. "They now the net will last only so long." I thought of him too as one of those characters in animated cartoons, Wile E. Coyote perhaps, who are constantly running off the edges of canyons, but who keep going, defying gravity, until they look down, and then they fall. The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt brings about its calamitous ending. Nero Golden kept going, perhaps, because he never looked down.
I had thought Golden was meant to serve as a commentary on, or parody of, Trump. It feels like the whole novel is supposed to be doing that, yet failing to do that. It's not really about the Obama years, or about the America that allowed Trump to happen. But I can't shake the feeling that it should be.

This novel (much like our times?) is chaotic. It's told by a storyteller (I mean Rushdie, not his weak narrator), but there's not much story to it. While it's easy to get swept up in Rushdie's prose, it wears thin after a couple hundred ADHD pages.

There are some compelling narrative threads but they don't come together satisfactorily. Big themes include identity and re-invention of self.

About two-thirds of the way through,
Then a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and the imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing that new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.
I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is where it gets interesting, someone new to shine a light, but no. There was no one. I had stopped caring.

The Golden House novel left me feeling bored and disappointed.

The reviews in the New York Times really nailed it.

Monica Ali in the New York Times: In Salman Rushdie's New Novel, the Backdrop Is the Obama Years
Collectively, their story lines are high-octane vehicles for observations on everything from art to gun violence, told with Rushdie's customary brio and narrative panache, and the reader is happy to go along for the ride.
Despite (or because of) all the apostrophizing, René fails to demonstrate any insight into why "60-million-plus" brought the Joker to power.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times: Salman Rushdie's Prose Joins the Circus in 'The Golden House'
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one.

The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with "characters," as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character.
LA Review of Books: Rushdie's Domus Aurea: "The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
New Statesman: The Golden House is Salman Rushdie's not-so-great American novel
What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

Interview with Salman Rushdie
NPR: Leaving The Past Behind — Or Trying To — In Rushdie's Latest
America clearly has some very heavy, and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years, or three thousand years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country, an Indian family, a wealthy Indian family — in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history — comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central. Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names, people move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people, and it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past, to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.