Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express. Baraka Books, Montréal. Published Sept. 2018. Translated from the Greek by Fred A. Reed. ARC

We don’t get many translations into English from contemporary Greek authors, so kudos to this Canadian imprint for bringing out this important little book. At just over 90 pp, it’s more of a long short story than a novella – another rarity in the publishing world.

Tsirbas Vic City coverBut it packs a punch way above its weight. What do you do if you’re trapped in your train seat opposite a bullying racist who insists on spewing out his bigoted views in a diatribe of hatred for foreigners, scrounging, dirty immigrants – anyone not ethnically Greek like him. Other passengers look the other way: no help there. The bigot ends with the usual: a final solution – poison them, as one would rats.

Our anonymous narrator does what most of us would initially do: keep pretty quiet and hope it’ll blow over. I’d like to think, though, that after a time, when the vitriolic monologue persists, and the fellow traveller (hah!) is challenged to comment, that we’d refute these vile slurs and maybe call the police: it’s a hate crime, after all.

Instead, the narrator placates him, or hides behind the banal messages on his phone. He even appears to give a half-hearted defence: we have scavengers of our own. Here’s his own internal justification that we’re made privy to; maybe it’s his ‘bourgeois courtesy’ that his wife upbraids him about;

I don’t want to have strong disagreements with strangers. Not with anybody, actually. What am I supposed to say to him? Talk about democracy and violence and culture?

Vic City is the area around the Victoria metro station in Athens, the man explains, once a proud working-class area for poor Greeks, now “infested” as this ultra-nationalist would put it, with East Europeans and migrants from other troubled parts of the world. It’s a dilemma much of Europe and America now faces: how to welcome and integrate the displaced refugees, fleeing crime, war and poverty, and to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and hostility towards them from people like this train guy.

Tsirbas doesn’t try to provide answers; like all good artists, he simply poses the right questions. They’re disturbing questions. When ordinary decent people don’t speak up, we’re in trouble. And he does so in a structurally and stylistically intriguing way. The story is really a collection of linked short stories, some of them linguistically garbled, perhaps to reflect the distress of the narrators. We get brief narratives of some of the people the racist despises, like the young man fainting from hunger, not having eaten for three days, or the mother too poor to pay for the treatment her premature baby needs.

Most disturbing is Meleti, the violent young racist who randomly attacks non-Greeks. He’s so appalling he even upsets the police, who normally turn a blind eye to racially motivated assaults – but only because he sports a tattoo intended to belittle them. Maybe this is the guy on the train.

Tsirbas shows us an aspect of the economic, political and cultural crisis that is pretty much  endemic. Normally we see it reported in the news media; this Greek novelist confronts it in an original and audaciously challenging way. There will be many more of these extreme Vic City types if we all continue to behave like this near-silent, intimidated narrator – a normal, seemingly decent chap, who in the end just walks away.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951)

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Fourth Estate, London, 2015

Smart GC Station cover

It’s a handsome paperback edition with French flaps – always a nice touch

The title is of course an allusion to the lament of the Jewish people in exile in the first line of Psalm 137. In this prose poem novella – it’s only 134 pages, with plenty of white spaces – Canadian Elizabeth Smart (1913-86) creates something close to a collage of delirious references to amour fou from the Bible, especially the Song of Songs, myths and legends from ancient Greek and Latin sources (the narrator likens herself to no end of romantic heroines, from Cleopatra to Helen of Troy, Leda to Venus). Also in the mix are recurring references to the 15C English lyric also inspired by the Song of Songs, and known for its Latin refrain:

Quia amore langueo. The narrator glosses this:

I am dying for love. This is the language of love.

(See Clerk of Oxford blog for the text and modern version.)

Blake’s ‘Several Questions Answered’ pops up:

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire

and Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ teasingly ironic lyric from Death’s Jest Book, ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart/Of love and all its smart,/Then sleep, dear, sleep’ – with artful inclusion of her own name in this quotation. These are the fragments she shores up to try to articulate and contextualise her passion – and they show she knows it’s an amour fou. She can’t stop it. She knows it’s borderline blasphemy to treat it as sacred – hence all those erotic biblical citations.

A few pages later, as the lover seems to have left her to return to his wife, the narrator spins into a near-suicidal downward spiral of inconsolable longing and depression:

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard.

The hopelessness of her longing – for the lover, and for ‘ease’ – is savagely embodied in that cold reference in the final four words to her unborn child: she’s pregnant by the lover, and is doomed to give birth alone. (Smart went on to bear three more of Barker’s children; he also fathered eleven more with three different women. Makes me wonder whether he merited her fierce love, or appreciated its ferocity.)

My first reading of the novella was a mixed experience. There were passages of exquisitely beautiful lyricism as the narrator sings her paean to her passionate love for the unnamed man she devotes her life to, and attempts to make rational sense of this erotic, destructive madness. From as early as p. 5, when the affair hasn’t started but he’s joined her, she’s aware of the destructive nature of this intoxicating love:

I know these days are offering me only murder for my future.

Three pages later:

But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention. My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.

He’s a shadowy figure in the narrative, and appears in the opening pages, ominously, accompanied by his wife.

It’s well known that Grand Central was based on Smart’s pursuit of the English poet George Barker – she fell in love with him through reading some of his poetry in a bookshop in England in 1937. Three years later, after a patient, amorous campaign, aided by Lawrence Durrell, and a lengthy correspondence with the object of her desire, she paid for Barker and his wife to leave Japan, where he was unhappily teaching, and fly to California. They set up a bizarre ménage à trois.

As in real life, the novella depicts the woman following her lover from Monterey to Europe and war-scarred England. There’s a painful interlude alone in Canada, where her parents are scathingly judgemental of what they perceive as her crazy infatuation.

On second reading I began to find my way into this wildly idiosyncratic narrative. Interspersed with the dizzy, intoxicated outpourings of erotic passion (‘set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death’ – from the Song of Songs, appears more than once, plus the next line, ‘Jealousy is fierce as the grave’) are brutally contrasting passages of banal incomprehension and cynical dismissal from everyone else she meets, who either disapprove of her dangerous love, or see it as sinful or criminal.

In Part 4, for example, appears the most hilarious and oddly moving of these jarring dichotomies of register. She and the lover had been arrested at the border of Arizona on charges of moral turpitude. Extra-marital sex was (and still is, apparently) a crime. The crude, cruel questions from the leering cops are intercut with soaring verses from that same Song. Not only is this section very comical, bordering on farce, it movingly portrays the woman’s resolution to preserve inside herself her treasured holy passion, even when threatened and bullied by the agents of the secular unromantic state. From her jail cell she fumes:

The eyes of the jealous world peer through the peephole in the door, in the eyes of the keeper. But still the only torture is [the lover’s] absence. (p.45)

Taunted and berated for her illicit love by her interrogators, she returns to her justifying refrain: What do you live for then?

I don’t go for that sort of thing, the officer said, I’m a family man, I belong to the Rotary Club…What a cad [the police inspector] said, and the girl’s a religious maniac.

This is Holden Caulfield’s pompously indignant ‘phoney’ territory – and very funny, because part of her knows it is – but she prefers her crazy love to their mediocrity. And as she says, they’re hypocrites:

But are all Americans virgin and faithful ever after?…The thin-lipped [inspector] was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire [that’s a Blake bombshell lobbed against the philistines again]

Or there’s her landlord, Mr Wurtle, quizzing her on the possibility of the existence of love, her love in particular:

I cannot hear beneath his subtle words the beginning of the world’s antagonism: the hatred of the mediocre for all miracles.

Near the end, the woman now alone and desolate, the novella’s title finally appears, followed by this:

I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. (p.119)

Even in the extremities of despair she refuses to betray her love. Unlike ‘everyone’, she will not acquiesce or compromise.

Smart portrait back flap

Smart the ‘good-looking blonde’, as the narrator is leeringly called at one point: photo on the back flap

One of my problems on that first reading was a failure to tune in to the subtleties and ironies I’ve just mentioned, and a not very generous inclination to find the woman’s outpourings a little, well, morbid and hysterical – like that whiny ‘They don’t know about us’ pop song – or is it more like the Stranglers’ “La Folie”? Now I notice she’s aware of the potential ridiculousness of her obsession: this is from p. 126, as she continues to voice her attempts not to succumb to despair at being abandoned:

No morbid adolescent ever clutched toward melodramatic conclusion so wildly…Oh yes, it is hysteria that whips me with his name, that drives me with the insane loneliness of the first split amoeba, to shriek beneath his window.

See what I mean? And yet that same quotation shows what still causes me to doubt that this is the masterpiece it’s touted as in the puff quotes on the jacket. The sentences linger just a little too long, engendering more sentences that veer off into surreal imagery that’s often reminiscent of the weaker, more self-indulgent, obscure parts of Dylan lyrics (compare this on p. 28: ‘The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception of the price of love. With smoky circles of thought he tries to combat the fog and with anagrams to defeat anatomy’), or the amphetamine-flow of the Beats. Sometimes she sounds like Sylvia Plath on a bad day, or Whitman on a good one.

Then a few paragraphs later she refers to her inner cradle – I think she means her capacity for consoling herself and her unborn child? – like this:

It buffets me off the road of planned elegance. Girls in love, remember to keep your heads, keep calm, plan your campaign, yours sincerely, Dorothy Dix. Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less.

(Had to Google D. Dix: seems she was a famous agony aunt.) That first sentence is terrific, wittily self-aware, brilliantly showing the indomitable spirit that’s never quite extinguished among the vicissitudes of the dingy cafés she frequents, as well as her habit of solipsistic wallowing. Maybe it’s just impossible not to sound like a hysterical adolescent when expressing transcendent love for a bastard. Angela Carter certainly disapproved, preferring in this situation to cut his balls off, not weep.

When I started drafting this piece I thought it was going to be a demolition job. It’s turned into something much more appreciative. I still think the book is flawed, but it’s an extraordinary piece of prose, and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it thought of it.

Apologies: I had no idea this post would turn out so long. Maybe the book is better than I think.

 

 

 

 

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Beware of Pity. Pushkin Press, 2000, reprinted 2008. Translated from the German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt. First published 1938.

On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.

So says Captain Anton Hofmiller at a dinner party in Vienna in 1937, as the rise of fascism threatens the world. He’s siding with the unnamed frame narrator of Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in predicting the inevitability of a second world war towards which hundreds of thousands of unwitting fools will rush headlong without knowing why, ‘perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances.’ As the main narrative shows, those words describe his own unflattering experience and motives.

Hofmiller had been decorated at the age of 28 with Austria’s ‘almost legendary’ highest award for outstanding bravery in action during WWI. When he and the narrator sit together to talk, the reluctant ‘hero’ explains why he’d earlier shown disdain when gaped at in a café, and what it was he’d been running away from. Far from being a brave hero, he explains he simply showed courage for perhaps twenty minutes, being one of those ‘who were running away from their responsibilities rather than patriotic heroes’, trying to ‘extricate themselves’ from ‘a desperate situation.’

So he begins to relate his ‘very odd story’, the ‘tortuous paths’ along which he travelled to attain the dubious status of ‘hero’.

Zweig portraitZweig is best known for his short stories and novellas, and it’s possible to see this novel as in part a coherent collection of related short narratives. There’s the central story of the humiliating social gaffe that leads to his misguidedly befriending the crippled Edith Kekesfalva and the terrible consequences of his indulging the frequent waves of ‘that painful, exhausting yet wildly exciting gush of pity’ that ‘overwhelmed’ him whenever he looked on the ‘hypersensitive’ young woman’s disabled condition (it seems to be polio, but is never named as more than ‘a bacillus’). She frequently warns him not to visit her out of pity alone, not to ‘sacrifice’ his time and finer feelings on her behalf – but as always he fails to heed the advice of those who know better, and spirals down into an emotional and moral impasse compounded by his lies, deceptions and misconceptions of what’s happening and what motivates his and others’ behaviour.

There are embedded in this story several others. There’s one that tells how Edith’s father rises from an impoverished childhood with the name Leopold Kanitz, brought up in a Jewish family, to become (not very honourably), with a newly acquired ‘Magyarized’ name ‘decked out with a prefix of nobility’, the fabulously wealthy magnate  with a castle home in the small garrison town at which Hofmiller, a 25-year-old second lieutenant cavalryman or Uhlan, is stationed, and where he first encounters the girl who is to become his nemesis, and ‘an emotional abyss’ opens up before him. He tries several cowardly modes of escape, ultimately finding it in action in WWI.

There’s another which tells how Doctor Condor, who is one of a series of eminent clinicians trying (futilely) to effect a cure for the stricken girl, came to marry a blind former patient. When he first hears of this, Hofmiller makes another of many misjudgements in the narrative: he erroneously assumes that the doctor was motivated, as he was with Edith, by pity, not love. When the naïve young officer finally gets to know Frau Condor, he undergoes one of several beautifully portrayed, painful epiphanies, each of which serves to  make him more mature and see things less obscurely, less selfishly and myopically.

The novel is 361 pages long, but it never flags. Even though the outcome is never in much doubt, one is drawn into the experiences of this generous-spirited but ingenuous, socially awkward, confused young man. Every effort Anton makes to be noble and honourable ends with his becoming more enmired and embarrassed. He slowly learns a painful lesson about the ‘two kinds of pity’ –

Unknown and unsuspected tender zones of feeling – but also it must be admitted very dangerous ones!

This story of the dangerous allure of the wrong kind of pity and its addictive appeal has some similarities to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, about which I wrote recently, in that it is set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was caught up in the catastrophe and carnage of WWI, and deals with the outmoded, corrosive codes of honour that beset the aristocratic and officer classes of society at that time.

Zweig Pity coverIt’s a gripping narrative that churns the stomach at times as the central characters undergo excruciating experiences and humiliations. The translation is unobtrusive and fluent. And what a handsome cover, taken from Gustave Klimkt’s painting ‘Schubert at the piano’.

See the perceptive piece on this novel by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian in 2011, which provides useful biographical and historical-political context. The article includes a photo of the main actors of the film version of 1946 (including Lilli Palmer as Edith) and its prolific British director (Maurice Elvey)  – which received such a critical mauling it almost ended his career prematurely.

Who am I? Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne

Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne. Vintage paperback, 1992. First published 1968

Some time ago I heard William Boyd being interviewed on the radio about the novel he’d recently published – I think it must have been Restless – in which he narrated in the first person from the point of view of the female protagonist. How did he manage so successfully to get inside a woman’s head, being a man? He said he began by reading everything he could by women writers, then asked all of his female friends about what made them tick, then sat down to write. And it didn’t work.

What did, he said, was to stop asking, ‘What would a woman think in this situation? How would a woman react to this event?’ and to ask instead, How would my character react or think? – the way he normally would about any character – and not to try consciously to bring gender into it.

I am Mary Dunne coverCanadian-Irish writer Brian Moore does something similar but to more artistically, morally and socially serious purpose in I Am Mary Dunne. The novel is largely the interior monologue about a single day in the life of the titular protagonist – a latter-day Mrs Dalloway. Now married to the renowned English playwright Terence Lavery (odd to read about a fictional character with the same surname as my own), Mary, a former actress, now playing the role of dutiful wife, had previously been married twice before. Each marriage had ended when she started having an affair with the man destined to be her next husband, as her dissatisfaction with the current man became intolerable.

Mary is suffering from PMT, when her ‘Mad Twin’ is liable to take control of her mind and actions, or she goes into a ‘Down Tilt’ that threatens to take her over the ‘cliff edge’ of sanity, or to lapse into the ‘dooms’ of depression.

But this only partly explains her existential crisis: ‘Who am I?’ is her constant refrain as she replays this disastrous day in her head. She’s taken to forgetting her own name (she has had so many; her names are all those of the men to whom she belonged) – a clear indication of her incipient loss of identity. ‘If we are what we remember’, she reflects on the opening page, does that person die ‘because I forgot her?’ It’s hardly surprising that she’s suppressed some of the most painful of these memories, for to remember them calls into question her raison d’être, her agency as a sentient, adult being.

Her day had begun badly, with a smartly dressed man in the street (it’s set in New York) making a coarse sexual comment to her. It went downhill from there, each (usually sexually initiated) disaster exacerbating her sense of inadequacy. Several further encounters push her closer to that edge, including the news that her mother in Canada is about to have a rectal polyp, possibly malign, surgically removed. Early in the evening she finds herself almost hysterical back in her apartment with Terence, her ‘rock’ and salvation, she tells herself. Why feel afraid of the one man who she feels safe with? Surely she must be mad?

That’s pretty much the plot, apart from a long final sequence in which a former friend of hers and her second husband Hatfield’s in Canada comes to dinner with her and Terence and makes an extraordinary, drunken confession about his love for Mary, to which he adds a further bombshell about the death of Hatfield half a year ago, and about which she’d only recently heard.

As I read the book rapidly – Brian Moore tells a cracking good story in fluent, pacy prose – I found myself totally engaged by this troubled woman’s stream of consciousness. Her extreme mood fluctuations and tendency towards hysteria seemed understandable, and I felt for her. She castigated herself mercilessly for her instability, neurotic tendency, and volatility, frequently reciting the lacerating words of confession she’d learned at convent school: my fault, my most grievous fault. It was impossible not to empathise with her, or to judge her.

Yes, Mary had entered into some disastrous relationships with men – and made friends with some pretty unreliable women – which resulted in her loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.Was she really shallow and promiscuous, ‘the Un-Virgin Mary’, with ‘sex on the brain’, as her lunch partner and friend Janice had suggested? Perhaps Janice suffers from ‘autopsychosis’, thinks Mary, unaware of the term’s applicability to herself –

A disorder in which all ideas are centred around oneself.

If Mary was more Magdalene than Virgin, it was not surprising, given the gender relations and social conditions of the time; in 1968 when the novel was first published a sexual revolution was well under way, but was still very much in its early days (and arguably still is). For women of 32 like Mary, surrounded by educated alpha (well, perhaps beta in most cases) males, resorting to that default position was characteristic of – even incumbent upon – most women of her class and position then: to define themselves according to the male view them. Mary was measuring her life’s progress by her ability to please the men in it to whom she looked for salvation, lacking in herself the wherewithal to find it, she’d been socialised to believe – and what better means of pleasing those men than by using her sexuality?

The novel is very good on the male gaze, of women’s clothes and how they impact on their daily experience (underwear, and what to do with it, for example, at moments of passion – or how it feels when getting off a bus). Mary (and Janice) are very conscious of their good looks and the admiring, often lascivious gaze these inspire in the men around them. When told her husband had a reputation as a ‘letch’ at his workplace, Janice asks Mary if that were true, why didn’t any of the women complain, or why wasn’t he fired?

‘Oh, Janice, grow up. Nobody took him seriously. Besides, if men were fired for making passes at girls, most of the men we know would be out of a job’

We like to think that women are treated with more respect nowadays, not just in the workplace, but recent events have shown that this is still not the case. This novel is not, unfortunately, a dated period piece when it comes to its depiction of gender inequality. Just look at the recently published 2016 Vida Count on women and the media.

I could say so much more about this interesting, emotionally charged novel, but have gone on too long already. So: those reservations I mentioned just now. The Bechdel Test asks of a work of fiction (as Virginia Woolf did in her 1929 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’) if two or more women are featured in it talking about something other than men, or are simply ‘shown in their relation to men’.  I Am Mary Dunne consists of very little else. But by the end Mary has learned to do otherwise.

And of course, that’s its point. I initially had my own skewed, male take on her narrative and the shortcomings in Mary that it revealed, and I need to aspire to Brian Moore’s more generous sensitivity in taking a position here.

So let’s end with this: after an ‘unspoken argument’ with present husband, Terence, Mary reflects, with mounting despondency, that life is largely meaningless or lacks ‘purpose’:

Most women don’t even live lives of quiet desperation. (Quiet desperation is far too dramatic.) Most women live lives like doing the dishes, finishing one day’s dishes and facing the next until, one day, the rectal polyp is found or the heart stops and it’s over, they’ve gone. All that’s left of them is a name on a gravestone.

This is a brave, contentious and largely successful attempt by a highly gifted novelist to probe and delineate one woman’s struggle to locate and identify who and what she is in a world in which her identity is a commodity of little significance for most of the men she devotes her body and soul to. Unlike Thoreau, the source of that ‘Quiet desperation’ quotation, most women don’t have the luxury of being able to take themselves off to a cabin in the woods to find themselves.

The only other Brian Moore novel I’ve read and written about here is Black Robe, which could hardly be more different in style, theme and tone. I’d recommend both novels.

I Am Mary Dunne is also reviewed at John Self’s Asylum blog

And at the Lizzy Siddal blog

Both make powerful cases for Brian Moore to be considered a novelist of high importance. I agree.

 

 

 

Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited

In August 2015 I wrote about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and his enormous collection of reflections and thoughts, the Zibaldone. A critical study published yesterday by Peter Lang, Oxford, A System that Excludes all Systems: Giacomo di Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri, by Emanuela Cervato, has this summary on the publisher’s website:

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Zibaldone

My copy

My 2013 Penguin hardback copy, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino, was translated by a principal team of seven scholars, with additional material by others.

That 2015 post of mine suggested that Leopardi had influenced writers including Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett. It’s not a book for reading in sequence from page 1; it lends itself better to dipping in. Here’s an example of the sort of material such a strategy brings out.

I found I had highlighted this passage, on p. 183, entry numbered by the editors as 273:

The majority of people live according to habit, without pleasure or real hopes, without sufficient reason for continuing to live or doing what is necessary to stay alive. If they thought about it, apart from religion they would find no reason for living and, though unnatural, it would be rational to conclude that their life was absurd, because although having begun life is, according to nature, justification for continuing it, according to reason it is not.

Now this also sounds to me a bit (if you strip out that reference to religion, from which Leopardi was struggling to detach himself, it seems) like Camus.

This took me to the entry ‘life’ in the topic index. The quotation above is the first citation; this is the second, which also has a Camus/Sartre element:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to), can be reduced to these simple terms. Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering? …[he mulls these options over for several lines, then…] And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being. And that being is, precisely, harmful to man. And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation: I mean the calculation of utility (p. 1069, entry 2549)

Other entries in the index extend the term to ‘[Life] is not necessary’; ‘What is life?’; ‘Why are we born?’…’Life is an evil in itself’, and so on.

I’m not qualified to examine Leopardi’s philosophy with any rigour; I can only dabble like this and make facile connections and observations. The editors in their introduction explain that he lived at a time after the first generation of Romantics known in Italy as an age of ‘discontent, frustration, melancholy’; Leopardi was grappling with ‘the existential choice between life and death’ (p. xii).

He was born in the Papal States, in Recanati in the Marche. His provincial, ultra-conservative family gave him a strict Catholic education, and expected him to become a priest. His deep study of philology and  the classics and then of contemporary literature, however, lured him in a different direction.

Benjamin Arcades coverHe paved the way in his writing, it would appear then, for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the existentialists and post-structuralists. His Zibaldone, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, can be read as hypertext.

I need to look at the poetry, in which he also found release.

‘Rain and mist and darkness’: Patrick McGrath, Spider

Patrick McGrath, Spider Penguin 1992, first published 1990

Several of the books I’ve recently read deal with the traumatic impact on a child of the loss of their mother and the father’s cold, cruel behaviour, usually intensified by his replacing his wife with someone unsympathetic to that child.

That’s the case in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. Even in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the eponymous heroine’s story is precipitated by the death of her parents and her decision to leave the unloving, constraining sanctuary she’d temporarily found with her brother and his family.

McGrath, SpiderPatrick McGrath (born in London in 1950, long resident in Canada then the USA) deals in darker areas of the human psyche. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his eponymous first-person narrator, Dennis Cleg, bizarrely but appropriately nicknamed Spider, will react to his family drama in far more extreme, dangerous ways than the characters in the books I just mentioned.

It’s a painful experience, reading this novel. Spider slowly spins out his web of a story in  sections of flashback – to the childhood when his father abused and tormented both his wife and young son, and to a present when it gradually becomes apparent that the grown-up Spider is living in some kind of halfway house after release from a mental institution.

He has trouble with the time frames: past intrudes into the present, and it’s not always possible for the narrator to distinguish then from now, reality from fantasy. He hears voices and disturbing noises in the attic. He loves the ‘rain and mist and darkness’, the ‘wetness and darkness and skies like thick gray blankets’ of grimy London slum of his childhood. His voice often resorts to that list structure and repetition of such details to evoke an obsessive attention and reaction to his bleak, modern-gothic surroundings.

The adult Spider spends his solitary days walking, sitting by a canal smoking roll-ups and trying to avoid looking at the gas-holders. He has a thing about gas, for reasons only revealed near the end.

I found this troubling and unsettling to read, not always in a rewarding way. I know when he was a child McGrath’s father was medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital, treating criminally insane inmates, and that he himself worked in a Canadian top security unit in a mental health centre. He uses this first-hand experience to chilling effect in his writing.

It’s never possible to rely on this narrative’s veracity; Spider’s story becomes increasingly incoherent and contradictory as his disintegrating mind circles around the objects caught in his web of memories and fantasies. There’s a murder, but he refuses to accept that he committed it, even though it results in his being institutionalised for decades. As a drastic coping mechanism he learns to split his identity or personality, one representing his ‘good’ side, the other that’s been ‘poisoned’ and gone ‘bad’.

He has an unhealthy attitude to sexual matters, and takes prurient interest in his father’s tarty replacement for Spider’s much-loved mother. Here’s his reaction to one of his father’s more vicious outbursts against her:

“It’s my fault – you go to sleep, it’s all right, I’m fine now.” And she leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I felt the dampness of her tears on her face. Oh, I hated him then! Then I would have killed him, were it in my power – he had a squalid nature, that man, he was dead inside, stinking and rotten and dead.

McGrath excels at using language to reproduce the voice of a deranged, troubled person; here the fractured or disjointed syntax and pulsating rhythms and repetitions are deeply disturbed and disturbing. Spider struggles with extreme emotions or challenging events; then he becomes, as he puts it, ‘uncoupled’ – a term that’s richly suggestive.

I can’t say then that I enjoyed this novel. Its deeply disturbed, damaged narrator’s voice is insidious, like a nightmare that you can’t wake from.

If you’re interested you might like my thoughts on the two other McGrath novels I’ve posted about:

Asylum (1996), which is the best of the three, in my opinion: again it deals with a psychologically disturbed man in…well, an asylum, and the wildly dangerous affair with him that the institution’s medical director’s wife enters into.

Constance (2013) has a narrator less psychotic than these other two, but still emotionally and mentally unstable.

David Cronenberg, himself not averse to exploring the disturbed psyche, filmed Spider in 2002. David Mackenzie directed Asylum in 2005.

 

 

I am an ominous dream: Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening For Jupiter. QC Fiction, June 2017. Xavier’s sections translated from the French by Arielle Aaronson; Hollywood’s by Madeleine Stratford.

I enjoyed Quebec publisher QC Fiction’s The Brothers (reviewed here); Listening for Jupiter by Pierre-Luc Landry – out next month – is an engaging, highly original addition to their list. The blurb calls it ‘magical realism with a modern, existential twist’. That doesn’t do it justice: despite the elements of surrealism, it seems firmly rooted in some kinds of reality – several kinds simultaneously.

Landry, Listening for JupiterLike Patrick McGrath’s Constance (reviewed here last month)the novel consists of two main alternating first-person narratives: the first is that of a student with the unlikely name Hollywood, initially living in Montreal, where a weird meteorological phenomenon has brought ten months of unseasonable ‘everlasting summer’ weather, and ‘brutal’ sunshine (25 degrees Celsius ‘last February’ and ‘no ground frost in over a year’; forest fires rage in in Quebec). He’s not an assiduous student, and shows more interest in the beans he’s planted in the graveyard where he works part-time, and in the main passion of his life – music (there are frequent references to his favourites, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.)

The second is that of Xavier Adam, a pharmaceuticals salesman based in Toronto, but whose job – which he hates – takes him from London to Bilbao to New York. His passion is films. In his parallel universe, there’s the opposite kind of freak weather phenomenon: the western world is gripped in an ice age of ‘endless winter’ caused by ‘a depression of unheard dimensions’. A TV weather reporter says

it’s difficult to talk about this storm in rational, scientific terms.

The same could be said for this novel.

Xavier, like Hollywood, is in ‘a state of unhealthy melancholy’; he feels ‘alienated from the rest of the world’. His life lacks meaning, and takes place in anonymous hotel rooms and conference halls. His routine on entering these places is to disengage:

It’s a habit of mine, and whenever I’m in the mood for a little tragedy, I just switch off like that – somehow it seems to suit my lousy existence.

Death seems a welcome prospect; he flirts with it. ‘Nothing much gets me going other than food, booze and DVDs’, he tells his work partner. He uses bland TV shows like an anaesthetic:

to help me forget that there’s no great misfortune to blame, nothing to explain my beautifully blasé attitude.

Both men have difficulty sleeping, and rely on pills to nod off: both of them dream, and in their dreams they meet. The novel traces their separate, converging trajectories through their respective bleak, joyless worlds towards their destiny: a meeting in some zone that may or may not be located in any kind of reality.

Interspersed with their converging narrative arcs are Hollywood’s enigmatic free-verse ‘unauthorised’ poems (whatever that signifies); ‘I am an ominous dream’, one of them ends.

There are also Xavier’s anguished journal entries; typical examples:

Feeling alienated from the rest of the world. Also a need to examine the existence I keep doubting…

 

By day I skate circles. In every sense.

The only person he has to talk to about this angst is the ‘weird guy’ he meets in his dreams. They’re oneiric soulmates.

Hollywood has his own ontological doubts. These are exacerbated by his dismaying disclosure that he believes  he had his heart surgically removed and replaced with a ‘little machine’. As a consequence he suffers from frequent cramps and unsettling spasms of pain. At such times he’s inclined to ‘check [his] pulse or whatever.’ That characteristically flippant ‘whatever’ is symptomatic of Landry’s ability to make the abnormal – even downright surreal – seem quite acceptable.

During one such episode Hollywood loses his equilibrium:

It was as if nothing, in itself, truly existed: the objects around me, the things I was still doing, the music…It all looked and felt a certain way because of how my brain perceived it. If I ceased to exist, if I stopped breathing, what would become of it all?

The final narrative element consists of sections titled ‘After the sandman’, when some kind of omniscient voice reflects on their dream meetings, commenting enigmatically (if they disappear then meet again, who knows where or how, ‘what difference does it make?’) During these meetings, they question themselves whether they’re really dreaming, or are these moments reality, and the ‘real’ world is the fantasy? ‘I’ve stopped trying to understand,’ says Hollywood when their meetings culminate in Montauk, Long Island. The Montauk sections represent yet another possible dimension of reality.

Both of them mysteriously fall into comas for weeks on end. An Albanian woman goes into labour in the street, and Xavier gallantly takes her to hospital. He becomes obsessed with finding her again when she disappears. She plays an increasingly important role (a catalyst of sorts, or a chorus; it’s notable that she’s an actor/dancer) as the novel moves inexorably towards its breathtaking denouement (in which nothing is really untangled; the threads are just rearranged impeccably).

Unifying motifs are that a TV documentary about Jupiter recurs, and shooting stars are frequently falling from the sky (one of several echoes of Camus). Some shatter on entering earth’s atmosphere and smash windows (and buildings) near to our characters. Jupiter and its moons loom larger for both of them as their quests converge. They listen for the planet’s radio waves. They scan the skies.

It’s an intriguing novel about the biggest of topics – the nature of truth and existence, the conditions for real human connection – which Landry orchestrates with ingenuity and dry wit into an offbeat kind of cosmic road-movie. I was about to say ‘dystopian’, but the ending precludes such an interpretation, despite the huge death-toll caused by the savage weather.

Listening for Jupiter has the spare prose of a ‘dirty realist’ like Carver, while the two central characters exude the restless, cool existential ennui of a character from Kerouac, had that other Canadian been able in a parallel world to read Murakami – there’s the same epistemological uncertainty.

Advance reading copy supplied by the publisher.

Volvelles revisited

Volvelle of sun and moon positions

‘Volvella’ of the moon, with moveable device for calculating the position of the sun and moon in the zodiac.
By Gutun Owain – National Library of Wales, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44768586

Back in July 2014 I posted about volvelles (LINK HERE)- manuscripts, and later printed books – which incorporated designs or texts over which moving dials or pointers were fixed, enabling the user to calculate or combine pieces of information in the text, for example for computing astronomical or astrological charts. Ramon Lull is usually credited with inventing this ‘ars combinatoria’.

My post went on to consider other kinds of combinatorial text, from Swift’s Lagado machine in Gulliver’s Travels, to Borges. I also linked to related posts about, among others, Calvino, OuLiPo, Permutational Poetry, and so on.

I’ve just come across a post from the iris website – the Art and Archives blog of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles – by Rheagan Martin: ‘Decoding the Medieval Volvelle’, dated 23 July 2015.  This post, like mine, gives historical context to the phenomenon of volvelles, and includes some lovely images, with links to the exhibition which ran that year, and to zoomable illustrations from books that were in it. I recommend you take a look at it – and, I hope, back at my original volvelles piece.

 

A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE

Seduce her for me: Ana’s fate sealed in ‘La Regenta’

Alas, La Regenta – final post

Ana’s plight has often been likened to Mme Bovary’s. It’s not hard to find striking similarities; here she remembers feeling angrily frustrated by her incarceration as a child by her carers:

‘What a stupid life!’ thought Ana…she believed that she had sacrificed herself to self-imposed duties…’The monotony and dullness of this existence…this sacrifice, this struggle, is greater than any adventure in the world.’…It was as if there were thistles in her soul. [p. 71, ch. 3]

The part inside quotation marks exemplifies Alas’ technique of ‘estilo latente’ or free indirect style; not exactly Ana’s thoughts, but very close.

Immediately after these rebellious, troubled thoughts she visualises her tempter, Alvaro Mesía, ‘the President of the Gentlemen’s Club, wrapped in a high-collared scarlet cape, singing under Rosina’s balcony’. Clothes and accessories play a major symbolic role in the novel; here it’s the romantic garb of the hero as player in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then ‘in a close-fitting white top-coat, greeting her as King Amadeus used to greet people’. Fermín, Mesía’s rival for Ana’s affections, is always described as clothed in his clerical ‘mozetta’ and ‘rochet’ or long soutane – but he longs to stride out in secular trousers like…a real man, not an asexual priest.

Such erotic fantasies vie in Ana’s mind with conflicting mystical-religious images and thoughts. She’s also dreaming here of having a baby – which will not be provided by Víctor, her husband, the ex-judge, as they have no sexual relations. She’ll need someone virile like Mesía (or Fermín, the canon theologian, secretly in love with her – and whom she sees – mostly – as a spiritual father, not potential lover) to provide her with a child. But she also longs for sex in its own right: this scene is erotically charged with descriptions of her semi-naked state in bed:

…her form, of a modern Venus, provocative and voluptuous, was both revealed and exaggerated by the coloured blanket of fine-spun wool, drawn close about her. [p. 70]

 As her spirits flag, Ana feels ‘the aridity and tension which were tormenting her’ turn into ‘disconsolate grief’. She stops feeling ‘wicked’ and returns to thoughts of sacrifice and sublimity. Mesía’s alluring, romantic image fades and is replaced by that of her elderly, foolish husband, pictured in her imagination as the antithesis of the dashing, handsome Mesía, signified again by apparel and appearance:

a tartan dressing-gown, a green smoking-cap of velvet with gold braid and a tassel, a white moustache and a white goatee, two bushy grizzled eyebrows…[pp. 71-72]

 This ‘respectable and familiar figure’ was ‘the burthen of her sacrifice’; he clearly doesn’t stand a chance against Mesía’s campaign to storm Ana’s sexual defences – especially as he goes on to make Mesía his bosom buddy, encourages him to entertain his wife.

Víctor’s ill-judged patronage of his rival reaches a climax in ch. 26 when Ana, recalling a woman she’d seen in Saragossa ‘dressed as a penitent, walking barefoot’ behind the image of ‘the dead Christ’ in a Holy Week procession, emulates this act of ‘spiritual fidelity’, dressed ‘in purple’, a ‘spectacle’ which she knows will scandalise the narrow-minded Vetustans. Would it be ‘brazen’, she wonders, or the act of a ‘bluestocking George Sand’ – yet another dramatic metafictional image.

Obdulia, whose overt sensuality truly is brazen, looks on ‘pale with emotion and dying of envy.’ This was, she thinks, characteristically, ‘the perfect ideal of coquetry.’ Her appearance once again reveals her character:

Her own naked shoulders, her ivory arms acting as a background for clinging embroidered lace, her back with its vertiginous curves, her bosom, high and strong, exuberant and tempting, had never attracted in this way or in anything like this way the attention and admiration of an entire town, however much she displayed them in ballrooms, theatres, promenades – and processions. [p. 590]

Ana’s ‘two bare feet’ cause more of an erotic sensation in the town than all of Obdulia’s flaunted flesh. She knows she can’t match this ‘cachet’, possessed by ‘admiring envy’ and a kind of ‘crazy, brutal lust’ – in a charge of eroticism she felt ‘a vague desire – to – to – to be a man’. Ana’s sexual appeal transcends gender. And her naked feet ‘were the nakedness of her whole body and soul’ – a kind of sexual synecdoche.

This scene fills several astonishing pages. Mesía, when the statue of the Virgin passes him,  is afraid: that image of ‘infinite pain’ contrasts tellingly with his own thoughts, ‘all profanation and lust’: even he is frightened. He realises Ana is performing a great ‘act of madness’ for Fermín, his currently triumphant spiritual rival, dressed in his habitual ‘rochet, a mote and a cope’, but ‘was going to perform other greater ones for her lover, for Mesía.’

Fermín experiences a similar epiphany to Mesía’s: ‘what little of the clergyman he had left in his soul was disappearing…He was the shell of a priest.’

Here’s the climax of the scene:

‘She’s looking most extraordinarily beautiful!’ the ladies in the balconies of the court-house were saying.

‘Extraordinarily beautiful!’

‘It takes some courage, though.’

‘But then she’s a regular saint.’

‘I think she’s dying the death,’ said Obdulia…She looks like plaster.’

‘I think she’s dying of shame,’ said Visita…

‘Going barefoot was an atrocious thing to do. She’ll be a week in bed with her feet torn to tatters’ [said Doña Rufina].

We see the whole spectrum of town also voicing or showing their cynical, lascivious responses to Ana’s egregious display, until:

The religious masses admired the lady’s humility, without any objections or reservations. ‘That really was what you’d call imitating Christ. Walking along, just like any ordinary person…going barefoot all around the town! She was a saint!’

 The working classes of Vetusta bewilder and appal the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of the city, and serve, as here, with their vulgar but honest vitality and comparative integrity, to show up the hypocrisy of their social betters.

Víctor, Ana’s husband, is horrified by her gesture, and says to Mesía, not knowing about his supposed friend’s intended treachery:

‘Sooner than this, I would prefer to see her in the arms of a lover! Yes, a thousand times yes,’ he continued, ‘find me a lover for her, seduce her for me, anything rather than seeing her in the arms of fanaticism!’…’You can count upon my firm friendship, Don Víctor – a friend in need…[says Mesía, p. 597]

This is one of the most remarkable set pieces in the novel. From this point Ana’s fate is sealed, Víctor’s cuckolding unwittingly given his own blessing, and Mesía can’t believe his luck. By prostrating herself symbolically before the town in an act of fanatical religiosity, Ana has inadvertently confirmed the gossip and opinion, as far as the upper classes are cynically concerned, that she is just as sexually available as the rest of their scheming womenfolk.

Her attempt to find religion and resist venality, as Tom has shown in his posts at Wuthering Expectations blog, is doomed in this toxic city.