Aug 152017
 

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Love Letter from the Anthropocene

In my mind a waterfall. A coldness of water, dark cola currents in circular swirls. Rapids in miniature. I thought of some murky oil painting in the back of a gallery, this cove in the depths of the woods. In the shadows staring, shedding myself of people who parted like phantoms around me. This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep.

Was this a pre-experience of drowning? Did it happen in a dream? I recall the Secret Forest, exploring every nook and cranny of stone engraved, of foreign trees and mysterious huts. Gnarled wood and nonsensical drawings. I could hear birds whose origin was beyond me. A mint-coloured cascade made visible by the gaps in the emerald canopy, these mottled disco lights of gold and green. Years later I would be alone, then with a lover; splinters in my fingers, leaves in my hair, skin pressed close to the soil. I felt like the mystery crickets, my little croaks buried in needles and the mulch of insects, peat. Six dark streaks to my cheeks. I was wild.

I used to dream of drowning in dark and two-dimensional waters, the kind you find on ancient video games. I would be slipping, falling like Alice through perilous pixellated water; nothing buoying me up, strength fading, lungs choking as they filled with this water. It hurt so bad it was a sort of burning. I’d wake up, suffocating on my pillow, unable to breathe for a good five minutes. It was terrifying; the sensation scored in my skin so I’d never forget the shot of panic, adrenaline. Terrifying, but a necessary encounter with elemental intimacy. In such moments I’d forget myself, fully and nearly.

No floundering involved; instead an essential plunge. The rush of imaginary air. I’d invented a zone, a kind of sublime. Always quite out of reach, always there beyond some brink. Soon I was drawn to any trajectory. My life splintered its lines of desire; I was always trellising a net of crushes and loves and plans and regrets. The sight of a robin in the snow by the ice-crusted Kelvin would kill me, move me to tears. I let the flesh fall off, felt myself fragile and clear and hard. I soon realised that I was an alien being, not really human, hardly animal. There were the transcendentalists, their promises of freedom and spirit. There were matching green bruises on each of my hipbones, the soft impress of moss on my feet. I let all my wounds slip away, a form of abscission.

Where were these flat, transparent waters? Where was the tug of pondweed, the evil fishes with their Coleridgean flash and sparkle? I had nothing to empathise with. I could not whistle to the trees, could not whistle the way they did to me. I was ill-equipped for Aeolian thoughts. I had to crack open the fissures of my mind, fill them with eerie powders and aculeate drugs which tingled the skin for hours. I swooned to the window to watch the golden streams of light, the way they caught on the leaves of the summer limes, this glimmer I could only in the moment call mystical. This was temporary suspension, the end of depression’s snaring loop. I unravelled my net, felt each feeling take shape in the air around me. There were new zones. Clutching a cup of coffee, I felt the weight of tangible ceramic, the ooze of surly stuff I could not trace. Again, that gaping sensation of origins lost. I wanted to know everything about this coffee, its transit from deep in the soil, across oceans, lulling in lorries and jarred in factories. How it would groan like an old jazz singer when stirred in boiling water. You do not do, you do not do. The hot rush of caffeine made my veins jolt close to my skin. Through the solarised surface, the blue lines wove their fluvial currents and again I thought of electric space, the nuanced beauty of his distant face. Eyes of moss-green, the shadowy canopies. I was aflame in frozen bronze, clung to a friend’s sofa; life-raft upon a rising ocean. Soon the funereal cataracts would swamp this city. Spill over as easy as New York underwater. He brought me garlands of roses, which soon furled at the edges, browned and rotted to a pungent decay. I didn’t mind dying; it was the condition for existence. The petals fell upon the carpet, I swept them up and felt each one bloom into orbs of light. It made me shaky, like violins shredding their trembling key of sharp; great gashes of sound filling the room with their dissonant, abstract emotion. I longed for it all to end that dramatic, for the shivering minims to draw out each breath with irony alone.

Only the petrified stone retained its sincerity. The burst bits of sorrow and quartz lay all around me, a thousand refractions of my poisoned aura. Again I saw the oil painting; glimpsed its dark torrent of petroleum, the flickers of sheep. When I stared too long, the flat black sky began to fluoresce with unguent neon colours, this arsenic rich red that blossomed into coruscating orange, yellow, coral. The chemical soda of panic; I drank it in, felt in my chest its urgent fizz. Overlaid was the image of the Lake Project, David Maisel’s poetic mastery, this jagged array of shuddering lines, planes of nasty vermillion. I thought of hardened lava, bicarbonate dreams, the catalysing forms of inevitable pollution. From a bedroom window I drank Coca Cola. The forest was ready, warm in my thought, the breeze so crisp on my dehydrated face. It was burnt up in flames another day, the phosphorylase taste of sticky glucose, dissolving sugar. A new arrangement of needles, the amethyst bruise planted on my neck. Gluttony.

On the image, there was no place to rest the eye. Every capillary was always shifting. A constant dissolution of perspective, parallax melting to absolute flatness. I thought of the time I asked what an A road meant, and the boy said arterial. As if the world was a great bodily network, the flow of currents and traffic with every cell of life just some minimal part in the clotting transience of meshing blood. Such a thing was what, a Latourian plasma? A spilled can of molasses, darkling its presence on the concrete, treacle-thick and of godly opulence. I studied the lines with glyptographic precision, looking for the cracks underneath. These are the times I have loved you, loved you as I have loved the steam from a kettle, the way smoke gets in your eyes or smoulders the crack of your mouth. How your hair is a freshness of curls and gold; makes me think of the colour of harvest, the ardent ache of late summer, sunburn, long afternoons. Every pore of this skin is a window; I let the bacteria sink in and together we share a form, a body. We are a strangeness of strangers. I wrote a litany and called it coexisting. There is always more of what I would be with you.

Sometimes, the arabesques of knotted wood. The die-back that kills the ashes. The writing that stings me. The eagles that tumble from the sky, shot down by showers of poaching bullets. The eternal time of the stone before it is ground to dust, smoothed to glass or marble. All rendering machinery merely an extension of the eye’s aesthetic violence. I see before me all transformations, all subtle undulations of everything in its right place, pulled out from the roots of primal being. These shadow forms, these chasms. All claustrophobia. The world is too much with us. I lay down my words in favour of a strong cobalt promise of ocean. Dash my crayola on the blank white surface, wait for the waves to take shape, to suck in and swallow me. There is no world as such. A lonesome note pulls its magnetic sadness from across the bay, cry of the faraway island; it knows me, salt-studded, glazed in the air, sweet and easy as falling octaves. The tang on my tongue that reminds me of you. When the sea comes, when the windmills collapse, the sky blackens and there’s nothing we can do, I’ll remember you. The helices of me, these planted cells and their algorithmic beauty, remnant of bone and blood in the starving soil; all will be love in the warming waters, the subduing horror, the coming of nothingness. Mutated creatures, muted symphonies. I ask that you join me in melting, just for a second while the air is still, some clarity around us. All we have is the sounding of our lips, the whistling trees, the sullen transmissions of a faltering breeze.

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Lime Tree

At the corner of some imaginary meadow, a lime tree. You had no idea for years what to call this tree, you only knew how green it was, how well-formed the leaves against the cool cobalt of a summer sky. How precious these things are to you now, far away where everything is always static, a vague and pressing grey. The tree sheds its honeydew and the aphids clamber for a taste of the limes; I have scratched that pitch with my fingers and placed its resin on my tongue. A taste of nature, extra-natural, too sweet and weird as if tasting chlorophyll itself, some abstracted process of photosynthesis taking place in the mouth. If the world has ended, I try to get closer to its remaining parts. These leaves are shaped like hearts. I once had a heart-shaped necklace, studded inside with the blackest sapphire. It’s a sin to forget who gifted this necklace; but I was only a child then, loose in my memories, vulnerable.

There’s a song called ‘Lime Tree’ on a favourite record and the singer says the string arrangements make him nauseous. This is a commentary on beauty, on how beauty marks the wonderful perception of an object’s weakness. When I see that minuscule split in the stem of a leaf, the thumbnail cleaving chain of daisies, I am overcome momentarily by a thing’s thingness, its originary mark of uniqueness. This whole secret life, this hidden agony. A heart-shaped stud of sapphire. In the mud there are all these tiny peridot aphids, glistening like something unknown beneath a microscope. I look forward to the taffyish pull of waning cirrus, the sky moving westwards in tandem with sun. It’s beautiful to not know how the atmosphere works, but instead to observe with that naivety of spirit, the hurt perception that longs for its heart-shaped necklace, its heart-shaped leaf. Place one on the tongue like a tab of acid. Again that taste, nature with added nature. You can taste too much of the natural. The chemical, the actual synthesis of light that is perhaps organic. Tiny nut fruits fall in October, pea-sized and gleaming in the old gold sun. Obsessed with the smell of the nectar, I return to the meadow, year after year. Children may spend their lives lying in fields, waiting for something to happen. I was content in the long shoots of aureate wheat, the true blue sky. I made promises to myself I could never keep.

Lime flowers cure headaches. I break them up in my tea and long for respite from insomnia. You had no idea for years what to call this tree. You named it a miracle tree; that was then and this is me. The wood is especially yielding. Somebody has sculpted great things from its pliant bark, its soft and workable material beauty. The elegant formations of time literally scar in the carved wood, making etchings and notches; each year a wound. Love’s young dream among the lindens. I feel more empathy with the tree than with anything. There are creases around my eyes, creases around yours too. Each one a scar of something dark and true, this honest mark, remark of the soul; elastic abrasions which ripple, sea-like, their former traumas. We make them new. Each expression brings life to the dark parts, the tears and rips and folds. In the forest, the leaves shiver shrill as a choir of children. I heard that line from elsewhere, a song or a whistle from a cup of coffee. Drink me, drink me. The leaves seem to sing. Time seems to sing; I can feel it, hear it shimmer in the sweet parts of the blood which rise in silence, subside in bright and flowery noise.

Underneath the autumn limes, a whole pastoral display of molten coppers and golds, we sip from miniature cups on tables built for urban grace. Somebody in the distance plays the flute, so intricate and soothing these tunes so old, so new. I have forgotten the origin. Almost the refrain from a video-game, imaginary landscapes materialise from somewhere inside my recessive mind.

Sweet-smelling trees that bear no citrus. Native, strangely ridged, slender of twig. Already craving the dull yellows, the fresh fade of autumnal cycle. These trees, hybridised, bred for flourishing in dirty cities. Little vapourers scavenge, triangular moths cling to sunspots. There’s such a lushness of syrup and pollenating dreams, I could lie in the bow of this lime tree like someone before me, merge my identity with a strange freedom, this crooked figure turning liquid, fading in the hum of the bees, the ornamental quality not quite what it seems. Sense of flourishing, slowly floating; the life-giving gold of arborescence.

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Isthmus

There is an idea of an island. Sometimes purely retinal, the glory of excess gold. It is birthed from the flickers, pieces between consciousness when dreams make use of the temporary coves, holes which give in the mind for need of will. For a while, obsessed with the sore points in a honeycomb, cox in the blood that blocked all manner of aspirin, felt a cool white sky of powder, the outwards dissolve. There is now an island. Maybe archipelago even. The one and the several. Songs about auras, auroras.

We summon boats from out of the blue. There’s a pureness to our sun-bronzed bodies, plucked ripe from the ether as if never as free as now. This perpetual experience of floating. On the topic of jewels, she was a sweet one, always lusting for easy agates and sometimes the dream blue larimar. You traced either bubbles or lines, endless trajectories of the inward, arterial. A secret vault for the excess passion, her hoarded meaning. Teardrops of dolphins, hardened remnant of basaltic lava. The certain pendant of the still-moving earth, simple inclusion of ebbs and flows.

The collected anemones. Her velvet case. The cool tide in the cool blue. She lived here a hundred years and didn’t age one bit. Not even the sun could. I was always pursuing that anamnesis of the mind and skin, feeling again the heart-shaped cliff. I have questioned the island, receding before all westerly gossamer of waves. Glimmers across another bay, the potential invisibles. Ships and buoys. Remember we came here as children, hopped on a boat and we were so sure of where we were going. It was a case of following lights. Right across the bay, a blueness distinct from the bottle-green sea. It was so soothing, so easy.

There is an idea of an island. I mark it in writing, make of its rock and grit a topic.

Sometimes the tide sweeps over me.

—Maria Sledmere

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Maria Sledmere is an MLitt Modernities student at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of two Glasgow-based poetry zines, SPAM and Gilded Dirt. Her work has been published in Bombus Press, DATABLEED, Fluland, Foxglove Journal, Germ Magazine, GUM, The Kelvin Review, Murmur House, Quotidian, and Thistle Magazine. When not lost in the gelatinous mulch of a dissertation on dark ecology, she contributes features and music reviews to RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and blogs regularly on everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.

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Aug 152017
 

Grant Maierhofer

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I walked through the city limits
(Someone talked me in to do it)
Attracted by some force within it
(Had to close my eyes to get close to it)

xxxxxxxxxxxx“Interzone” – Joy Division

Whether factually or not, I’d trace the severe, consequent moments throughout my life to stretches of movement. I pace. I walk. When writing my first novel, I’d finish some mornings at four and walk outside in my father’s neighborhood in underwear and lie down on the street at the intersection. Nobody came, I wasn’t worried. I’ve convinced myself somewhere over time that all we do is bound up in all that’s done: i.e., you pore over documents researching projects, say, and feel it’s this that leads to good days of work done. What about the menial tasks? The mailbox walks. The family calls. The television watched. The food prepared and not; eaten, not. We pay attention to apparently massive events of import and neglect the steps it takes from where you sit to the place wherein your bladder can be let. I do this, in turn. I care little while the small moments are happening and even belittle them to my detriment, often feeling I’ve done nothing all day when to recount them would require sincere attention. I think of walking in these terms. I thought of it as necessary toward a particular kind of relief nothing else brought. It wasn’t constant, I didn’t walk great lengths daily but when I made time for it something else seemed to happen.

Walking for me changed when architecture changed, cities or long rural stretches suddenly took on meaning, became signs of something, warped. In Jarett Kobek’s novel of the 9/11 attacks, ATTA, his iteration of Mohammed, Atta, wanders cities hearing voices in their materials. I hadn’t known this prior to reading but Atta was a student of architecture, had written a dissertation in fact regarding the imperialist dominion of metropolitan architecture over the Middle East. The heft of these sentiments is largely unimportant to my purposes here, but I often wonder about the post-9/11 psyche and its relationship to architecture. Like the possibility of burned, sacked, destroyed works of art—either by the hands of their creators or fascists or mere accident—I wonder if anticipation of destruction alters our sense of the landscape in ways it simply couldn’t prior to the explosive power of our present. To be sure, it isn’t only terrorists who alter our cities, our landscapes. I grew up in a town in apparent constant search for redefinition amid advancing norms. Restaurants in husks of old diners, college campuses redone in glass opposed to brick, these are familiar shifts to anyone alive today. Although his final acts warp any logic one might glean from either the real or fictional Atta, this notion of an intensely personal, intimate, physiological relationship to one’s comparably inanimate surroundings would seem a thing not duly mined, considering its likeness to questions of AI, the Singularity, or our soured relationship to ecology.

***

In Tsai Ming Liang’s brilliant short film, Walker, perhaps the polar opposite to Kobek’s citydweller can be found. What happens: a bald monk walks slowly, almost frustratingly so, through the city. He holds a bag and by film’s end removes—slowly—a burger from the bag, taking slow, meditative bites. It’s my understanding that this sort of movement is occasionally a form of actual meditation. This makes sense to me. Turning inward and simply sitting there is often trying, but doing this while focusing in minute detail on every movement made, taking deliberate steps, asserting the body’s form against the horror of the world, this makes perfect sense.

I’ve always viewed walking as a literary matter, an artful matter, long before discovering figures like Iain Sinclair, or Guy Debord, or Baudelaire and conceptions of the flaneur. Walking has always proven therapeutic, whether doing so aggressively late at night and letting the apparent danger of the world present itself, or doing it mildly one afternoon after being inside for too long, the act of walking has simultaneously transcended a basic corporeal state, and asserted one.

***

Rogers Park is a neighborhood in north Chicago. Where I lived you’d exit the El and through a smear of shops and bodies have encountered a wonderful nodding of demographics. I lived in an apartment on my own with one room surrounded by large family apartments always hubbubing and boiling these complicated wafts. I never came to know them of minor nods and kept to myself that year from this perpetual tendency I have of eating or not the wrong medicine, worldview, or daily set of acts that led through all their variation to the same gutless solitude, a bitter living spoken aloud to myself and only made to wane through incredible heaps of television and the few far-between obsessions with the arts.

Leaving my apartment after turning right once you’d find entry to a beach. This beach is on Lake Michigan and I typically walked along it late at night. At my entry, a jut of large rocks allowed for a sort of pier whereon you could easily fall into water were you careless. I was often careless and ill-dressed for whatever occasion it was but I never fell in. I’d walk out, say, mildly winded from the trek from studio there, and sit on some rock’s jagged seat to watch the sky and water. This area isn’t exactly dangerous regarding crime but all the same one would do well to focus on matters and turn any potential needs—directions, whatever—inward. For myself these were paranoiac times. I’d come upon a unipolar depression summer previous after meddling with my skull since a youth and being poked at by various abbreviated meds. Then I took a heap of medicine each day and returned to Chicago bright-eyed. Then I threw my medicine into the toilet and sat in the bath without good light and read at pages of Jim Thompson or Céline until dropping the former into the tub to watch it waterlog, and leaving apartment night on night with latter gripped to ward off the world’s moods and chisel numb idiot notes upon my head.

***

So this beach was particular, dirtied, humming and full of death. I’d wear what clothes were there and sit on wet sand spreading my arms out beside me making bellows.

An aside: on arriving second year in the city of H.H. Holmes I wound up broke downtown without means to ride the L back up to Rogers Park. It being midday and having eaten—I, bodily, have diabetes mellitus and thus would note these things at moments—I decided to walk home. This walk took me eight hours and for the last two I dug in the garbage bins lining the lake for sips at discarded Powerades as my blood sugar had made its plummet.

***

Endless hubbub has, can be made of the opening to Wim Wenders’s masterpiece, Paris, Texas. I first saw this film when living in Chicago. I watched it and, some point after Harry Dean Stanton’s miserado “Travis” made his long walk through the desert valley, I said to myself “this is my favorite film.” What happens in its opening, as noted: a man in a tattered suit and red baseball cap walks. He’s returning, it seems, as he’s so disheveled, and carries a two gallon jug with remnants of dirty water. Simple, droney guitar emanates, and his walk continues. I know of nothing like it in cinema, not to mention films taking place in America, and I can’t watch it without feeling buried in some abstract sense.

Just as often as walking shaped my days and hours were spent focused on the few feet of ground just next, I’d create arbitrary treks to add small blips of meaning to otherwise empty, useless days. This was at a time when I’d begun work on my second novel. I’d turned 21 and lived alone. I’d read Frederick Exley’s trilogy and Céline’s Journey and thus when I’d come home from school or movies or walks, I’d etch away at staccato bits of narrative I then called Shadows to the Light. I’d wake and have coffee and work, then walk for X amount of time. I’d return with ideas or scribbled notes and work until I couldn’t, then leave and scale the aisles of an all-night grocery not wanting to go home just yet.

***

Long walks then along the beach and through the park as long successful coffee’d stints of work. Short, staccato blips I’d map out imagined lines from block to block nearby so as to stave off this constant note of failure.

Exley walked, if memory serves, after a hospitalization; he’d sat on his mother’s couch with dog to watch television for months. Eventually, and abruptly, he took to foot and spent his days walking until he couldn’t breathe or take it. I admired this and understood. All my life I’ve tended to saturate my head in often rotten media: literature sure and film but also hours upon hours of television. I’d do this then and came to realize that movement, physical movement, could right the muck. Perhaps it’s never entirely right but it at least put the muck to work in interesting ways. I’d walk say after reading Jim Thompson in the tub or watching police procedurals and edges of paranoia scattered my thinking.

There is, then, at best, a kind of art ingested through covering the city, letting the city cover you. My body would be anxious, slow of step and in my head I’m frantic. In retrospect it becomes simple to toss figures at it. Remember the monk, remember Baudelaire, remember Rebecca Solnit and the foundation here, walking as transmutative, walking as compelling, fundamentally human, Iain Sinclair covering the M5 and allowing himself to become swathed in the narrative where he stepped. I’d aspire to it, and perpetually fail. I remember Molloy and steps taken into the unknown and bodies affected by their environment until all that’s left is a withering tramp, a citizen without shoes sucking on stones and keeping time this way. Once I felt chased through the park. I listened to music. I turned Beethoven loud in my ears and covered ground where nobody would follow. Followed still, I turned and faced the person. I screamed at them and wandered off. I was losing myself. An older man saw me later and spoke with me. He flattered me. He flirted with me, he told me all would be O.K. and the person likely just wanted to speak to me. I imagined a life with that old man. I wanted to hug him, to kiss him and feel his history pass through me. I stood there with him and eventually he did hold me. I do not know how I looked. A confused person, thinned by anxiety and in search of something. I sometimes met older men that way, though typically it never went beyond conversation, always in transit. He was sweet, however. He sort of held me in his words. That night I returned to my apartment and received a strange message. I didn’t know where it came from and it showed a male stood up in his kitchen, a kitchen. I didn’t respond but it didn’t make sense. I was losing it. I’d continue my frantic pacing contacting strangers online and speaking with them on the phone, always older men and women and always touched with some bit of the anxiety of lust. The problem of walking is imagining your lives in every step, what might’ve been. The problem of reflecting is you’re brought back, wherever you’ve been, to feel the heap of potential history wash over you. I walked, then, to put myself at the feet of living and submit to human beings, to open myself and fail to welcome entirely the lonely glints returned in eyes as I went past.

—Grant Maierhofer

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Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.

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Aug 132017
 

Doris Lessing writingDoris Lessing

 

“I think Miller was an early essay and Lessing a much later one, by which point I had grown quite practiced at entering imaginatively into an author’s life (and was probably overconfident about it!). I really loved writing these essays because every writer I chose, once you got down to it, was a hapless flake, making the most terrific mess of their life and yet stalwartly, patiently, relentlessly processing every error, every crisis and turning them all into incredible art. How could you not love these people and their priceless integrity? I felt like I had found my tribe. Didn’t matter in the least that they were pretty much all dead. There was just that precious quality – vital, creative attentiveness to everything wrong – that I cherished.”

 

1942 in the land that used to be Rhodesia. A 24-year-old mother spreads a picnic blanket out on a lawn beneath the delicate leaves of a cedrillatoona tree. On the blanket she sits her two children: John, a lively three-year-old and Jean, a sweet-tempered baby. They watch their mother with steady interest.

She explains that she is going to have to abandon them.

She wants them to know this is a carefully considered choice. She tells them ‘that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful, perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth.’

Her comrades in the Rhodesian branch of the Communist party have been encouraging her for several months now to break away from her family. For the first time in her life, the young woman feels solidarity in her aims and her principles; the group has given her both strength and freedom to take this extraordinary step. But it is not really – or at least not wholly – politics that has provoked it.

‘Much more, and more important: I carried, like a defective gene, a kind of doom of fatality, which would trap [the children] as it had me, if I stayed. Leaving, I would break some ancient chain of repetition. One day they would thank me for it.’

The children, she believes, are the only ones who ‘really understood me’, unlike her husband, who is bewildered and shocked by her decision, and her mother, ever a stern critic and now in possession of a righteous rage. ‘Perhaps it is not possible to abandon one’s children without moral and mental contortions,’ the young mother would later write. ‘But I was not exactly abandoning mine to an early death. Our house was full of concerned and loving people, and the children would be admirably looked after – much better than by me.’ In her own mind, her act was one of desperate self-rescue. ‘I would not have survived. A nervous breakdown would have been the least of it… I would have become an alcoholic, I am pretty sure. I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was part of, for years.’

The young woman went on to become Doris Lessing, author of 27 novels, seventeen short story collections, numerous non-fiction works, and winner of the Nobel prize for literature. But when she left her children she had scarcely begun to write. She was Doris Wisdom, a bored and miserable housewife, irritated by her husband, ambivalent towards her babies, and terrified of repeating the strains and traumas of her parents’ marriage. All she had was her literary ambition and a hatred for the inequalities of the country she grew up in, which was almost as fierce as her love of the land.

From these disparate ingredients she would produce a first novel of raw, corruscating power, a novel that would take London by storm when she arrived with the manuscript in her suitcase, and inform a colonising power of the desperate abuses that took place on either side of the colour bar.

But before she left Rhodesia, she was going to make the same mistakes of marriage and motherhood all over again.

Doris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in LiteratureDoris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature

***

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to the dispirited aftermath of the First World War. Her parents met in the Royal Free Hospital in East London. Doris’s mother was Sister Emily MacVeigh, the clever but unhappy daughter of a disciplinarian father. Doris’s father, Alfred Tayler, had lost a leg, his optimistic resilience and half his mind in the trenches. While Emily nursed him, the doctor she intended to marry went down with his ship. Neither could have the life they wanted, and so they determined to make do with the shared burden of their disappointments. Alfred married in order to make restitution to the woman who had saved his life and his sanity, whom he knew wanted children. Emily did indeed want children, but marriage meant she had to refuse the offer of a matronship at St George’s, a famous teaching hospital, which would have been a fine post for a woman in her era. She did not do so without inner turmoil. And then, depressed and shell-shocked still, Alfred Tayler was insulted to the core when handed the white feather of cowardice by a group of women in the street who could not see the wooden leg under his trousers. Unable to tolerate his feeling that his own country had betrayed him, he took a post in a bank in Persia.

Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeighLessing’s parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeigh

Doris Lessing believed that her mother was as depressed as her father, conflicted over the choices she had made, the sudden emigration, and the weariness of having worked so hard in the war. As a couple they had been advised not to have children too soon, but Emily was already thirty-five and may not have wanted to wait. They joked that she fell pregnant on their wedding night. In Persia, after a difficult forceps birth, she was handed not the son they wanted, but a daughter for whom they didn’t even have a name. The doctor suggested Doris. ‘Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me?’ Lessing would later write in her memoirs. ‘I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important.’

The early years in Persia were, in fact, to be some of the happiest her parents would know. On arrival, it was as if they sloughed off old identities, her mother taking on her middle name ‘Maude’ and renaming her father ‘Michael’, which she felt sounded classier. Maude loved the rounds of colonial parties with the ‘right sort’ of people, her husband was content at the bank, and another baby arrived, the much hoped-for son. Doris Lessing’s earliest memories were of slouching against her father’s wooden leg in social gatherings, hearing herself relentlessly discussed by her mother: how difficult and naughty she was, how she made her mother’s life a misery. Her baby brother, by contrast, was perfect. To the cross, elderly nursemaid who ruled the children’s lives, Maude would say ‘Bébé is my child, madame. Doris is not my child. Doris is your child. But Bébé is mine.’ It was a psychologically unsophisticated age, in which childcare was dominated by the strictures of Truby King, who advocated strict discipline in the nursery. Lessing never forgot her mother’s gleefully recounted tales of how she had nearly starved her daughter on a rigid three-hour feeding regime that failed to take into account the thinness of Persian milk. Doris and her brother were potty trained from birth, held over the pot for hours each day. ‘You were clean by the time you were a month old!’ Lessing remembers her mother saying, though she did not believe it. Nor did she believe her mother’s romantic expressions of love as the basis of her mothering. ‘The trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience of love. What I remember is hard, bundling hands, impatient arms and her voice telling me over and over again that she had not wanted a girl’. Doris’s birth had been inauspicious, and now her upbringing was proving catastrophic. ‘The fact was, my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years,’ she wrote. ‘I think that some psychological pressures, and even well-meant ones, are as damaging as physical hurt.’

In 1924 their time in Persia ended, but after a few months in an England that felt as depressing as ever to the Taylers, Michael went to the Empire Exhibition and was seduced by the thought of farming in Southern Rhodesia. With ill-prepared impulsiveness they sailed to Cape Town (though they both had all their teeth removed on the unsound advice that there were no dentists in Rhodesia). Michael was laid low with seasickness and remained in the cabin for most of the journey, whilst Maude had a wonderful time consorting with the Captain, regardless of the rough weather. They enjoyed ‘hearty jollity’ together and Doris found to her discomfort that the Captain was a keen practical joker. He told her one day she must sit on a cushion ‘where he had placed an egg, swearing it wouldn’t break… My mother said I must be a good sport.’ Doris was wearing her party dress, which was spoiled, and the Captain roared with laughter. There was worse to come. ‘When we crossed the Line I was thrown in, though I could not swim, and was fished out by a sailor. This kind of thing went on, and I was permanently angry and had nightmares.’ Looking back, she did not believe her mother was a naturally cruel person; she was simply grasping at a good time with both hands, drunk on pleasure and anticipation, falling in with the ‘done thing’ on board. But for Doris, it was an early, wounding lesson in how those in control could so lightly and easily humiliate others, barely noticing what they did.

By the time they arrived at the Cape, Doris was starting to steal things and to lie. ‘There were storms of miserable hot rage, like being burned alive by hatred.’ She took a pair of scissors, thinking she might be able to stab her much-disliked nursemaid, Biddy, with them. Then a sudden and unexpected balm to her spirits: for five days and nights they travelled in an ox wagon, leaving behind the niceties of home – Liberty curtains, trunks of clothes, silver tableware, Persian carpets and a piano – to follow on later by train. For Doris, bumping along the rough track into a vast emptiness ‘there is only one memory, not of unhappiness and anger, but the beginnings of a different landscape.’ Her impressionable sensitivity was being given a new world to work on. The spiralling horns of a koodoo, the glistening green slither of a snake, anthills for shade, beetles and chameleons, thick red soil churned by the monsoon rains. It was a landscape to echo the intensities and vastness of her misunderstood emotions, a harsh landscape for sure, but one of overwhelming beauty.

Her parents had chosen a grand hilltop site for their home, but they could only afford to construct a traditional mud house with a thatched roof upon it. It contained both the piano and furniture fashioned out of petrol boxes, the Liberty curtains and bedspreads made of dyed flour sacks. There were no ‘nice’ people in the district, to Maude’s despair. She had had dresses made for entertaining, calling cards printed, bought gloves and hats that she would never wear. Instead of the glamorous life she imagined, she had a toilet that was a packing case with a hole in it over a twenty-foot drop. The farm was too big for a man with a wooden leg, but too small to make any profit. The heat was crippling. They all had malaria. Twice. Maude took to her bed for a year with a ‘bad heart’, enraging Doris with unwanted, burdensome pity for what she understood even then to be depression.

European settlers on fruit farm Southern Rhodesia early 1920s via Wikimedia CommonsSettler farm in Southern Rhodesia, early 1920s, via Wikimedia Commons

Maude’s illness brought Mrs Mitchell and her son into their lives, supposed to act as ‘help’. Doris experienced them as another chip of nightmare, the woman a heavy drinker and her son a bully. Writing about them in her memoir, she realised they came from the extreme end of white poverty, from a life she could not have imagined as a child, and which the immigrant farmers around them never wanted to acknowledge as a depth to which whites could sink. Mrs Mitchell and her son roundly abused the black workers, and decried Michael Tayler’s attempts to treat them well. It was, Lessing remembered, the first encounter she had with the ugly white clichés. ‘They only understand the stick. They are nothing but savages. They are just down from the trees. You have to keep them in their place.’ The Mitchells left after a few months and Doris and her brother took to joining their father down on the land. Eventually Maude rose from her bed, having decided it was the weight of her hair that was giving her headaches. She cut it all off, reducing her children to tears as they rolled in shanks of it on the bed, then she bundled it up, threw it in the rubbish pit and set to work.

Doris Lessing with mother and brotherLessing with her mother and brother

***

Doris was eight years old when she was first sent away to the Roman Catholic Convent. The main subject was fear. The dormitories held grisly images of the tortured Saint Sebastian, the broken, crucified Jesus, whose swollen heart disgorged gouts of blood. At bedtime, one of the nuns would stand in the doorway and tell them: ‘God knows what you are thinking. God knows the evil in your hearts. You are wicked children, disobedient to God and to the good sisters who look after you for the glory of God. If you die tonight you will go to hell and there you will burn in the flames of hell’. They were allowed a bath once a week and were supposed to wear boards around their necks that prevented them from seeing their own bodies. In her memoirs, Lessing calls the atmosphere ‘unwholesome’, a notable understatement. Her parents’ attitude towards her was disquieting and she had a dawning sense that all was not right for the blacks on the farm. But this must have been her most clear and immediate experience of abuse by authority. She had never known power except self-indulgent or corrupt.

When a bad kidney ailment brought Doris into the sickroom and the care of one of the few kindly nuns, she found a power of her own in illness. It was a button she could push that made her mother jump, and she pushed it repeatedly. Lice and ringworm would sign her release papers from the nuns. At the next boarding school, measles gave six weeks of blessed quarantine and then a bad eye infection – violent to look at but not serious – set her free. She insisted she could no longer see properly, and made her mother take her home.

And so, at fourteen, Doris finished her meagre education and gave her full attention to the covert cold war with her mother. ‘I was in nervous flight from her ever since I can remember anything and from the age of fourteen I set myself obdurately against her in a kind of inner emigration from everything she represented,’ she wrote in her memoirs. When she returned to the farm, it was to a new level of her mother’s intrusive care. Her father had diabetes by now and had entered a long, slow decline that cemented his general air of helplessness. Maude nursed him with obsessive attention, and extended her compulsive care to her daughter, fretting over what she ate, and worrying about her going alone in the bush. It was not love that provoked this behaviour, Doris believed, but a struggle over control. For the biggest argument between them was over clothes: her mother wanted her to wear smart, frilly dresses, entirely inappropriate for her age and surroundings. ‘I knew what it was my mother wanted when she nagged and accused me, continually holding out these well-brought-up little girls’ clothes at me. “Well try it on at least!” They were sizes too small for me.’ When Doris sewed herself her first bra, her mother noticed, called for her father, and then whipped her dress up over her head so he should see it. ‘“Lord, I thought it was something serious,”’ her father grumbled, edging away.

Doris Lessing age 14Doris Lessing, age 14

Both Doris and her father hated the way she treated the black servants, always talking to them in a ‘scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike’. ‘“But they’re just hopeless, hopeless,”’ she would wail when confronted. The ‘Native Question’ had become a topic of hot debate between Doris and her parents. ‘I had no ammunition in the way of facts and figures, nothing but a vague but strong feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the System.’ She read letters in the Rhodesia Herald, arguing that the black workers were inefficient because they were housed and fed so badly, and Doris felt ashamed at how little they were paid on her own farm. But such opinions felt vague against the pervasive conviction that blacks were simply lazy and stupid. Her father was kinder in his views but he was as ineffectual against her mother’s virulent opinions as he was in everything else. Small wonder that Doris was determined to escape, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Doris had already created a false self, a kind of persona she could hide behind in an attempt to keep her mother out of the private parts of her mind. She had early realised that ‘it was [my mother’s] misfortune to have an over-sensitive, always observant and judging, battling, impressionable, hungry-for-love child. With not one, but several, skins too few.’ After a bout of family enthusiasm for A.A. Milne when she was a child, Doris began to live up to her nickname of ‘Tigger’. Tigger Tayler was a daughter in her mother’s image, capable and resilient with brutal good humour, a good sport with a thick skin. At 18, she heard there were jobs to be had at the telephone exchange in Salisbury and moved there, mastering the easy work by day and joining in with the party crowd at night. Tigger Tayler was all about love and excitement, proud of her strong, beautiful young body. She smoked, she drank, she danced – and was a good dancer. It was 1938 and she knew, as everyone did around her, that war was coming. Tigger dreamt of becoming an ambulance driver, a spy, a parachutist, whilst throwing back the cocktails and losing herself to the rhythms of the music. The adventure she actually chose would be the most mundane on offer.

‘A young woman sensitised by music, and every molecule simpering in abased response to the drums of war, a young woman in love with her own body – she did not have a chance of escaping her fate, which was the same as all young women at that time,’ Lessing would write in determined self-absolution in her memoir. Tigger Tayler with her gung-ho attitude and smouldering sexuality had found a way to coincide with the lost, lonely, hungry-for-love child she was trying to cover up, although she would describe her reckless rush into marriage as happening under the effects of ‘the same numbness, a kind of chloroform, that overtakes someone being eaten by a lion.’

And so it was that, at 19, she returned to the farm with a fiancé in tow to introduce to her parents. He was Frank Wisdom, a civil servant – a respectable profession for which her parents were grateful, though they assumed Doris was pregnant. In fact she was, but didn’t know it at the time. They had a ‘graceless wedding,’ which in retrospect she claimed to have hated: ‘It was “Tigger” who was getting married.’ And then there were two children born in quick succession: a demanding and hyperactive boy, John, and a sweet, affectionate girl, Jean. For a few years, she played at the conventional role of housewife and did so with competence and much inner anguish. ‘There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very young child,’ she wrote. She was perpetually exhausted, partly from the demands of the children, partly from the pretence of being Tigger, partly from suppressed rage at her mother who now visited regularly and criticized her decisions, often calling her selfish and irresponsible in a way that must have utterly infuriated her, given her own memories of childhood.

Salisbury Rhodesia 1930 via Wikimedia CommonsSalisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1930 via Wikimedia Commons

Frank did not understand why Doris took to bed, weeping with fury, once she had gone. But then Frank and Doris had quickly grown apart. The war was on, but Frank had been turned down for active duty on medical grounds. He nursed his resentment and shame over too many drinks at the club. He agreed that Doris would write when she had the time and energy, but he grew angry when the poetry she produced was fiercely critical of apartheid, afraid it might undermine him in his job. She would become increasingly involved with subversive organisations, and he would become a cliché of conventionality.

Not long after Jean was born, Doris made the decision to take a month off and travel to Cape Town with John. Her health had been suffering; she was tired all the time and had fainting fits. ‘I was miserable and confused, being torn apart by these two babes,’ she wrote. The demanding task of caring for two small children was complicated by an unformed, unarticulated sense of profound self-betrayal. A neighbour, who, according to Lessing, had longed for a daughter all her life, was lined up to take baby Jean. ‘I did not feel guilty about this then, and do not feel guilty now,’ she wrote. ‘Small babies need to be dandled, cuddled, held, comforted and it does not have to be the mother.’ This was to be a formative month, in which she met, at the boarding house where she was staying, a woman from a Christian organisation promoting good race relations by way of the sort of straight talking that hypnotised Doris. ‘“How can one describe a country where 100,000 white people use 1 million blacks as servants and cheap labour, refuse them education and training, all the time in the name of Christianity?”’ she asked, and Doris found it a ‘revelation’.

She returned home rested, revolutionized and newly inspired to write. Frank agreed help was needed and it was a sign of the times that a mother leaving her child for a month never raised an eyebrow, whereas hiring a black nanny and inviting her to live in the house was cause for scandal. Doris’s mother even ambushed Frank in his office to express her outrage. The nanny had to go, and Doris’s political and personal claustrophobia worsened.

It was at this time that she joined the Communist group that would have such an influence; Communist, socialist, progressive, these were very blurred lines at the time for her, but she knew for sure that her attitude marked her out pejoratively. ‘All over Southern Rhodesia were scattered people whose attitude toward race would be commonplace in a couple of decades, but now they were misfits, eccentrics, traitors, kaffir-lovers.’ The persona of Tigger Tayler – briefly Tigger Wisdom – was finally breaking down, under sustained assault by subversive political ideas and her suppressed rage and resentment. She was destroying her energy with domesticity, when she could be doing something of vital good to the world. Her situation was chaotic, messy, emotionally distraught. Frank hated her politics but didn’t want her to leave. Doris felt she hated him – because she was treating him so badly. She was desperate to be free. The holiday she had taken now turned out to be a rehearsal for something altogether more audacious, and her new political friends encouraged her. Those years behind the false self had left her feeling she was a stranger to herself and she could not bear it. Nor could she tolerate the ‘terrible provincialism and narrowness of the life.’ She knew that if she left she would be doing something ‘unforgiveable’.

She left anyway.

***

Doris Wisdom abandoned one family in 1942. In 1943 she married again, this time a man whom she didn’t much like even when she married him. Gottfried Lessing was a committed Communist, a hard-working lawyer, a German intellectual and, in Doris’s eyes, a cold, humourless soul. But they had met through the Rhodesian Communist group and he was at least a match for her politically. ‘It was my revolutionary duty to marry him,’ Doris wrote. Gottfried felt it would increase his chances of obtaining British nationality, for both he and Doris now longed to escape South Africa for England, and he believed that marriage would protect him from the threat of the internment camp, where his political interests could still land him. But what was really going on? Why would Doris, even out of a misplaced sense of duty, rush back into marriage with such impetuous self-abandon? She would claim it was because the marriage was a sham, just a matter of convenience, but it seemed as if she needed the impetuosity and the thoughtlessness to whitewash a deeper, more shameful need.

She was struggling hard to find out who she was. After leaving her husband and children she fell ill for a long time because, she believed, ‘I was full of division.’ The Communist group that she had placed so much faith in was not providing her with the certainties she hoped it would, for it had swiftly ‘dwindle[d] into debate and speculation. We were too diverse, there was too much potential for schism.’ Doris’s family were ever more horrified by her political engagements and her messy personal life. And her sex life with Gottfried was a disaster. But one positive change had been effected: she had finally started to write with commitment – the first draft of a serious novel about the deep inequalities that wracked her country and had spoiled her early life. Division might have been destroying her, but it would be translated with power and beauty into her writing.

Then, as if in sabotage of this step in the right direction, around Christmas 1945 Doris fell pregnant again. She and Gottfried had to be married for a while, so they might as well ‘fit in’ a child, they told their friends, ‘we’ve got nothing better to do.’ Her parents were horrified. ‘My father said: “Why leave two babies and then have another?” My mother was fiercely, miserably accusing.’ Lessing’s own explanation was casual and bizarre. ‘I believe it was Mother Nature making up for the millions of the dead… Besides, I wanted another baby. I yearned for one.’ Doris was at the mercy of her own poorly understood compulsions, and more so than ever as she tried to find her authentic self. But maybe her instincts, or the experience of thinking and writing seriously about the inequalities of power, were covertly working on her side, for when baby Peter was born, something seemed to click into place. Now having a baby was ‘easy going and pleasant.’ ‘I was in love with this baby,’ she wrote in her memoir, in a way that seems a thoughtless judgement on her abandoned children. One thing seemed to make a huge difference: she had discovered Dr Spock and the idea of feeding on demand. Her mother’s insistence on the timed feeds of Truby King had felt wrong and punitive to her when nursing her first two babies. Now she fed this one on demand, to her mother’s outrage, to her own exquisite relief. Now feeding was a dialogue with her child, not an act of oppression.

Finally at the end of 1948 the official papers arrived, permitting Doris and Gottfried to leave South Africa for England and the decision was made that Doris would sail to London ahead with Peter. In her suitcase she carried the manuscript of the novel that she had worked on in fragmented and frustrated fashion, between the demands of her baby, her mother, and her wide circle of political acquaintances. She hoped it would make her name.

What she did not know, in her elated escape to London, was that she was heading for a decade of single motherhood. Of all her situations, this one might seem on paper the worst of them all, scraping a living by writing whilst bringing up a son alone. But later she would claim this child had saved her. Although she finally sent Peter to boarding school aged twelve, those interim years saw her stuck to her writing from sheer necessity. She could not go out and party and find new lovers and make more disastrous marriages. She was obliged to commit to work, despite fatigue and loneliness. It is not certain whether Peter had the kind of mother that textbooks idealise, but it was these years of hard apprenticeship that transformed Doris Lessing from a natural talent to a phenomenally successful writer.

***

When she arrived in London, Doris Lessing sold the manuscript of her first novel quickly and easily to the publishing house Michael Joseph. The Grass Is Singing was the novel that had been written as she searched long and hard for her sense of a true self, that came out of the mire of hatred and resentment at the injustices she had suffered as a powerless child, and which she saw mirrored in the cruel country around her, where native ‘children’ were oppressed by a harsh and loveless white authority. In that shared suffering she had found her story—though the great audacity of her novel was to speak of racial prejudice in the voice of the white oppressor, to make the ugliness and the injustice of the colour bar stand out starkly.

The Grass is Singing collageCover and author photo from first British edition of  The Grass is Singing, via dorislessing.org

She had been warned over and over as a child against the dangers of black men and one true story had stuck in her mind: in Lomagundi, a white woman had been brutally murdered by her black servant. That memory provided the opening of her story: a (fictional) notice in a newspaper of the death of Mary Turner, a white farmer’s wife at the hand of her manservant, Moses. The opening chapter takes place in the shocked aftermath of the discovery of Mary’s slaughtered body by Tony Marsden, a recent arrival at the farm who is learning the ropes of colonial stewardship. Tony is dumbfounded by the attitude of the other men on the scene: the police sergeant and Charlie Slatter, the nearest neighbour and a farmer of the rich, efficient and brutal kind. The two men have more contempt for the victim than for the killer, for after all, a black man will always kill if suitably provoked. Tony wants to tell them the truth of the situation as he sees it: that Moses and Mary Turner had a strangely close and complicit relationship. But he comes to realise ‘in the silences between the words’ that he must never give voice to his testimony, because it opens up possibilities that cannot be held in the colonial mind. He understands his own social survival is at stake: ‘He would have to adapt himself, and if he did not conform, would be rejected: the issue was clear to him, he had heard the phrase “getting used to our ideas” too often to have any illusions on the point.’ And so it is understood that Mary nagged her servant and he killed her for it. The rest of the novel returns to the beginning of Mary’s story to reveal the unspeakable, complex truth.

Mary is an indigenous white whose parents belonged to the lowest echelons, her father a harmless, useless drunk and her mother a bitter woman who treats her husband with ‘cold indifference’ when alone and ‘scornful ridicule’ in the presence of her friends. Mary is pulled into her mother’s orbit as her unwilling confidante and escapes home at 16, as Doris did, to an office job in town. Here she lives mindlessly and contentedly in a sort of arrested development, feeling only relief when her parents die, until one day in her 30s when she overhears the unkind gossip of her friends at a party. They poke fun at her girlish clothes and make snide remarks about her unmarried status, and she is distraught: ‘Mary’s idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to recreate herself…She felt as she had never done before; she was hollow inside, empty, and into this emptiness would sweep from nowhere a vast panic’. It is enough to propel her into the arms of the first available man. He happens to be Dick Turner, a cautious, uneasy man who dislikes the town and only feels comfortable on his beloved veld. For years he has been farming in a small, unprofitable way, loving his land and managing nothing more than meagre self-sufficiency. It has recently occurred to him that a woman about the place might be nice; someone to comfort and support him, and to boost his wavering morale.

What follows is the slow, painful and inexorable failure of their marriage. Mary is left to fend for herself in a tin-roofed shack, prostrated by the heat and half-dead from boredom. Dick, meanwhile, fritters their money away on overly optimistic schemes – pigs, turkeys, rabbits, all of which fail gently. Dick longs for love but is too isolated in himself, too caught up in his own foolish schemes and ventures to give Mary what she needs to be happy. Mary can’t assert herself against his implacable small-mindedness, her energy ebbing away as she realises she is stuck in a situation designed to drive her crazy. It is all too like her hated childhood, and their relationship starts to mirror that of her parents. For Mary is capable and intelligent; if she believed there were any happiness to be had she would work hard for it. Instead her feelings for Dick drift towards fury and contempt, which she then has to work hard to subdue because it is unbearable to admit they are wrong for each other and lack the ability to change.

Mary’s emotions are vented on the succession of black servants in her household without her even fully realising it. She is enraged by their neutral submissiveness, which she reads as shifty dishonesty, finding in the lack of relation between them an uncomfortable analogy to her marriage with Dick. The servant is ‘only a black body ready to do her bidding’ which angers her even more. When Dick falls ill with malaria she is obliged to oversee the men on the farm and the experience turns her into a vicious bully – her fear and insecurity, her frustration and claustrophobia channelled into an acceptable outlet. When one man insists on fetching himself a drink she brings her whip down on his face rather than bear his disobedience, and several months later she is horrified when Dick brings the same man to the house as their new servant.

Mary and Moses now begin a psychological dance to the death around each other. The scar of the wound she inflicted reminds Mary inexorably of her mistreatment of Moses, a crime she cannot admit to herself for then she would have to unpick a whole series of feelings that lead to even more unbearable truths. And so her anger and her violence turn inwards instead and she becomes terrified of him. Moses is aware of this and his blank, neutral servitude becomes tinged with other emotions – curiosity, contempt, his own unresolved anger. As their situation intensifies Mary’s ‘feeling was one of a strong and irrational fear, a deep uneasiness and even – though this she did not know, would have died rather than acknowledge – of some dark attraction.’ Mary gives up the fight in her own mind and the narrative shifts to a different perspective. Now we catch glimpses of her allowing Moses to help her into bed for her rest, and buttoning her dress when she gets up again. Whatever their relationship, it is untenable. Unable to tolerate the situation any longer, Mary sends Moses away, knowing he will return to kill her.

Doris Lessing had taken all the ugly, entrapped, rageful relationships she had experienced – her mother and her father, her mother and herself, old Mrs Mitchell and her son, herself and Frank Wisdom, every relationship she had ever witnessed between a white man and his black slave and had distilled the awful essence from them. What she wrote in The Grass Is Singing was that any relationship based on domination and submission was doomed to disaster for all parties concerned; the dominant had to rule so absolutely, the submissives had to be so crushed, that no full humanity was available to either of them. Instead they were locked in airtight roles, waging a futile war to maintain a status quo that damaged and reduced them both. On one side would be fear and contempt, on the other resentment and bitter self-righteousness. Compassion and sympathy – love itself – had no room to breathe, no space to nurture joy and pleasure. The complex reality of the individual was lost, and in the absence of that true self, perversity set in. She had witnessed it and she had lived it, over and again. She had come to understand that thwarted people lived stubbornly in self-division, pleading with others for the things they didn’t want, setting their faces obdurately against the things they did. Her unholy triangle of Mary and Dick Turner and their houseboy, Moses, provided a graphic, psychologically brilliant diagram for how the catastrophe took place.

Doris Lessing would go on to write more detailed autobiographical novels about her upbringing and early marriages in Africa, but this was the one she wrote as she waited impatiently to leave behind everything that was hopelessly wrong about her life. It was the one she wrote as she struggled to put her false self behind her and find a way of being that corresponded more accurately to her genuine desires. For the rest of her life she could be shockingly lacking in self-awareness when it suited her; it was a strategy that she never abandoned for its usefulness was too great. But when she wrote this first novel she was trying most sincerely to be as truthful as she knew how. She had done ‘unforgivable’ things in order to win herself that freedom. And in the shift from one family to another, in that new relationship she forged with her third child, she did seem to break free from the tyranny of motherhood that had haunted her for so long. Right back at its origins, the imbalance of power began at the mother’s breast, and the consequences could be seen in the colonised nations. She believed she could mother differently to her own mother, and in doing so she would break a vital chain – the figurative chain that kept all slaves in their place.

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Under My Skin Walking in the Shade collagex

Notes on Sources

All the biographical material in this essay is drawn from Lessing’s two magnificent volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). The story I have picked out here represents a tiny fraction of the wealth of incident and insight that the books contain, for they are, as one might expect from her, wonderfully wide-ranging, brutally honest and suggestively rich. I warmly recommend them.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

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Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk

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Aug 132017
 

All photographs taken by the author.

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A note (unedited, in English).

Buenos Aires. 20.12.2016. A return — this seems to be one of the things I’m expected to write about. And now that I return, now that I find myself here, I haven’t even left the airport and I’m already toying with the idea of writing a return, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from that mandate. To write about a return to a hot place, by a fictional character, broken by (self)exile and memories. But how could this return be any different? What could this writerly return add to this well-trodden path? People — broken by (self)exile and memories — have been returning to hot places, for an audience, since Ulysses (the first one). And it’s a terrible destiny, to find oneself in the mouth of a lyrical poet. This is very likely the most dangerous part of returning, that poetic possibility, the dangerous and fake nostalgia all poetry entails.

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I

Missing Buenos Aires is a daily routine. Some days the longing arrives after a sound — memories are triggered, homesickness kicks in. Other times it happens after a smell, any smell, heavenly or foul. Most times the longing comes after the wanton recollection of this or that corner, any part of Buenos Aires that in my mind looks like Buenos Aires should look. Some days the feeling is overwhelming and I can spend hours wallowing in self pity. Most times the situation is manageable. I am writing this, listening to Astor Piazzolla, because today is one of those days where I can’t handle homesickness very well. And the music helps with the fantasy, it feeds it.

Because the thing is: I never lived in Buenos Aires. I frequented Buenos Aires a lot. But I never lived there, never managed to settle there, had my name on a bill there, or a fixed abode, or a favourite café, or a library card. Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me — I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spent this time coach surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires. And by missing its possibility I can miss my own hometown without the uncomfortable bits, without all the impossibilities, the proximities, the complexities and familiarities. The parts that can hurt.

I miss an imaginary Buenos Aires instead of a real Rosario. Homesickness is safer this way. And besides, like this I can plug into some universal motifs of Argentineanness — perpetuated by literature, tango, film (Argentine and international) — that I no longer wish to contest, since I have long given up trying to express the nuances and the complications of being an Argentinean. Of course I miss Buenos Aires. Of course I play football. Of course I am a gifted tango dancer. Of course I am a charming Lothario. Of course I am prone to fits of passion and — unlike British guys — fits of tears. Of course I can ride a horse. Of course I am a streetwise intellectual who likes to sit in cafés to solve the problems of the world.

I have, during these past fifteen years away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, become a simplified version of myself. My life is better without corners. And more importantly, in (self)exile I have become what I always wanted to be: the stereotypical porteño.

I miss Buenos Aires. How could I not write about this now that I am here, now that I return to the city I never left, the city where I never lived?

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II

Ariel Ruzzo, professor of Latin American Literature in some college, University of London, arrives in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. Actually make it professor of Comparative Literature, it will be easier to market. And Comparative Literature sounds less of a con. It sounds like he went abroad to do the vini, vidi, vici. Professor of Latin American Literature, for an Argentine character like Ariel, sounds like he escaped an economic crisis to then accidentally find his way into a modern languages department, where he ended up teaching unsuspecting and overpaying students the soporific drivel known as magical realism.

So Ariel Ruzzo — professor of Comparative Literature — lands in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. He has come to sell a flat, a flat he inherited a while ago from an auntie, a flat in which he barely lived back in the late 1990s. He has found an overseas buyer, so it is only a matter of signing a couple of papers at the notary’s, some other papers at the solicitors’, receiving the money in his British account, and then back to London, to his musty office overlooking a central square. But there is also the thing with the boxes: he has to remove some boxes from his flat. Rita, an ex girlfriend, has been living there all this time, paying a symbolic rent. He would much rather avoid this, for a series of reasons, but he has already arranged to meet her tonight, have dinner together, old friends and all that, get the boxes out of the small storage corner under the stairs tomorrow. There must be five or six of them, said Rita. It can’t take him that long — most will go in the bin anyway.

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III

I don’t remember where I was or why I was searching for images of Buenos Aires — it might have been a moment of procrastination; it could have been research towards an essay; it could have been anything. The reason for my search is no more but I remember very well the words, scribbled on a wall in some porteño suburb, in blue: “morirse no es nada, peor es vivir en Argentina,” — “dying is meaningless, worse is living in Argentina”.

These words pin down very well the atmosphere of the 1990s and early 2000s — my 1990s and 2000s. The decade felt like a slow death, punctuated by a long series of socio-political and economic upheavals. Like many others, this slow death — peaking with the crash of 2001 — sent me away. In my particular case, away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, on a journey to become Argentinean. No I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad, probably while I was cleaning a toilet in Dublin, and the toilet was full to the rim with shit. This was a defining moments in my life. The realisation must have hit me then and there, or during the series of crap jobs I had for years on end. Somehow, suddenly, it was clear: who I was, where I was from, what I could aspire to. It was both humbling and enlightening.

I know Ariel Ruzzo left for the same reasons, even if he likes to play the scholarly card. But I still wonder if he became Argentinean abroad. Is it a generalised disease, this displaced becoming? What was his “cleaning an overflowing toilet” moment, if he ever had one?

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IV

Ariel has had a stellar career. From his undergraduate studies in Puán’s School of Filosofía y Letras, to an MA in Cambridge, to a PhD in Princeton. A stellar career, from the very start, in all the right places. His thesis, which surveys the detective story from its birth in the mid 19th century all the way to the cinema noir, has become one of those rare documents that manage to leap outside of the reduced spaces of academia, in order to become a non-fiction classic. Reading the Detectives is into its sixth edition and in the process of being translated into French and Japanese. And Ariel is only forty.

And yet, success aside, here is Ariel, back in Buenos Aires, like any mortal, after a hiatus of five years, and even from before getting off the plane it is clear that it will be a difficult trip, that coming back to Argentina always involves a process of readaptation and submission. There is a transport strike and among the people exercising their right to piss off everyone else we should count those in charge of driving Ariel and his fellow passengers from the plane to the airport. And no, the captain won’t let them walk the scant hundred metres to the terminal, because it contravenes a series of safety regulations, even if passengers from other planes seem to be able to do the walk. A two hour wait, then, until British Airways manages to find a scab to do the job, in several trips, old people and those with kids first, no mention of literature professors — tenure opens doors but not all doors.

Ariel is back in Buenos Aires, after a hiatus of five years. He will have to come back later to get his suitcase — the strike — or get a courier to pick it up on his behalf. But he is back. Really back.

V

I should be taking notes, there are so many things to remember, so many things that could go into that piece about a return, things that add realism, the details, the lived feeling. Now that I find myself in Buenos Aires I should be noting things down, focusing on the contradictory bits, because people love the contradictory bits, not only of returns.

In the subte, Línea B, between Gallardo and Medrano: a mother with a disabled kid. She is having a loud go at him when he tries to eat a cookie and the crumbs fall all over the place, as he contorts visibly in pain with some muscular malfunction. The mother, tired, aged too soon — she resents the child, not that I have to guess this, because she says “I can’t stand you anymore,” in Spanish obviously, and then realises she needs to get off, and makes her move, politely asking the other passengers in the carriage to make room for her and the wheelchair-bound kid, all charm. This must be the first time in my life I hear a porteño say sorry, please, thank you. I am impressed.

This differs radically from my first experience of Buenos Aires on my own, perhaps in the mid nineties. I was walking down the avenue connecting the Retiro bus terminal with the city centre — it was an ocean of people. I was a bleary eyed lad coming to the smoke from a place where we swallowed the Ss at the end of the words. I was bleary eyed and scared and walking maybe too slowly and maybe in the wrong side of the pavement. A redhead guy suddenly turned up before me, kindly shouted in my face that I kindly move aside and pushed me aside, kindly. I almost fell kindly on the floor but I didn’t.

I wonder if this kind redhead is now as polite as the mother on the subte.

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VI

The car flies down the Riccieri. Thank god the driver is quiet and Ariel can dedicate his time to watching the ugly houses both sides of the highway, sprouting like verrucas. Many an Argentine house built since the big migrational waves of the early 20th century is an example of Feísmo, the modernism and beyond of the impoverished European, at home and abroad, he reminds himself, almost as if he were thinking in footnotes. Who lives here? What is it like to live by the side of this road that never sleeps, with planes over your head, in one of these eyesores?

He is about to find a provisional answer to this question when the love motels catch his attention. He might have gone to all of them, here at the outskirts of civilisation. What a perfect site for love motels. A perfect place to stop for a shag before you make it to Buenos Aires and get lovelessly screwed by the city. He once was in one of these love hotels — or he imagines he was in one, or I imagine he was in one, which for a fiction piece would be the same — called “París”. He might have gone there with Rita, before he got the flat, when the options where shagging against a tree or in a rented room, shifts of two hours, mirror on the ceiling, adult channel not included in the standard rate. They might have gone to a room called “La Torre”. There might have been a photo of the Eiffel Tower glued to the window, both blocking potential perverts peering in from the parking lot and providing the ambience. Or, like I said, he could have imagined all this, or I could have, thinking about his ghosts, planning his return in my head.

But it doesn’t matter who imagined or imagines this — soon Buenos Aires is there, to the right and to the left, tower blocks, barrios, more lack of planning, advertisement hoardings that look like soft porn, seen from the elevated Avenida de Mayo. And a song starts playing in his head, make it a tango, make it Piazzolla, make it legible for foreign audiences, the ones likely to read this piece about a return.

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VII

And the poor, their dark faces underground — it is always a matter of skin, whatever Argentineans might tell you. The pregnant woman with several children, begging barefoot in Pueyrredón, when I get off to change to the line that will take me to Once station, where I have to catch a suburban train to Ituizangó. The kids’ dirty faces, their shredded clothes. They might be the same poor kids I see later on the train — poor but with air conditioning. Poor but spoiled after the tragedy of Once in 2012, when fifty one died crushed like sardines, when the 3772 from Moreno to Once, decided to enter the station at full speed. I can’t guarantee trains are able to stop now, but at least they have aircon.

These kids or other kids, around eleven or twelve years old, drinking warm white wine from a plastic bottle, happily and prematurely off the trolley. And the itinerant salesmen, offering everything from sweets and colouring books to a CD with the latest hits of x radio — they are playing the songs with a contemporary ghetto blaster, the salesman showing off a voice probably acquired during a journalism degree. And the Africans. Africans in Buenos Aires — they are back. Speaking a language I can’t pin down, sitting in groups of two or three, ignored by the other passengers, for better or worse, travelling to provincia with bags and suitcases. What are they doing here? Where are they going? There used to be many of them in Buenos Aires but then they vanished — blended into the white population over the years, according to some; decimated by the flu and the war with Paraguay, according to the ones who know better. And now they are back. Like ghosts. Is there any other way of being back than as a ghost?

Everywhere is full of ghosts and ghosts taking down notes.

VIII

Ariel uses his keys and comes in unannounced. The door is heavy. He remembers the door being heavy but it must have gotten heavier during these past five years.

Soon he is riding the lift all the way to the sixth floor. It is an old Otis with scissor gates. He thought they had been banned — children kept getting their hands and feet crushed by the gates. But here is this lift with scissor gates and it feels like being in a film, cinematically moving up with the numbers of the floors painted on the walls turning up one after the other and this irregular chiaroscuro of shadows and lights, scrolling in vertical pans.

And soon the sixth floor. Ariel leaves the lift, closes the scissor gates behind him, and the lift disappears towards the ground floor, called by another person and the door of his flat opens and Rita is there, unwilling to be taken by surprise. And she looks beautiful, the same, she hasn’t aged a single minute. Or maybe he never paid attention.

IX

The dead. If I were to write that piece about a return, of Ariel’s return, I should make a reference to the dead of Buenos Aires. The dead might explain the ghosts, or add some material basis for them, or just some colour.

The dead of Buenos Aires, underground. Not as in buried six foot under but given a platform in the actual metro stations, on station names and writing on walls — the battles, violent men, terrorist attacks, catastrophes, accidents, disappeared writers. Caseros — Ejercito Grande versus Juan Manuel de Rosas (another station and a tough we love to hate) 1852. Pasteur / AMIA — vaccination / suicide bombing. Carlos Gardel — plane crash, Medellín, 1935. Rodolfo Walsh — killed in Constitución, 1977, disappeared. But maybe I am exaggerating, forcing wanton connections. Or maybe not, because Cromañón.

By the tracks, in the depths, a small mural consecrated to the dead in the fire of Cromañón, where almost two hundred music fans burned to death during a rock concert, in 2004. The choice of words in the mural, on the black wall, links to other deaths: Cromañón Nunca Más. Nunca Más, Never More. The words chosen back in the mid 80s to attempt to quantify and qualify the crimes of the juntas between 1976 and 1983. Nunca Más was the title of the book by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), two words that would also become a call to stop death. In the mid 1980s the call was to stop state terrorism. In the early 2000s a call to stop another type of death: one born out of the state’s disappearance, all the corruption and oversights that would make it possible for almost two hundred — many of whom were children — to die in a blaze.

A piece about a return to Buenos Aires wouldn’t be a piece about a return to Buenos Aires without some paragraphs dedicated to the dead. This is, of course, another trope I am expected to write about, another form of surrender, part of the demand that Argentine writers fill the page looking back towards this or that violent past. Disappeared, victims of terrorism or petty crime, any of these will do to please the reader. Perhaps the dead might grant me the attention of a publisher too.

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X

And of course they have fucked by now. Ariel is smoking a cigarette, lying in his estranged bed. Rita is smoking too. Of course they are smoking.

And of course a dialogue will here ensue, one of those dialogues full of love, longing, and bitterness. Like Graciela Dufau and Héctor Alterio talking while promenading by the rotten Riachuelo in a 1982 film about another return, Volver, unimaginatively named after the tango tune with the same name.

Alfredo (Alterio) comes back to Argentina, tortured by (self)exile. He comes back for work, although not only for work. He is a successful businessman in the USA, and he comes back to Buenos Aires, in 1982, when the dictatorship is crumbling, and the Malvinas idiocy is yet to happen. He returns, and he works and he beds Beatriz (Dufau), an old flame. And then —  or even before they get laid, I can’t remember and I don’t wish to watch this film again — they are walking by the Riachuelo, in a clichéd postcard spot better avoided, yet abused by art, cinema tango and literature. There are still dock workers here and there, because they had not yet been decimated by Menemism. And Alfredo and Beatriz walk, loving one another and hating one another in dub, in sepia, with corny phrases, so much to say, in so little time. And of course Beatriz is a journalist, just like Rita, who starts speaking over the dialogue in Volver, perhaps reading my mind, or Ariel’s, or perhaps to stop me from reproducing the original exchange of platitudes.

“Why did you come?” asks Rita.

“To sell the flat, you know that,” says Ariel. “And to see Buenos Aires…”

“I mean why did you really come? You didn’t really need to…”

“I was curious…”

“Tourists,” says Rita bitterly. “In just a few days they want to see everything: visit all the museums, watch the tango, the football. Everything. As long as it is authentic.”

“And I really wanted to see you,” says Ariel. “I’ve missed you.”

“Have you realised how much we sound like characters in a bad Argentine film?” asks Rita.

“It’s the fate of all Argentine characters,” says Ariel and lights up another cigarette. Or I might say that. But he definitely lights up a cigarette because I quit smoking years ago.

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XI

And the dead of the AMIA, murdered in the terror attack of 1994. How many of them? Was it eighty five of them? The names are painted on the walls at Pasteur / AMIA — white traces against a black wall, also underground. I don’t count them.

The ideologues behind the attack were never found. The investigation pointed towards a cocktail of islamist terrorism, state and police complicity, inefficiency, and old school Argentine antisemitism. There was an Iranian connection and a national prosecutor in charge of the investigation. He was found dead twenty and so years later, in January 2015, a day before declaring before the congress, in a move that according to some would have compromised the then president Cristina Kirchner (who had recently signed a controversial deal with Iran in order to advance the investigation, if you ask some, in order to shelve it, if you ask others). As his death was investigated things started to turn up about him, dirty laundry. Inappropriate exchanges of information with the American embassy, bank accounts abroad, links to foreign secret services. No one will ever know who suicided him. Like very likely no one will ever know who bombed the AMIA in 1994, or the Israeli embassy some blocks away, two years earlier. Justice is so slow in Argentina, that frequently it never arrives. And everyone is a bit dirty, make sure to make this clear.

I can’t remember if it was after the attack on the embassy or the AMIA when a old lady on the telly, reflecting upon the atrocity, outraged and emotional, ended her speech with “why do they have to put a bomb here? They haven’t only killed Jews today. They have also killed Argentine people, innocent people.”

XII

Ariel spends the night with Rita. The next morning he goes for a walk.

If the piece had taken place during the 80s Ariel sooner or later would have bumped into a disappeared-theme demo. If it had taken place in the 1990s, he would have bumped into one against the political corruption and the economic misery that characterised the decade. In 2001 he would have bumped into a horde of angry citizens demanding that all politicians go — que se vayan todos. In the past fifteen years he would have bumped into demos for or against the populist saints or sinners who saved or destroyed the country, that bunch of holy crooks, the Kirchners — Argentina is a country of radical binaries, don’t ask me to explain this in this limited space.

And now, after hanging around Florida and Lavalle, Ariel is walking down Carlos Pellegrini heading towards Corrientes, being the tourist he is, when he bumps into a demo, pure coincidence. The posters betray the same lack of imagination as in any demo anywhere. The semiotics of red and black, block capitals, synthetic slogans. A large flag with Che’s face confirms that the lack of imagination in this opportunity is left-leaning. And here a closer look at the posters and signs: they don’t make any sense. Ariel feels dizzy but nevertheless starts to walk with the demonstrators, gets in the midst of the noise, unable to understand the language they speak (metaphorically) and he crosses 9 de Julio avenue with them, and then stops and watches them disappear banging their drums and singing the chants against the traffic down Corrientes, with that obscene erected Obelisk behind him.

He watches them disappear. Unable to process what is going on, what do they want, what is it about now? He can’t understand because he has spent five years away, because he has slowly disengaged himself from his country, because he doesn’t belong here any more — Rita is right: he is a tourist. And yet he is already thinking of a possible conference paper, why not a journal article: “Peripatetic Literature: Argentine Politics and the Poetics of the Demo”. The title just turns up in his mind. He doesn’t even need to know what the demo was about in order to write this — the reason can be found out later, or just invented. He only needs to know that the demo happened. That it will happen again. That Argentines love a demo. And that demos are just another form of literature. And that all literature can and should be compared. vivisected, CVfied.

XIII

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires and never make it home, to the place where I was born and where I spent twenty five years of my life. Let’s just say that a number of personal and work-related commitments impede it. I get to see my family, most of them. But I don’t see my friends, except for the ones who have turned the possibility of Buenos Aires into a reality. A natural order is repaired by my inability to bridge the 350 kilometres that separate me from Rosario. Some friends verbalise their disappointment and I stop responding to their messages. Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago — we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires, meeting this or that writer or publisher or filmmaker, sorting out papers, buying books and films and eating meat and drinking wine. Working but not only working and having a reason to be here, for once. And taking down notes — I take down lots of notes, on my notebook. Obviously I take notes with a fountain pen, on a Moleskine — this is part of my process of simplification, of embracing the stereotype.

I take notes in bars, on the bus, on the train and the subte. And people peer at my notes but the notes are in English. A girl on the train speaks to me in English after eyeing my writing, “where are you from?” she says. I reply to her in Spanish. She seems disappointed and asks why I write in English, then. I reply that I don’t know. She laughs. She is beautiful and young, and gets off at the next station, Villa Luro. This girl was some moments ago sitting zazen on the train floor. I had never seen anyone sitting zazen in Buenos Aires. It is never all about poverty or misery, is it? Not even when I think for an audience, for the page, speculatively, erasing the complexities and colours, in order to please, to be read, to be synthetic and available.

At some point I start missing London. I count the days. Thank god the days fly. I can live a different lie there, one that feels real.

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XIV

After one more session of love with Rita, more tender than passionate, and very likely sterile, hopefully, Ariel sets to the task of getting the boxes out from the storage place.

What he finds will colour the nature of his return, whatever else happens before or after. Perhaps he finds notes. Or notebooks. Yes, notebooks of his years as a porteño intellectual, the years before the Big Leap into other continents and into a properly structured way of life, a career. Or maybe he finds nothing of any significance. The thought makes him anxious.

He does open the boxes. The first two house old books eaten away by damp and cockroaches (do they eat books?). He moves these aside, keeps opening. Old clothes, old readers from his undergraduate degree years. Everything ready for the skip, smelling of moist and time and somehow death.

But the smell of coffee soon starts to fill the flat, the melancholia is aborted, and Rita turns up with a cup, wearing a long white shirt, barefoot, all post-coital happiness. She moves next to Ariel, crouches next to him, passes him the cup, kisses him on the cheek.

“It’s all rotten,” he says, Ariel, opening another box.

“It’s very humid down there,” says Rita; she sits on the floor, careful that the t-shirt clothes what some minutes ago was exposed in the open, because this is how old friends sleep together.

Paper, this is all paper, and yes, he finally gets to the notebooks. He had the foresight of wrapping them in cling film. They seem unharmed. Two notebooks, pseudo-Moleskine, national production, they will fall apart as soon as the cling film is removed. He moves them to a side, doesn’t bother with them, not now.

“All this can go in the bin,” he says, pointing at the rest of the boxes, the six stinking boxes, with their mouths open towards the ceiling.

“Polo,” says Rita, referring to the building doorman, “he can sort this out when he clears the rest of the rubbish tomorrow night, after I leave.”

“Is Polito still alive?” asks Ariel, surprised.

“He looks like,” says Rita.

“He must be,” says Ariel. “I’d love to say hi to him,” he adds. He won’t.

XV

I am waiting in the departures lounge, Ezeiza airport. I lie to myself, that I will be back before the end of the year, that this time I will make the effort to go back home, not to an ideal or imaginary place, but to the only place I really left behind, to whoever still speaks to me there, to my mother’s house, my childhood things, the books I wish I hadn’t read, the places where I used to spend my time.

They have wi-fi in the airport now — it works quite well. I play with my phone, read the news in English, respond to banal messages, and when I run out of battery look at the passing people, singling out my compatriots without effort, their familiar ways and blue jeans and gigantic Nike trainers sticking out in the flurry of wealthy Brazilian tourists, mugged Europeans on their way home, and air hostesses and pilots with their small suitcases rolling over linoleum floors.

I sit here, waiting to fly back to London, and I think about Ariel’s return, about how the rest of his journey might unfold for him.

In the next days, after relocating to an AirBnB flat in Palermo, he will dedicate full-time to sorting out the final details pertaining the sale. Rita will be too busy, organising her move first and settling into her new place later, to meet him until the very last moment. He will welcome this space, spend his time in the bookshops of calle Corrientes, the bars, perhaps even go watch a film in one of the old cinemas left in the centro, if any hasn’t been turned into an evangelic temple. He will end up signing the papers by the end of the week and receive the confirmation of the bank transfer the following morning. The notebooks will remain unopened until after the sale, the transfer, after all the to dos, and Rita. Until he has had time to breathe and properly realise that he has nothing left in Buenos Aires, that all his traces in this place are contained in these two notebooks. So he leaves it until this very last moments, when I am sitting at the departures lounge in Ezeiza airport, waiting for the plane that will take me to London, to the place we call home.

The cling film comes easily and the notebooks don’t fall apart. The first one — a clutter of blue and black ink — contains mostly quotes from this or that book. The second one, this is the one that matters. The first page makes it clear.

A note (unedited, in Spanish).

Ezeiza Airport, April 13, 2002. A departure. This seems to be one of the tropes I’m expected to write about. And now that I depart, now that I’m here waiting for the plane that will take me away, I toy with the idea of writing something about a departure, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from this mandate, or from the fact that I’m leaving. I’M LEAVING. And I don’t have a clue what will happen with my life, where I’ll end up, doing what. It’s such a cliché, for an Argentinean to depart, and to write about it. It’s a terrible destiny. But at least it’s something to do. And what’s more: departing is meaningless; worse is living in Argentina.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd

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Aug 122017
 

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room he would have been the one who called least attention to himself. He did have an eye patch, the result of a childhood accident, but he wore it in such an unselfconscious way that it blended with his reserve. Yet he showed an inward centering that gave him a quiet presence, as if he were in touch with something beyond him, essential and illuminating, that set him apart from the rest of us, and when he looked back you felt he saw you with both eyes. I never heard him speak ill of anyone.

He would explain things, and patiently keep explaining, and treat you as if you were capable of understanding, which is what first drew me. Once, when I was a boy, he told me why the spokes on the wheels of my toy car moving forward appeared to go backward. In the world in which I grew up, defined by roles and ceilings, by the rules of settling down and settling in, he provided a model that helped me wonder what else might be understood and think about where that might take me, to believe that understanding is an engagement worth doing in itself that doesn’t need explanation or purpose, whose reward is the exhilaration of wonder, whose place is the presence that comes from reaching, from grasping. With the presence, the hope some pursuit of my own might return me to a larger, vital world.

He was, in fact, a particle physicist, who devoted his life to the study of the composition of the ultimate parts of nature and the forces that drive them, the understanding that there is no separation between the two but instead a relationship. He would explain that, too, and keep explaining as long as you listened, but it was over our heads and no matter how much he tried to break it down we soon got lost, leaving us with utter bafflement, some of us with skepticism, some of us with suspicion. It is difficult to trust the things we cannot understand, no matter how fundamental.

When I went to Berkeley in the late ’70s, grad school in English, I stayed with Bill a few weeks while I looked for a room. Then I lost touch, as so often happened there. We were all caught up in what we were doing.

Some four years later, midsummer, I got a call from his mother in North Carolina, a distant voice. She was polite and stalling in her desire not to impose and only made brief, oblique reference to Bill, not much more than she hadn’t heard from him in a while. I didn’t know what her concern was or even if there was one. After I hung up it occurred to me she wasn’t sure herself.

So I walked up the hill to his apartment in North Berkeley, but he wasn’t in. I looked in all the windows and nothing stood out. Everything was in place, everything looked as I remembered, everything looked as might have been expected. I debated breaking in, but had no evidence or cause, and was disturbed I even gave it a thought. He simply could have been on vacation. There were other places he might have been. Also I was dealing with a mother’s concern, foremost in mind. I didn’t know her well, and she seemed a little strange on the phone.

Still, I needed to put her at ease. I went back a few days later and saw the same. I started making calls, beginning a search to see what I could learn, not knowing what I was looking for or that I had any reason to look. What I also needed was to settle the doubts I had turned loose within myself.

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Today, afternoon, midsummer, so many years later, elsewhere, trying to think, to understand, to define a mood or find one, but mind wandering, I look up from my desk and notice before the window a few motes of dust hovering nearly motionless in the still air but not quite, slight reminders of indeterminacy and dissolution, yet, illumined by the sun, bright, tiny specks that break the surface of the ordinary, faintly suggestive, faintly marvelous. Outside the window the foliage from the backyard trees shifts irresolutely in a gentle breeze, a dense, erratic pattern of dark and lighter greens, a constellation of rough-edged, roundish oak leaves, largely rising, and the smooth, long leaves of a walnut and Podocarpus, thin and thinner, largely falling, and of the leaves of the other trees behind them, almost covered. Now, inside, at the corner of the window, a jagged crack suddenly appears—it has always been there but has been forgotten and put aside—that runs to the ceiling like a bolt of lightning, a rip of quick terror, or a rent in the commonplace that opens revelation. Now, outside, flash reflections of the sun on the front leaves, the leaves glaring, nearly white, nearly bleached of detail, bright and blinding, like the rush of shock, or surprise. In only a few gaps among the leaves, small and scattered, can I see the sky. Beyond the sky, all the rest.

The day speaks—

Everything is exactly what it is.

In the beginning—

Or rather 10-43 seconds after the beginning, some 14 billion years ago, according to the standard model, a symmetry breaks and the universe explodes from a size so small that it would be pointless to state it, having a denseness, in comprehension, inversely related to its size. Its energy is 1032 Kelvin, against which the energy of the sun would not provide manageable comparison, but it is cool enough to allow the force of gravity to separate itself from the other forces, though nothing sensible can yet be said about its effects. The energy, however, is still too strong for quarks to join to form neutrons and protons, much less neutrons and protons join to form nuclei, or nuclei to draw free electrons to form atoms, or atoms to join to form molecules and gas clouds and masses and the planets and stars and solar systems and galaxies we now see. Our knowledge of the universe depends on understanding this moment.

The very beginning, zero time, may be beyond the reach of physics. The questions as to what existed before zero time and where the Big Bang took place and what existed beyond may not make sense because this may have been the time that time and space were in the process of being created. Also our common conceptions of time and space are inadequate to explain time and space.

The first step is to find the questions we can ask and learn their terms.

Bill was my uncle’s brother, the brother of the husband of my mother’s sister, thus no blood relation. I’d see him on rare occasions during family trips to my grandmother’s house in a small, crossroads town in rural North Carolina when he visited his brother and family who lived there, back from California, Germany, Switzerland, other distant places. We knew he was there when we saw his Karmann Ghia parked in the dirt drive, for us then an exotic car.

His ascent was meteoric, almost from nowhere. He grew up in rural towns nearby, as small or smaller, then went to NC State where he received near perfect grades and was awarded a Fulbright, which allowed him to study at Heidelberg University in Germany and work at CERN, the nuclear research labs in Switzerland, in preparation for his master’s degree. When he returned to the US he had choices, deciding on Berkeley to get his PhD. No one I knew had gone so far away or risen so high. He broke the mold of expectations.

After his PhD he stayed to continue his research. He had a part-time job at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and picked up part-time teaching at UC Davis and Berkeley to supplement his income. But his real work still lay elsewhere, further out and further in. The Bevatron at Lawrence had limited experimental use, so when grants came through he went to the more powerful accelerators at Fermilab near Chicago and SLAC at Stanford. That is one reason it was not surprising not to find him the day I walked up the hill.

When I arrived in Berkeley, late summer 1978, I had made arrangements to stay with friends of a friend. I discovered quickly I wasn’t welcome. I called Bill for advice, and in twenty minutes he drove down, now in a Volvo, and helped me load my stuff. I had no cause to expect such care, yet he apologized for not coming sooner.

His apartment, like his dress, was neat, sparse, and functional, though had a few distinctions and showed diversions and other depths. Beneath the stereo, albums of two modern classical musicians in San Francisco, whose performances he helped record. On top of the bookcase, a well-made windup robot, German, I think, a miniature marvel of engineering. On the shelves, among others, books and articles that defended Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare opus, which drew from me heavy skepticism, in fact I thought the theory was crazy, but he attempted to explain that too. He was experimenting with making wine and I tried some. I had no opinion; he wasn’t satisfied. There were corner windows in the living room, one which looked out on the bay, the other over the campus. Late afternoons I watched the coastal fog approach, climbing and descending the San Francisco hills, covering the city, the bridge, the bay, some days the school up to the Berkley Hills, with its dense, quiet resolve.

He also gave me a tour of the campus, then the town. The bookstores on Telegraph—Cody’s for new books, where national and international writers read from their work, where wounded protesters once were treated and books by and on Wittgenstein sold well; Moe’s and Shakespeare’s for used, the only places I could find many books I later needed, out of print. The cafés, two floors of Caffe Med, where street life met campus and conversations ran the spectrum. All were crowded at all hours, Telegraph stirring with their traffic. Ideas mattered, and the town radiated the slow burn of minds. Bill had received offers of full-time positions to teach elsewhere but turned them down as the schools didn’t have the facilities and would have taken him from his research and this world. My parents couldn’t understand that decision, or him. I envied his life and began anticipating mine. What he laid out for me was the locus for my own later work.

And he took me to his office at Lawrence, where he showed me a picture of a reaction in a bubble chamber from one of his experiments.

At the time quark theory, like the Big Bang, had gained the status of the standard model. He talked about string theory as well, still debated now. We hear these terms, and if we don’t repel from them, maybe they give us a jolt, a push to the side, a moment of disturbance. Or we learn to repeat and use them to spice our talk. Not long ago it was reported that the Higgs boson—the “God Particle”—might have been discovered, whose existence was predicted by theory, the particle that indicates the field that gives other elementary particles their mass, the universe its substance, belief in which still holds today. Sooner or later, however, we let the words slide and move on. What difference do they make? What is lost is how much is involved, how much our certainties are pushed, how much vision itself is challenged, how far we might be taken, further in and further out.

To research particle physics first the body of the theory has to be understood, then experiments designed to confirm or extend it. Teams are formed, proposals written and submitted to get time on the accelerators. At the site accelerators hurl pulses of particles at tremendous energy towards a detector, where collisions are observed. Deflections reveal what exists inside an atom; other particles are released, some of which point to the existence of still others. At SLAC particles are shot two miles at 50 billion volts. The detector Bill used was a bubble chamber, the technology of the time, which was filled with a medium such as liquid hydrogen that the particles struck, where pictures were taken to record the reactions. In one experiment Bill performed at SLAC, 500,000 pictures were taken over a period of three months; other experiments might take tens of millions. Then this mass of data has to be analyzed for the rare, meaningful event. An experiment, start to finish, can take years, even decades.

The scales used to measure the particles defy any scale we can handle. Particles may exist only an impossible fraction of a second and have a size dwarfed by the size of an atom, though at this level of nature physical size does not apply. Yet these particles and their reactions define the universe, and experiments are now being run in the accelerators to simulate its early stages. The forces involved may extend infinitely or only cover a subatomic gap, yet in the latter case the potential energy is enormous. To study particle physics is to learn that everything is almost nothing, yet that almost nothing has universal extending order. The research is a drive towards total grasp. What particle physicists are looking for are the ultimate parts of nature that cannot be broken down further and their single, unifying force.

If we are disposed to wonder, what else better do we have to wonder about? If we want to understand the ultimate nature of reality, this is the direction to go. However difficult it is to fathom the theories, there is nothing arbitrary or fantastic about them. The movement of the stars away from us and each other now points to the Big Bang, whose background radiation has been measured. Particle physics is supported by a century of thought and has been confirmed by experimental observation, the laws of physics, and the coherence of math. The theories are not complete, but whatever comes next will be derived from what is solid and accepted now, or will break from that ground.

What strikes me now, as I look outside my window and stare at the leaves and their bright reflections, is the enormous irony of effort and perception, one that strains that literary deflection. The picture Bill showed me, set against what it revealed, for all the time and effort that went into its creation and selection, was nothing more than white scratches, lines and spirals, on a black field. And those scratches were not the particles themselves but bubble traces caused by their reaction in the liquid gas, their paths guided by a magnetic field in the detector that provided the means for their precise measurement. There is cause for a kind of wonder just in this irony itself.

When I close my eyes, afterimages of glare on leaves.

But as great is the marvel that a mind, a man, could be moved to study matters so complex, so essential, who could approach nature on its first terms. It is another kind of wonder, a large part of what makes us human.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

Hamlet.

.

Any investigation will be affected by the influence of the investigator, the tools, the means at his or her disposal, which need to be factored in or filtered out. What assumptions are brought in, what biases? What does one expect to find? Outside influences—noise—also seep in and have to be dealt with as well. The temptation is to invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but that would not only be an inaccuracy but also a mistake of category.

Uncertainty, however, is what I found. I called Lawrence first and got a colleague who apparently knew Bill fairly well. He was friendly but seemed distant and strange in ways I couldn’t pin down. But I was a stranger, and his reserve might have come from the need to protect what was personal. Also I must have seemed strange myself. I didn’t want to raise alarm because I had no cause, yet still I needed to push some question to continue my search. But I didn’t know what that question was much less how to frame it, so I fumbled for several minutes. My call, in fact, was just like the one I had with Bill’s mother and I realized her dilemma. I’m not sure I didn’t raise concerns about me that may have drawn sympathy, maybe tactful evasion, maybe, likely, doubts. He did give me a few names to call, however, including the musicians in San Francisco.

I made those calls and got similar results, again sensing aloofness and something else in the others I could not identify, again wondering what impression I might have made. But I got more names—a contact at Davis and another woman in Berkeley, who was working on her PhD in classics and was closer to him than the others—and kept calling. The others started making calls themselves, the calls reaching out in a widening circle, those calls among those who knew Bill better, where perhaps private knowledge was shared. Then again, it didn’t appear in my calls that anyone knew much. The only thing that was certain was that no one knew where he was, though all agreed there could have been several reasons for his absence, well within normal expectations.

I also made more trips to his apartment, where all was exactly the same as before, nothing moved, nothing out of place, and again debated breaking in, even more disturbed I thought about doing so. I felt like a spy. And the tension I felt might have come from my own misplaced fears. I was also part of a chain reaction in which I wasn’t sure of my influence. I worried I had violated Bill’s privacy by making calls and asking questions, that I may have raised undue doubts about him among the people in his life. Suspicion is insidious and even in the best of us can grow into a monster. And I had disrupted the working assumption of all of us that keeps our lives in order and sustains us when all is quiet, that we are well, that all is well, that all is as it should be.

I had this troubling thought: if I went away without giving notice, could someone find me? If he or she talked to those I knew, what would they say? What suspicions might be unleashed? What would anyone have to say?

Still it seemed we all moved around something that would not go away, but it was only an object of indefinite shape that could have been the ghost of our uncertainty. Yet after another week we were settled that something was wrong. Reserve melted, barriers broke. The police were called. We opened up and talked frankly and pushed the search, extending the net of our humanity to catch one of us who might have fallen.

.

I grew up looking at pictures of order, demonstrations of function and purpose, of meaning, models of the world that located me and reassured. In grade school science texts I saw diagrams of atoms that looked like miniature solar systems, clusters of balls, perfect spheres, neutrons and protons in their nuclei around which smaller balls, electrons, revolved in perfect orbits. I don’t think I ever wondered what kept the nuclei together since their protons had the same positive charge and should have pushed away, why the world did not fly apart. I also saw colorful pictures of our solar system, more balls, more perfect spheres, the nine planets revolving in their orbits around the sun, moons around the planets.

Here on earth I was presented with diagrams of men and women in various uniforms and dress walking between buildings that represented our institutions, who carried a dollar bill or a law to show the orderly workings of our society, of our government, of our economic system. Also pictures of the people here to help, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, entering hospitals and courts and schools. Along with these, pictures of our enterprise, more people moving raw materials from building to building to create finished products and put them in our hands. I saw strings of dollar bills, and of products and other things we made and carried, stretched around the earth or sent to the moon and back to give me some idea of the magnitude of our order. Elsewhere I saw pictures of heaven, a radiance among clouds. On the dollar bill, a pyramid atop which hovered a shining eye.

Somehow all the pictures were of a piece.

Elizabethans looked at a picture of the world as well:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check to good and bad. . . .

Shakespeare.

The Elizabethan picture was based on a cosmic understanding, with earth and us at the center, that located and reassured as well, that established hierarchies of functions and status, a picture that radiated harmony and correspondence throughout, infused with the light of divine inspiration shining upon the royal court.

As I got older I was attracted more by pictures that questioned the pictures of order I saw, scathing parodies, distorted, scattered views. The problem, of course, was with who got to wear which uniforms and go to which buildings, with what we were left holding in our hands. I reacted myself in simmering restlessness against their neatness, their constraint, the narrow roles.

None of the pictures, however, early in my life or later, gave much to charge the heart, or the spirit, or whatever we can think to call the part of us we most want to name, something that might move us separately to warmth and fullness, that might bind us together.

Or put us at ease on sleepless nights

Many of us were upset by the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, and the others, whose theories of nature shook the ground on which we stood and disrupted the harmony of solid balls pushing and pulling and revolving against, toward, and around each other. With the shaking, doubts were raised whether anything worthwhile might be built on top. Everything is relative and indeterminate, life is arbitrary, an unleashing of random forces. I suspect, though, we would have come to the same conclusion without physics. We had the evidence of the collisions on the battlefields of the last century as well as elsewhere to unsettle our beliefs.

In a sense, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, what scientists find at the atomic level depends on what they’re looking for. They can design an experiment that observes the position of a particle, say an electron, or an experiment that observes its momentum, but they cannot observe both because both cannot be known at the same time. The indefiniteness is not a problem of observers and their assumptions or their equipment, but a matter of the essential nature of electrons themselves, dual and indeterminate. Our solid balls are not solid. Yet either experiment can yield precise, meaningful results. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is fundamental to quantum mechanics, which provided the foundation for the atomic theory that followed. Physicists embraced the indefinite to develop an understanding more precise and thorough. The new physics did not disrupt the order of the world but brought us closer to what was beyond our vision, strengthening our grasp after classical physics had reached a dead end.

Then again, the desire for order is not the order of desire. The Elizabethan picture is built on gross cosmological error, though many knew otherwise at the time. Metaphorically, however, it is perfectly valid and has value. Our lives can matter, and putting us and our planet at the center reinforces that desire, its force, its possible extension. A context is provided that helps explain the marriage of our actions and our beliefs when all goes well, or at least contain them, and what is wrong when our lives, our world fracture. It does not matter where the planets are. Science helps us understand the world, but metaphors are where we live.

Now older still I tire of being unsettled and uncontained, yet remain restless. I have also begun asking questions that did not concern me when I was younger. What I realize now is that I did not reject the pictures of order I saw because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe.

I do not care about chains of command. Power over others, however large its effects, is a sterile study. Still I read Shakespeare for what might be left after aggrandizement is factored out. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains that motion. Even if Shakespeare’s explanations are incomplete, even wrong, at least the possibility of understanding is constructed, and looking at a picture of order moves us to think of other pictures that might help us help each other, and sustain us, and keep us together.

Or help us, on rough nights, to know the place where we will wake up.

Yet I want to believe that pictures are not made up, that there is some connection between them with what I see when I look out.

But a picture of order is only a picture of order.

After another week Bill’s Volvo was found parked by the Golden Gate Bridge, his eye patch resting on the dash.

.

The reason why the spokes of the wheels of my toy car appeared to go backward when they were rotating forward is because of a stroboscopic effect created by the pulsating fluorescent light that hung overhead in my grandmother’s kitchen. The phenomenon can be observed in continuous light, though here theories vary.

The reason why protons in the nucleus of an atom do not push apart is because they are bound by the strong nuclear force, which is greater than the positive charge of their electromagnetic force. Or more precisely, neutrons and protons are made of quarks that are bound by the strong force, and it is the residuum of that force that keeps the nucleus together.

I do not know what happened to Bill and never will.

If we only knew—is what everyone says at times like this, but no one knew, no one saw it coming, and that is what is often said as well, and it was. Even after the funeral, when we gathered, when talk was freed, almost nothing was revealed. I had a long talk into the night with the third woman that only ended in more questions and exhaustion. I have also since talked to the family with similar results. And I have tried to contact others over the years but only one email has been returned, the silence lately perhaps because some of them may no longer be with us.

It’s not just that no one knew what happened. Not much precise or substantial was said about Bill himself. I don’t think any of us knew who he was.

I would like to examine a world where his life had not ended so soon, and it wouldn’t matter what kind of world it might have been, or would matter less. But I have to look at the world where it did, and now there is a concern not of helping but of understanding, which might help us in our own lives, and of preserving a memory before it decays. I am left, however, only with contexts and their reasons.

There is his work and the context it might provide. I have searched online databases from the labs and physics organizations and found his name among teams of others in some twenty documents describing proposals for experiments, experiments performed, tests on and refinements to the detecting equipment, a computer program to speed analysis of results, those and whatever thought and time and effort and strain they might represent.

Search for strange baryonium states in p-bard interactions at 8.9 GeV/c

For example, this abstract of an experiment, his largest and longest running, that had that title, published by the American Physical Society posthumously:

A search for SU(3) manifestly exotic Q2Q-bar 2 baryonium states in antiproton-deuterium interactions was carried out at the SLAC 40-in. hybrid bubble-chamber facility. The I = (3/2, S = 1 channel, X-, produced in conjunction with a forward produced neutral antikaon was studied. Such X- states would decay into an antihyperon and a baryon. The fast forward K-bar 0 was detected in a three-view segmented calorimeter placed downstream of the bubble chamber and used as part of the trigger. Upper limits of 0.50–1.63 μb are reported for the X-→Lambda-barnπ-, Sigma-bar -n, Lambda-barpπ-π-, Sigma-bar -pπ-, Sigma-bar /sup +- /nπ/sup minus-or-plus/π- exclusive channels based upon ≤13 events per channel.

The abstract refers to the developing body of the standard theory in which his experiment was designed to find a place. Nature, at its core, is vastly more complex than revolving spheres and their order. There are other particles than electrons and the quarks that make up neutrons and protons, a host of them, many flying free in the universe, most of which can only be observed an instant at high levels of energy before they disappear. It is by studying those that physicists hope to understand the universe of all particles and the nature of all forces. The language is impenetrable to anyone who does not know the physics and the words are odd because there are no common words to signify what is not part of our common experience. The term quark was lifted from James Joyce. Physicists, like writers, have to appropriate their words or make them up. Strangeness, though, is not some ambiguous term that hints at mystery and uncertainty but rather refers to a property of particles that has precise meaning and can be stated in a formula that describes their decay in strong and electromagnetic forces.

The only thing I understand from the abstract is that the experiment produced no meaningful results. It only had two citations online, an indication of its influence in the physics community and its contribution to the theory. His other, earlier, experiments had few as well. But science depends as much on failure as success. A failed experiment points to reformulation and another try. Yet a particle physicist only gets so many chances. Bill could only advance in his research by performing experiments, but there were just a handful of accelerators in the world powerful enough and only three in the US. Getting the time needed on them depended on having success and building a reputation, but time was expensive and scarce, and he had to compete with others. A team had to be assembled who might impress. Scientific committees had to be convinced, as well as the US government, specifically the Department of Energy, who provided most of the funding and for whom his work had no practical value, adding the difficulty of all the maneuvering and sidetracks involved in convincing committees and government agencies. Bill talked about another experiment he performed that he thought was not worth running—he said the reasons for its being accepted were political—but he had to take what opportunities presented themselves, and there were few. We see this situation elsewhere, in other pursuits.

Add to those difficulties the demands of the science itself, so involved, so complex, so abstruse, particle physics still hovering over the borders of the unknown, along with the pressure of always having to be exactly right. Factor in the ambition, the desire for final comprehension, total grasp. It is possible for physicists to get stuck in the wrong theory. Some hit the ceiling of their abilities and can’t make the leap to the next level of a theory. But it is possible Bill never had a chance to find out what he could do. Practicing particle physics can leave a physicist stranded.

Then there are the effects of channeling oneself into abstract thought, which might exclude other ways of thinking, and multiply those by the strain of staying there for years. It is a place where it is easy to put too much importance on some details, or not know what others are worth, or let a few slip, where one can get caught in loops.

But I am just guessing and speculate only on possible tensions, not the desire that might have sustained him, nor the parts of him not involved in science. Some of the challenges, instead of taxing, might have driven him and given him a place where he thrived.

No one saw mood swings, though there was talk of withdrawal. But we all pushed ourselves and withdrew from time to time. I did have reservations about what was said by some I met and what wasn’t, about what they knew, how broad, how human their understanding, and not just the scientists. We all had committed ourselves to fields that channeled thought and limited understanding, not that we were self-absorbed but that our selves could become absorbed in what we were doing. And we all had hit ceilings, or were aware of them and knew we might be approaching.

The funeral was a brief, quiet session, a diffident motion towards uplift and comprehension, yet still it brought revelation, but not insight into Bill, but what I saw in us, in our quiet, drawn faces. What was opened up is the impression of Berkeley that still shadows my other impressions, what I had not seen before or was fending off. There would be days when our energy dissipated toward nothing, when we didn’t know ourselves, leaving us separate and alone in broken silence.

Not just Berkeley, but what I began to see after, or had put off seeing, elsewhere, everywhere, and still see no matter how we think or what is thought—how distant, how disconnected we all are, how little we understand.

When his apartment was cleaned out, the only thing discovered out of the ordinary was a file he kept on the UC Davis campus police, who he apparently thought were keeping an eye on him. Likely, in his head, there were other spies.

.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

They are the words of a man whose connections with the world have been severed, who questions the value of his existence and debates keeping it, a man who talks to himself, and to ghosts.

Perhaps it is his noble father Hamlet has in mind, as well as himself, or what he might have become had it not been for the murder that ripped apart the fabric of Elsinore, where now there is no beauty and nothing is apprehended well. His words create a model to set against his corrupt stepfather and corrupted mother, and against the others, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sent by his parents as spies and to whom he speaks those words, his suspicions aroused.

Yet his words only create a picture of perfection, impossible in its reach and wholly abstract in conception, a container that does not contain anything. The picture could be the obsessive projection of a man who has become disturbed, one that invites a comparison against which no one will stand up well, not even a noble prince. He has already began to slide, just before, in his talk with Ophelia, where his feigning of madness gets out of hand.

Whatever the case, Hamlet’s options are narrowing to a single exit and there is almost no one he can trust.

There is this context and its reasons, and I have no other to examine. The Earl of Oxford, those books Bill had on his shelf—how could anyone question the identity of the author whose writing has set the standard against which all of literature is measured, unless he identified with one he believed was misunderstood, unvalued and unknown, an interest that could only have grown as his frustrations mounted and fed suspicion as he narrowed his gaze to pictures of subatomic events to find their perfect order, his world shrinking to a nutshell. That interpretation fits the facts and has the most compelling logic, or the most compelling logic we know.

But I have read the books Bill showed me and others more recent and am convinced Oxford wrote the plays. The evidence is large. The plays are filled with correspondence to his life and knowledge. I have more reason to accept his authorship than much else I believe, including the nature of our universe, the existence of quarks, the play of forces. If knowing an author matters, even if Oxford didn’t write the plays he provides a fuller study than the man from Stratford, about whom we know almost nothing. Reading those books has made me wonder about other certainties to which our sanity clings.

Oxford’s family ties to the court went back centuries, but, while intimate with the queen and her entourage, he was alienated from that life and had little room to move. Praised as the man whose countenance shakes a spear, he took that pseudonym because the code of nobility forbade peers staging plays or publishing them under their own names. Nor could the court, unsettled and conflicted, allow the common public to know one of its own was revealing its inner tensions, reflected in his plays. Oxford’s pursuit, writing, like particle physics, like other ambitions, contended with contingencies and risks.

Hamlet especially reads like autobiography both in overall conception and in its details. Oxford’s father had an untimely death, and, like Hamlet, Oxford lost much of his birthright through questionable maneuvers. He had to contend with his meddlesome father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the source for Polonius, and with Burghley’s spies. He was captured and ransomed by pirates; his brother-in-law was sent on a mission by the queen to Elsinore, where he met courtiers with the names Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern.

I don’t know where Oxford takes me, though. Like the passionate and aspiring Hamlet, he could only brood on what might have been, and, like Hamlet, he stumbled in several places. He may have lost himself in writing the play, at least a moment, but also an eternity.

Bill, Oxford—differences aside, I am left with the essential common term: Hamlet. And there’s the rub. The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and wondering who created him and why, and wondering why someone should have wondered who his creator was, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, doubting everything and not knowing where to stop.

Maybe the Elizabethan picture of order itself is an obsessive projection of the times, against which Oxford, like Hamlet, strains. Or maybe it is the order they both embrace. Either way, putting us at the center, metaphorically, can be a kind of madness. The play itself asserts and at the same time questions identity in almost every line, while its repressed plot and swelling individuality push against the seams of structure, against any kind of order.

And perhaps physics itself is an obsessive compulsion to grasp, a breeding ground for neurotics.

But such an analysis, however tempting, however compelling, is closed off itself and can lead to more obsession. A picture of madness is only a picture of madness, from which there is no escape. The only thing I am certain of is that if you look for madness you will always find it.

This too I saw in Berkeley, where we learned to doubt and were doubted at every turn, where people talked to themselves or bottled up. There were days when our minds would flare, separately and together, on the streets, in the cafés, in the classrooms, in our gatherings at our apartments, when the air was filled with suspicion, leading to injury or injuries contemplated, to random disruptions, Hamlets all of us pulling or sheathing swords.

And saw elsewhere later.

And everywhere.

The world is filled with spies.

Hamlet, of course, was right about the ghost and much else.

Oxford remains a ghost.

I do not know what else Bill was right about or where it left him in a life where occasions might have informed against him.

I—no one—knew him to be anything but kind and honest.

He must have been in pain.

I will never know who he was.

No letter.

.

It is late, and I have been up staring at a screen where I see these words:

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room. . . .

When I look away to rest my eyes, I see only night black against the window, the glare of a desk lamp, and my glassy reflection, looking back. On my face, lines of weariness and anxiety I didn’t know were there.

We are well, all is well, all is as it should be.

Everything I once thought solid has melted into air.

I grew up looking at pictures of order that located and reassured. Really, they did not explain anything but rather closed off questions and explanations. There are advantages here, however, and at times I miss them. Equality itself was only a bare concept that told us nothing about ourselves, but at least it provided a vanishing point in a perspective that slowed us down, gave pause, and allowed some changes.

Now I look at pictures not of buildings and people moving among them, but of long rooms where men and women sit at long tables and make decisions, and of larger rooms divided into boxes, where more sit and work, though it isn’t clear what any of these people do. And I see pictures of performance and aptitude in lines on graphs that are supposed to rise, and of shifting bars of attitudes and desires, though it isn’t shown where the lines should end or the bars settle. I also see pictures of an outside world where there are pretty trees and pretty skies and people moving in a soft ether, not quite smiling, and at the bottom pastel pills to ease depression, along with words of warning.

I do not know why this world exists.

Our metaphors have slipped.

A proton is made of two up quark particles and one down; a neutron is made of three quarks as well, two down, one up. In both protons and neutrons the quarks are bound by the interaction of gluons between them, particles that carry the strong force, just as photons carry electromagnetic interactions, such as light. Some of that force escapes the binding of quarks into neutrons and protons, and through more particle transformations binds neutrons and protons together to form nuclei. All this interaction occurs in an atom’s infinitesimal heart.

Particles of what? Gluons, like quarks, like all particles, are only bundles of energy with various properties, in various states and motions, or that is all we can know about them. There is nothing to pick up and throw against a wall or hold before your eyes. The process of binding cannot be pictured but only explained by complex formulas that analyze fields, by making calculations and observing how it works. And the process is still more complicated, and much is still debated, still not understood. Gluons may yet be replaced by something else. Yet experiments continue to return consistent results and point to fundamental order. Other evidence is unassailable: the energy from the interactions that bind a nucleus, when released, can be used in nuclear reactors and bombs.

It must be exhilarating to come this close to nature and feel its pulse. It is exhilarating to think about those who have looked and what they have discovered, the complexity and power in the smallest things, their order. And it is exhilarating not to rest with commonplace appearances of anything, not let them pass, but inspect them closely and think about their order. These thoughts, those efforts, their possibilities, charge the part of us that stirs us. It is exhilarating simply not to stand still.

. . . in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Perhaps Hamlet is giving in to his mood, or perhaps he is losing his grip, but quintessence is a term used by the Greeks, the fifth of the five elements, the eternal stuff of the heavens, the spark that inhabits the smallest part, yet from which Hamlet has been divorced by circumstances and whatever else, further in and further out.

The black picture from the bubble chamber I saw in Bill’s office, however, did not show tiny people walking its white lines carrying pieces of paper or sitting at long tables, much less golden men and women on thrones or fantastic animals or winged spirits or tailed demons, not malevolent stirrings or glowing benedictions, not even a mysterious tremor of an unvoiced sign that indicates one thing could or should be another. The order of the world has nothing to do with the order of our world. It has always been that way. Physics just brought the point home. And if we think about it, we realize the order of our world has never been that orderly or good. It is exhilarating, too, and anything else we might want to feel, and we can feel anything we want, to think about all the things we do not see in the black and white picture and what not seeing them might mean.

Ashes to ashes—there are other ways to look at dust.

There was a condition, not named, not diagnosed, not treated, whose cause could have been internal, chemical and/or psychological, or it could have been environmental, or a combination of all those causes. Most likely there was a nexus of causes, accidental to us but which followed a nexus of orders whose complexity cannot be sorted out, though I do not know what sorting them out might explain. There is no name, however, for the condition that makes one wonder and reach. We only have names for conditions when life goes wrong. Nor do I know if the first condition might not be related to the other, whether the two can be separated. I only know it is impossible to think of Bill’s life without the second. I doubt it is anything he would have wanted to consider or could even have imagined.

There is an order to the world and we have a good grip on its process. Ultimately everything at its root is the result of the interactions of particles. It is possible to theorize the process extending to consciousness itself. Yet the complexity from quark to the simplest molecule is vast. The complexity to extend the process out to a mind, to thought, is unthinkable. It would take—and my guess is as good as any—a computer larger than the size of all of our imaginations an eternity to make the calculations. But also such a study would reduce awareness to the terms of the process, self-referring.

In the beginning—

The ultimate goal for particle physicists is to discover the single force that unifies all forces, which, they theorize, was the force that existed at the very beginning of time before it split into the other forces. Yet most concede they will never have test equipment anywhere close to being powerful enough to perform an experiment to find it. There will always be a ceiling.

I did not reject the pictures of order I saw growing up because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe. I have not stopped wanting to believe, though I am less sure why. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains this motion. And I still want to believe that pictures of the order of our world are not made up, that there is connection between them with what I see when I look out, even though I know none exists.

We only know the orders of processes that only know themselves and infinite complexity, further in and further out, infinitely beyond our reach, those and our metaphors, and whatever terms we can manage to stick between the terms of tautologies, whatever ambiguities we can suspend.

I have read Hamlet at least a dozen times over the years and still reread it. Every time it is a different play. I do not know what it means. When I reach the final scene I feel a dozen different ways. Sometimes I feel charged, with varying qualifications of thought and mood, because order has been reaffirmed. Its collapse shows its force, the possibilities that remain had it not been corrupted. Sometimes I only see senseless death littered on the stage. A prop has been pulled out that supported nothing. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel but am left with complex moods split in intricate ways, none of them coherent.

Every time I leave the play I am a different person.

Every time I return to my world it is a different world, brighter and darker.

The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, lost, not knowing who you are. I have also seen a half-dozen film productions, and I don’t think any actor gets him right, or even that it is possible to stage him. But it is the actors who think they know Hamlet, who fortify themselves with wrongful injury and brace for just revenge, I most question and least understand. Only the Hamlets who reach and doubt and lose themselves seem close to whole.

It is only by projecting our hearts and minds into the world, and whatever else we can think to project, then looking at what is returned that we have a sense of what the world might be worth. But it is only by testing the world, and ourselves, and doubting both, that we have any sense what we might be worth.

Sometimes in the cracks between the words that create the world of Shakespeare’s—Oxford’s?—plays, those ironies, I find release. Sometimes, even if there is no explanation in the words, or the explanations do not explain, at least I find a container and the possibilities of containers that might provide a context for a fall, that hold our doubts and pain and suffering and give them full expression and allow them, allow us, to exist a little longer. Here I see some light.

We should always extend the net of our humanity and not question why it exists.

But I cannot rest without looking at the complexity and power in all things.

And remembering those who once were moved to understand.

While searching the online documents, I did find one sentence I fully understood. It was from a PhD dissertation by a Berkeley physics student with this dedication:

I gratefully acknowledge the friendship, advice, and encour­agement of Dr. William Michael, whose enthusiastic interest in all areas of physics will always be an inspiration.

Gary Garvin

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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewCon­frontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Aug 112017
 

Huck Finn and Jim on the Mississippi drawing

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For Doug Glover

When Doug wrote to me this morning, to announce that he had “decided to cease publication” of Numéro Cinq, and “find a new life,” he added two points. The first was funny, if self-effacingly untrue: “Maybe I’ll try to become a writer.” As we all know, that attempt has long since been an actual and impressive achievement. The second remark was both truthful and encouraging: “I’m not gloomy or regretful.” Considering what he has accomplished over the past half-dozen years—making available a trove of fiction, poetry, art, and critical commentary, and bringing together a community of writers and artists in this warm place on the web—neither Doug nor the rest of us have reason to be gloomy or regretful. Quite the opposite.

I believe that the cliché that “All good things must come to an end,” has its origin in Chaucer’s great 14th-century narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde. As it happens, that five-book masterpiece is Chaucer’s only complete long poem, and, for all its tragic love-story, it does not end with either its author or the poem’s hero “gloomy or regretful.” In the finale, at last aware of everything, Troilus ascends to the eighth of the heavenly spheres, from which celestial vantage point he looks down upon the world and “laughs” at all that “cannot last.” But Troilus’s laughter is not merely disdainful; from his observation point in eternity, he sees all in amused perspective, and knows that in his mortal ending there is a new beginning.

Numéro Cinq will survive in its own, secular, version of eternity. As Doug said at the end of his announcement, “All the pieces we’ve published will stay up on the internet.” No new issues will be added, but “the site won’t disappear.” The magazine’s temporal ending coincides with a never-ending beginning, its internet afterlife. By way of valediction, I would like to dedicate to Doug, in admiration, affection, and gratitude, this new essay on beginnings and endings. In truncated form, it was presented, on August 4, as a talk at the eighth Mark Twain Quadrennial Conference in Elmira, where Huckleberry Finn was completed in 1885, precisely five centuries after Chaucer published Troilus and Criseyde.

Pat Keane  July 12, 2017

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The beginnings and endings of all human endeavors are untidy…the writing of a novel…and, eminently, the finish of a voyage.

John Galsworthy, Over the River (1933), 9th & final novel in The Forsyte Saga

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1.

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner introduces T. S. Eliot in what may seem an odd way: “Elegant, shy from great sensitivities and great gifts, the youngest of eight children, he came, by way of several Academies, from a birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.” As Kenner goes on to note, Eliot’s was “a family of some local prominence, connected, moreover, with the Massachusetts Eliots.” Of course his family also had deep and distinguished roots in England, in East Coker, in Somerset, and, when young Eliot left Boston and Harvard for the continent and then London in 1914, he rapidly became, in manner, dress, and speech, more English than English, certainly more English than American. Just as Sam Clemons of Missouri had reinvented himself as “Mark Twain,” the world-traveler decked out in that iconic white suit, so Tom Eliot of Missouri, the American who, along with Henry James, most thoroughly reinvented himself as an Englishman, became “T. S. Eliot,” an Anglophile who, in 1928, pronounced himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”; affected a disdainful English accent that caused an annoyed Robert Frost, in that same year, to dismiss him as a “mealy-mouthed snob”;  and took to wearing a white rose on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, in memory of Richard III, whom Eliot, Shakespeare notwithstanding, considered the last true English king.[1]

T. S. Eliot in 1923 via Wikimedia CommonsT. S. Eliot in 1923

Equally worth noting, however, once he was established as a major literary figure with a comfortable income, Eliot made trips back to the United States. After a visit in the late autumn of 1950, these trips were to become part of his routine, “a regular event” in the final decade and a half of his life. There was, as Peter Ackroyd observes in his biography of Eliot, “a sense in which he was returning home.”[2] Eliot was returning in 1950, not to his own St. Louis and Twain’s Missouri but to Boston, where he visited, along with relatives, old friends Emily Hale (who had preceded Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, as a romantic interest and hoped to succeed her) and Djuna Barnes (whose lesbian novel Nightwood Eliot had admired and shepherded, delicately edited, through Faber & Faber in 1936). Novelist and translator Willa Muir, who also saw him at this time, reported: “Tom Eliot is much more human here than in England. He was less cautious, smiling more easily, spontaneous in repartee, enjoying the teasing he was getting from Djuna,” in whose “company he seemed to have shed some English drilling and become more American.”[3]

Eliot may have “become more American,” in part, because he had just written an Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[4] Perhaps like “most of us,” Eliot suggests early in that Introduction, Mark Twain “never became in all respects mature. We might even say that the adult side of him was boyish, and that only the boy in him, that was Huck Finn, was adult” (322). In the transformed Eliot Willa Muir described in 1950, we may have not only a man loosened up by the liberated Barnes, but, as Ackroyd suggests, filled with memories of his own  childhood, “still to be wished for although lost and gone forever” (301-2).

Willa Muir’s observation of the American humanizing of Anglican and priggish Eliot in 1950, her refreshing account of his spontaneity and boyish enjoyment, may indeed remind us of the Huck he had recently been writing about. That relaxed pleasure might also remind us, if we have been rummaging among his unpublished papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library, that Eliot confided to Ezra Pound in 1961 that there had been only two happy periods in his life. The last was during his second marriage, to Valerie. The first, he said, was “during his childhood”: a lost boyhood that may have been glimpsed, in part through the prism of Huck, by the adult and successful Thomas Stearns Eliot (in 1950 almost as world-famous as Mark Twain himself had been), returning to America to lecture and see his sisters.

Young T.S. EliotYoung Tom Eliot

Huck’s impact would have been all the more powerful since, as Eliot tells us in the second paragraph of his Introduction, the novel, deemed “unsuitable” by his strict parents, was kept from him as a boy. Thus it was “only a few years” prior to writing the Introduction that “I read for the first time, and in that order, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” (321). Eliot perceptively saw Mark Twain as a “composite” of Tom, applause-seeking, and Huck, “indifferent” to fame and conventional success; and he may have had in mind his own situation as a famous public figure in describing Mark Twain as a man who sought success, approval, and reputation, yet simultaneously “resented their violation of his integrity” (322).

But there are two interrelated problems with this 1950 connection between Huck and Eliot’s inner boy. The first is that the one phrase Ackroyd quotes from Eliot’s Introduction (the impossibility of either Huck or the river having “a beginning or end”) may remind us of Eliot’s defense of the much-disputed ending of the novel. Eliot insists that “all great works of art,” among which he numbers Huckleberry Finn, “mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning….So what seems to be the rightness, of reverting at the end of the book to the mood of Tom Sawyer, was perhaps unconscious art” (326-27).

One can agree with Eliot that for Huck “neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable” (327), and that no “book ever written ends more certainly with the right words: ‘But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.” But one resists his repeated insistence on the “rightness” of the novel’s reversion, in the so-called “evasion” chapters, to the mood of Tom Sawyer.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cover image

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2.

Eliot’s final formulation—“it is right that the mood at the end of the book should bring us back to that of the beginning” (326)—seems more appropriate to Eliot, as poet and as man, or to Mark Twain himself, who famously came into the world, and left it, with Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky, than to the conclusion of Twain’s novel. Eliot’s Four Quartets enacts that rondure; and his own ashes rest in the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, East Coker, in Somerset, the place of origin from which, centuries earlier, his ancestors had emigrated to America. Eliot had his memorial tablet circumscribed by the opening and closing lines from “East Coker” (1940), the second of Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end….in my end is my beginning.” But to apply, as Eliot does, a similar circuitous journey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to rationalize the flaw in Mark Twain’s masterpiece and to endorse, in Huck’s case, a regression that betrays the boy’s instinctive and gradually more articulate commitment to freedom. For most readers, freedom is the principal theme of the book, even if it takes the limited form of “sliding down the river” on the raft, “free and easy”—Huck’s and Jim’s joyous freedom in harmony with nature, in contrast to corrupt civilization: the societal violence, malice, and vulgarity exhibited in the towns along the shore.

Mark Twain 1882Mark Twain in 1882, two years before publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The second, and intimately related, problem is that Eliot, who here privileges rondure above almost all else, seems less interested in “freedom”—embodied in, and symbolized by, Huck and, of course, Jim’s ultimate goal (Eliot does mention, as an illustration of the voyage-controlling power of the River, that “it will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom” [325])—than in literary form, the supposed coming-full-circle structure of the novel. Though, as a non-specialist, I am unfamiliar with details, I am generally aware that—beginning with James M. Cox as early as 1966, followed by two close readings in 1991, by Victor A. Doyno and Richard Hill—there have been many sophisticated post-Eliot defenses of the sustained ending of Huckleberry Finn.[5] “But”—to quote Huck himself rejecting (at the end of Chapter 3) the early fooleries of Tom Sawyer (as I wish he had rejected his later Gothic grotesqueries at Jim’s expense at the Phelps Farm)—“as for me I think different.”

I’m hardly alone. As early as 1932, in Mark Twain’s America, Bernard DeVoto, the scholar-critic whose professionalism made accessible Twain’s scattered papers, said of the ending of Huckleberry Finn: “In the whole reach of the English novel there is no more abrupt or more chilling descent.”[6] The landmark attack on the ending came in 1953, in the wake of the publication of both Eliot’s and Lionel Trilling’s introductions to popular editions of Huckleberry Finn. In an eloquent and immensely influential essay, Leo Marx took issue with both these major critics and men of letters, arguing persuasively that, while “both critics see the problem as one of form,” it is the content, “the discordant farcical tone and the disintegration of the major characters,” that “makes so many readers uneasy because they rightly sense that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel.”

This is no minor matter since, as Marx forces us to remember, the ending “comprises almost one-fifth of the text.” For Marx (as for much of the book’s audience, if not for its author, whose experience of slavery made him more realistic about racial matters), the novel has “little or no formal unity independent of the joint purpose of Huck and Jim.” Those yearning for a more affirmative conclusion to Huck’s and Jim’s “joint purpose” are bound to find the ending—in which Huck is again subservient to Tom Sawyer and Jim is reduced, as a result of Tom’s antics, to a caricature of a slave—particularly egregious. The formalist stress of both Trilling and Eliot, in particular their defense of the ending, comes at a considerable human and ultimately aesthetic cost.[7] We register the pressure of historical realism, but, for Marx and many others, myself included, the movement of the novel, however episodic, into a serious moral world is betrayed by the return at the end to buffoonery and cruel slapstick at Jim’s uncomplaining expense.

Eliot should have known better. In his Introduction, singling out as the best illustration of the relationship between Huck and Jim, he chose the conclusion of the chapter (15) in which, after the two have become separated in the fog, Huck in the canoe and Jim on the raft, Huck, “in his impulse of boyish mischief,” persuades Jim for a time that he had dreamt the whole episode. Heartbroken at the “loss” of Huck, and weeping “thankful” tears to see him back again, Jim realizes what has actually happened, the trick Huck has played: “En all you wuz thinkin‘ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; and trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er de fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.” It was “fifteen minutes,” Huck tells us, “before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards neither.”

Jim asleep on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Aware that the passage had been often quoted, Eliot quotes it again, not only because of the obvious “pathos and dignity of Jim,” which is “moving enough,” but because of something often “overlooked” and even more profound: the “pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man” (324). Given that insight, it is all the more painful that Eliot should so glibly accept Huck’s resubmission to Tom Sawyer’s leadership and to the protracted “practical joke” at Jim’s expense in the final chapters, even celebrating those chapters’ “rightness”—all under the aegis of rondure: a reversion at the end to the novel’s beginning, even to the “mood” of Tom Sawyer rather than of Huck’s own book.

 To embrace as “right,” even “inevitable,” the “Evasion” chapters violates the integrity of Huck’s own maturing character, from his instinctive alliance with Jim (“They’re after us”) to his momentous, “awful,” decision, in Chapter 31, to defy the law and contemporary “morality” rather than betray Jim. Having just written a note to Miss Watson, revealing Jim’s capture, Huck, as we all remember, holds the letter in his hand: “I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

 Whether or not he recalled that Huck had earlier chosen to go to the “bad” rather than the “good” place, providing Tom Sawyer was there, Eliot says not a word about this crucial decision. That seems remarkable since, as epitomized by his reading of the fog episode, Eliot is attuned to the “kinship of mind and the sympathy between the boy outcast and the negro fugitive from the injustice of society.” He even remarks, finely, that Huck would be “incomplete without Jim, who is almost as notable a creation as Huck himself,” and that “they are equal in dignity” (323-24). Earlier, in the context of praising Twain’s pivotal decision to write “in the person of Huck,” Eliot adds that “the style of the book, which is the style of Huck, is what makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalistic propaganda of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (322-23). But just as he forgets that, unlike Twain’s, Stowe’s novel was written when slavery was still an issue,[8] Eliot is silent about Huck’s defiant willingness to “go to hell” rather than turn Jim in as a runaway slave. One can imagine the conservatively religious Eliot resisting that last assertion as hyperbole, sympathetic or blasphemous, even saying, in a favorite and recurrent formulation of Huck’s (repeated in Chapters 3, 15, and 34): that was one “too many for me.”

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Eliot was of course impressed by Huck’s demotic but rhapsodic descriptions of the Mississippi, its majesty and movement. Eliot stresses its power and thematic unifying force: “It is the River that controls the voyage of Huck and Jim,” the River that “separates…and re-unites them….Recurrently, we are reminded of its presence and its power” (325). Eliot had personal experience of the power of the Mississippi. In evoking that power in his Introduction, Eliot refers to “the great Eads Bridge,” the river-spanning steel structure which, unlike earlier bridges, “could resist the floods” (325). Two decades earlier, Eliot had told an interviewer that, as a boy, “the big river” made a “deep impression on me; and it was a great treat to be taken down to the Eads Bridge”—at the time of its 1874 opening the largest ever built—“in flood time.”  It is a useful reminder of Hugh Kenner’s emphasis on Eliot’s “birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.”

Eads Bridge between 1873-1909 courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection_1Eads Bridge, St. Louis, Missouri, between 1873-1909, courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection

In a much later interview, referring to the “sources” of his poetry, Eliot said that, “in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”  He was referring less to American literature than to American locale, landscape, and language.[9] In 1953, Eliot noted that in Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

reveals himself to be one of those writers, of whom there are not a great many in any literature, who have discovered a new way of writing, not only for themselves but for others. I should place him in this respect, even with Dryden and Swift, as one of those rare writers who have brought their language up to date, and in so doing, “purified the dialect of the tribe.”[10]

These linguistic observations had been anticipated in the Huckleberry Finn Introduction. “Repeated readings of the book,” says Eliot, “only confirm and deepen one’s admiration of the consistency and perfect adaptation of the writing. This is a style which at the period, whether in America or in England, was an innovation, a new discovery in the English language.” Other novelists had achieved “natural speech” in relation to particular characters, “but no one else had kept it up through the whole of a book,” and flawlessly: “there is no sentence or phrase to destroy the illusion that these are Huck’s own words” (323).

Mark Twain (Clemens) family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was publishedTwain with his family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published

That last point is, Huck himself might say, a bit of a “stretcher.” Though the history is wonderfully recast in his own terms, the unschooled Huck knows more than seems plausible about British and French royalty, not to mention Hamlet’s soliloquy, as rendered by the rapscallion “Duke.” It might be added that, in terms of Eliot’s own poetry, despite his linguistic insights here, while he may have purified the dialect of the tribe, he seldom varied from his increasingly British-inflected diction; and even there he could not catch the working-class vernacular required for the pub-scene of The Waste Land without the help of his wife, Vivien, her ear attuned to “lower-class” speech. Eliot never approached the vernacular innovation of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. A semblance of that achievement was reserved to William Carlos Williams who, while admiring the brilliance of The Waste Land, deplored and feared its impact. In his Autobiography (1951), written three decades after he registered the shock of The Waste Land, Williams described Eliot’s poem as a “great catastrophe” that “returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were at the point of escape to…the essence of a new art form” (164). Though it  took years to come out from the shadow of the Eliotic rock, eventually Williams emerged as the pioneer who, fulfilling Whitman and perhaps Twain, achieved a distinctively American poetry employing colloquial speech, and so became, for future generations of American poets, more influential than Eliot.

To return to Twain’s masterpiece:  Eliot had asserted from the outset that in “the writing of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain had two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and his experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River” (320). The Boy “is the spirit of the River,” and we “come to understand the River by seeing it through the eyes of the Boy” (325), whose human voice is as much a unifying element as the River. Considerations of style and speech shift attention from the river itself to the life on the raft the river makes possible for that boy and for Jim; and to the language, the dialect, Twain invents for Huck to express his love of the river. The vital center of the novel, early in Chapter 19, precedes the intrusive arrival of the “King” and the “Duke.” The days and nights, Huck tells us, “slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely….you see the mist curl up off the water and the east reddens up, and the river,” and then from across the river, “the nice breeze springs up and comes fanning you, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers,” though “sometimes” there is also the rank smell of dead fish; “and next you’ve got the full day and everything smiling in the sun, and the songbirds just going it!”

Jim and Huck on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Two paragraphs later, our attention is turned to the night sky and to some seemingly casual but in fact rather significant cosmological/theological speculation: “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.” Though far more cheerful than the author of The Mysterious Stranger or Twain’s other late, dark fables, Huck seems as much a skeptic or agnostic as Mark Twain. And he is a loner. His companionship with Jim, however warm, is temporary, ultimately unsustainable. Huck is, as Eliot notes, “alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction” (322). And, as suggested by this passage, stressing chance rather than divine design, Huck—while he believes in providence, heaven and hell—has no god, riverine or celestial. He has, instead, his alert senses and native intelligence, even something of Coleridge’s “shaping spirit of imagination,” made flesh in the incomparable language given to him by Mark Twain.

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4.

To re-focus on the second of Eliot’s two elements: If it is “Huck who gives the book style,” it is “the River” that gives it “form,” and makes it a “great book.”  Eliot contrasts Twain’s Mississippi to the Congo of Conrad, who, in Heart of Darkness, constantly reminds us of “the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of Man.” But unlike Conrad, who remains always “the European observer of the tropics, the white man’s eye contemplating the Congo and its black gods,” Mark Twain “is a native, and the River God is his God. It is as a native that he accepts the River God, and it is the subjection of Man that gives to Man his dignity. For without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting”

At this point (325-26), agnostic Huck and agnostic Twain have been pushed offstage to make way for theistic T. S. Eliot, a committed Christian believer, who has, nevertheless, more than a few things to say about animistic River Gods. “The Dry Salvages” (1941) famously begins: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god…” This poem, the third of Four Quartets, is set on the New England Coast, but its opening movement summons up, along with “The River” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Twain’s river, which becomes, as Eliot notes in his Introduction to the novel, “the Mississippi of this book only after its union with the Big Muddy—the Missouri” (327). The specifically “Southern” muddiness of the river in “The Dry Salvages” becomes uncomfortably clear in lines 117-18:  “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,/ Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops.” “Cargo” casually evokes the commercial heritage of slavery, the antebellum world of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and, like the more notorious “spawned” and squatting “jew” in “Gerontian” (elevated, more than forty years later, in 1963, to the uppercase), the dead “negroes,” tossed in with cows and chicken coops, are, if it is not too politically correct to note, subordinated to lowercase status.

This is hardly the place to relitigate Eliot’s anti-Semitism; but we may legitimately wonder if, despite his expressed admiration for Jim as Huck’s equal in “dignity,” the apparent indifference to Jim’s plight implicit in Eliot’s endorsement of Twain’s final chapters has something to do with vestigial racism. We were alerted to Eliot’s early attitude with the publication, in 1997, of notebook poems written when he was in his twenties, especially the scatological and racist doggeral starring “Bolo,” a sexually well-endowed Negro monarch, attended by a “set of blacks,” a “hardy” and “playful lot/ But most disgusting dirty,” and the poem featuring an imaginary interview with Booker T. Washington alternately titled “Up From Possum Stew!” or “How I Set the Niggers Free!”[11] It is unfair to saddle the mature poet and critic with ribald juvenilia never intended to be published; and, as we have seen, there is nothing offensive or racially insensitive, quite the opposite, in what Eliot has to say of Jim in the Introduction to Huckleberry Finn. But readers hostile to Eliot might wonder if it is possible that, in making the case he does for the final Jim-imprisoning chapters of Twain’s novel, Eliot was, as late as 1950, still less than passionately interested in setting Niggers free.

Huck Finn thinkingIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

To return, with relief, to the River: it is always capitalized by Eliot, who personifies and deifies the powerful, all-controlling Mississippi. Like Huck, “the River itself has no beginning or end. In its beginning, it is not yet the River; in its end, it is no longer the River.” Having flowed from many headwaters, it “merely disappears among its deltas.” But, since the people who “live along its shores or who commit themselves to its current” are all subject to its flow, “the River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending” (327). In the finale, Jim is revealed as free, Pap as dead, and Huck has $6,000 to fund his next adventure, in the Indian Territory. But Eliot had earlier said that it would be “unsuitable” for Huck to have either “a tragic or a happy ending.” And in the worst reading of the latter, Eliot may have decided that the novel’s Evasion chapters, taken as a whole, not only illustrate rondural “rightness,” but constitute a “happy ending.” If so, he would seem to have adopted the attitude of Tom Sawyer, who thought keeping Jim locked up the “best fun he ever had in his life,” and hoped to delay his escape indefinitely (Chapter 36).

.

5.

Since Huck, like the River, “has no beginning and no end,” he, too, can “only disappear.” And, Eliot adds, crucially and dubiously, “his disappearance can only be accomplished by bringing forward another performer to obscure the disappearance in a cloud of whimsicalities” (327). But the more-than-whimsical torments inflicted on Jim by Tom, following the “rules” of Romantic escape-literature, include snakes, spiders, and rats, a menagerie that kept the terrified prisoner awake since “they never slept at one time, but took turn about” (Chapter 39).  In all of this, though he occasionally offers practical suggestions to counter the more absurd of his friend’s literary fantasies, Huck defers to Tom’s authority.

The only time he is seriously critical comes at the very beginning, when Tom, yet to work out what will become his ever-more-elaborate “escape” plan, agrees to help save Jim. Huck merely wants him “to keep mum and not let on,” but “Tom’s eye lit up, and he says: I’ll help you steal him!” An outlaw at peace with his own decision, Huck is shocked to discover that Tom, a mischief-maker but a “respectable” member of the law-abiding community, is more than willing to help Jim escape. “It was,” says Huck, “the most astonishing speech I ever heard—and I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!” (Chapter 33). Only when Tom belatedly reveals that Jim has already been freed in Miss Watson’s will does he regain full respectability in Huck’s eyes!

If, despite his development in the course of the novel, Huck is still of the South, so, and even more obviously, is Tom. Whatever we make of Tom’s behavior, we join Huck in admiring his friend’s fertile imagination as well as his “pluck.” The gunshot leg-wound he received during the escape, welcomed by Tom as a badge of honor, might have proved fatal if not for Jim’s help. And yet an inescapable premise of the prolonged ordeal to which Tom subjected Jim is that its victim was somehow subhuman. The real villain is not Tom, but the society that produced him. “All Europe,” Conrad tells us in Heart of Darkness, “contributed to the making of Kurtz”; so all of the American South—though unnoticed by Conrad-admirer and Missourian T. S. Eliot—contributed to the making of the racially-unenlightened if far more appealing Tom Sawyer. Nor is Huck untainted. [12]

Tom Sawyer, Jim, and Huck Tom, Jim, and Huck — Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

This recalcitrance of history is often lost in our tendency—not unlike the American love affair with the film Casablanca—to lavish affection on a book which for many, especially in the wake of Ernest Hemingway’s encomium in the mid-1930s, is the “great American novel.” Placing Huckleberry Finn in the context of longstanding American cultural debates, historicist critic Jonathan Arac registered the virtues of the novel while also pronouncing it mean-spirited. Writing in 1997, he warned against that overloading of the book with cultural value that had led to feel-good white liberal complacency regarding race. And what he called the “hypercanonization” and “idolatry” of Huckleberry Finn was a flaw-forgiving development contributed to, Arac claimed, by Eliot’s Introduction to the novel.

Four years later, Ann Ryan examined Arac’s view that the now iconic Huckleberry Finn has an undeserved reputation as a novel that somehow resolved the issue of racism. In Ryan’s concise synopsis of Arac’s argument, critics since the 1940s, “self-consciously engaged” in an interpretive process, “equated Huck with tolerance and love, Twain with Huck, and America with Twain.” Reacting to the “self-serving criticism” of the “white literary establishment,” Arac represents Huckleberry Finn, not as healing or resolving, but “as a novel with a mean spirit and Twain as an author with a hard heart.” Countering Arac, Ryan argues that “it is precisely this raw quality, in both the book and its author,” that makes Huckleberry Finn a valuable asset in contemporary discussions of race, in general and in the classroom. She argues persuasively that, while Twain “evades political entanglements,” he “intentionally represents this evasion”; and that while the novel clearly “operates on racist assumptions and privileges,” it “unflinchingly illustrates how both are expressed and defended.”

Finally, there is the matter, troubling to so many critics, of Twain’s sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes. Registering Huck’s empathy even for rascals, Ryan reminds us that, sickened by the final tar-and-feathered plight of the King and Duke, Huck concludes, “It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel sometimes” (Chapter 33). Ryan then notes the final ironic twist: that “Twain ends his novel with a grotesque practical joke at the expense of Jim, the most ‘human’ being in the narrative.”  Regarding Twain’s employment of humor as a possible “imaginative response to our racist history,” Ryan concludes: “If Twain imagines that race is a joke, he does not necessarily mean that we should not take it seriously.”[13]

We can appreciate this multilayered irony. And, whether “serious” as opposed to common readers like it or not, there are genuinely funny moments in the final chapters; Twain himself certainly enjoyed trotting out Tom’s shenanigans in his stage performances, and drew the laughter he always sought. Still, it hurts to see Huck subordinate himself to Tom, whose extravagant, ever-proliferating machinations simply go on too long (as virtually every critic, even Eliot and Lionel Trilling acknowledged), sometimes becoming as tedious as they are otiose and cruel. If Jim, reduced to a minstrel character, even emasculated, rigged out in Aunt Sally’s calico dress, doesn’t mind, we do, or should, especially since Tom withholds, even from Huck, the fact that Jim has already been legally freed.

Mark Twain may have been “cheating” at the end, as Hemingway famously charged in nevertheless celebrating the novel as “the source of all modern American literature.”[14] Or Twain may have reverted to his customary cap and bells simply because he remained confused, troubled as he had been from the beginning of his work on the book in 1876, as to how to bring the journey of Jim and Huck to a successful conclusion. Or he may just not have been able to resist a practical joke, even one as strung out and seemingly anticlimactic as Tom’s Great Escape, especially not if, as Ann Ryan suggests, it constitutes a racial joke that Twain “does not necessarily mean we should not take seriously.”

One can understand how, psychologically, back in the shore-world and under the sway of a self-confident leader like Tom Sawyer, an adolescent boy, even one as experienced and practical-minded as Huck, might regress, and the mores of Southern society reassert themselves. But, all joking aside, realism needn’t require farce, sporadically funny but finally dehumanizing. Eliot insists that the chapters detailing Tom’s protracted buffoonery at Jim’s expense (with the painful complicity of Huck, who hasn’t a malicious bone in his body) have the “rightness” of “art,” whether conscious or “unconscious.” I remain unpersuaded.

Like the issue of racism itself, the debate over the final section of Huckleberry Finn—a debate as protracted as Tom’s evolving escape plans—may be ultimately irresolvable. But those on my side of that debate can only regret that T. S. Eliot—given his immense authority circa 1950, as world-famous poet-critic and Nobel laureate—should have put his imprimatur on what seems to us an error. As Eliot had announced in 1928, re-invented, now more English than American, he was not only royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion; he was a “classicist in literature,” and so, though a modernist poet, still wedded to what he called (in the subtitle of the book in which he made that triple announcement) “style and order.” In the case of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in mounting so eloquent a rondural defense, evoking the venerable symbol of the ouroboros, Eliot in effect validated Mark Twain’s original sin against his own (or Huck’s) book—a book which is not only, as Eliot himself asserted by emphasizing the unifying power of the River, a series of picaresque adventures, but something of a bildungsroman. In defending what many readers continue to find indefensible, the formalist Eliot himself paid too high a critical price in order to have Mark Twain’s novel, to quote one of Eliot’s favorite poets, “end where it begunne.”[15]

Huck striking for the back country_1Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

—Patrick J. Keane

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

American Literature and the American Language. Washington U Studies, New Series Language and Literature, No. 22. St. Louis, 1953.

Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966); excerpt as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 305-12.

DeVoto, Bernard. Mark Twain’s America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1932.

Doyno, Victor A. Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Eliot, T. S. For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order. London: Faber & Faber, 1928.

________. Four Quartets, in T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

________. Inventions of the March Hare, ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Faber, 1997.

________. Introduction to Huckleberry Finn (1950), in Twain, 320-27.

_______. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, 7 vols. to date. London: Faber & Faber, 2008-2017.

Epstein, Joseph. Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, Eds. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner, 1935.

Hill, Richard. “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1991); cited as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 312-34.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1971.

Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn.” The American Scholar 22 (1953), 423-40; cited as reprinted in Twain, 328-41.

Moody, David A., ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1994.

Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work. New York: Penguin, 1977, 2nd series.

Ryan, Ann. “Black Genes and White Lies: The Romance of Race,” in Trombley and Kiskis, 167-91.

Sigg, Eric. “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, 14-30.

Trombley, Laura E. Skandera, and Michael J. Kiskis, ed. Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Columbia and London: U of Missouri Press, 2001.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Critical Edition, ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom  Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1962.

Williams, W. C. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1951.

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics(1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. On Eliot’s wearing of the white rose, see Joseph Epstein, “Anglophilia, American Style,” in his Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 241. For Frost’s comment, see The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 4:286, n.1. Eliot’s own famous pronouncement about his stance in literature, politics, and religion—a cause of much consternation among modernist literati—occurs in the Preface to his For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order.
  2. Kenner, The Pound Era, 274-75. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life, 300-01.
  3. Muir, Belonging: A Memoir (London: Hogarth Press, 1968); as quoted in Ackroyd, 301.
  4. The edition Eliot introduced was published in 1950, by The Cresset Press in London, and Chanticleer Press in New York. It is reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain, 320-27. I quote parenthetically from this edition.
  5. In Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, Cox insists that, since Huck’s journey has never been a “quest,” but an “escape,” a flight “from tyranny, not a flight toward freedom,” his behavior in the final chapters is in character; and that, while we “become uncomfortable when he submits to Tom’s role,” Mark Twain knew what he was doing: “The entire burlesque ending is a revenge upon the moral sentiment which, though it shielded the humor, ultimately threatened Huck’s identity” (312). Two adroit defenses of the ending appeared in 1991, the first by Victor A. Doyno, whose extensive study of the manuscripts of Huckleberry Finn informs his Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. In his 10th and final chapter, “Repetition, Cycles, and Structure,” Doyno defends the novel’s unity, including the ending. In arguing that, “in a complex way the ending is aesthetically and thematically appropriate,” he questions both the social and genre-assumptions of those who want a bildungsroman rather than a series of “adventures.” In establishing a strong contrary case against those critics put off by the novel’s final chapters, he notes that, however “severely criticized” it has been, the ending “does resolve several problems,” not least the issue of Jim, who is “decriminalized” (223-27). In his informed and acerbic essay on critical “overreaching” in assaults on the ending of the novel, Richard Hill attacks Leo Marx and the critics who followed his lead. Hill, too, finds Huck in character in the final chapters. “To expect Huck to give up instantly both his ongoing personality and Tom Sawyer is to push the epiphany aspect of his decision to tear up the letter to Miss Watson into the excesses of modern social-agenda fiction.” Nor, he argues, is Jim reduced to a caricature. (320, 323-27)
  6. DeVoto, Mark Twain’s America, 92.
  7. Trilling’s Introduction to the 1948 Rinehart edition was reprinted in 1950 in his The Liberal Imagination. Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” 329.
  8. What Jonathan Arac has called the “hypercanonization” of Huckleberry Finn  at the specific expense of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began in the 1920s and has continued—despite praise of Stowe’s novel by Edmund Wilson (Patriotic Gore, 1962), Ellen Moer (Literary Women, 1976), and Arac himself (1997). That Twain’s novel, a “work of art” written well after the Civil War, has been judged a more powerful attack on slavery than Stowe’s novel, which appeared as a book in 1852,  galvanized Arac into writing his reassessment and partial debunking of Twain’s novel. One catalyst was Eliot’s Introduction, which put the prestige of the “mid-century’s leading man of letters” and recent Nobel Prize winner on the side of Twain’s novel rather than the “propagandistic” Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “far more convincing indictment of slavery.”  This “mythicization of history,” Arac continues, “by which Huckleberry Finn gained the prestige of abolitionism despite its having been written at a time when slavery did not exist and was defended by no one, helped provoke me to this book.” Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time, 92-93.
  9. Both interviews mentioned in these paragraphs are cited by Eric Sigg, “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, ed., 24, 28. In the first, Eliot is quoted by M. W. Childs, “From a Distinguished Former St. Louisan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (15 October 1930), 3B. For the second, see Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton, 110.
  10. American Literature and the American Language, 16-17. Stéphane Mallarmé’s imperative “to purify the dialect of the tribe” occurs frequently in Eliot, most notably in the nocturnal encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” (mostly Yeats) in Part II of “Little Gidding,” the finest section of the last and best of Four Quartets.
  11. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare, edited with scholarly thoroughness and annotated, copiously, brilliantly, and protectively, by Christopher Ricks.
  12. We recall the opening exchange (Chapter 32) between Aunt Sally and Huck (pretending to be Tom, and to have experienced an accident on the boat): “Good gracious! Anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky,” replies this affectionate woman; “because sometimes people do get hurt.” Though admirers of Huck would rather repress the memory, there is that two-chapter stretch between the running over the raft by a steamboat, with the apparent loss of Jim (toward the end of Chapter 16), and the moment, in Chapter 18, when he is rediscovered by Huck (less emotionally than we would expect, even though Jim weeps with joy). In the interim, Huck, engaged in onshore adventures, has had not one thought of a friend he doesn’t know is dead or alive. This is troubling, whether we attribute the thoughtlessness to a Southern-inflected flaw in Huck’s character; or to Mark Twain, guilty of episodic and careless plotting or to a short memory regarding offstage characters.
  13. Ryan, “Black Genes and White Lies: Twain and the Romance of Race,” 169, 170. For Arac, see  n.8, above.
  14. Hemingway’s hyperbolic but endlessly repeated praise/ criticism of Huckleberry Finn occurs in that half-memoir, half-fictional account of a safari, Green Hills of Africa, 22. H. L Mencken was no less effusive in his celebration of Huckleberry Finn (a book he read annually) as “Himalayan,” a masterpiece that soared in solitary splendor above all other American novels.
  15. John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” concludes with his brilliant compass-image—lines addressed to his wife, who remained at home while he was compelled to roam abroad:  “Thy firmnes makes my circle just,/ And makes me end, where I begunne.”
Aug 092017
 

Ralph Angel

.

1.

When I think of art I think of an uncluttered state of mind, which doesn’t last, of course, and so call it inspiration.

And inspiration, well, it comes and goes, doesn’t it.

Little sister, arranging
bottle caps. Little brother, back

and forth you run
from one side of the pier

to the other.

Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress

to yourself
tighter

and tighter.

When I think of the artist I think of an attentive state of mind. There is no criteria. No possibility for criticism.

It’s risky business. There’s no help anywhere. The intellect is useless. Whether looking outward or in, what one discovers can be neither predicted nor controlled.

Paying attention is making oneself present, no matter what’s happening.

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Children, without having to think about it, make immediacy and presence possible all the time. Children pay attention.

Children and artists see with their minds.

Thinking is a secondary experience. The critic’s pince-nez glasses is the greatest symbol of secondary experience.

For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.

For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.

“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”

Agnes

Here comes perfection. xWhen I think of art I think of beauty. xI put
xxxxxxxmy arm around it. Around my mind, I mean.

You may as well give up judging what you’ve done. xThe day is
xxxxxxyoung, the grey sun stayed that way.

Here comes an iron shade, partly down. xTheir heads are gone.

Please don’t print the negative. xI love their shoes. xIt’s where the
xxxxxxlight is.

.
2.

I am taking a walk in the city. I am enjoying a meal. Someone is running a bath. I have just spilled my cup of tea. The cat steps into a flower pot. A pencil rolls off the desk. I’m working! I’m working!

Two thousand five-hundred years ago, on her birth island of Lesbos, or in Sicily, the island of her exile, Sappho sang a lonely lyric:

for I would not be like these
toys

but may it happen to me
all

Artwork is not similar to something else. Artwork exists within itself, as tone, as mood, as state of being. All inspired artwork exists within itself. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art, or experiencing art.

messenger of spring
xxxxxxxxxxxxxnightingale with a voice of longing

sang Sappho,

and gold chickpeas are growing on the banks

xxxxxxxxxxxxxspangled is
the earth with her crowns

In response to an interviewer’s question, Sir Lawrence Olivier said: “I always thought that my job was to make people believe that the play was actually taking place.” Exactly. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art.

And is it not the same when you’re experiencing art? When Charles Simic experiences one of artist Joseph Cornell’s luminous, inexplicable boxes, the reality is clear.

Postage Stamp with a Pyramid

The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds pushing a matchbox, inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the Sphinx. The car, for that’s what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.
xxxxxxxx“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.

In Cornell’s world, Charles Simic could see with his mind an essence of himself. Visceral, palpable, the whole narrative of a moment of a child driving a matchbox, of a child as voyeur among adults, of a child at home in a desert with “nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.”

Children and artists are happiest when they experience things in which they seem to be identified.

In solitude, children and artists can be happy for hours. And if they don’t recognize themselves in the artwork of others, they don’t return to it, they don’t remember it, it will never become part of them.

“An inspiration,” wrote Agnes Martin, “is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.”

.
3.

It would take an epic psychological study to explain why we gravitate toward any given poem or story, or film, or painting, or song. Or why we make the kind of art objects we make. And that study, of course–like human history, so drenched in blood–would be flawed.

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock investigated the possibility of having his belly button removed because he found it annoying and especially unattractive.

He was a neighbor and frequent dinner guest at the home of a friend of mine when she was a young girl in London. And one night in particular, when Mr. Hitchcock arrived with a sack of bones, he scarred her to this very day. Different kinds of bones, actually, which he passed around the table. And he took note of each one, as each one was snapped, until he heard the sound of a human bone breaking in his mind’s eye for the scene he would shoot the next day.

Alfred Hitchcock feared above all, by his own admission, arrest.

I don’t know why or how some of Hitchcock’s films have so become a part of me.

A lovably shallow Cary Grant being subdued by feelings.

A quietly intimate and refined Tippi Hedren’s emotional insecurity exploding into outrageous catastrophe.

An aristocratic Ingrid Bergman shunned by society for love.

Or the voyeuristic James Stewart and me sitting in the dark spying on the lives of neighbors.

Or James Stewart and me following the otherworldly Kim Novak around, and falling in love with her, and with her descent into madness, and killing it.

I watched a recently restored copy of Vertigo, and, as I am prone to do after such way-cool experience, I got up the next morning and watched it again. And I carried it around with me for some time, I suppose. It was already inside me, like an homage. And so I stole the title.

Vertigo

Only one is a wanderer.
And when she was sad she’d go into the street to be with people.
Two together are always going somewhere. xThey lie down beneath
xxxxxxcypress,
next to a bird. xI imagine the sky. xIt fans her mountains
and waves. xShe’d left some small town
where they used to make tires.
Stories are made out of stairwells
and rope. xI’d been interrupting for years and didn’t
know it. xThis old park. xThe dark hatchery. xWorkers in jumpsuits
throw down their poison at dawn.
Not everyone can be described. xIt’s perfectly
natural. xIf she’s thinking about love
does she break down

the door of the bedroom. xOf course not. xNot publicly
speaking. xTo the left there’s a sofa. xWe all lived in rented rooms.
That’s how it goes with subject matter.
Nude figures in profile
floating among palm trees. xThe idea was touristy,
like a postcard. xI was given a small auditorium. xI watched over
rush hour. xI write down everything as I forget it,
especially at night.
I lock the door from the inside.

.
4.

My studio is a mess:

Piles of papers. Piles of books, and open books, everywhere. Flowers, rocks, a toothpick dispenser in the shape of a crow. A turtle shell. Incense ash. An apple core alongside a stained demitasse. Flash drives and hand cream, pens and ink brushes, a gyroscope. Free weights of 10, 15, and 20 pounds. Boxes of discontinued Polaroid film. Eyeglasses, and glass tumblers, and blood-orange toffee. Cobwebs. Snorkeling gear.

And I like it, just writing it down. It serves no purpose, but keeps me real.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” a young Ernest Hemingway wrote one afternoon in a café in Paris trying to become a writer.

A thousand years ago, Sei Shōnagon, an empress of the 10th century court in Heian-kyo Japan, was given a pile of paper which she called “pillow.” A thousand years ago one of the first recorded journals, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, was listed by subtitle:

In spring, the dawn,” as in “when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.”

Markets –”

Peaks –”

River pools –”

Things people despise –” as in “A crumbling earth wall. People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured.”

Infuriating things –” as in “A guest arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages.” Or “to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the sake cup on others. ‘Go on, have another!’”

Rare things –” as in “A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.” “A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.” “A person who is without a single quirk.”

Refined and elegant things –”

Insects –”

I encountered Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book while researching a seminar, “The Art of the Journal,” that I thought to offer because I had yet to forgive myself for never journaling. But there they were, in many rooms, in the garage, even the Moleskines on this very desk, tens of notebooks of various sizes comprised almost entirely of what other people had said or written.

“You can always come back,” sang Bob Dylan, “but you can’t come back all the way.”

“Your shadow is—how should I put it? Faint.” wrote Haruki Murakami.

“Everything terribly,” wrote Guillame Apollinaire.

“In poker, it’s better to tell the truth. The others think you’re bluffing,” spoke Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless.

“Doing almost nothing,” Marina Abramovic said, “is the hardest performance, because your story’s gone.”

“I’m not going to get my Coca-Cola,” yelled Louise Bourgeois. “My make-up is wrong. I am afraid to be interrupted. I am afraid not to remember what I intended to do.”

“Let us take down the old notebooks,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which we all have…and find…beautiful things.”

Among the pages of Joseph Cornell’s journals, tens of lists:

January 4, 1943

Into town late – bank – down to Lexington and 24th. Goldsmith’s – assortment, Mexican midgets, dancing bear, Hungarian cards, Bay of Naples litho. colored. Over to Madison Square for bus. A brief swirl of snow suddenly came covering everything with a fine coat and then letting up before the short bus ride to Twelfth Street. Unexpected illumination and evocation of the past in these circumstances with feeling about Madison Square, etc. Lunch with Pajarito and Matta. 2 hours. At Reading Room then to Motherwell’s. Penn Station 1:42. Interest in Savarin Restaurant seen through glass windows in waiting room, etc.

And the poet, James Schuyler, made the list into art:

Things to Do

Balance checkbook.
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“this herbicide”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasses. Walk three miles
A day beginning tomorrow.
Alphabetize.
Purchase nose-hair shears.
Answer letters.
Elicit others.
Write Maxine.
Move to Maine.
Give up NoCal.
See more movies.
Practice long-distance dialing.
Ditto gymnastics:
The Beast with Two Bucks
and, The Fan.
Complain to laundry
Any laundry. Ask for borrowed books back.
Return
junk mail to sender
marked, Return to Sender.
Condole. Congratulate.
“…this sudden shock…”
“…this swift surprise…”
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.”

.
5.

And music.

Always music in the other room.

And the songbirds there, too. The Beeptones, Slick and Trina, from Nicaragua, and Ella and Louie, from South Africa. And the gran canario, Cesar, a jazz-cat god, the Caruso of the household, belting out one aria after another.

Like waking up in the morning in a pensive, sour mood. “Lighten up, King Baby,” they’re singing, ever since the light came.

Today it’s Coltrane, A Love Supreme, replaying itself over and over and over again long into the afternoon. Long into evening.

Part I: Acknowledgment
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor John Coltrane

We spin
and we deny it.
We speed through space and
hold our ground. xWe stand firm.
We sprawl out
in the shadows of cobwebs
and swim to the surface
and toast again the staggering
stars and the planets
and our getting away from it all.
We’re nobody’s business—
and the truth,
the truth’s wooden-clock voice
actually lives here.

When the night sky
for example is spattered with paint
and the forest is reduced
to a few glowing windows
and a curlicue of smoke
above a train,
I was at once inside
our cabin after all, and frankly
sick of friends, though
not the close ones,
of people, maybe,
not you.

Like something in the body
reflecting streets and chance interiors
and yelling Silence,
Camera,
your heart, your
family, inappropriately,
your clothes
against my idiocy,
not you.

.
6.

Upon a mountain top in China, sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan piled five naked bodies, his own included.

He recalled the ancient idiom: “There are always higher mountains behind a high mountain.”

“When we left the mountain,” he said, “it was still the same mountain. Without change. Life is full of limitations and failed attempts. We tried to make the mountain higher but our attempt was futile.”

In Canberra, Australia, Zhang Huan gathered a hundred sheep and a large number of naked volunteers.

In New York City, a few months after 9/11, Zhang dressed his naked body in a hundred-pound suit of beef. “In New York I see many bodybuilders who, for long periods of time, do training exercises beyond their bodies’ capabilities. They have every kind of vitamin or supplement imaginable…, oftentimes it’s more than their hearts can bear.”

Zhang Huan invited three calligraphers to write the story and the spirit of his family on his face. By evening his face was ink-black. Its features had disappeared entirely, and nobody could tell the color of his skin. He disappeared. As if he no longer had an identity.

The calligraphy told a well-known story, and its moral is that as long as a person is determined, there’s nothing that he or she cannot achieve. Other characters included predictions of one’s fate. For example, the symbolic meaning of the shape of a cheek bone and the location of a mole.

Zhang Haun hung on to the roots of a tree rubbed with dog food and flour, which the dogs devoured greedily.

*

The Belgrade-born performance artist, Marina Abramovic, said she “wanted attention to my work, but much of the attention I got was negative.”

“The photographs of me naked in Galleria Diagramma were especially scandalous.”

“What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do with me?”

“In black trousers and a black t-shirt, behind a table of many objects: a hammer, a saw, a feather, a fork, a bottle of perfume, a hat, an axe, a rose, a bell, scissors, needles, a pen, honey, a lamb bone, a carving knife, a mirror, a newspaper, a shawl, pins, lipstick, sugar, a Polaroid camera. Various other things. And a pistol, and one bullet lying next to it.”

“For the first three hours, not much happened…someone would hand me the rose, or drape the shawl over my shoulders, or kiss me.”

“Then, slowly at first, and then quickly…the women in the gallery would tell the men what to do to me, rather than do it themselves (although later on, when someone stuck a pin into me, one woman wiped the tears from my eyes).”

“After three hours, one man cut my shirt apart with the scissors and took it off. People manipulated me into various poses.”

“A guy took Polaroids of me and stuck them in my hand.”

“A couple people picked me up and carried me around. They put me on a table, spread my legs, stuck the knife in the table close to my crotch.”

“Someone stuck pins into me. Someone else slowly poured a glass of water over my head. Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood.”

“There was one man—a very small man—who just stood very close to me, breathing heavily.”

“After a while, he put the bullet in the pistol and put the pistol in my right hand.”

*

Holding You Sober Close to Me

The city’s
behind us. The water’s calm. There are many heads
above the water.

Show me a victim and I’ll show you
a bathroom–a man slathered
in honey, a carpet

of flies.

Orange blossoms
and salt. Even the creepy doorman
tastes the salt

in the air.

If a child’s brought in, well, that’s something
different. We don’t want
our animals

to suffer.
You’re the last person on earth
prepared for the death

of your parents.

.
7.

When I think of art I think of beauty.

It’s where the eye goes, autonomously, on its merry way. For children and artists the message is about happiness—all across the sand.

Beauty is writing itself, and I’m always one step behind. Where the throat is. And the tear.

“And to speak again of solitude,” wrote the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, “it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something that we can choose or reject. We are solitary. How much better it is to realize that we are thus, to start directly from that very point….”

“For all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is intimately far….”

“A [person] who was taken from his study, almost without preparation and transition, and placed upon the height of a great mountain range, would be bound to feel something similar: an uncertainty without parallel, an abandonment to the unutterable would almost annihilate him.”

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Being this close is everything. It’s a discipline, like a child at play.

You’re the Rub

Murmured in loneliness, round and round.
Let’s not go inside. The cliffs drop off, and the ocean’s
a friend–on the boardwalk
enough people alone
have died.
So relax, take your feet
off–nobody’s
missing. There are many parts
of the mind. On that old
open day we let out our long green grass. A night’s passed
and you expected it
to be there.
You’re the rub–the love
that loves the loves. I like especially the puddles
and your wire. I like your mud.
I like your part
of it.

—Ralph Angel

x
Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.

x
x

Aug 082017
 

The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.

.

Rome is burning. Every day it catches fire somewhere. On the edges a spark blazes up in the vibrating air, in its place a blue ghost-flame quivers and burns a hole into the map. In the pine forests of Villa Ada, Castel Fusano, along the Flaminia and Casilina the fallen pine-needles rustle softly, start glowing and burn through like the finest cigarette paper. The flames pile ever higher, the angle of their crests is that of the summer’s temperature curve. Smoke brims the holes, thick and black: in the unstirring heat-wave it spreads, flat on the ground, like the riverside mist on humid winter nights, is soaked up into the house walls of Prati, Monte Mario, Monteverde, rolls its cottonwool waves relentlessly along the Orbital.

The pine-tree needle catches fire with a tiny snap, like a thread of hair, one needle is one snap, but the needles snapping in at the same time flare up with a hollow boom. In the explosion of flames the black needle glares up white and falls to ashes in an instant, but black flies from it, becoming smoke, colour-ash, which flakes down on the burnt soil, it rains down, black, in the air, on the travertino facades, on the granite cobblestones, moves into the sky, into the blue: fossilized scent, resin becomes the colour of time, black. In Ostia’s pine forest, where in August people gather cones to pick the pineseeds, tall orange-red grass is undulating around the tree-trunks. The pine-trees do not catch fire from below though, but from above, as if they needed the sun to harry the last heat through them to be filled with fieriness. They stand the firestorm the way they stand tempests: not bending but stretching taut like a veil, as if the sky pushed down on them with all its weight, their needle foliage undulating in all directions at the same time, like bird-swarms in the evening. The papers report arson. Roghi, stakes send up their smoke everywhere, places of execution; fires are general all over the country. In northern Rome, in Torrevecchia, on the street named after Cesare Lombroso, the tent camp of the Roma goes up in flames, the makeshift lodgings and covers burn with greasy smoke. Every hour the ululation of a siren breaks into the hardened noise of traffic.

In Palazzo Sacchetti, close to the river, an inward-curving hairlock, on which the photographic light had lit up with such blond reflexes, and the neck’s soft skin above the high blouse neck, where it is the whitest, flare up – the picture burns into its negative, its contours blaze white-hot, showing up the face for one more instant. Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt. Its edges curl inward like ferns, the wide stretch of the forehead resists yet, its place now fire-torn; the smile born on the teeth’s mineral white turns into a ghost flame, then smoke-black. Time sediment. White and light, consumed, Verlorne, in the flame-shelter, bearing still the shining and the pain in the descending evening light, between the wind-sheltered walls of Palazzo Sacchetti, where her name is not written. The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it.

*

On the street climbing up the Celio, under one of the drooping little trees that hem in the Ospedale Militare’s parking lot, a thin African boy sleeps on the asphalt, face upwards. He looks barely twenty. Abandon of sleep that makes the arms fall open and the head roll sideways in the syncopated noise of cars speeding upwards across the speech noises; trust that the feet stepping over will not kick him in the face. Or a tiredness beyond circumspection. He is lying on the asphalt cracked up by the inveterately trespassing cypress roots that will not accept the status quo of street maps. As if a gently rippling sea had washed him up here, quietly depositing him on an asphalt dune, for some awed grown-up to clumsily hoist him up in his arms. The sea sends its voice up here: beyond the wall, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana the wind pendulating cypress and pine, oleander and myrtle scent is the radial ripple of sea-waves in the air. On their surf the ancient marble paper ship, the Navicella had once sailed up, to be shipwrecked on the crest of this wave-shaped hill, in the vineyards overgrowing the debris. Across the street, among blackish-green foliage, the 5th-century monolithic bulk of Santo Stefano Rotondo; in its external ambulatory thirty-four scenes of martyrdom, variations on a theme: how gracefully the beturbaned centurio moving on mannerist dancer legs gathers momentum, to chop off the hand of the girl standing in counterpose. According to the script, during Hadrian’s reign Eustachius was burnt together with his Christian mates inside a bronze bull. The brown animal stands with head thrust up and feet planted wide apart, in an opening in its side several praying men huddle together, smoke is already rising under its belly. Tuning-in of a giant tuba in an orchestra; cleft-hoofed ancient death truck. A funerary monument removed from the mosaic floor stands alone beneath the splendid spoglio columns, a compact hooded effigy. Only the cut of the majuscules and the Latin diction signals that, although born in a faraway, frosty land, he belongs here: Roma est patria omnium. The deceased, Johannes Lazo, was the commissioner of the first Renaissance chapel on the edge of the known world, Transylvania: frail Italian souvenir, the filigree monument, carved with urns, fruit wreaths and sea-shell niches, of the homesickness for Rome. Entering the park of the Celimontana, on the pebble path that coats the sandals with white powder, an improvised sign bids those who have come to the birthday party of the little Francesco follow the butterflies. Pink, orange, violet, green plastic butterflies are hung on the greenery, jolly Christmas decoration in June: in the tangible half-shadow of pines, magnolias and oleanders, minute buoys signalling the haven of parents giving out generous helpings of ice cream from thermal bags. At the park’s further end space is hollowed out into a bay around a fontanella’s babble. The name on the signpost is new: Largo delle Vittime di Tutte le Migrazioni. In memory of the dead of the 2013 shipwreck at the shores of Lampedusa. A reminder that the sea-mill grinds pneumatic boats and bodies. In early July five thousand refugees are brought ashore in one single day by the rescue ships. Eight hundred land in Brindisi. One woman sings when she steps on dry land. On the boat a child is born, they baptize him Cristo. Below in the news a report of a Bangali refugee savagely beaten up by a group of teenagers because he obtained social housing.

The name of the street descending from the Lateran to the slopes of the Celio, along the walled-in complex of Ospedale San Giovanni, is Amba Aradam. It has an outlandish ring. One evening I stray there, spotting no sight-buoy that could lead me back to one of the known places. As it turns out, I have ended up behind the Celio: I climb back to the Navicella and to the parking lot where the African boy had been sleeping with his head on the asphalt. There are people sleeping here at all hours in the shallow niches of Severus’s walls on cardboard sheets, staffage figures in the Roman landscape, like the vedutists’ shepherds, signs that the place is populated. Amba Aradam, Celio: names. That of the celestial-sounding hill is the name of an Etruscan king, Caelius Vibenna, Rome’s first conqueror. That of the street at the feet of the hill is the name of a giant mountain in Ethiopia. In February 1936 General Badoglio’s troops, complete with fighter-bombers and several blackshirt and alpine divisions besieged the mountain and the mountain pass leading to the capital, Addis Ababa. In a few days the battle is won: the Ethiopian defence entrenched high on the mountain is caught in the enemy’s clench, and for four days on the remains of Mulugeta’s fleeing army the Italian aircraft drop forty tons of mustard gas. Mulugeta’s son is killed by members of the Galla tribe, allied with the Italians, his corpse mutilated; the father, who returns to recover his son’s body, is killed by an Italian bomber. Beneath the name of the mountain covered in contorted bodies suffocated in the poison gas a tunnel is dug, the third subway line will cross sedimented time in this direction from the Colosseum. During the excavations a spectacular discovery is made, a frescoed villa from the imperial age, a rare wooden structure destroyed in a fire; among the remains the skeleton of a dog comes to light, together with what is believed to have been a puppy, probably trapped in the building on fire.

*

The refugees have been cemented into the structure of this city made of images in the form of other imaginings. The Trojan refugee who was to found Rome, Aeneas, stumbles toward Rome clad in heroic nudity, in the body’s beauty, with his father astride him. Anchises, who saddles his son’s shoulder, bears aloft the statue of the house-gods with his thinning but still vigorous arm, while Aeneas’s young son holds on to his father’s knee: petrified dance movement, the allegory of the three ages of man, of the three human times. The young body spiralling inward with the energy compressed under high pressure, like a pillar, the promise of history.

Refugee human times are not always as muscular as on Bernini’s statue. On undergrowth and under foliage that are at once a Renaissance cliché and could be a grove in Villa Celimontana or Villa Ada, in the half-shade two exhausted adults and a baby receive a guest on their flight: a messenger with tempestuous drapery blown here from non-natural light, an angelos who – for what language could he indeed use with them – makes music. Embarrassingly bare-assed, on a tangible fiddle and from a score that Joseph holds for him – the one who has not given in to sleep like Mary, whose bun and hand embracing her child have come loose. Joseph holds the score and hides one bare foot with the other with the same old man’s clumsiness as his lookalike Matthew, whose lumpy hand is folded on the pen by the patient teen angel boy. The only one to look both at the angel and out, at us, is the half-hidden animal: one difficult non-human eye, its expression more unreadable than the angel’s backside. We see the music: although it can be played from the score, the fiddle’s voice is the fluid light itself, coming from an unlocalizable source, making everything freeze and setting everything aquiver at the same time. It doesn’t draw the contours of the body but wraps them up in aural shining. Magnetic storm, in which only the angel’s hairlock, unfolding loincloth and fluffy plumes of the lower wing stir, because he has two pairs of wings: one that looks like a chicken’s wing at most, and one leaden-heavy, folded into a strict vertical, perhaps a raven’s wing, in any case one that can by no account be supported by the malleable puberal shoulder. Teen cherub. Across the painting’s plane, the donkey’s dark shoulder echoes it. Mary, the chosen one does not see, does not hear the angel, but her red robe’s hem dropping to the ground starts glowing, as if shot through with radioactive rays, and is lifted from the ground in the same way in which the leaves curl back, their edge turned phosphorescent. Useless, gratuitous, almost inappropriate gift: it doesn’t feed or quench the thirst, it doesn’t even soothe the poor blistered feet, doesn’t offer directions or background info; no help or compassion, only an instant out of joint in the time of those whose lives have come out of joint. To receive it, to connect to it is only possible in the way in which the unpracticed hand does as it holds up the score, or the quietly radiating stone between the angel’s and Joseph’s feet, on which it is not the angel but Joseph who casts light. Perhaps in fact it is all about an angel descending to practice his instrument and do field research who, finding himself a live stand for the score, with his newfangled knowledge composes a mellifluous ciaccona on what it is like to give birth in a manger.

Self-abandon, the body’s surrender starts on the edges: the ankles and knees give way, the hands hang dumb and senseless, the neck is broken into an impossible angle by the dropping head. One of the most bewildering statues to be copied in Rome captures the stages of the body’s resistance and self-surrender: the Gaul killing himself and his wife erects a memorial to the vanquished that puts all triumphal symbols between inverted commas. In the pyramid-shaped composition everything is in movement, before the collapse everything fills up with life like a wound filling up instantly with blood: the warrior’s stretched thigh, stepping forward, the acute angle inscribed by the underarm that thrusts the blade into the neck, with the outward-turning head and the blade, and the other acute angle to echo it, that of the Gaul’s left hand holding up the collapsing woman’s left to keep her from falling to the ground. The direction of the step forward is also the direction of falling; the line of the supporting right leg, about to kick itself away from the ground, is repeated with stormy flutter by the cloak which, for one sole moment evicted from the passage of time and even from itself, resists gravity. In the spot-light streaming down from the museum ceiling the marble sends out into the room the taut skin’s mortal beauty: do not go gentle. The upward-spiralling movement is escape artistry. It starts from the helplessly toppling two feet of the stabbed woman, who is now only supported by the still living arm.

The childlike, soft soles turn outward, giving up balancing, they tumble the way the hem of the dress falls: living flesh and lifeless matter fold onto one another, unresisting, the clothes still preserve the warmth of the breathing-out body, but they fall upon one another with the great, meaningless co-belonging of organic matter that starts decomposing that very instant, while above them life rages in an acute angle against the dying of the light.

To look up at it are the fallen barbarian horses on the lowest layer of the giant sarcophagus placed to one side, trampled by four layers of victors and vanquished. The figures of the uppermost layer are too busy slaying the last enemy in trousers, lifting the eagle banner, or blowing with puffed-up face into the trumpet that winds round their head like a halo. In the museum rooms quietly sizzling light splashes against the plinths and pedestals and, breaking on them, splatters shiny drops up the marble feet.

In the afternoon the sky moves closer and pours down its liquid light down the bodies, the walls, covers the skin and the windows’ volute consoles in shining. With its overflowing waves it washes off all the dull, leaving a wet sheen on the stones, windows, faces, the bare legs of tourists pushed onwards by the systole-diastole of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Every single gull crossing the blue, every travertino facade, cornice blotting up the light radiates into the blue that stretches like a dome and opens with a lantern: oblique light cascades upwards and downwards at the same time.

*

On the crest of the Celio the two courtyards of Santi Quattro Coronati are sluices that let the noises of the outer world trickle into the acquarium of silence inside in a thin stream only. In the shade a man and a woman stand talking. The woman must be fiftyish, slender legs on tall sandal platforms, slender neck tilted slightly toward her interlocutor. Trespassing beauty: for how long does form hold its contours together in the face of time. The cloister is soundproofed by light-striated air walls, the background noise is caught up on the small twin columns’ grid of shadows.

It was built in the early 13th century out of the Roman debris of the Celio: the toy-size plinths grow water lily capitals from the rich soil of inscribed marble slabs, frieze fragments; the fraying-edged majuscules are larger than the blunt stone leaves curling upwards on the plinth corners. Under a filigree arch, a densely engraved marble slab: the squares, x-es, triangles of ancient draughts, fossilized friendliness in a convent.

The corridor’s stones, which can be read like a library, are deep black, only their worn-off, polished edges are bone-white; every engraving, inscription seems to add yet another layer of deep black. On the sunlit side the columns modulate from sun-bleached brownish-white to deep black: the  most light-worn white trickles down in thin lines on the inner, shady side, then from the parapet down to the stone floor, white light-inundation areas on the corridor. Restoration started a few years ago: the nearly thousand-year-old dirt, pollution is cleared away, erased from the stones with laser, with dentist’s instruments. The restored patches are almost ostentatiously white – small-scale transfiguration. Black: the colour of time, its material: dirt, stain, pollution, smog. The miniaturist’s painstaking back-erasure leaves sharp black-and-white contrasts. In only a few years the difference between the two ends of the cleared cloister corridor becomes visible: time starts silting immediately.

Into the stones faces are inscribed, face-stones. The statues of the historical collection of Palazzo Altemps did not only dilapidate but also shot new limbs. The collectors had the unearthed marble bodies restored, that is, the famous sculptors of the day, Algardi, Bernini supplied the missing arms and legs, sometimes even placed heads from other statues on the torsos: marble prostheses, transposed ancient heads. In the collection there is a monumental bust of Antinous: of the portrait of emperor Hadrian’s lover made into a god on account of his beauty only the nape with the thick locks, the neck and the shoulders was found. The face had been consumed by erosion, smashed in by iconoclasts or lime burners perhaps, its inward-turned gaze long soaked up into walls that had themselves crumbled since, adding to the debris.

To recognize among hundreds of torsos, from the angle of the nape, the arc of the shoulders, the tilt of the faceless head, the peerless loved one: to see back the face and the gaze, the shining, the pain and the name. Face transplant bridging one and a half thousand years.

In Rome the stones are more brittle. They had been tenderized by the incessant touchings, fallings, by the procession of wheels, sandals, hooves. Their species are as known, tended and pruned as fruit trees in other lands. A pulvinum, cushion receives the weight of the architrave before passing it onto the capital, a mediator between two kinds of hardnesses: there exists an imaginary that would carve even a pillow out of stone. Working in soft matter is out of the question here.

In the Ghetto, in the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei, paved with ancient reliefs, there is a stone seat for the weary: a stone cushion carved to measure onto a small sarcophagus, complete with tassels, mattress-like dimples, seams and bumps. Stone upholsterer, a Roman craft by excellence: to upholster the brittle lid of stones, sooner or later put to practical use, with stone layers against the engraving of human bodies; to wrap into stone. The fraying and thinning of the stone-down-filled marble brocade is in fact acquired burnish.

*

On the Trastevere side of the river, the stretch of embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini is populated with a spectral procession that is barely visible at first sight. Its figures are too large and too tangible to be truly visible and identifiable; the joints of the embankment wall and the weeds growing in them keep pushing themselves into the foreground.

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The images themselves seem to have been deposited here by the river, to belong together with the driftwood and plastic bottles stuck on the pillar, cemented into a compact cream by algae. Seen from the other side, however, they lose their tangible materiality, becoming merely visible. The place they ought to be looked at from, their true audience is the river itself. The pageant of triumphs and losses is headed toward Ponte Sisto, the Tiber’s triumphal arch on William Kentridge’s giant frieze, engraved into the material of Rome. The images are negatives: they are not painted on the stones, it is their background that has been carved out, the patina has been cleared away, so the drawings stand out in sharp black-on-white contrast. Their material is the stuff of time: dirt, silt, pollution, smog. The ceaseless procession performed to the river doesn’t remove itself from time: in time, the contrast will fade and eventually vanish, together with the images, as smog is deposited, thick and black. The parade of the triumphal symbols of history and of Rome is literally in decay, and of decay.

 

The silhouette of Marcus Aurelius’s equestrian statue is still complete, only the white patches of light on the shin and the horse’s rump foretell the coming erasure of edges and distinctions, but the horse and chariot arriving after him are themselves ruins: the horse appears to be a ghost animal patched together from spars and barbed wire, body posture without a body; the chariot’s wheel and gearbox stick out, lean silhouettes, as the vehicle rolls unmanned into the void.

The flesh of the Capitoline she-wolf seems to be melting downwards, two jugs placed under her dugs; a skeleton-wolf lopes along after her against an empty horizon where only a tree stump grows.

In a black square rolling on four wheels, the white-on-black shadow-puppet silhouettes of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a vehicle or a blown-up ad on the vehicle’s side, which pulls a barrow with a gigantic statue head, perhaps Constantine’s head, the pendant of the Capitoline gigantic foot. In the easily recognizable composition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the man brandishes an oversize machine gun.

Everywhere the images freeze on the threshold of recognition, with their transpositions, re-orchestrations and bewildering contingencies slide into foreignness, displace and evict that which we believe to be our common visual heritage, our common fatherland of images.

Agallop on his shady horse, a long-maned skeleton with drawn sword: perhaps one of the mutant horsemen of Dürer’s Apocalypse, perhaps death flogging the blood-curdling blind horse of the Palermo Trionfo della Morte – but the debris which it tramples is indistinguishable: the body of an infant blown out of proportions? a shapeless heap of corpses?

The two figures pushing a wheelbarrow are perhaps transporting a body with a bishop’s mitre, the scene is that of the translation of relics, the de rigueur element of a saint’s legendry, but perhaps they are depositing a plague corpse. In the procession they are followed by a group picture with execution: stooping men with hands tied behind are pushed before a man who stands with sword raised high, and will most probably cut off their heads; at their feet, an almost amorphous trunk – the transfiguration, disquietingly stripped of context, of what scene of martyrdom, by what painter? Who are the ones to be executed, where, when does the slaughter happen? Rome’s archive of images is here the collection not of knowledge but of the imprints of unsettling gaps and lacunae, of non-knowing: everything looks vaguely familiar, but is dislocated to the point of unrecognizability. A Goyaesque figure with a goat’s (or wolf’s?) head and hooves bows down to a piously kneeling, headscarved heap of clothes, giving a gift or offering communion, an oversize espresso coffee pot in his hands. On a forward-pushing horse with head thrust up and one foreleg lifted into an improbable height, a faceless figure in frenzied, cambered Napoleon posture; the horse pulls a Fiat Cinquecento weighed down by a pile of bodies, which distantly evokes the pyramidal composition of the Florence Pietà. On top of the pile, Bernini’s Saint Theresa collapsing in ecstasy, beneath her the murdered Aldo Moro. The horse’s lifted and supporting forelegs are in pieces, the hooves hang in thin air, there is nothing to prop up the body, which is itself an image-ruin, the sole thing that rests of it is the blind forward thrust. Left behind, a monolithic figure in diagonal foreshortening, one of the corpses; it lies face downward, its shirt slid up to the shoulder-blades. What is the blackness smeared around the upper body: a pool of blood? the arm, twisted back? torn clothes? Four men leaning forward in Roman tunics carry indistinguishable objects on their shoulders, among them a menorah. The image is the imprint of the relief inside Titus’s arch – but only here does it become conspicuous how porous the image is, how full of gaps: the first man in the row has no legs whatsoever, he propels himself forward into the void on what appears to be a single crutch, according to the impossible physics of drawing; the others all lack a limb, part of a face. What the eye fills in readily on the arch’s worn-off relief, now suddenly appears uncannily holed, perished, fallen to pieces – we see what is, not what we know. The moment the historical context does not shroud the image into reassuring loftiness, patina, it is revealed that what we believe to know is a mere ruin, and to what extent the material of our images and stories, taken for granted, is filled in with the mortar of imagination-supplement.

About halfway in the procession in a black square it is written in brackets, QUELLO CHE NON RICORDO. But the image-less field is not blank, it is not erased, cancelled, scraped away, on the contrary: it is black deposit, unstirred time. The archive can also be empty, useless, if all silted layers are at our disposal. Here where black is the colour of saturation, of time, and white, that of emptiness, of non-time, the colour of erasures, damnatio memoriae and tabula rasa, the saturated black archive becomes the place of non-knowing. Perhaps it is no accident that in this very place someone scribbled a graffiti over the black – time takes back and inscribes these non-knowing images without delay. Below, a portion of the path is cordoned off with yellow tape where in a storm branches from the plane-trees of the Lungotevere broke and fell a few days before: the mound of debris started growing instantly, it is only a question of time when it will reach the bracketed words.

On a plank two men are crossing over water into a boat’s bow, one bends double under the weight of a chair: what are they loading in, where is it they are bound, where they can make use of a chair? The image doesn’t continue in a shore, as logic would demand, but in the prow of a boat full to the brim with people staring at some horizon: from the visual echo of the group propped up above the dying and looking up at their frantically waving mates on the Raft of the Medusa, it is impossible not to think of the cockleshells setting out every day across the Mediterranean. The boat itself is unaccountably strange, metamorphic. What seems to be drawn-in veils or an improvised awning that can hardly give any shade, looks disconcertingly like a horizontal gallows. Beneath, the water surface morphs into something that is at the same time a row of beam-thick oars (who are these men, galley-slaves?) and a makeshift raft’s cross-beams, half submerged – another echo of the Raft of the Medusa. Yet, in front of the raft of hope or hopelessness no rescue ship comes in sight on the horizon: in an empty wasteland the ghostly skeleton of the Capitoline she-wolf slogs, all that remains of her is the bones and the hanging dugs. In front of her, uncannily unlocalizable images, a group of faceless men carrying heavy bundles on their shoulders: history as ceaseless lugging, coming-and-going, eviction, removal with the dead, house gods, shapeless bags, lives. In front of a general’s prancing horse, the advance guard is a hussar-shakoed dummy saddling a vaulting-horse, the legs of his mount are gun barrels and crutches, its head a flag – unforgettable summing-up of the nauseatingly repetitive iconography of nationalisms. A big-maned silhouette dashes ahead with an oversize machine gun, like Ronan the barbarian, the foldover flaps of his combat boots flutter after him like Hermes wings. A horse skeleton drops to its knees in front of him, its clutch-legs put together from gunbarrels. Behind him, a quixotic vehicle rolls in: a bathtub in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kiss as water (or gas?) pours down on them from a showerhead hanging from a pole that is fastened to the tub. The imprints of the images of culture are hauled hither and thither among the other bundled goods, becoming ever more brittle, their edges break off, their fate is that of classical or early Christian iconography: they can be deciphered only fragmentarily, painstakingly, and with gaping lacunae. Our culture as ruin. Overlooking the procession that sets out in the direction of the two bridges from the black square of non-knowing and non-remembering, under Ponte Mazzini, two meters above the driftwood island, humanity in ruins: the gaudy plastic tents and shapeless piled-up bundles of refugees and of the homeless.

*

Pizza bianca, focaccia al rosmarino. Salt, rosemary and oil: taste of friendliness. L., stranger, unknown friend. Flashing blue eyes, flashing white teeth. She talks about the flavor of the soil in pizza dough and in vegetables. At the shaky small table our plates touch, we taste one another’s food. It is only steamed leaves – my favourites, bietola, cicoria – she refuses, for their substance, she says. On the first evening, a group of cheerful half-strangers, we walk up the Palatine hill after closing hour, when the gulls and songbirds take it back from the crowds. All through she talks about the poetic justice in the fact that the erstwhile triumphal arches, the columns of the forums are taken apart, the emblems of one-time victory become lintels, construction stones, the symbols of power do not survive the demise of power but as objects of daily use, shedding their former meanings. The triumphal arch is turned into a gate in the shrunken walls of the shrunken city, lime-burning stoves spring up inside what used to be a theatre, weavers spread their starched linen, goat herds graze beneath the columns of Fortuna Virilis, on the ruins a little, scarce life sprouts. She speaks in Italian, fast and with gusto, mixing in some Spanish turns-of-phrase every now and then: mongrel Romance, she says. We toast to mongrelizing. Every day early in the morning she walks up the Aventino hill to the Giardino degli Aranci, when there are no people there yet, only the birds, the trees and the sky. Thirty-five kilos of animation. She is first and foremost interested in the way the language of science frames the body. Before becoming a freelance she was an engineer and designed attack helicopters for the US army. It is from there she took to the world, lived on orange and oil farms, started speaking in other languages. At one of the lectures, about the biopolitics of the early 20th century, there is a lengthy quote from a letter reporting with wry humour the death of one of the imprisoned participants of the Easter Rising. To demand prisoner-of-war status, he goes on hunger strike, the authorities try force-feeding on him, but in the course of the operation the bougie is jammed into the larynx instead of the aesophagus. It couldn’t have escaped her that they share a surname. At dinner she relates how she got ill with a sombre autoimmune disease, and was hospitalized for a long time; she was declared an anorexic, so she was excluded not only from the numbers of the healthy but also from those of the anorexic, who sensed she wasn’t one of them. One morning she faints on the Gianicolo hill – having walked up all the way in the merciless sun, crossing half of Rome; the physician who consults her is of the opinion that she is critically undernourished and prescribes infusion, but she rejects the idea of hospitalization. It’s only the level of her blood sugar that tends to drop, she says. She is walking away on the immense, treeless square, Giacometti woman, fluff-haired bare life, her thigh the width of a child’s wrist, sore skin and bones in the moving boots, away into the glaring light. The university doesn’t take responsibility for the costs of eventual treatment, the doctor’s diagnosis is anorexia, so they would send her home halfway through the program, with the recommendation to heal; she turns down the offer of a flight the next day and will not accept the diagnosis, prefers to travel on southward, seaward; in a farewell message she invites me to a good meal somewhere, sometime.

*

On the right side of Termini the Via Giolitti’s row of palaces is a breakwater, against which the relentless waves of tourists smash, to be drained into the Piazza della Repubblica, or along Via Gioberti and Corso Cavour into the communicating pools of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Only the spumes are splashed into the parallel streets; they, too, mostly seek out the cheap little souvenir shops and street vendors, and the kebab and pizza-a-taglio shops pouring out their burnt oil smell day and night. Tourists grown into strange centaur forms with their backpacks count their coins in the sqeezed-in little places where with sparing movements, Filipinos eat their supper at the end of a day’s cleaning, or Africans who spend most of the day in the blade-wide shade on the deserted end of Via Giolitti, between the De Chirico tower with its winding stairs and the shell of the Tempio di Minerva, hoping for some daywork. In the district mornings start very early: the mercatini move out on the streets, the always too narrow pavements brim over not with passers-by but with hurriers-to and luggers. The intonation of Filipino and Romanian blends readily into that of Italian, while the various Chinese, Indian and African languages stand out distinctly with their vowels hollowed out by different configurations of the throat, tongue and palate. On the instantly heated asphalt, amidst the general busy-ness there are a few islands of slowness, unwashed-looking shopwindows, unopened-looking doors. On a corner, the once modern art deco masks of Cinema Moderno watch over a few parking motorini and the rear entrance to a deposit. Above an exchange office, an antiquated font from the ’60s proclaims in a husky voice, CAMBIO; in its shop window rows of commemorative medals and 19th century coins, a whole numismatic collection – as if sullenly drawing aside, outside of time; the day’s exchange rate is posted almost apologetically sideways. With calligraphic letters, as though in the hand of some award-winning primary-school pupil, a painted sign above a shop window in which dust gathers on military orders and decorations: Ma Mi – La Sartoria del Militare. Ma mi: Giorgio Strehler’s song about the hardened thug of the Milan malavita who, past his years in the resistance and facing a long term in prison for some unspecified criminal act, when the captain offers to set him free in exchange for the names of his mates, refuses to chirp, standing the clouts in San Vittur prison quaranta dì quaranta nott, as he once had at the hands of the todesch de la Wehrmacht. Ornella Vanoni removes her earrings and with head thrown back sings out in her untamed throaty voice in the sixties, sbattuu de su sbattuu de giò, like a real duro. Up-yours spite, the tomcat stink of the ballad of the malnati growing up on the streets like feral kittens sprays the uniforms that step over the threshold; the words of the explosive hit of the antifascist generation are sewn into the military finery of retired army officers. Two outlandish words in a faraway dialect, remnants of the republic’s sun-bleached spirit, blend in with the Chinese names on shop windows.

The largest island of the archipelago of stillness is the improbably silent little park in front of the Acquario Romano, meant to be a monument to water. Under the two flights of stairs leading to the entrance, safely out of reach at the bottom of a minute fake grotto, a toy fountain sends out its tantalizing gurgle to the thirsty. There is no fontanella on the surrounding streets, only throat-parching exhaustion gas, heat that massacres the feet; in the shops mineral water bottles are everywhere placed well in sight. In the prolonged draught not only Rome but the whole province is suffocating: with the level of Lake Bracciano, where most of Rome’s water comes from, at a historical low, and environmental disaster pending, the city administration decided to switch off the water of the fontanelle, free for all in all parts of the city. A sentry box guards the entrance; a uniformed policeman watches over the few Africans who sit in loose groups on the benches of the shady side, immersed in their cellphones  or merely trying to get a few hours’ comfortable sit instead of sleep. In a corner of the park, a group of singular objects: a haphazard structure, a shaky assemblage of a few elements, and two chairs put together from a few metal sheets and circles.

 

Two examples of Yona Friedman’s communal, utopian, improvised shelters, variable at will and designed for those in need. Friedman obviously knew quite a bit about scarce, improvised dislocated life – himself a survivor of fascism in Hungary, who first moved to Israel after the war, then to Paris in 1957. His oeuvre is a collection of shelters, homes, spaces that anyone can join together according to their needs out of ‟crumpled sheets” and supports chosen at will – the polar opposite of postwar International Style subordinating life to the structures born on the drafting table; one of his insights is that a sheet, if crumpled, gains in solidity and resistance. The chairs are here as part of a Friedman show at MAXXI. There, in Zaha Hadid’s sculptural, ostentatious space, in the histrionic museum light Friedman’s mobile mock-ups sit awkwardly, like blistered feet in a posh shoe shop; the project of the street museum – bearing the motto, it is the exhibits that make a museum – is especially ironic here, where the building is the main spectacle, pushing all the exhibits into the background.

Inside and in front of it museum death is general, not even Mario Merz’s glass igloo and Piero Gilardi’s carnivalesque, anarchic set of demonstration masks and still lifes cut out of psychedelic-coloured polystyrene can resist its pull. The two chairs stand in the park corner like two exhibits with attached labels – extensions of the architecture centre inside the Acquario. None of the Africans occupied either of them, although they were made for them, even if not placed here for them. I sit down in one, it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy: radical design for the middle-class flâneur. Inside, beyond the cafè  an exhibition of the works of the visionary architects of the ’60s, Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fiorentino, among the first to sense that modernity’s faith in reason cannot hold. In the bookshop on a stand, designer’s items, bookmarks with catchy mottos and maxims from Confucius to Bob Dylan, you must change your life, one euro apiece, the price of three bottles of mineral water in a neighbourhood grocery.

*

A fresh globe of horse-turd is smoking, gleeful find on the Via Appia. On a cypress trunk a sign with picture missing Titù, friendly medium-size black female dog, lost on the stretch around San Sebastiano. Waif on the petrified luggage conveyor silted in sand, from which the soutward-bound carts, litters, odd-toed or cleft hooves, the entering and exiting troops, those destined to promotion or execution have long tumbled off, only the funeral monuments, steles rest with a petitioning look on their portraits, unreclaimed luggage. The feet get used to the passage from the uniform basalt cobblestones to the broad, flat lava-stone slabs with their humps and hollows, with their notches impressed by cart wheels: unfinished lithography, its technique long forgotten, its forms can be only intuited. Functional roads leading somewhere are the most nondescript buildings, non-places. The Appia Antica, too, leads, but not somewhere: pure procession without goal,end, terminus, and without a route – it became Antica when it ceased to be a roadway. Wayward road, only proceeding wayward, into itself. Space evicted from journeying, space become time: its face stopped aging, like the effigies on the funerary steles. It ran out of time.

This is probably the world’s most refined grand orchestra of cicadas: it does not concentrate on the beauty of sound, it treats rhythm as a sound architect, and doesn’t fidget too much about the odd mislaid tone. Of Rome’s many skies this is the widest and of its many lights, this is the most caressing even at its brightest. Among the bitter little cotton-tufted herbs a propped-up marble statue, with a hole where the head should sit: perhaps a standard half-figure with custom-made head, available in right- or lefthanded version. In the hollow in place of the neck a handful of pine needles, cypress cones, seeds gathers: humus that will germinate with the first autumn rain, unrepeatable vegetal life in the mass produce antiquated into uniqueness. Below their multi-storey flowerings, preposterous drawings, the bone-hard agave leaves twist and coil like octopus arms seeking to free themselves. To the right side, a forward-looking little arboretum, its saplings barely rise above the wilted grass.

From San Sebastiano bus 118 drives to the Ardeatina among walls and clouds of greenery, then on to trafficky Appia Nuova. The landscape spreads out wide. On a tall hillcrest against the sky, in counterlight the washed-up backbone of a prehistoric whale, the Villa dei Quintili. In the late imperial age the largest of Rome’s suburban villas stood here; to lay his hands on it, emperor Commodus, who loved posing as Hercules, ordered the killing of the two Quintilianus brothers, the most cultivated patrician heirs of the day. Slow light- and sunward ascent in the descending afternoon brightness. A seamless inverted v-shaped board fence, undulating matte eel’s spine establishes the directions; in the dried-up soil cracks go in all directions, lines of flight.

Fourten years: at the two ends of rising and falling light, the elongated shadows cast on the pathway, their contours do not overlap precisely. Perhaps not even the skeleton building’s contours overlap precisely. In that other time there was wild origano to gather here, and dried-up wild figs whose astringent sweetness lingered in the mouth for days. Perhaps they fell victims to systematization. The unauthorized little farm, too, disappeared from among the ruins, with its sad-faced, drooping-eared sheep and goats that obdurately practiced land occupation with their stench: now crows sit aligned in geometric order on the fence, uniformed uni-squatters, trickling musical notes on a splintered score. But at the entrance from the Appia Nuova a hoopoe bird is hopping, gleeful anarchist, light-discharges at the ends of its orange crest.

The caldarium’s gigantic window is practicing how to capture the most of the sky. How to turn entirely into sky, and the walls, into openings. First it shed its alabaster windowpanes, the ceiling mosaic, then its sills and in the end it stripped down to the brick layering. Its edges are now drawn by the blade-sharp shadows. Lidless eye gone blind in the incessant procession, into which things swim, so it responds to them with its substance. In the early Middle Ages a lime-burner set up shop among the ruins, marble excavated from here had the reputation of yielding prime lime, after it had been broken and matured in deposits for years like wine. Giant stone tuning-fork: to sound it one doesn’t need the wind, the touch of the gaze is enough. Its A is the purest, distilled Rome-homesickness, Rome-sickness. It can only be heard in silence, for otherwise the other, more mixed Rome-sicknesses outvoice it: the street noises, the gull noises, the fluttering of the tree-crowns, the wind-shielded shade, the grass scent, the pine scent stocked away for years in a cone, the undulating tread of sandalled feet, the laughing together.

—Erika Mihálycsa

§

Source of quotations and paraphrases in the text:

…summer’s temperature curve: Zsuzsa Takács, The Pillar of Salt [A sóbálvány] (2016)

harry the last heat through them: ‟harry the last few drops of sweetness through the wine”, Rainer Maria Rilke: Herbsttag, trans. Mary Kinzie

Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen]

White and lightVerlorne wind-shade: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen], trans. Michael Murray

sea-mill: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

do not go gentle… rage against the dying of the light: Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

…the shining, the pain and the name: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

…humanity in ruins: Samuel Beckett, The Capital of the Ruins (1945)

quaranta dì quaranta nott…todesch de la Wehrmacht…sbatuu de su sbattuu de giò: Giorgio Strehler, Fiorenzo Carpi, Ma Mi (1959)

you must change your life: Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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Erika Mihalycsa
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Aug 072017
 

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When I was recently invited to deliver a talk at the institution where I have worked for the past thirty years, it was suggested to me that while I was free to speak about anything at all, my hosts would be pleased if I spoke about something that interests me deeply. So, after long and extremely contentious negotiations with myself, I decided to speak about literature. And more particularly still, about fiction. And still more particularly still, about the kinds of spaces that fiction defines. For we are creatures of space, after all. We dwell in many different kinds of space, often simultaneously. We think about space in a variety of ways, some of them fairly straightforward, others more than passingly vexed. It is legitimate to say that as much as we inhabit space, space inhabits us, significantly shaping the way we imagine ourselves and the way we come to be in the world.

Granted that, it seems to me that the notion of space is far more intriguing when it is conceived as a cultural topos than when we think of it as a natural phenomenon. Rather than something merely given, something that simply is, it is productive to think of space as something constructed, something forged both in and through culture. That sort of perspective provides more room for maneuver, more room for speculation, more room for play—in short more room for us.

Observations such as those may seem to be perfectly patent when it is a question of literary space, rather than of the space defined by the Grand Canyon, the Kalahari Desert, or the Mariana Trench. Yet I would like to suggest that there is no compelling reason for us to read those latter spaces more literally than we do the spaces we encounter in the books we read. And conversely (but in that very same light), it is from time to time both useful and tonic, I think, to imagine literary space in a very literal manner indeed—a relatively easy task for those literalists among us. I count myself as one of that breed, as a person consistently delighted by letters, and by the spaces that they limn.

Among the many pleasures that fiction puts on offer, the opportunity to lose oneself in mild abstraction is by no means the least; and I imagine that all of us have availed ourselves of that opportunity, whether sparingly or in a more insouciant manner. For my part, I am intrigued by the different shapes that state of abstraction assumes, and by its conditions of possibility. I would propose to parse it closely and methodically here, were it not for the fact its dimensions are so mutable, as mutable in fact as individual readerly experience can be. Instead, I shall focus on a few textual passages that seem to me to incorporate clear invitations to the kind of abstracted state that interests me, hoping thereby better to understand that phenomenon.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The first passage I would like to visit occurs when the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom is gazing out of his window into a rainswept Parisian street:

It was raining. The street was wet, the sidewalks dark. Cars were parking. Other cars, already parked, were covered with rain. People were crossing the street quickly, going in and out of the post office in the modern building across from me. A little vapor began to cover my windowpane. Behind the thin coat of mist, I observed the passersby sending their letters. The rain gave them a conspiratorial air: stopping in front of the mailbox, they would draw an envelope from their coat and thrust it through the slot very quickly so as not to get it wet, meanwhile pulling up their collars against the rain. I put my face close to the window and, eyes against the glass, suddenly had the impression that all these people were inside an aquarium. Perhaps they were afraid? The aquarium was slowly filling. (20)

Many things could be said about this textual moment. I am chiefly interested, however, in the way that the narrator imagines his own situation with regard to the world around him. On the one hand, he is clearly inside his apartment, looking out at the street and at the people hurrying along it. On the other hand, as soon as he imagines that those people are in an aquarium, his position shifts to that of someone on the outside looking in. That inside-outness is more than passingly uncanny; and yet it seems to me perfectly exemplary of the kind of site that we inhabit when we read fiction.

For clearly, reading is a real-world activity. By that I mean that it takes place in the world of phenomena, a behavior that is conditioned (and sometimes constrained) by real-world considerations. We sit upright in our favorite chair or sprawl flat out on our sofa; the dogs are barking or they are silent; the telephone rings or it does not; our gimpy right knee is bothering us or it feels okay; we have paid our taxes on time or we are badly in arrears. Yet when we read fiction, we also dwell in the fictional world. Therein, we partake of the heady fruit of the lotus and lose ourselves. We gaze aghast upon the tortured souls in the eighth circle of Hell; we listen as a peer of the realm sounds his horn too late; we test the keen edge of a harpoon honed by a tattooed Kokovokoan; we detect the very particular aromas emanating from the kitchen as a middle-aged Irishman prepares to dine on the inner organs of beasts and fowls; we taste a perfectly prepared martini cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

In other terms, we are always divided when we read fiction. We are here, but we are also there—and vice versa, as it were. And in that light, we are very unlike the fictional characters who fascinate us. In her novel Western, Christine Montalbetti remarks that “only fictional characters are completely wrapped up in what they are doing” (Western 53). She is undoubtedly correct, insofar as fictional characters remain within the boundaries of their fictional worlds. For one imagines that if Emma Bovary or Stephen Dedalus were to set foot in the phenomenal world, they might find themselves just as divided as you or me. On the face of it, that latter eventuality seems absurd; yet we readers emigrate quite blithely from one world to another. We step into a fictional world, and thrash about therein in an effort to make it our own, suspending certain ways of thinking about the world, and heightening others, depending upon local circumstances.

One can be more literalist about this matter, or more coolly figuralist. Either way, one is obliged to realize that our readerly self is significantly divided. Ross Chambers has argued that certain kinds of literature promote that kind of divided attention far more than others. Pointing toward works that play upon the dilatory, upon apparent idleness and diversion, Chambers coins the term loiterature to designate them. “Critical as it may well be behind its entertaining façade,” he argues, “loiterly writing disarms criticism of itself by presenting a moving target, shifting as its own divided attention constantly shifts” (Loiterature 9). That kind of literature wagers squarely, I believe, upon our own willingness to be divided. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in the passage that I quoted, invites us to read in that divided manner through the mediation of his protagonist, whose attention is so patently divided. Now, it is reasonable to imagine that the extent of that division (or the proportion of our attention devoted to the real or the fictional world at any given moment) will depend upon a variety of factors: the excellence of the text; the suggestibility and general humor of the individual reader; the local circumstances in which the act of reading takes place; and other considerations still more imponderable. Yet it is legitimate to say that any reading will entail a division of the subject’s attention, to a greater or a lesser degree—or, in other terms, an abstraction.

Seen in long focus, what is surprising about our behavior as readers is how easily we migrate from the phenomenal world to the fictional world, and back again. Indeed, that migration is so fluid and so constant that it may be more useful to imagine the reader as inhabiting both worlds simultaneously. In his study of the mise-en-abyme, Lucien Dällenbach suggests that that figure can assume three broad shapes. First, the simple emblazonment of like within like: a play within a play, a novel within a novel. Second, a structure of infinite emblazonment: the Quaker on a box of Quaker Oats holding in his hand a box of Quaker Oats upon which a smaller Quaker holds a box of Quaker Oats, and so forth. Finally, an aporetic emblazonment in which the relations between container and contained are shifting and unclear (Le Récit spéculaire 37-38, 51). That latter structure is a good way to conceive of our situation as readers of fiction, I think, because it accounts for the difficulty we experience as we try to analyze the relations between our divided readerly selves, and it allows us to imagine the real world and the fictional world in an isotopical and mutually implicative fashion, rather than in a hierarchical manner where one is always subordinated to the other. That perspective provides us in turn with a more lucid vision of our behavior as readers, a set of gestures that is sharpened, intensified, and refined by the immersive power of fiction.

Fiction constantly reminds us that the real and the imaginary are both mobile constructs rather than static ones, that they can be conceived only in their reciprocal mobility, and that we, too, are constantly in motion. We cannot survey either world, thus, from a fixed and stable vantage point; rather, we must apprehend things in their proper flow while we ourselves are in a state of flux. Such a process can be extremely arduous, and sometimes our mind rebels. Sometimes our need for stability is so imperious that we persuade ourselves of our stillness, against the evidence of our senses. Chris Scott constructs a scene like that in To Catch a Spy: “The train’s hydraulics hissed and the station moved backwards as if jolted by an unseen hand” (310). The sensation that his character experiences is familiar to most of us (though these days it is more likely to occur when a plane we’re in pulls back from the jetway). The very brief moment that it takes for us to recalibrate and realize that it is in fact we who are moving never fails to produce an uncanny feeling, one that hinges largely on a jarring shift from subject to object. We prefer to occupy the former site if we can, until incidence or coincidence evicts us, for it is a place of privilege with regard to everything that surrounds it. It enables us to survey things as if we were not part of them, nor subject to the laws that govern them. It allows us to think that we are central. It indulges our wish to believe that things are about us.

Hélène Lenoir

Upon rare occasion, one may experience a sensation that plays out in a fashion contrary to the one I have just described, that is, where one has the impression of moving, though one is in fact remaining still. Consider for example this scene from Hélène Lenoir’s Le Répit, where a man seated in a train at rest in a station gazes out the window at another train: “The train slowly pulling out on the other side of the platform made him think for a few seconds that he himself was leaving” (122; my translation). The impression that this event produces in the man is no less uncanny than the one that Chris Scott’s character experiences, even though the circumstances appear so different. In both instances, it is a question of misinterpretation, of course; yet that misinterpretation is itself brimming with meaning, a meaning that focuses most fundamentally upon how we conceive the world and our place in it.

The Red Queen and the Red King in “Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There” (1871).

I wonder if we may have been struck by the sensation that Scott and Lenoir invoke in yet another context. I wonder if we may have had a very similar feeling from time to time when reading fiction. When some event in the phenomenal world jolts us out of our immersion in the fictional world, for instance, and we shake our heads for a moment while we recalibrate, not quite knowing which world trumps the other. Much like Alice, waking from her dream, when she wonders if the Red King was a figure in her dream or if she was a figure in his dream (344). I am encouraged in this line of thinking by another passage in Toussaint’s novel. Once again, it takes place in a train, traveling between Paris and Venice:

I had spent the night in a train compartment, alone, with the lights out, immobile. Aware of motion, only motion; of the outward perceptible motion that was transporting me despite my immobility, but also of the inner motion of my body that was destroying itself, an imperceptible motion that began to occupy my attention to the exclusion of all else, a motion I desperately wanted to seize hold of. But how to grasp it? (39)

How indeed? The narrator’s situation is a peculiar one, for he feels himself to be immobile contrary to all evidence. Immobile both with regard to the world outside, as the train speeds across the landscape, and with regard to the world inside, as his own bodily processes push him toward death. Belonging thus neither to the outside nor to the inside, where in the world can he be? Once more, it seems to me that the sites toward which Toussaint is pointing are spaces that fiction constructs; and his text invites us again and again, in a variety of manners, to inhabit those spaces. It is not simply a matter of suspension of disbelief, nor of a deliberate forgetting. It is more like an invitation to multiply ourselves, to imagine our selves as dwelling in different places simultaneously, and acting productively in each. Toussaint’s invitation involves thus a choice taken deliberately and lucidly; it puts on offer a significant franchise in the production of meaning; and it inevitably prompts us to reflect upon literature and its uses—an activity that is almost always advantageous, in my experience, and very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

My brief for an abstracted, inside-out mode of reading is a simple one, and undoubtedly naive. Though it may seem utopian to some, it is chiefly founded in pragmatics, for to my way of thinking it describes the way we actually behave when we read fiction. It suffices to realize that we are far more supple, more tolerant, more agile, more playful when we approach a fictional world than we typically are when we grapple with the phenomenal world. It also helps to recognize that we can immerse ourselves up to our necks in fiction, while never abdicating our critical faculties, that the one gesture does not debilitate the other. To the contrary, immersion actuates our critical sense, and our critical sense stokes our desire to inhabit the fictional world. If such were not the case, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s protagonist would see nothing more than a rainy street when he gazes out the window. And gazing upon him, we would see no more than random scribblings on a page. Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.

—Warren Motte

§

Works Consulted

Carroll, Lewis.  Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In Martin Gardner,     ed.  The Annotated Alice.  Seaton: Bramhall House, 1960.  167-345.

Chambers, Ross.  Loiterature.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Dällenbach, Lucien.  Le Récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme.  Paris: Le Seuil, 1977.

Lenoir, Hélène.  Le Répit.  Paris: Minuit, 2003.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Western.  2005.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press,    2009.

Scott, Chris.  To Catch a Spy.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe.  The Bathroom.  1985.  Trans. Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angelis.              Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

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Warren Motte is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary French literature, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), Mirror Gazing (2014), and French Fiction Today (2017).

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Aug 062017
 

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Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece was deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”

Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary – indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I had never really had much of a chance to build a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sven Mary

The connection, I must confess, was neither fortuitous nor particularly inspired. I had already been working on a tribute to Lee, and the parallels are, of course, immediately obvious: set in 1935, in the archetypal small town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in endearing terms the tense situation that unfolds when Tom Robinson, a black man, is unfairly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a disenfranchised young white woman. Entitled by law to a defense lawyer, Robinson is paired up with Atticus Finch, the unofficial standard-bearer of integrity and fairness in a town where prejudice is rife – though no more so, I would suspect, than in any real-life small town of the South at the time.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. 

Narrated from the perspective of Atticus’ eight-year-old daughter Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird vividly portrays the life-changing consequences faced by the Finch family once Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson: Scout and her elder brother Jem are relentlessly bullied by the other children at school; most people in Maycomb start looking at the Finches with suspicion; Atticus even has to put his physical wellbeing on the line to prevent a choleric mob from lynching his client. And yet, all along, even before the trial starts, one overarching argument comes to the surface: for the sake of justice, Tom Robinson’s story needs to be told.

No matter what anyone says or does, Atticus tells his children, don’t kick, don’t spit, don’t even insult anyone back, because in a world governed by laws, rational arguments must prevail over passionate exultations. Atticus knows that the first instinct of the vast majority of people in Maycomb is to be violent; he expects everyone to assume Tom Robinson to be guilty; he expects everyone to demand revenge. But he is also confident that once the dust of the emotions settles, the sheer weight of the facts will give them prominence against the background of so much speculation. This is not to say Atticus has any expectations about an all-white jury acquitting his client – he knows full well that he has not enough time in his hands to allow the dust to settle anywhere near enough to stand a chance of winning in court. But he still gives his all in a lost battle, just because it’s the right thing to do.

Atticus Finch is maligned by his peers, not so much because he is forced to defend Tom Robinson but because he wants to. That, however, is the full extent of the parallel between To Kill a Mockingbird and the drama that unfolded in Brussels following Abdeslam’s capture. Like Atticus Finch, Sven Mary wanted to represent this universally hated character: Mr Mary, it seems, had been contacted by Abdeslam’s family in January 2016, and he immediately made public his willingness to act on behalf of the runaway. But while Atticus is ready to defend the rights of a man who is being wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Sven Mary was engaged by a man who was involved in a heinous bloodbath that claimed 130 lives, and who has been connected to another terrorist attack that killed thirty more people – a man whose ill intentions are way beyond reasonable doubt, and indeed, a man whose murderous delusions have long come true.

Though Atticus Finch and Sven Mary share a desire to defend the outcasts of their respective societies, the two of them stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in most other senses. For instance, one of the weaknesses of To Kill a Mockingbird might be how clear-cut Tom Robinson’s case is: not only is he crippled and consequently unlikely to have been capable of coercing his alleged victim, but he is also facing a trial against the most vulnerable element in Maycomb, bar the black population. Uneducated, inbred, amoral, and hopelessly poor, the Ewells are regarded by just about everyone in town as the lowest form of white life – white trash, quite literally – which enables Atticus to build a case of sorts. Had Tom Robinson been accused of raping any respectable member of Maycomb’s society, he would in all likelihood never have made it to the courtroom, and even if he had made it, his attorney would not have been allowed to call into question the other witnesses’ account of events. The only reason Tom Robinson enjoys the privilege of a fair trial (if not a fair sentence) is because he is up against a member of the nearest rung to his own on the social ladder – even if, ultimately, the gap between the two proves infinite, unbridgeable.

Evidently, this circumstance could not be further from the specifics of the case against Salah Abdeslam. Indeed, the situation is so different that Sven Mary indicated his client had no intention of claiming he wasn’t at the scene of the Paris attacks, and he even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t have been prepared to defend Abdeslam had he chosen to make that claim. There is no question that Abdeslam is a jihadist fighter; no doubt that he was part of the cell plotting and carrying out the attacks of 13 November 2015; no uncertainty regarding the innocence of his victims, the atrocity of his crime, or the extent of his involvement. So what’s the point in defending him? Why would Sven Mary have wanted the job in the first place?

The simplest and most cynical answer is, of course, that the notoriety the case was always going to bring. For better or worse, there’s no denying that the case made Mr Mary an international celebrity. But this explanation alone rings far too simplistic, and while the allure of fame might have played a role in his decision, there is something more pressing, something far greater, that needs to be taken into consideration.

Like every other suspect and perpetrator of the Paris and Brussels attacks, Salah Abdeslam is a second generation immigrant from a Muslim family. He holds a French passport through his Moroccan parents’ link to Algeria, but he was born in Brussels, he was raised in Brussels, he attended school in Brussels, he speaks with a Belgian accent, he committed his first misdemeanors in Brussels. By all standards, bar the most radically conservative, Salah Abdeslam is Belgian. Salah Abdeslam is as Belgian as J-Lo is American; he’s as Belgian as Charles Aznavour is French. Yet in some sense the problem is that he is as Belgian as Tom Robinson – whose ancestry is never touched upon in To Kill a Mockingbird – is American.

Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson because his side of the story needs to be heard; Atticus Finch steps between the cell where Tom Robinson is kept and a crowd of people ready to take his life because, in a world governed by laws, there is no room for trial by mob. But Tom Robinson is a good man. Salah Abdeslam doesn’t deserve any leniency, he doesn’t deserve any consideration, he doesn’t even deserve to be heard. However, when Sven Mary told the press he was contemplating suing the French prosecutor for quoting from his client’s confidential statement, when he condemned the abuse of power entailed by describing his client as “public enemy number one”, Sven Mary was effectively stepping between Salah Abdeslam and the mob, because in a world ruled by laws there is no room for trial by media either.

The sad and thorny fact is that the vast majority of European societies continue to this day to struggle to avoid the pitfalls of discrimination, inequality, and social injustice in their dealings with the large immigrant communities that by now have come to be an intrinsic part of their fabric. For many years, ghettoisation was seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement both for newcomers and for “indigenous” members of European societies, which would then be able to coexist with little or no interaction necessary. For the migrant communities, this would satisfy a natural disposition to bunch up and create as similar an environment as possible to the one they’d left behind – after all, there’s safety in numbers and comfort in familiarity. Meanwhile, native communities would easily be able to avoid contact with these outsiders merely by staying clear of the areas where they were concentrated, habitually peripheral zones or rather undesirable destinations in the first place, be they Brixton, Finsbury Park, or Notting Hill for the West Indians from the Empire Windrush generation, or the area around the Hauptbahnhof in Munich for the Turkish guest workers, the Gastarbeiter, who were invited into Germany in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, to name but two notorious examples.

The problem with this approach took some time to flourish, but once it did it proved to be of monumental magnitude: in Germany, for instance, whole neighbourhoods became so uniformly Turkish that all shop names and at times even street signs were in Turkish, not German. The social and economic conditions experienced by these communities were also drastically disparate compared to the average “indigenous” community’s experiences: effectively being on the margins of society, these ghettoes were, and in many cases remain, prone to all sorts of adverse circumstances, from overcrowding to social exclusion, ideological, religious and cultural segregation, lack of opportunities, concentration of power on single members of the communities, the emergence of gang cultures, and so on. Yet, somehow, the general perception was that the immigrants enjoyed a privileged life in Germany, where they were after all employed and therefore entitled to free education and extensive healthcare, compared to what their lives would be like back in Turkey. The fact that there was widespread discrimination against them – not least with regards to Germany’s archaic citizenship laws – was not even considered to be a major issue until a generation of children born in Germany had grown to be neither Turkish nor German. In England the policy of ubiquitous social housing prevented the proliferation of vast ghettoes across large urban sprawls in the manner that banlieues came to surround most cities in France, but this alone is not a sufficient condition to create social cohesion. Racism, xenophobia, and resentment found as fertile a ground in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, partly due to the seriously trying period Britain’s economy went through from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, but ultimately because in a fragmented society where you have your space and I have mine, where separate groups live their parallel lives without ever crossing paths, there will always be substantial issues of inequality which will eventually result in major conflict.

When Mother Merkel publicly acknowledged in 2010 that multiculturalism had proven an utter failure in Germany, she wasn’t so much sentencing the longstanding social policy to death as she was offering closure, a state funeral with all the pomp demanded by the occasion, to a notion that for too many years had reeked of obsolescence and decay. The academic establishment beat the political one to this realisation by over a decade, with the emergence of transcultural studies as a viable alternative to analyse the workings of cosmopolitan societies. Transculturalism places an emphasis on the human ability to feel empathy, given a series of shared or recognisable conditions, instead of enshrining the value of legacy and heritage central to traditionalist views. At its best, a transcultural society would emulate the dynamics of an irreversibly mixed one, something similar to the phenomenon prevalent throughout most of Latin America, where historical, demographic and social factors have confabulated to produce the ultimate hotchpotch in the form of mestizaje.

Because Latin America provides us with myriad different versions of deeply mestizo societies, we already know wherein lie the dangers of transculturalism, and what are its consequences. We know that economic factors are as important as cultural ones; we know that no society is colour-blind, no matter how heterogeneous it might be; and we also know that even in those societies that reach a relatively high level of colour-blindness, classism soon emerges as a similarly oppressive counterpart to racism. Most of all, we know that for transculturalism to really work, society at large must feel more positive about the present than about the past; it must disdain to some extent what came before and embrace with enthusiasm, with gratitude, the opportunities afforded to it by the present; it must, in many ways, be formed by exiles, emigrants, and castaways in search of a better future elsewhere. In this sense, perhaps Australia is better suited to face the challenges of the twenty-first century than we are.

But that is not a major problem either, for transculturalism isn’t an end in itself but rather an analytic tool to align and measure the success of the social policies that might erect the foundations of a more harmonious, fair, and equitable future. That is the true objective, a condition which cannot be imposed on people by laws or even by force, but rather a natural process that must necessarily take time, that must equally necessarily be consciously led in a given direction, and that ultimately ought to result in integration – the holy grail of modern life.

The problem with integration is that, if it is not to slip into assimilation, it will always produce changes, sometimes even substantial changes, in society. This, of course, is the unavoidable consequence of any influx of people into any previously established community, but while some might find this refreshing and enlivening, more conservative citizens find it threatening because they would ideally want to raise their children in an environment that is perfectly comparable to that of their own infancy, no matter how stagnant this might seem to others.

Integration entails shifting the weight of society even if just a fraction closer to the frame of mind of the minorities within it, in order to take care of their needs as if they were the absolute majority. This doesn’t mean society has to meet every minority halfway – that is neither reasonable nor, in all likelihood, feasible. It’s almost a simple equation of weight: societies are monolithic and not very malleable masses, so it’s quite reasonable to expect minorities to be more flexible, more adaptable, to do more towards achieving social harmony. But even concerning the responsibility that befalls minority communities in the effort to make integration successful, the extent and focus of their agency must be clearly outlined, monitored, and regulated by society from the start.

Over the past twenty years, these and other questions have been raised and revisited time and again in the seemingly futile diplomatic meetings where the future of the EU is regularly discussed. But then, like flotsam in the middle of the ocean, the issues go underwater again, only to resurface at a later stage with the same frustrating result. Haphazard attempts to come up with patchwork solutions to what are essential problems have often ended in moving the goal posts, sometimes even in the right direction. But today’s rules cannot be used to judge the behaviour of communities inscribed within a different legal and social arrangement. For instance, in Germany there is now an integration scheme that imparts free German language and culture lessons to migrants, surely a necessary and commendable initiative – but one that does not apply to the attitude of the Gastarbeiter of the 1970s, who chose to live in relatively small areas almost exclusively among themselves. Moreover, the results as well as the shortcomings of the strategies currently in force to prevent social fragmentation (and the discrimination that we now know inevitably comes with it) will only be fully evident in many years to come, surely long after the conservative party has lost its grip on power in the German political scene.

Harper Lee was conscious of the dangers of widespread discrimination within a society, and she made it clear through an oblique – if somewhat anachronistic – comparison between the condition of the African-American population in the deep South and the persecution of the Jewish population in Germany under Hitler’s Nazi regime. In this sense, there might be one more point of contact between Atticus Finch and Sven Mary: Atticus knows that Tom Robinson is doomed but he is willing to go through the ordeal of defending him in the hope that his case might change things, even if just a little. Similarly, Mr Mary must surely have been well aware that the book would be thrown at Salah Abdeslam, but ensuring that the rights of this cruelest of citizens were upheld meant that Mr Mary was actually safeguarding the rights of everyone, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or faiths, regardless even of their crimes. Thus, in fact, neither Atticus Finch nor Sven Mary truly act on behalf of their clients – they are, ultimately, working towards the improvement of their, of our, societies.

In the current climate, the challenges posed by mass migration from drastically different cultures will only become greater and the long-term fate of the community quite likely hinges on its leaders’ abilities to respond to new and ever more pressing issues of social cohesiveness. Many are the attitudes that at one point or another will attract their share of the public limelight, especially in these times of extreme and often irresponsible demagogy. Yet, after all is said and done, to me it seems quite clear that integration is truly the only positive option, the only alternative which, rather than fear and hatred for the Other, carries hope for a more harmonious future.

— Montague Kobbé

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Montague Kobbé (montaguekobbe.com) is a German citizen with a Shakespearean name, born in Caracas, in a country that no longer exists, in a millennium that is long gone. He is the author of the novels The Night of the Rambler and  On the Way Back, both set in the Caribbean island of Anguilla, and in 2016 he co-edited  Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela, a collection of thirty texts by thirty Venezuelan authors – the first collection of its kind to be published in book format in the English language.

The stage adaptation of his bilingual collection of flash fiction, Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges, is set to début at London’s Cervantes Theatre as part of the inaugural Contemporary Latin American Writers Festival in 2017. He keeps a regular column in Sint Maarten’s  The Daily Herald  and has translated dozens of photography books with Spanish publisher La Fábrica.

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Aug 032017
 

All photos  by Paul Lindholdt.

 

His every stride equaled two of mine. His proper province was the clouds. Sage-green moss swayed from pine trees and seemed to wreath his head. Bark chips, fallen needles and twigs beneath our feet made a spongy duff.

As often as our schedules allowed, my father and I packed up gear and threw it in the pickup. We blasted across Snoqualmie Pass from our family acreage in Seattle to camp, fish and hike in the Taneum drainage, Colockum Pass, Crab Creek, Clover Springs. That same canopied pickup served us as our bed.

We needed relief from the population crush in Seattle. We found sanctuary in the arid basin and highlands of Eastern Washington. He and I shared a tacit rapture, an unspoken contract. We favored “the dry side” so far that we came to call those inland pine and fir forests home. My mother and sisters stayed behind.

The coastal interstate can become a kind of asphalt hell for those who love the Big Outdoors. Even out of earshot of the I-5 corridor – that great artery of the West – it brooded over my bent world when I was young, hatching drizzly days and nights. It was as if electromagnetic radiation had found a way to colonize my blood. Traffic racket as lymphoma. Particulates seen and heard and smelt.

Some people always need frontiers. We find them wherever we are able – on fresh continents, on high seas, in outer space. My ancestors hit the Pacific Ocean and I bounced back inland. My design: to reoccupy the intermountain West, reclaim sparsely populated places that others had abandoned for the coast.

My home lies by the Idaho border now. It is low-rainfall natural grassland, like the eastern two-thirds of Washington, mixed shrub-steppe and conifer. Some moisture, mostly snowmelt, distinguishes it from sheer desert. Shrubs struggle to grow on the Columbia Plateau. So do the many tree species in its higher reaches.

From my home, I bicycle an old railway, the Fish Lake Trail. Converted to a community path, it links the towns of Cheney and Spokane. Wild beings throng along it. Attention is a form of devotion, I believe, and so I often slow to ogle them close at hand. The magpies, hawks, eagles, deer; also the smaller sorts that can prove invisible, the praying mantises and walking sticks. On other days I blur by, I opt for speed, music churning in my earphones, leaving the wild beings be.

A freeing sport, this bicycling. It opens riders to aromas both pleasant and rank. Even at speed I can detect leaf mold, pungent forbs, alkali water, a carrion heap. The asphalt that I pedal is a petroleum product. So are the skinny snakes of my tires, my handgrips and cable casings. Such petrochemical reminders subdue any self-congratulation that might otherwise arise from my nonpolluting ride.

Occasionally I load up my bike on a city bus and tote it to the office. After work, I cleat into the pedals for the fifteen-mile ride home. Speeding stealthy as the breeze, I power past milkweed and massive ponderosa pines, past animals sunning or ambling on the path. Flocks of turkeys cause me to wonder which of us would suffer most if we smashed up. Bald eagles above Queen Lucas Lake eye me at eye level from low branches where they fish. Bull snakes, lizards and the occasional rattler soak up the heat radiated by the black asphalt.

In my neck of the woods, moose who stand at shoulders a full six feet high spook us. Several times a year we encounter bulls or cows on breathless trails or backroad scrapes. They tower blackly over our compact cars. They feed on our landscaping and linger in our yards. Approaching them can be hazardous.

Moose kill more people than the leading two or three predators do. They strike with forefeet like horses. We surrender our domestic spaces to them without being told. We lavish them with gratitude for the wildness they exemplify so close at hand. Complete attention extends my utmost devotion to them. One cow I’ve seen twice along my bike route wears a blond chest and a forehead blaze.

From a window in the Spokane home, I’ve watched a young bull nibble at the leaves of a river birch, a top-heavy sapling I planted just the year before. The animal threw its considerable weight into the tree, bent the sapling double and devoured the leaves. Farther and farther up the trunk it pushed and chewed. At last it straddled the whole bole and bent the sapling back to Earth, like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches did for sheer sport in his poem “Birches.”

After the moose finished eating, every leaf was gone. It must have been a rush when the tree sprung back up between its legs. The next year the leaves all sprouted again like revelation, and that river birch grew too sturdy to subdue.

A coyote hunting along the Cheney end of the bike path got a big surprise. Close upon it I pedaled and whistled a shrill alarm between lips and teeth. I was only aiming to keep it alert and alive. It leapt a stream and bolted up the twelve-foot berm. Railway laborers built the berm when they excavated rock to level a path for the railway a century ago. Their heaps of basalt cobbles tower now.

The leavings of the railway laborers remind me they were more than flesh-and-blood machines. A century after Italian immigrants swung sledgehammers and picks to flatten the grade, their rock ovens remain. I stumbled on the ruins of one oven while stalking redhead ducks beside some pothole ponds. Yes, I am a geek who is forever seeking new species to add to his ornithological life list.

Waterfowl forgotten, I focused down on the crumbled dome beneath my feet. Crafted by hand, plastered over by gray lichens, the mud mortar that held the stones in place long washed away, it took a fallen igloo shape. It began at last for me to resemble a human face. A jumble reminding me how people’s mouths cave in and wither with old age. How gums shrink and we grow “long of tooth.”

Using stones of local basalt, the laborers made shift to bake dense loaves of bread. Think wood-fired pizza today. A slate slab toted from site to site served as oven floor. Wood first burnt inside the oven would superheat the entire dome. Then bakers raked out the spent coals and swept clean the slate, sprinkled meal on it, inserted the dough and sealed the door. To bake those loaves from start to finish (I have it on excellent authority) would have taken a mere quarter-hour.

The barely visible aperture of the oven door in my fancy became the tooth-shaken laborer’s mumbling mouth. The structure put me in mind also of a kiva: a subterranean chamber some Indians in the southwest built, its style thought to replicate the emergence of kachinas or ancestors from former environs or lives. For the émigré laborers who made transcontinental rail beds, Europe might have resembled a stained and tainted netherworld, America the promised land.

History lies closer to the surface in this arid landscape than it does on the coastal third of the state. Soils are shallower, scrubbed bare by Ice Age floods. The potholes where I stalk ducks formed when Pleistocene-era vortexes or eddies plucked and scoured bedrock. Those vortexes are called kolks. Bodies rarely may be buried very deep due to all the stone. In the business of Indian-white relations, place names remain as blunt reminders of our ancestors’ legacy of conquest.

Col. George Wright hanged members of the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He slaughtered hundreds of their horses to weaken their ability to survive and fight. As a sort of reward his name memorializes a fort, a cemetery and an arterial drive. In turn the most well-known of his victims, Qualchan, lent his name (however ironically) to a real-estate development, a golf course and a footrace.

Onomastics, the study of proper names, has stirred my imagination since I settled here. The name Spokane looks as if it needs to be enunciated like cane at the end. But it has been given a midrange vowel, and so it sounds like can. The creek where Qualchan was hanged appears on state maps as Latah (Salish for fish), but it appears as Hangman on the national records. Federal cartographers seem unwilling to let the state forget its treacherous bit of regional history.

A tool I found along the Columbia River lay on the surface as well. With my spouse and friends, I was paddling a kayak on the river’s Hanford Reach. We pulled out on an island near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Plutonium there helped manufacture the Fat Man bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Since we took that paddle trip, “the site,” as locals call it, has been opened to the public and named the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Among other topics, it commemorates “The Dawn of the Atomic Age” and “the creation of the atomic bomb, which helped end World War II.” Visitors take busses to the site.

Before we launched our kayaks, I read online: “Radioactive ants, flies and gnats have been found at the Hanford nuclear complex, bringing to mind those Cold-War-era ‘B’ horror movies in which giant mutant insects are the awful price paid for mankind’s entry into the Atomic Age.” If paddling past a nuclear reactor on fast water seems counterintuitive today, we did not think about it at the time.

We had come to experience that last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River. By the grace of its fast-moving water, Chinook salmon still spawn there. Almost every other portion of the river has been dammed. We stopped to pee on the sandy island formed by sediment before the dams went in. Atop the sand, as if crying aloud be found, a stone tool from the First People lay in plain sight.

In my cultural naïveté, I pocketed the tool. Carried it to my office and put it on a shelf, little knowing that the legal protocol for such artifacts is to let them lie, leave them behind, make the Big Outdoors a big museum. Made of basalt, a fine-grained igneous rock, it was used for knapping, my archeologist-colleague Stan Gough said. To knap is to shape stone by striking at it with another stone to fabricate tools. Stan identified this one as a flensing or skinning implement.

The beauty of that tool resides in its simplicity. In the heft of its antiquity. And for the way it manages to prod the imagination. Its value lies in its lack of utilitarian value. We assign undue value to the useful artifacts – smartphones and microwaves, automobiles and beauty aids – that surround us. The man or woman who knapped the skinning tool focused his or her attention with a keen devotion. A devotion that would have been more Earth-centered than most other forms of reverence flourishing today. Less other-worldly and more this-worldly.

All this useless beauty lies far beneath the surface of the landscape for my kind. Inside our jaded gaze, natural splendor seems to drain away like topsoil in an Ice Age flood. While museums draw millions of observers, and paintings fetch hundreds of millions in investments, the arid landscapes of the American West reside in silence, begging for federal money to rectify decades of neglect. Maybe such landscapes as mine are acquired tastes. Maybe only certain sensibilities find their images mirrored in the stark and Spartan lands of my adoptive home.

My father never was a collector of artifacts, a Wild West reenactor, or a practitioner of creative anachronisms. He was a modern man from Seattle who needed to get away. The last time he visited me, we motored out to open range, that quaint space where grated cattle guards keep stock from roaming. An Angus trotting beside the road tickled him. He joked it was “out for a morning jog.” The cow really looked the part. Tail raised, hoofs clopping, dust puffs settling behind.

—Paul Lindholt

 

Paul Lindholdt is a writer and professor of English at Eastern Washington University. He has won awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Washington Center for the Book. His publications include: John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (Univ. Press of New England, 1988); Cascadia Wild: Protecting an International Ecosystem; History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians; Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West; The Canoe and the Saddle: A Critical Edition; and In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau (University of Iowa, 2011), which won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in Memoir/Biography.

 

 

Aug 022017
 

Darran Anderson

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Imaginary Cities cover image

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Imaginary Cities
Darran Anderson
University of Chicago Press, 2017
ISBN 9780226470306 (paper) $22.50
ISBN 9780226470443 (e-book) $18.00
576 pages

Published in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press.

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THE ABIDING DESIRE FOR NO PLACE

The Thirteenth Hour

T he future will be old. It may be bright and shiny, terrible and wonderful but, if we are to be certain of anything, it will be old. It will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present and the just-about possible. ‘The future is already here’ according to William Gibson, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ You sit amongst fragments of it now.

All prophecies are intrinsically about the now. When George Orwell, slowly coughing himself to death on the wind-scoured island of Jura, wrote 1984 (under the original title ‘The Last Man in Europe’), it was a reversal and critique of the year in which he wrote it, 1948. This was the cracked mirror of the present. When he wrote of doublespeak, he was writing not just of the future and the Soviet Union but of traits he identified and deplored in his fellow journalists, imperial bureaucrats (carving the earth up at Versailles and contemporaneously at Tehran) and the politicians of Britain, the proto-Airstrip One. Orwell took the threads of his day and followed them to their logical and horrendous conclusions. So perceptive was his take, influenced heavily by Zamyatin’s exceptional We, that it rendered the vast majority of jumpsuit-wearing dystopian literature to follow as somehow naïve. One edge he had was an awareness that things will not entirely work in the future. The architecture of his future London is a transposed version of his contemporary city, yet to recover from the Blitz and mired in widespread poverty; ‘Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses. . . their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air?’

In the future, there will be not only flux but pointlessness, frivolity, inefficiencies, all these things that make us human by accident and which we rail against daily.

There are exceptions:

The Ministry of Truth – Minitrue, in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air . . . Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously.

They gazed at everything and were blank in response. Orwell knew that totalitarianism would obliterate not just satire but the very meaning from words. Objective truth was illegal if not unknowable. Black was white. The daily torrent of lies was provided and monitored by the Ministry of Truth. Continual war was waged by the Ministry of Peace. Austerity was provided by the Ministry for Plenty; ‘The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all.’

It would be a mistake to see Orwell’s vision as an extreme one, unique to the world’s obvious tyrannical regimes. Orwell knew that the instincts and interests behind the world of 1984 were evident everywhere. Ideology is faith; irrespective of whether that’s in god, dialectical materialism or the invisible hand of the markets. It is faith and in this there is absolution and condemnation. It is this that proves Orwell’s warnings so perpetually apposite. The powerful of every conceivable political and corporate variation will employ faith. Questioning and a fidelity to the objective is the only bulwark against it. And yet if and when the worst comes, life will go on, due to Humanity’s resilience, often when it seems like it shouldn’t. We would do well, as Orwell counselled, to see the traces of the dystopian around us, to find the ends of those threads and how far along we are; the most accurate prophecy being that people, and the allure of domination, never really change. We can Copenhagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems that reward cronyism, exploitation and short-term profiteering, that require poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups. What may save us is, in Orwell’s words, a dedication to ‘common decency’, and the perpetual knowledge that it need not be like this.

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Cockaigne

The future may well fail but the urge for the utopian is a valid one. It emerges from the failures and unsatisfied wants of the present. Inventors identify problems of the present, vacuums to fill and preferable end-results to backcast from. The shadow and dynamo of aspiration is present misery and the utopian impetus contains tragic often-untold real-life stories. It’s no accident that Hansel and Gretel find the cottage made of sweets and gingerbread when they are at the point of starvation or that Harry McClintock sang of arcadian joys during the Great Depression. For all its jaunty wide-eyed delinquency ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is a song of shadows and implications. It speaks, as nursery rhymes do, of pestilence and regicides, of police brutality, starvation, drought and exposure to the elements. Utopia here is simply an escape into a parallel world of fairness, justice and comfort. In medieval times, the popular myth of the land or city of Cockaigne gave vent to these same notes of protest and yearning.

Work was forbidden, for one thing, and food and drink appeared spontaneously . . . One could even reside in meat, fish, game, fowl and pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture. The weather was stable and mild—it was always spring—and there was the added bonus of a whole range of amenities: communal possessions, lots of holidays, free sex with ever-willing partners, a fountain of youth, beautiful clothes for everyone and the possibility of earning money while one slept.

In a version inscribed in an Irish monk’s manuscript (circa 1350), Cockaigne was linked to biblical promises of rivers of honey for the righteous but turned subversively against heaven:

Though paradise be merry and bright,
Cokaygne is yet a fairer sight . . .
There is no thunder, no hail,
There is no vile worm nor snail,
And no storm, rain nor wind.
There no man nor woman is blind . . .
There are rivers great and fine
Of oil, milk, honey and wine.

The verse then spins off into a ribald account of amorous monks and nuns, as well as a desire to escape the darkness of the buildings of the time:

When the monks go to Mass
All the windows which are of glass
Turn into bright crystal
To give the monks more light.

Here is the vacuum speaking; the need for technological solutions (the electric light, mass-manufactured glass etc.) to rescue the hours, amounting to years, of darkness spent in stone cells huddled next to reeking candles of animal fat. The absence of this once-common state is an indication that we exist without realising it in what once would have been sought after as an improbable utopia. This is to say nothing of how we can now communicate instantly across the globe, live vastly longer lives, see worlds from the microscopic to the cosmic that we scarcely knew existed, listen to and watch performances by the dead. Despite this, we doubt the existence of progress, partly because we have the luxury of doing so.

The Brothers Grimm speak of Cockaigne with the insightful absurdism of the nursery rhyme: ‘There I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow . . . and I saw two gnats building a bridge . . .’ with the proviso, ‘have I not told enough lies?’

Look beyond the nonsense and you can see it is a future of automation they are willing. This is most evident in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s version Het Luilekkerland where men condemned as lazy and gluttonous are nevertheless allowed time to sleep or simply stare at the sky, as automated creatures scurry around serving them; an egg with legs, a suicidal roasted pigeon, a suckling pig running around peeling itself. This is a future life of leisure and farmyard robots, granted by the freeing of hours from rudimentary tasks. It is a utopia of time; the ability to waste time as we choose by being freed from the wasted time of obligations. Today, we have never had more labour-saving devices of convenience and yet the blissful life is suspiciously fleeting and elusive.

‘A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.’ Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human. Perhaps Cockaigne momentarily eased the pressure of a life lived in struggle and penury. It became, as popular jokes of its kind do, a competitive sport with each teller outdoing the last. In its extravagance, Cockaigne exposed the comparative meanness of reality, where farce and tragedy are intrinsically wedded. Yet there was always the outside possibility, even in the wildest of renditions, that this was a physical place of some description on the face of the earth and escape to it (the realm of the idle rich) might be possible, however remote. The urge for the utopian is strong in the desperately poor, meaning that missionary forces promising better worlds in this life or the next tend to find a ready ear and a base to exploit. It is also proof that utopias were not the sole preserve of indulgent philosophers. By denying the utopian as some kind of failed parlour game, we exclude ourselves from understanding its appeal and the power it still grants those who can offer it. We know Cockaigne does not exist but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it.

—Darran Anderson

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Reprinted with permission from Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. © 2016 Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press and in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press. All rights reserved.

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Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities. He writes on architecture, culture and technology. Anderson is a former co-editor of The Honest Ulsterman, and is also the author of a 33 1/3 study of Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. His forthcoming memoir, Tidewrack, about the river Foyle in Derry, will be published by Chatto & Windus.

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Jul 152017
 

Henry Miller in Paris by BrassaiHenry Miller in Paris (photo by Brassaï)

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Victoria Best has a theory about creativity and writers in crisis. This stunning essay is one of a series of which she writes: “I really loved writing these essays because every writer I chose, once you got down to it, was a hapless flake, making the most terrific mess of their life and yet stalwartly, patiently, relentlessly processing every error, every crisis and turning them all into incredible art. How could you not love these people and their priceless integrity? I felt like I had found my tribe. Didn’t matter in the least that they were pretty much all dead. There was just that precious quality – vital, creative attentiveness to everything wrong – that I cherished.”

By the time 38-year-old Henry Miller left America for Paris in February 1930, he had taken to signing himself as ‘the Failure’. In reality, the ratio of irony to truth in this gesture was uncomfortably low. America had been the scene of repeated humiliation for him; he left behind a bitterly disappointed mother, an ex-wife still pursuing him for unpaid alimony, a dozen poorly paid jobs for which he hadn’t had the stamina or the will, and now the love of his life, June Mansfield.

June had more or less booted him out of the apartment and across the Atlantic. It was a final attempt at forcing him to achieve the artistic genius he so avidly sought; and besides, his prolonged gloom was cramping her style. As he walked away, he was afraid to look up at the window to wave her goodbye, in case she was already engaged in some sort of activity he would rather not know about.

He took with him the sum total of seven years of writing: two manuscripts of dubious merit that no one wanted to publish. When the editor, Bruce Barton, read some of his early work, he returned it with the comment ‘it is quite evident that writing is not your forté’. Miller was taking that remark with him, too, branded on his heart. In his pocket the one useful leaving gift – a $10 note from his friend, Emil Schnellock – wouldn’t last long, but the friendship would prove key to a dramatic upswing in Miller’s fortunes. Not that he had the least premonition of that. As the ship sailed away from the dock, Henry Miller went down to his cabin, thought back over his life and wept.

When he arrived in Paris, the city destined to save him, he sank to a whole new level of poverty. He had nothing, not even a rudimentary grasp of the French language. The days of the famous ‘lost generation’ of compatriot writers were past, luminaries like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald long gone, leaving Miller, as always, out of synch with his own culture. He had no papers that would help him find work, no family or acquaintances, and no money unless June cabled it to the American Express office, a location he now visited up to three times a day. Mostly, he had to beg, steal or starve. When there was money, he was forced to wonder how she had come by it.

But Paris started to provide him with unexpected resources. He had beauty and degradation all around him, and he had his curiosity, braced by his astute powers of observation. He had the warm and accepting welcome of the French people, and in these hungry times there were café owners willing to extend credit or even feed him for free. In a marked contrast to America, there was compassion for what it was to be a struggling artist. Here, he didn’t have to be making money to call himself a writer. He didn’t even have to be writing something to have his ambition and desire understood. And in this tender absence of pressure, Miller began to settle down to work he didn’t even realise he was doing. He took long walks around his city, absorbing the exotic sights and sounds, and wrote down everything he saw in letters to Emil Schnellock that ran to twenty, thirty pages. It was an eccentric strategy for what would gradually morph into an eccentric, unique, disturbing book.

***

Published in 1934, Tropic of Cancer was the infamous result of Henry Miller’s prolonged struggles, and there would be people who wished he hadn’t bothered. It remains the most grudgingly admired literary bestseller of the twentieth century; a paradigm shifting book that was a sort of Ulysses for the common man. Most of all, it pushed against ingrained puritanism, casually invoking the kind of graphic sexuality that is taken for granted nowadays.

Henry knew he had produced something that was both challenging and insulting. From the moment the book was a finished first draft until its eventual release onto the American market, it was one of his most cherished paranoid fantasies that he would have to go to prison for what he had written. Punishment enough, perhaps, that it was banned beyond the boundaries of France for the next thirty years, and when fame finally arrived, Miller would be too old and too wary to enjoy it.

Tropic of Cancer cover image original edCover of  original edition, 1934

The crimes of Tropic of Cancer alleged over the next eight decades are various, notably formlessness, and the rash of four-letter words that pit the surface of the otherwise eloquent text like a kind of punctuation. Its characters are unashamedly self-absorbed and hopeless, living the lives of scroungers and scoundrels. But the major assault cited remains on the dignity of sexual relations, reduced to sordid and one-sided tussles between horny men and ‘fuckable cunts’.

That Miller’s narrator utters such insults in a tone of amused indifference rather than hostility or aggression seemed only to rile the feminists further. Kate Millett in the early 1960s decried the image of women in the book as worthless objects, used and abused for the man’s pleasure and too stupid even to know it.  Miller, she said, articulated ‘the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality.’ And this criticism of the book has never gone away or been satisfactorily answered. ‘Why do men revel in the degradation of women?’ Jeanette Winterson asked, writing about the book in the New York Times Sunday Review in 2012. Why indeed? But when a man makes unprovoked attacks on the image of womanhood, it’s always worth taking a good look at his mother.

‘It’s as though my mother fed me a poison, and though I was weaned young the poison never left my system,’ Miller wrote in Tropic of Capricorn. Louise Miller was a loveless woman, a strict disciplinarian and a tyrant when crossed or thwarted. She came from a puritanical family with a strong work ethic, but this had not meant security. When she was twelve, her mother had been taken away to the asylum, leaving Louise to bring up her sisters (who would also have breakdowns in time). The authority she wielded was still composed of childish strategies – prolonged rages, violence, a complicated system of irrational rules whose smallest infringement she could not tolerate. Having had to grow up too quickly, she had never grown up at all. She would consult Henry over matters he was far too young to understand. Once she asked him what to do about a wart on her hand and he suggested cutting it off with the kitchen scissors. This she did and subsequently contracted blood poisoning. ‘And you told me to do this?’ she raged at Henry, slapping him repeatedly. He was four years old.

When Henry’s sister, Lauretta, was born, it gradually became apparent that there was something wrong with her. She was a sweet, gentle child but her intelligence never developed beyond that of a nine-year-old. This was something Louise could not accept, and Henry grew to loathe the lessons his mother attempted to give her, which always ended in frustration and lengthy beatings. In his early years, Henry overcompensated for Lauretta, showing off his ability to recite dates and facts and tables to entertain and distract his mother, and defuse her wrath. But the effort soon began to seem greater than the reward; whatever he did it was not enough to save his sister. So Henry rebelled. He acted up in school and fought against all kinds of control and discipline. And at home, he discovered a way of hypnotising himself that helped him escape from the ugly scenes. It would prove useful in other problematic relationships, though it looked from the outside like callousness. In time it would become coldness, hardness, the chip of ice in the heart that Graham Greene said all authors needed to keep their minds free from emotion. Henry Miller would come to provide a perfect example of both a life and an oeuvre in which that icy chip proved vital.

Henry Miller with parents and sister Lauretta_1Henry Miller with parents and sister  

Young Henry was attracted to anarchy, but he was sensitive and afraid of fights, qualities he would seek to overcome or hide for the rest of his life. He was growing up in an age that celebrated virile masculinity and sold it as hard as possible, with Teddy Roosevelt as the romanticised poster boy. Henry had a tendency to idolise any man involved in a showily aggressive profession – boxers, soldiers and con men were all high on his list.

Was this because his own father was the embodiment of weakness? Heinrich Miller was a tailor and an alcoholic, of the sodden kind rather than the violent. He avoided home as much as possible, though the rows he had with Louise over the dinner table still gave Henry a nervous reaction that made him gag on his food. Henry was packed off to the Sunday-school sponsored Boys’ Brigade, which promised to drill him in all sorts of soldierly activities. He was delighted with the exercises and the mock battles, but dreaded the moment when members of the group ‘reported for duty’, which involved being taken by the Major into his office and sat on his lap to be fondled. Eventually boys complained and the Major was ousted in disgrace.

This was the crazily gendered world that Henry grew up in, a world in which his mother was the strongest, fiercest and scariest person he knew. It was a world that impressed on men the importance of virility, but the men held up as real role models for Henry were a sad old soak and a paedophile. Being manly was the American imperative and Henry longed to be it, but what did it mean? It couldn’t be about authority or hard graft  – that took him too close to his mother. And so gradually the pattern emerged that for Henry, manliness was about freedom from conventional morality. It was about absolute autonomy. It was about surrounding himself with other hapless male souls and accepting their flaws unconditionally.

But what was he to do about his own gentle, sensitive and weak side? The conflict in his personality would prove deeply problematic when it came to sexual relationships. The writer who would be hailed as the Grand Old Man Of Sex fell in love with his first serious passion at sixteen, a pretty young woman called Cora Seward. Every night for four years he would excuse himself after dinner to walk past her house, never pausing to call at the door. That was the extent of his respectful adoration, and also the extent of his fear. Unable to approach his ‘angel’ he went to the whorehouse instead and got himself a dose of the clap. Henry’s attitude to sex was mired in the 19th century, in that torrid hothouse atmosphere of right and wrong, good and bad. When the cool, sweeping winds of 20th-century freedom rushed up to meet it, something tempestuous was bound to result.

***

It was late summer in 1923 when Henry walked into Wilson’s dance hall near to Times Square. He was 31. He had come for the taxi-dance, a soft form of prostitution where ten cents could buy a man a dance with the girl of his choice, and his own powers of persuasion would have to do the rest. Miller had a wife and a small child, but the relationship was in the final stages of collapse. ‘From the day we hitched up it was a running battle,’ Henry would later write. He had married because he wanted to avoid conscription but his new wife, Beatrice, brought the battle to the domestic front, nagging Henry to get a job and keep it and do the things a husband should. If there was one thing Henry dealt with badly, it was being told what to do. The man he had become in that marriage was no one to be proud of; he was cruel and insulting to Beatrice, self-centred and reckless. He badly wanted an escape route but his congenital passivity prevented him from finding one.

Wilsons Dancing Studio 1920Wilson’s Dancing Studio, 1920 (photo from New York Public Library online archive via Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company blog)

He noticed a woman walking towards him across the dance hall, a tall woman with a full figure, blue-black hair framing her pale face and brilliant eyes. ‘The whole being was concentrated in the face,’ Henry later wrote. ‘I could have taken just the head and walked home with it; I could have put it beside me at night, on a pillow, and made love to it.’ She was ‘America on foot, winged and sexed.’ She was, in fact, Juliet Edith Smerth from Austria-Hungary, an emotionally unbalanced fantasist, earning what living she could with her body and funding a drug habit. She undoubtedly had tremendous allure, but the gap between what she was and what Henry wrote about her shows the extent of the myth-making, the psychodrama and the sheer power with which he would invest her.

June Mansfield (she made the name up for Henry on the spot) longed to be immortalised in art, and Henry longed for a muse to validate his unproven literary talents.  This was what they would ultimately get from each other, although it would cost Henry an acrimonious divorce from Beatrice, and seven years of suffering in this new marriage. ‘She put him through the tortures of hell,’ said Alfred Perlès, one of Henry’s closest friends, ‘but he was masochistic enough to enjoy it.’

From the beginning, June offered Henry the sort of adrenaline- and sex-fuelled excitement he’d thirsted for in his empty life. On their first date in the taxi home, June insisted they were being followed by gangsters, and this set the tone for the drama and the elaborate ruses she loved. She believed in Henry’s ability to write and insisted he stop work to devote himself to art. Henry was keen and June determined, but there was the slight problem of no funds. There followed a long period of odd, short-lived and demeaning jobs, including a speakeasy that eventually foundered. That they were incapable of making money from alcohol during Prohibition says a lot about their business acumen.

What June really liked but Henry didn’t, was what she called ‘golddigging’. This involved June hustling men who were willing to pay cash for any sort of cover scheme that meant they could spend time with her. June often tried to assure Henry that sex was not part of the deal, and Henry did his best to believe this. But biographer Mary Dearborn argued that ‘Jealousy was the glue of their relationship and June made sure to give him ample cause for it. […] She surrounded herself with chaos, and Miller thrived on it. And she kept the relationship, always, at a fevered pitch.’

June Miller June Mansfield 

Inevitably things soured. There was so little money, Henry’s writing was going nowhere and ratcheting up tension caused its own problems. One day June brought home a disturbing puppet with violet hair and a black sombrero. He was called Count Bruga and symbolised trouble. Not long afterwards the woman who had made the puppet arrived too. Jean Kronski was a real genius, June said, with clear implications. She had been admitted to Bellevue for observation, but the doctors had agreed to release her if June would stand as guardian; cheering news to hear about an impending houseguest.

Other men might have fled the camp, or refused to play along, but Henry was too emotionally entangled and too passive. So he was forced to become an unwilling witness to his wife’s infatuation with another woman, and June and Jean were able to crank up the madness in their folie à trois. They lived in squalor, washing dishes in the bath, using dirty clothes for towels, the floor strewn with plaster of Paris, paints, books, rubbish. June airily discarded all suggestions she was a lesbian, but Henry had been ousted from her bed and Jean was now in it. Henry made scenes. He made a half-hearted suicide attempt. He took to his bed for ten days (though he was reading Proust). The more uptight he became, the more bohemian and cruel June acted.

There was a protective split opening up in Henry’s character over this time. He was bitterly humiliated by his wife’s behaviour, not least because her relationship with Jean attacked him right where it hurt, in his tentative sexuality. The lack of money and the failure of his ambitions were desperate blows to his self-esteem and he was beginning to loathe America and all it stood for – the work ethic, the commercialism, the disinterest in art. And yet, that chip of ice in his heart was doing its job. When he wrote begging letters to his friends signed ‘the Failure’, he carefully stored the carbon copies, optimistically hoping that posterity would need them. In Nexus, the autobiographical novel he later wrote of this period in his life, ‘Mona’ (June) tells the narrator:

‘You look for trouble. Now don’t be offended. Maybe you need to suffer. Suffering will never kill you, that I can tell you. No matter what happens you’ll come through, always. You’re like a cork. Push you to the bottom and you’ll rise again. Sometimes it frightens me, the depths to which you can sink. I’m not that way. My buoyancy is physical, yours is… I was going to say spiritual but that isn’t quite it. It’s animalistic.’

He may have been lost in emotional chaos, but Henry was following his lodestar. ‘It knows that all the errors, all the detours, all the failures and frustrations will be turned to account,’ Miller wrote in Nexus. ‘[T]o be born a writer one must learn to like privation, suffering, humiliation. Above all, one must learn to live apart.’ He got to do just that when he returned home one day and found a note on the kitchen table, telling him that June and Jean had sailed for France. Not only had Jean usurped his place in June’s heart, she’d hijacked his cherished dream of escape, too. June would return in a couple of months without her and determined Henry should see Paris, but he could not foresee this. Instead, he broke every piece of furniture in the apartment and alarmed the landlady with his howling. When the initial despair passed, Henry realised that this was something he could write about; in Nexus he describes sitting down and taking notes. He had been following his instincts, but now illumination came to him: the brutality, the humiliation, the intense misery and the deprivation were a story, the best one that had ever been given to him. It would take him many years to put that story into words, but the revelation was important. From now on, Henry knew that his own life would become his art.

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The transformation that Paris effected on Henry’s writing style was little short of miraculous. In America he’d been trying to shoehorn his anarchic outlook into the sort of 19th-century fictional models favoured by his literary heroes, Knut Hamsun, Theodore Dreiser and Dostoyevsky, and the contrast was awkward and false. Just as his passive personality did not fit the go-getting attitude popular in America, neither did his coarse and chaotic style. ‘There was a retirement about the idea of literature, a sort of salon atmosphere, which Miller feared would never be able to accommodate a rude voice like his,’ writes biographer, Robert Ferguson. Once he left it all behind, Henry realised how suffocated he had been.

In Paris, he was able to give in to his instincts, which Ferguson describes as ‘those of a film producer whose consciousness was actually a machine for assembling a cast, picking the locations and taking notes for the script of a major production.’ Eye-catching Paris offered him visual riches; grubby, valiant, warm-hearted Paris, full of losers and eccentrics, where there was even a place for a prostitute with a wooden leg, as Miller would memorably describe. The literature of France had already embraced the poor, sordid aspects of existence: Zola had described his whores with intense pity, and now Henry could come along and write about them with an ex-pat’s pride, as the kind of landmark that would be extraordinary back home, but which he now took in his stride.

Le Dome Cafe Paris 1930sParis cafe, 1930s

Freed from the mesmerising chaos of June, Henry woke up; he looked and listened carefully. ‘Hearing another language daily sharpens your own language for you, makes you aware of shades and nuances you never expected,’ he would later tell an interviewer for the Paris Review. He had fallen by chance into exactly the right practice exercises. Writing to Emil Schnellock he enthused that ‘In a letter I can breeze along and not bother to be too careful about grammar, etc. I can say Jesus when I like and string the adjective out by the yard.’ His new friend, Michael Fraenkel, read one of the manuscripts he’d brought with him from America and advised him to tear it up. He told Miller to write as he spoke and as he lived.

Henry then found a way to convey the hallucinatory vividness of the life he was living. He had gone to the movies and seen the avant-garde film of the moment, Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali. The film made ‘a lasting impression on him’, according to Frederick Turner, author of a study on the genesis of Tropic of Cancer: ‘he was intrigued by its formlessness, its sudden, jolting scenes of cruelty, which felt as if the artists were mysteriously inflicting these on audiences conditioned to regard movies as a passive form of entertainment.’ Paris was high on crazy artworks where there were no limits, where cruelty was all the rage, and suddenly, Henry fit right in; he loved forcing readers to accept unpalatable truths. He began to conceive of a new kind of book, one based on his experiences in France, and he wrote excitedly to Schnellock ‘I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!’

Paris even helped him find the right mindset to deal with the failures of the past and the uncertainties of the future. It was here that he discovered the Tao Te Ching, whose philosophy of going with the flow and accepting all the confusion and sorrow as essential aspects of existence offered him exactly the even-tempered fatalism that chimed with his heart. That chip of ice was beginning to look like wisdom. For the first time he was given permission not to wallow in failure but to look at it squarely as necessary, unavoidable, and beyond the reach of judgement. When he came to write about it in Tropic of Cancer, he would take it a twist further, producing a book that was a tenderly satirical celebration of the very worst in humanity.

There was of course one more thing Henry would need to write his book, and that was money. One of his survival tactics in the early days was to exchange a bed for the night for housekeeping services, and this he did with Richard Osborn, an American lawyer working for the National City Bank by day and fancying himself a bohemian writer at night. Osborn introduced Henry to his boss’s wife, Anaïs Nin, and the two quickly became infatuated with each other’s minds, bonding over a shared interest in D. H. Lawrence.

Miller knew he was punching above his social weight. Anaïs was properly exotic and genuinely cultured, having been born in Paris and lived in New York and Cuba. She also wanted to write and had a dominantly erotic nature, one fuelled by desire and curiosity and not, like June’s, in order to pay the rent. Instead, she started giving Henry books, then paying his train tickets and slipping him 100 francs in an envelope. June, visiting Henry in Paris, wanted to see this magical mentor, and there was an instant attraction between these two women who both liked to play the alpha female.  Anaïs was alert to all that was alluringly perverse in June’s nature, and once again Henry found himself shunted to one side while two women circled each other in fascination.

Anais NinAnaïs Nin

This time, though, June could not be tempted into a relationship with Nin. ‘Anaïs was just bored with her life, so she took us up,’ she would later claim, and Nin would call it ‘the only ugly thing I have ever heard her say.’ June became, instead, a catalyst between Anaïs and Henry, as they endlessly discussed her and dissected her mystique. The balance of the relationship with June was changing, though, for Henry was falling hard for Nin. He blamed this latest humiliation on June, whilst Anaïs, who had in fact attempted all the seducing, could do no wrong.

Henry wrote breathlessly to Schnellock, ‘Can’t you picture what it is to me to love a woman who is my equal in every way, who nourishes me and sustains me? If we ever tie up there will be a comet let loose in the world.’ This time June fought and made the scenes to no avail. She returned, defeated, to America in a split that would be definitive, and Henry and Anaïs became lovers. Passion was the last alchemical element Henry needed, and once with Nin he found he was writing swiftly and well, producing a bold, innovative, painfully honest, surprisingly funny book.

Miller took all that he’d been through in Paris and transformed it into something coherent and artistically shapely. Later in life he would call himself the ‘most sincere liar’, which is a fine description of any fiction writer. He took the people he’d been living with and gave them fictional names whilst enhancing the worst parts of their personalities; he took the real places that he’d been and described them through the vocabulary of decay and disease. But most of all he used that chip of ice to take an emotional step backwards and infuse his narrator’s voice with tender and amused acceptance of everything he saw. This happy absence of judgement upon a life of squalor lived without dignity made the novel endearing to readers who had suffered intolerable humiliations of their own. Tropic of Cancer offers a powerful affirmation of the strength of the human spirit, even in the most depressing and hopeless of conditions.

But this was in some ways incidental to Henry’s preoccupation with writing an entirely new kind of manliness, which involved surrounding himself with hapless males and regarding their faults with indulgence. ‘I just want to be read by the ordinary guys and liked by them,’ Miller wrote to Schnellock. One of the flaws he portrays honestly and indulgently in his ordinary guys is the way they have sex on the brain but lack the emotional intelligence, the class and the courage to have anything like a real relationship. Take for example his friend, Carl, pondering the ethics of becoming involved with a rich older woman he’s not attracted to:

‘But supposing you married her and then you couldn’t get a hard on any more – that happens sometimes – what would you do then? You’d be at her mercy. You’d have to eat out of her hand like a little poodle dog. You’d like that, would you? Or maybe you don’t think of those things? I think of everything.… No the best thing would be to marry her and then get a disease right away. Only not syphilis. Cholera, let’s say, or yellow fever. So that if a miracle did happen and your life was spared you’d be a cripple for the rest of your days. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about fucking her any more… She’d probably buy you a fine wheelchair with rubber tires and all sorts of levers and whatnot.’

Or the dastardly Van Norden, a man who defiles everything he touches, terrified at being so continually abandoned in the trenches of the erotic:

‘For a few seconds afterwards I have a fine spiritual glow… and maybe it would continue that way indefinitely – how can you tell? – if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a woman beside you and then the douche bag and the water running… and all those little details that make you desperately selfconscious, desperately lonely. And for that one moment of freedom you have to listen to all that love crap… it drives me nuts sometimes…’

Erica Jong, writing in fierce defence of the book, argues that Tropic of Cancer works with the same principles as feminist literature, ‘the same need to destroy romantic illusions and see the violence at the heart of heterosexual love.’ And it’s true that the characters in the book are rigorously stripped of pretension and the dishonest flourishes of ego, vanity and pride. The point of plumbing the depths of the human condition is at least in part to clear away all illusion and delusion, for Miller believed that idealism had damaged the world far more than any acceptance of our base physicality might, and that this idealism affected far more than mere sexuality.

In one of the defining anecdotes of Tropic of Cancer, the narrator escorts a young and inexperienced Hindu man to the local brothel. In nervous confusion he uses the bidet as a toilet, horrifying the Madame and her girls and embarrassing himself. But the narrator, unfazed as ever, sees universal significance in the incident of an uncommon kind. The basic problem of life, he says, is that ‘Everything is endured – disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui – in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable’. Such a belief flies in the face of reality and demands an arresting rebuttal.

‘I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds which the faithful disciple dropped in the bidet. What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly and wholly without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit.’

The very structure of the joke – the enormous disparity between transcendental miracles and shit – gives away the subtle, underlying structure of the book. It’s the gap between the outspoken dreadfulness of Millers’ characters and our desire to identify with noble, sympathetic figures that is at once so awful and so funny, just as the expletives jar the beauty of the language, and the insulting attitude the male characters assume towards women is a lame stab at covering up their obsessive need for them, a need which rings out in the narrator’s lament for the woman he adored and who has returned to America without him:

‘I couldn’t allow myself to think about her very long; if I had I would have jumped off the bridge. […] When I realize that she is gone, perhaps gone forever, a great void opens up and I feel I am falling, falling, falling into deep, black space. And this is worse than tears, deeper than regret or pain or sorrow; it is the abyss into which Satan was plunged. There is no climbing back, no ray of light, no sound of human voice or human touch of hand.’

It was this familiar existential crisis – the pain of the mismatch between human aspirations and desires and the wholly insufficient reality that has to be accepted in their place – that finally formed the mainspring of Miller’s creativity.

The literary insight of the novel didn’t stop Tropic of Cancer being smuggled out of France by tourists for the next thirty years as the ultimate dirty book; sex sells but it also blinds. The book’s reputation rode far in advance of any reading that took place, and its tendency to stir strong emotions and ridicule with keen precision the most sensitive issues precluded much in the way of critical appraisal. It was a book that readers loved or hated, with their guts.

Nowadays the history of its suppression and the crude portrayal of women win all the headlines, but the real story of the book concerns the dominance of the women who provoked and created it: Henry’s fearsome mother, his sweet, crazy sister, his troublesome muse, June, and the book’s midwife, Anaïs Nin, who put up the money needed for publication. The book is an act of self-assertion that couldn’t help but reveal both the depths of his dependency on women, and the force of his resistance.

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Henry Miller biographies collage
Notes on Sources

I am indebted in this essay to three masterly accounts of Miller’s life: Mary Dearborn’s The Happiest Man Alive (HarperCollins, 1991), Robert Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life (Hutchinson, 1991) and Frederick Turner’s brilliant and detailed account of Miller’s creativity, Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer (Yale University Press, 2012). Also unmissable on Henry Miller’s life is Henry Miller. Tropic of Capricorn (1939), Nexus (1960) and Sexus (1949) all contributed to my understanding and remain extraordinary writings on the borderline of fiction and autobiography. Finally, Kate Millett’s essay on Miller in Sexual Politics (Virago, 1977) and Erica Jong’s The Devil at Large (Vintage, 1994) are, respectively, a fine critique and a fine tribute from the other side of the gender divide.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

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Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk

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Jul 112017
 

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…For the stoic, open, the passage from  the local to the global is always certain; for the garden, closed, the inference from the local to the global always problematic…  —Serres

The concept arrives like a revelation, there is not thinking and rethinking, it is chosen, we will live life to the fullest extent possible. We have a bath whenever we want to, we turn on the heating on a cold summer evening without considering anything but the sudden chill, we take a bottle of cherry vodka from the cupboard and start to sip it, even though its late in the evening. In the café in the morning after we have spent a long evening drinking with friends we treat ourselves to an extravagant breakfast. As the-the-the bacon passes our lips for the first time we feel triumphant, the polymorphous joy of breaking all the repetitive lines of everyday life, breaking the chains of causality, exploding through us and out into the local space with such resolution that it opens the world up around us. Such things never last and after a few mouthfuls joy transforms into mere food, the pleasure we began eating with vanishes in the face of time and the day. We can barely speak across the table until the coffee stimulates our brains. There is nothing left to be done but continuing as the pleasure burnt itself out, extinguished in the face of the day.

Then on another day we are drinking wine with a woman, or simply alone on a sofa thinking of going to bed, trying to imagine that we are truly happy. We have scarcely imagined the phrase  before the sense fades because happiness can only be touched for the slightest instant. Perhaps true pleasure can only exist in the past as it is when you say after a meal with friends “that was fun wasn’t it ?” The rhetorical question intended to convince yourself that the acts were pleasurable. Then years later you look in an old notebook that is in a clear plastic storage box under the desk, reading an entry we can see we must have been happy then – in comparison to our current alienation and misery. In this moment though we are trapped in the moment and we hope it continues, we might be falling in love, perhaps even be cross and angry with something someone has said, be falling asleep on the sofa because we are unable to concentrate on reading the book, perhaps entering the warm house from the cold November evening feeling the heat caress us, we feel almost wholly well but know this sense will pass. The feeling floods us, beneath this though another layer of pleasure and happiness is emerging from the wells of desire, though we cannot reach it until it surfaces. Here is a feeling we cannot  touch, trapped somewhere in some unknown otherness like a painting that is hidden beneath another painting which can only be seen using x-rays, surfacing in the radioactive traces which threaten to harm the viewer, translated into the drumming and punctuation of the piano players fingers. In this we can recognize that we are happy, happy. It is instead true that we know we could be happier.

The abrupt English woman has a sister, who she makes sure you don’t meet until after you are committed. Sleeping on the second floor suppresses a way of being asleep which is deeper and ultimately more refreshing, just as when we are sitting somewhere, perhaps a library or on a train travelling south on which we are reading a book even as we are constantly tempted by the pleasure of closing the book and talking to people on some social media platform or other, not so much a distraction as a desire to breathe freely. Beyond this moment of distraction, perhaps, perhaps we, beyond this warm space and the lives (always multiple) that we share with those who are closest to us, are beginning to hanker after some difference that is being proposed by the book that has just fallen to the floor from our hands. Either way we think as we pick the book up from the floor that we’d like to be with strangers in a cafe in the south somewhere, in Nice or Caton or the Point de Serres. There was that time with Clive in the wedding reception in Sicily, or was it Corsica? The ex-girlfriend in her small hotel near Peignoir in the foothills who is always imagined in her old house in Amsterdam for some reason, or MS who is only ever spoken to hurriedly in the lobbies of hotels that he is pausing in during his endless transiting from conference to conference, the Romanian guy with the unspellable name met in the dark hotel bar, the middle aged American woman whom I met one night in the hotel in Plano, explaining she was in a training conference in the industrial building across the dry field, perhaps we might have looked like characters in a discursive movie…

(Usually, these hidden moments are just the other side of the truth, a thin glass wall separating us from a fidelity to the other who we can hear and see through the wall. Their space looks warm and restful compared to the cold and bleak space we are sitting in, though they may be thinking the same of us as we sit idly typing words and phrases into the keyboard. Either way we know that at some point the warmth will cause the frames to warp and the cold wind will cause them to freeze.)

There are moments which our therapists would identify as the explanation of why we cannot enjoy ourselves, in the way that our culture fulfils its role as censor, advising its children to end the relationship immediately. Relationships it always says are unworkable across difference. That the difference is not like the fall of atoms, the clinamen, but more like the steady state of gravity as the moon slowly escapes the attraction of the earth. And you acknowledge that perhaps they are right, we are even tempted to understand them, accepting the terrible violence of cultures and communities as they insist there is something more to be had in waiting, that we will find something better in waiting, just around the corner it waits for us. But what is this thing that we are supposed to wait for and will it really find us…

Perhaps we are sitting in our car in a traffic jam caused by a depressive worker in a white van committing suicide on the E1, and we look to the right at a beautiful person sitting looking across the lane at us, is this what they tell us to wait for. A smile, a shrug. Has she also been told to wait, to seek out this thing, searching, feeling our way across the concrete to speak, touch, love, indifference. And then perhaps this culture which wants you to belong, founded in sacrifice, the falling of atoms, perhaps it is merely thinking of hindsight what is it that hides behind the most perfect loves? What is it that hides behind even the most stupid eyes that look up at the photo on the wall? Is that monochrome image from childhood something else as the woman from the car lies asleep in the bed in the Sofitel hotel in Dijon whilst my car lies abandoned on the E1. Or is it the smile she gave us in the moment before speech?

—Stephen Brockbank

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Stephen Brockbank is a philosopher and was once an engineer who lives on a remote island in the middle of England.

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Jul 112017
 

 

Old Goris

Goris fills with fog in the winter. It comes down from the mountains to the north, through the village of Verishen above, along the Goris River, here no larger than a creek. The leading edge of the fog bank huddles close to the loose skin of the water, sending out tentative tendrils, until it hits the city and rapidly expands and you are blinded with white in every direction. In the mornings, the fog freezes on the streets, leaving a slick trail behind it and people shuffle along the asphalt, walking beside the buckled and pitted sidewalks.

I cross the river into Old Goris, at a low bridge built where the height of the bank of the newer city, built in 1876 on the broad plain to the west of the river, begins to diverge from that of the lower bank of the older one, built among the hills and valleys to the east. I come here often, to leave behind our dark Soviet-era apartment with its celadon green bedroom with white moldings applied at haphazard to the joins between walls and ceiling and its dirty pale slate blue living room. To reach the bridge, I walk past the dark grey-burgundy stone church of Grigor Lusavoritch, Gregory the Illuminator, with its tall spired cupola on a square drum, to where the street ends in a T. I walk left, along a tall wall that looks like an irregular jumble of stones pierced with barred glassless windows that look in on a small roofless, grassy field. I follow this road, paved with worn dirt, its gravel foundation beginning to show through, and take the first right, a trail that leads down three switchbacks to the floodplain of the river, where the vegetation is different, taller and more abundant, in a lighter shade of green.

The trail to the bridge is dry, founded on packed soil, and I stop to watch the quick water flowing beneath it among the silt and marsh grasses. In the spring, I might see someone standing here in tall boots gathering herbs in the alluvial mud by the rushing water, swelled with snowmelt. After the bridge, there is a wide, leveled dirt road that leads around the base of the hills of Old Goris to the abandoned church of Saint Hripsime, whose interior is rectangular and whose exterior is in the process of being swallowed by the eroding mud of the hills in their largo motion down to the river, which is bearing them away a handful of dirt at a time. You can walk out on the grassy roof of the church from the hill above without realizing where you are until you notice the small roof lantern there in the middle of what looks like flat earth. Inside Saint Hripsime, I sit to rest on one of the two long rectangular slabs that are placed at the head of the nave in the shape of a V pointed at the chancel, on the bare floor where a fine, chalky powder rises up in clouds at every step. You breathe dry dust and wax in this long room. In the shallow alcoves, people have placed photos of holy women torn from magazines, bibles, and candles, whose orange wax runs down the walls to the floor.

There is another chapel above, with an old cemetery running up the hill to it like stairs. It has no door, there is no glass in its one small window, and one of its ornate carved flagstones has been cast out on the grass by thieves looking for a secret compartment in the floor. Armenians of another time decorated this stone with a relief procession of figures ringing its perimeter and carved Armenian text in its center that is faded into illegibility with age. The headstones of the graves scattered around appear to date from the same period as this stone, or at least they share the same pattern of worn reliefs and carved writing. But down the hill, nestled in a small valley in among high ground, there is a more modern cemetery, with some headstones like obelisks bearing medallions holding yellow photographs of the graves’ occupants and others carved out of black marble with portraits of the occupants laser etched on them; on some of these the means of death is also depicted: a car heading off a cliff on one, a military uniform and an assault rifle on another.

Old Goris is filled with caves. There are rounded holes visible in the tall basalt formations that come out of the hills like irregular teeth out of a green jaw; these open up within to what once were at first dwelling places and then became storage areas for houses built with their backs up against the rock. But in the seventies, the Soviets brought gas, electricity, and running water to the west side of the river, the newer part of the city, where the administrative buildings are and which is laid out in a gridlike pattern of streets and the people moved, some moving their houses stone by stone across the river.

In Old Goris there are wild-growing herbs such as a local minty- or marjoram-flavored thyme and nettles, which are gathered up at the base of the hills in spring, summer, and fall and brewed into an herbal tea or baked into small, flat loaves of doughy bread.

 

The Tigranyans

In Goris proper, I walk uphill to the north end of town on a long, straight street to visit the Tigranyans. My wife and I lived with this family for a year and maintain close ties. They are six in the house, two grandparents, two parents, and two children: Valentina the nurturing gossip, who seems to know everyone in town and to know everything about the ones she doesn’t know and who takes care of us and ensures we have everything we need; Vladik the patriarch, who greets us by raising his hands, putting them together over his head, and giving them a two-fisted shake, like a world champion in some unknown event; Edik, their son, who is disappointed in life and is not running the auto repair shop that his father founded but who is trying his hand at selling washers and spark plugs in a storefront downtown; Lilo, his wife, who seems never-endingly harassed with work around the home and who has a habit of walking into a room where you are watching the television, changing the channel, and walking out; Ani, their younger child, who has graduated from high school and had put old posters of Eminem and Justin Timberlake covering the door of what was our room when we lived here, after and before it was hers; and Tigran, older than her, always impeccably dressed in all black with pointed shoes, and who runs a game center in the family’s disused garage, charging his friends and neighbors by the minute to play his video games.

I come in and am greeted, the women are standing, apart from Ani, who sits embracing her father on the couch. Valentina and Lilo keep a slight distance from me, standing to the side as I enter, and I grasp the hands of the men one by one, in descending order of age, Vladik and Edo on the couch and Tigo in the orangish overstuffed chair at the head of the room. The women bring out a table and food, you must feed guests or at least give them coffee and homemade cakes or other sweets, and I receive a thin soup made with tomato paste and vegetable ghee with a leg of chicken and potatoes that are boiled to the point where they are beginning to dissolve into their constituent starch. There is a plate of pickled cabbage and another of pickled beet stalks. There are greens on the table: parsley, dill, tarragon, and these can be put in the soup or eaten as is wrapped in bread. The bread, lavash, is a foldable flat bread baked on a long form like a padded ironing board and is a requirement for any meal. I talk with Edo about recent geopolitics and he asserts that the United States and Georgia are friends, rubbing his extended index fingers together lengthwise to illustrate his meaning. Vladik has reached that stage in life where he only wants things to be well, and he says lav, lav, it is good. The business he built in his youth came on hard times with the fall of the Soviet Union, because cars ceased to be affordable for most people, and now, under his son-in-law, it does a fraction of the work it used to. In the house he built, the pipes of the steam heating system he installed throughout sit cold because the gas to operate it is no longer within the family’s budget and in winter they sit all together in the living room around a tin wood stove with the doors off the living room shut. After coffee, after people have gotten up from the table, Valentina sits next to me on the couch and asks me about my work, dropping small morsels of information about people I work with and relating to places I have gone.

 

The Streets

Outside, as I walk back south down the street a little, a group of older men in cloth caps with shallow brims are sitting on a bench against the exterior stone wall of a house, with their sticks between their legs. They turn their heads to watch me as I got past, eyes firmly in the center of their sockets, with eyes slightly widened, focused directly on me, with no indication given that they are aware that I am seeing them as well as they are seeing me. They exchange muttered remarks, which I cannot quite catch, on my dirty, unpolished shoes, on the backpack I am carrying, on the fact that I am walking down the hill instead of taking a taxi.

I feel as though I am on stage before these men now and every time I go out to go anywhere. The strange foreigner with his odd habits, with his unkempt hair and mismatched clothing, with his goofy stride and odd grin. But I have come to realize, after long enough here, that I am not an exception, that these men watch everyone walking by as if they were on television, as if their gaze means nothing for the world they are watching, and they exchange observations about everyone, the ones they know and the ones they do not, where they have come from and where they are going to, what they are carrying, how they are dressed.

They bench they are sitting on is two boards painted blue-green, suspended on two pieces of granite, and there are a dozen benches like it on both sides of this street running downhill nearly the length of the city. The men lean forward, there are no backs to the benches, away from the stone walls, made of rounded stone mortared together in a distinctive way. Instead of the stones being carved and shaped to fit one another, they keep their original, lopsided shape, and the mortar is thickly laid on to fill in the large gaps and present an even, ordered surface of visible stone. The walls made in this way connect from house to house, all along the street, with the effect of a long running fortification, over the tops of which the residents can look down from their raised patios.

 

Lasti Khut

Dominating my view to the south as I walk, and dominating all southward views no matter where I am in the city, is a tall green hill shaped in a nearly perfect pyramid, with a squared-off, flat top. You can ascend this hill, Lasti Khut, on its back side, where the slope is less steep and there is a sandy depression like an incipient ravine that you can ascend by zigging and zagging your way to the top along it; or you can follow one of the network of narrow cow trails that make wide lazy arcs to the top.

Once you reach it, Goris is laid out before you like a carpet, gently running up toward the northern mountains, with its straight streets lying there like a network of parallel and perpendicular pipes. Up at the top here there are six or eight large rusting metal tubes, about three times the height of a person, lying on the upper plateau, the relic of some intended construction project. There is also a shallow pit here used to grill khorovats, pork on skewers with potatoes and onions. Old cold ashes remain in the pit together with congealed meat drippings. Behind the hill is the garbage dump, where there is always a fire smoldering and where the wind has taken trash and scattered it around in a quarter-mile radius on either side of the long, winding south road to Iran.

You can watch the snow fall on the city, in its pulses over weeks in the late fall. It descends first on the mountains in the distance, extending the white of their tips halfway down their length; then it recedes up again, then down; then it dusts the hills surrounding the town, whitening the trees on the west and the high fields in the east, the snowline coming down and rising again as if it was on an elastic string, and then it falls in town and Goris becomes even quieter, as smoke rises from its thousand chimneys in the east and in the west and the air begins to perpetually smell of warmth and burning.

 

Old Goris

The cowherds and shepherds come through the city in the morning to collect the animals of the residents who pay them in flocks or herds and, walking them through the streets, take them to the bare pastures above Old Goris. Following the cow trails, which form a tan spiderweb mesh thrown over the green hills, up to the flat tablelands, I surprise them and they, the cows, sheep, and goats, rear and leap away from me in a reflexive twitchy motion and then return to grazing on the dew-moistened grass. The noise of a herd, unseen, ascending under the brow of a hill, is like an advancing army on the march, with their hundreds of chewing mouths making a uniform ongoing crunching noise like a thousand boots in the distance walking on hard ground.

There are certain places where a trail leads to a small grassy flatland at a cliff edge and there is a sudden expansive view, Goris is ringed with views, of the entire city, the dark brownish-stone buildings of Goris State University to the northeast, houses up the steep slopes to the west, the ribbon of road leading south to Kapan, and the long slope of the valley, punctuated by short homes and taller apartment buildings surfaced in pink tufa stone, to the northern mountains.

—Patrick Findler

 

Patrick Findler is an academic editor now living in Portland, Oregon. He spent seven years working as an English teacher and teacher trainer in post-Soviet countries. He was born in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published by Catapult and is forthcoming from upstreet magazine.

 

 

Jul 092017
 

Heather Ramsay on Elk Mountain

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The view

A man with a chainsaw climbs through the branches and razes a giant cedar tree in 12-foot sections so your husband can make split rails to match the old fence. The thump from the too-large log ripples through your house in Ryder Lake, a hamlet of forest and cows in a hanging valley a few kilometres above the Bible Belt city of Chilliwack. After he’s done, piles of debris lay in the lower part of the yard. The neighbour’s dog crawls into the hollow of the stump and sniffs around. An artist friend drops by and dreams of slicing the rounds. She wants to make tables, resin the tops, sell them on Kijiji.

The View

With the tree down, the sun crackles through the large windows on the east face of your 1970s-built cabin home. You gaze through a gap still cradled by conifers, birches and big leaf maple, toward the mountains: Elk, Thornton and Cheam. You get the binoculars and look for hikers along the ridges. You might get there too, but not until after you’ve cleaned up the yard.

The View_2

Stick after stick goes into the flames. You remember the first time you drove around Ryder Lake, before the real estate agent was even involved, and discovered the lake was just a slough on somebody’s farm. You learned that the Women’s Institute, which has been around for 80 years, manages the community hall. Although you moved from an island in northern BC that only got cell coverage five years ago, you discovered that service is even worse here.

Mid Century Modern

You call your house mid-century modern and think of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a low-sloping roof with beams that run across the uninsulated ceiling to the outside. In the winter it gets cold, in the summer cooking hot. The outside is painted conifer green and knotty red cedar covers the interior walls. Painted bricks line the back of the platform for the old wood stove. You had to pull the dead weight of it out the side sliding door when you first arrived, because the insurance company said so. You haven’t replaced it, even though the furnace is 40 years old and rumbles like an earthquake when it comes on.

A thick column of smoke rises from the burn pile and you worry about carbon, but the sapling-thin logger tells you he’d release more greenhouse gases with his truck if he’d had to drag his chipper up the hill. “Besides,” he adds, “it’s your God-given right to burn.”

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Getting to know the neighbours

In the mornings, a jazz band of birds call through the fog. You turn right out the driveway and jog down Briteside to Sherlaw.

Briteside

You can’t see the monster at the first corner, but he runs, growling and crashing through brush along the fence line. You say “Hi Buddy, good dog” and hope there’s no break in the chainlink. You wave at the pussy willows above the deep water ditches. You nod at the red and black cows farther up the road. Just past them, the goats bounce in their pen. You saw that one baby went missing on the community Facebook page. No one mentioned finding her. The border collies used to run out of the gate and snap, but you’ve learned to yell back and the dogs slink away. Still, they bit somebody’s housesitter. Now when you pass, you hear muffled yapping as if they’ve been locked into a shelter underground.  You keep running to Extrom and then up Forester where fresh eggs for $4 are left in a cooler at the end of a driveway along with a can for the coins. The yellow school bus goes by.

You come through the short trail that links back to Briteside and peer at the big snag in the ravine at the top of the street. You had wondered about the grey in the hollow: it looked like an old sweatshirt. With binoculars, you see that an owl is spread sideways on her nest, like a chicken. Who cooks for you, she calls. Later you see her fuzzy chicks.

The Owls

Gunshots sound from miles away — way down the forest service road that runs along the flank of the mountains. The track eventually leads down the south side of the slopes to the hurtling white water of the Chilliwack River. You drive past the clear cuts left after dozens of years of logging shows and find men wearing neon shorts and camouflage shirts. They are stocked with coolers of beer and boxes of bulk ammunition in the old landings and gravel pits. They set up targets and leave their colourful spent shells two inches deep on the ground.

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Back channels into town

Within eight minutes of winding down steep road on the north side of the hills, you reach the green back-lit Save-On Foods sign. The split-tail of the mermaid at Starbucks. The Shoppers Drug Mart that stays open until midnight.

SaveOn

Down on these flats, towards the wide, mud-coloured Fraser River, modern houses have sprung up on what was once farmland. Long before the dykes and the corn maze, forests and lakes sustained 10,000 years of Sto:lo lives. Now, strata-run gated communities with roofs that all peaked the same way multiply. Quickly built condos pop up like peony stalks on old hop-growing ground. Shopping malls and chain restaurants choke out the hay fields. There are 46 churches and 83,000 people. It’s lovely and sunny down there, but it is prone to floods.

Gated Communities

Historic downtown Chilliwack is 15 minutes farther along another meandering road. You prefer these back channels. The ones that bypass the bustle of condos and cul-de-sacs. You learn that the winding road, where the black cherry trees snapped in the last winter’s big wind storm, was named after a section of the Chilliwack River that no longer flows. You  find a website lauding the pioneers who first came to this valley. Some farmers got sick of the spring melt that flooded their fields and one felled several large trees to block the riverbed. Later others got together and drained an entire lake.

This winding road passes through two Stó:lō villages. One is called Tzeachten, which means fish weir in Halq’eméylem, but with no river, the weirs are no longer there either. Next is Skowkale, which means “going around a turn.” You went to an event in their log cabin hall to celebrate a recording of ancient Sto:lo songs. You learn that Billy Sepass, a chief in the 1920s, thought it would be hard to pass on these epic stories since disease, residential schools and the assault on his language had come. He wanted them all written down but the recording, transcription, translation and printing of the book took more than 40 years. With this new CD you realize it took another 40 for it all to become oral again. You meet members of the Sepass family and eat the smoked salmon, bannock and other food they prepared. As you drive away the clouds darken over the broad valley and you listen to the songs of Xa:ls, the creator, who made Earth grow out of the mists.

Skow Kale Hall

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Downtown Chilliwack

You continue into the town which incorporated less than 150 years ago — one of the first white settlements in this part of BC. On Wellington, the main street, you can buy used books, new shoes and shrink-wrapped vinyl in the high fidelity record shop. You had no idea that records sell for $40 now. You look at the vintage Kenwoods but do not ask if they have Chilliwack, the 1980s rock band that sang “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).”

Wellington St ChilliwackWellington Street,  downtown Chilliwack

Hi Fidelity Shop

You find the town museum housed in the old city hall. The out-of-place Roman column look was conceived by Thomas Hooper in 1912. He also designed the Coqualeezta Indian Residential School, built upon the same land where newcomers plowed up adze blades and carved stone bowls. The best coffee is at Harvest Cafe, and the best doughnuts too. There’s a place to buy crusty Swiss bread and restaurant where you slurp Vietnamese bone broth pho. You hear that the butcher on Yale moved to the suburbs of Sardis, citing a better retail space, but most people think he was tired of the drug addicts at the door. The city is growing, but the homeless population is too.

Chilliwack Museum

You had thought of living downtown, but the real estate agent warned of crime. Really you didn’t like the highway noise and the constant stream of trains. You head back towards the suburbs and get stuck behind a tractor going 20 km/hour on Evans Road. You pull off at the roadside stall for local blueberries and then up to a drive-thru for corn. You buy 12 Golden Jubilee, not Peaches and Cream, and get 13 cobs. They hand a paper sack through the window and you hand them your frequent buyer card. After ten dozen, you get another dozen for free.

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Summer heat

When it gets really hot, like 30 degrees, you join the hundreds of others at Cultus Lake. They crowd together at sand beaches and grassy picnic grounds but you find a small pebble beach in the shade. You dive into jewel-like blue water. It would be perfect if there weren’t so many water skiiers around. You try to ignore them, but you leave just the same, when the partiers pull up and idle offshore.

Cultus Lake from Ryder LakeCultus Lake, seen from Ryder Lake

Not far from the lake, you find a spot on the river where the ice water pools in a rock wall tub. It is deep and no one else has discovered it yet. You dog paddle against the current and find that that you are swimming in place. A guy in an inflatable armchair floats by and raises his frosted can to you.

When you get back to Ryder Lake, a giant black truck with oversized tires and a broken muffler roars up the road. You hear a crack and a black blob falls out of the yellow plum tree. The startled mama bear runs across the road, but her three cubs stay and scramble up a nearby fir. The neighbour’s dog barks and the cubs clamber higher. You telephone the neighbours and ask them to put their dog inside so the little ones can get away. Later you try to pick the plums, but most are too high, so your husband gets out the chainsaw and cuts the unreachable part of the tree down. You make pint after pint of ginger and vanilla plum jam.

In fall, the osiers will turn red and the rusty old tin can on the top of the fence post will pop in the low seasonal light. In winter, you take a picture of your reflection in the super-sized glass bulbs hanging in a roadside Christmas tree.

The Red Ball

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The warning

You force your bike up the winding hill from the flatlands, standing up from the seat with each crank. A big white pick-up coming down the road slows. The driver sticks her elbow out the window and tells you to be careful.

You are panting as you pull your shoes out of their clips and try not to topple. “Pardon me?”

“There’s a cougar running around up here,” she says. Her truck chugs fumes into the air. “I’m just saying. You might not want to ride your bike here.”

You say thanks for the warning, but what can you do? You live up here. So you continue on up the hill, past the llamas and the trailer homes right beside the road. Past the churn of a waterfall that makes you wonder where the water comes from. There is no lake in Ryder Lake. You think about the guy down your street who told you that his dog once put a cougar up a tree. Another neighbour said he found a dead deer in the forested part of his 10-acre yard. Its belly had been torn out by a giant cat. You want to see one of these creatures, but hopefully it won’t be while you are slowly churning your bicycle up the road.

Back at home, a boom echoes through your walls and you picture airplanes coming down. You’ve heard people jokingly call the back road Little Beirut. You think of the jail out there by the Chilliwack River. There’s an army artillery training centre too and some kind of drug rehab place. After a deep blast and then a rumble, you check the Facebook page. “What the hell was that?” said a woman you don’t know.  Her house might be far across the rolling hills or it might be two doors down. “It shook the magnets off my fridge,” said another. “Bruce dynamiting his stumps again?”

You look out the window and see the stump on the lower part of your property, the one that allowed you the view. The only way for developers to go is up the sides of the mountains. You heard a Sto:lo elder shake his head about that the other day. He pointed towards the hills that you occupy. “If it continues in this way, where will the animals live?” he said.

—Heather Ramsay

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Heather Ramsay

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Heather Ramsay has lived in many places. Born in Edmonton, raised in Calgary. One idyllic year in the south of France, Vancouver at 18 for university. Whitehorse, Australia (on the prowl). But it wasn’t until she moved to Smithers, BC that she really let a location take hold of her. She wrote for the newspaper there and told a lot of stories. Then on to Haida Gwaii (more newspapers, magazines, books) and now Ryder Lake. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at UBC and is attempting to write a novel for her thesis. Her non-fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, Room, subterrain, Raspberry Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Canada’s History, The Tyee, Northword and more.

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Jul 072017
 

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36 Eddy Street

This is my former backyard at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, where we moved to that summer from 33 Weston Street, two blocks away. It was a four-family house painted light gray with slatted wood siding and we lived in the second floor apartment above our heads.

My uniform’s clean so I know it’s before a game. I always felt an obligation to get it dirty, to prove that not only did I want to win but that I’d slide head first into a base to do it.

To my left, glove hand, affecting his best “I got a million of ‘em” pose, is Uncle Dave, my Great Uncle. A good guy, generous, loud and gregarious, a corona was always squeezed between his fingers. He lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and made his living as an auto mechanic. At one point, before he retired and sold the building, he operated a two bay garage without gas pumps, repairs only. My father insisted I was in it several times, that I’d enjoyed playing with the tools and poking my fingers in the tubs of grease, but I have no recollection of being there. I do remember Uncle Dave drove a 1950s model Hudson, one of those gangster-type cars that was all slopes and silver detail. On the weekends he and my Aunt Grace visited us, my brother and I would insist he take us for a ride, which he always did, out to the quiet back roads of Lexington and Lincoln and Wayland. We’d usually be settled in the spacious back seat all ready to go before Uncle Dave and my father got in and Uncle Dave released the emergency brake.

It was always exciting to see Uncle Dave, though when I was small, probably up until the age I was in the photo, he had a penchant for tickling me and keeping at it until tears streamed down my cheeks to the point I wasn’t sure if I was laughing or crying. Then, from my middle teens on, he was always telling me, “You’re doing good things, Paul, not like some of these other kids today.” I was never sure what I’d done or said to merit that comment since my main activities were playing sports, getting into trouble at home and in school and trying to talk girls into going here and there with me. Maybe those weren’t such bad things to do after all?

The last time I saw Uncle Dave I was a college freshman on Christmas break. My parents made it a point to take me up to Portsmouth to see him even though I didn’t want to go and made a big fuss about it. We argued, but their explanation of matters finally won out. A lot had changed since I’d last seen him. Uncle Dave had been having health problems for a few years, but now he was in a wheelchair, no longer the big, outgoing personality, but a quieter, sad presence. Diabetes had progressed to the point where both of his legs had to be amputated, cut off just above the knee. His face and torso were thin, as if hollowed out. Up at his place, we spent the afternoon watching a college basketball game. Uncle Dave smoked a cigar as we talked. Talking about me, our family, everything but him and how he was feeling. Before we left that evening I shook his hand and I think we both knew we were saying goodbye for the final time.

That’s my father to my right. He was a machinist and tool designer, and as you see he smoked cigars too, a habit he might have picked up from Uncle Dave, one of his favorite people.

“Stogies,” my father called them. “Why I think I’ll have a stogie. No, you can’t have one so get away from there.”

El Producto was his brand in those years when they were made by hand. He bought them by the box and I collected the empty ones, which, with the Spanish language name and trademark design, always started a reel of images rolling in my head of an exotic country with palm trees, white beaches, girls in bikinis, thatched roof huts… A place far away from Waltham, which in those years was a struggling city of small stores and too many bars and not enough money and the factories my parents and my friends’ parents worked in and couldn’t wait for the end of the week to be out of for a few days. I filled those boxes with my most precious objects: baseball cards, small vintage toy cars, a ring, a wristwatch, anything that had meaning to me. I labeled each with a black marker and stacked them on my bookshelf. Then, as the collection grew, my father puffing away at the rate of about two a day in between a couple of packs of Lucky Strikes, I stood them in a column in a corner of my room like a file cabinet that could only be opened from the top.

One evening that summer (or the one after it?) I challenged my father to a race down the driveway you see by the white picket fence, about a hundred feet to the sidewalk. I beat him, pulling away and bursting into the street. I knew he hadn’t let me win, like he’d let me take a game of Eight Ball to keep up my interest on those occasions he took me to Vern’s Billiards over on Felton Street. My easy victory was a surprise to both of us, I think, and I knew another race would end with the same result so I never asked him again.

My father seems happy in the photo. It’s one of the few pictures I have where he’s smiling for the camera, showing the viewer the moment was pleasant, his number one uncle was visiting, his son had a ballgame they were going to take him to after a picture was taken (by my brother?) to fix the three of us in time. In many of the other photos I have he appears so uncomfortable I wonder why he ever agreed to let the other person take it, or if there had been a tremendous struggle for the camera afterward to try to get at the film to destroy it? Not that he was always unhappy, or incapable of finding pleasure in an activity. But there was some deep problem bothering him he never talked about or sought help for, that kept him brooding and on edge.

Was it from the war? His physical wounds from that brutal conflict were obvious. An Army Sergeant assigned to an artillery unit in WWII, he was in Italy when his knee and shin were ripped open by shrapnel. The scars were wide and deep. More painful to look at than live with, he assured me.

I knew the story. The flashing, deafening explosion, him blacking out, awoken the next day in a pain so excruciating he fainted in bed, a vein removed from the thigh on his right leg fused with others in the damaged one, six months recuperating in an army hospital…

But what of his wounds that couldn’t be seen? I wouldn’t find out until after he died that he was taking a tranquilizer every day. It had been a surprise to my mother too. “He didn’t tell me anything about it,” I recall her saying at the time my brother found the small container of pills under the front seat of his car.

I suppose my father was one of the storied silent soldiers who came back from Europe after World War II and never talked about it except to say it was a bastard, a hell, whatever, and he’d never wish an experience like it on his worst enemy. I’ve no doubt he had what was called “shellshock” then but is now referred to as PTSD, a condition out of the closet and taken seriously.

This is the period of my childhood I look back on with the fondest recollections. The rest after that seemed an extraordinary struggle, filled with my father’s anger and arguing between him and my mother, enormous frustrations expressed by two people who didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to try to make their life together better. It continued until my father died in 1993, long after I’d left home. I’m not sure what had happened that turned them on each other like that. Maybe it was something that was brought forward from a period of their lives before I was born? Or did it start right after the explosion that tore into my father’s leg and shocked his psyche?

This picture softens those memories. I’m glad I found it a few years ago in an envelope in the back of a cabinet in my mother’s apartment to remind me of my father during that time, of my Uncle Dave, and 36 Eddy Street.

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Susan

This is my cousin Susan with my father in the living room of our apartment at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, with the trophy shelf and rocking chair and organ in the background. Susan was three years younger than me, my Aunt Kathryn’s only child and my father’s favorite niece.

The picture was taken a few years after Aunt Kathryn (she was called Kitty) died of liver cancer. Her doctors never came to any conclusions as to exactly what had caused it. My father was sure it was due to the toxic chemicals she worked with at a company that, among other things, made weapons for the Department of Defense. Aunt Kitty and her husband Gus had divorced when Susan was seven and my grandmother, who was living with them, assumed legal custody. They had a first floor apartment on the street behind ours and from our back porch, between two other houses, we could see their front door and windows.

Aunt Kitty, Mother, Grandmother, Grandfather, Uncle Dave (seated) and my Aunt Grace also seated.

After Aunt Kitty died my father became Susan’s favorite adult, and though his expression in the photo might not show it (he was a moody and oftentimes harsh and depressed man), a softness came over him whenever Susan was around. “Sue Sue” he called her, his voice going high, a smile forming on his lips whenever his eyes settled on her. “Sue Sue, how you doing?” he’d ask.

As the photo shows, Susan would return those feelings. She was a gentle, high-spirited girl, and when freed from my grandmother’s overbearing supervision and the object of my father’s attention she became excited, talkative and happy. Though “overbearing” might be too soft an adjective to use when it comes to describing my grandmother’s supervision of her. The fact was, my grandmother was a stern, domineering woman. Her temper was sharp. Her language could be humiliating. Her prickly tone of voice would visibly alter the expression on Susan’s face and when I saw it happen I wanted to rise up and defend her. I wanted to tell my grandmother it wasn’t right to talk to her like that. But I never did. And far as I’m aware no one else ever did that either.

That was what we saw at Sunday dinners and family events and casual get-togethers. What went on in that apartment on Everett Street no doubt continued. I know Susan did much of the cleaning and cooking, and though there was an extra bedroom my grandmother made her sleep in the same one she did. An immigrant from a poor southern Italian village, my grandmother may have been continuing an old world way. And that wasn’t all of it. On nights and weekends Susan rarely, if ever, went out to hang with friends. A boyfriend, even a secret one, would have been almost impossible for her to have.

And yet, my grandmother’s domination over her might have been worse than that. I’d thought it. My mother and father had too. But as far as I know there was nothing we, they, could do. I recall their conversations about contesting custody and taking Susan in with us. But it likely would have been impossible to get her away from my grandmother and so it was never attempted.

Knowing all that, I worried a lot about Susan. The summer before I started college I recall running into her at Brigham’s, a popular local ice cream franchise at the time. She was with our cousin Dorothy drinking a soda at the counter. She seemed thinner than ever, fragile, as if she hadn’t been eating. In the photo you can tell she’s quite slim, her clothes loose (it in fact might have been taken near the time of that Brigham’s meeting). But that afternoon I noticed her blouse hung from her shoulders as if from a wire hanger and her pants were baggy around her hips and legs. I feared something awful might happen if she got sick. Later that day, I told my mother what I saw and how I felt, how living with my grandmother wasn’t any good for her. My mother agreed. After all, she’d said it long before I had and she responded to that conversation as she always did in stressful moments, by reaching for the rosary beads she kept in a pocket.

I suppose living with my grandmother had a tremendous, and perhaps dire, psychological impact on Susan. I say this as a way of leaping ahead to the call I received in my dorm room when I was a college sophomore. The calming voice of the Jesuit brother, who presided over spiritual matters for undergraduates, informed me he was at the security desk downstairs and needed to see me right away. He greeted me with a smile and at the same time a look of concern. He led me to a small side office, shut the door, and when we were seated he spoke in a quiet voice. My cousin Susan had passed away and I should call home right away. While the news rattled me, I wasn’t shocked. The Jesuit brother and I talked about Susan for a few more minutes and at the end he asked if I had any questions or if there was anything he could do for me? No, I shook my head, not crying, but saddened I wouldn’t see Susan again.

Up in my room I made a collect call home. My father answered in a broken voice and repeated what I’d been told. Susan had died of an unknown brain disorder and I understood disorder might mean a lot of things. Just as with my Aunt Kitty, the doctors didn’t know exactly what it was. And then something happened I’d never heard before and would never hear again. My father started crying. Balling uncontrollably might be a better way to put it. And that shook me up as much as the news about Susan.

What went on after she was rushed to the hospital was never explained to me. I’m not sure if my father ever found out, or if he’d ever pursued the details. Had there been an autopsy? I don’t know. If so, had my father kept the results to himself so he didn’t have to talk about them? It isn’t a long stretch to think that. It was sudden. Did it matter how and why? Did Susan have a tumor that sent her into a coma she never came out of? That would be the expected diagnosis and one I’m sure would have been discussed. There was talk she’d gotten hold of a bottle of my grandmother’s pills and overdosed on them. It might have been that. It might have been several other things. Who knows? I don’t. For me, now, I’m still curious even if it’s too late to matter. But back then, Susan’s death had a tremendous impact on all of us. She had just turned seventeen and was the first person I was close to to die.

I have another recollection of Susan. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade and the weather was too cold or too bad to hang outside with my friends, I’d go to my grandmother’s after school and wait until my mother got home from work (she’d stopped trusting me with a key since I’d almost set fire to our apartment trying to make parchment paper over the flame of our gas stove). One afternoon, soaked in a heavy downpour, my grandmother thinking I might catch pneumonia, she was adamant I take off my wet clothes and put on one of her bathrobes. She gave me a heavy green flannel one and I went into the bathroom to change. In the full-length mirror I looked like a waif out of a Dickens’ novel, wearing an ugly green overcoat I’d pulled from the bottom of a closet. I was so embarrassed I intended to stay in there until my mother was home and could bring me a dry change of clothes. But my grandmother insisted I come out. When she started beating on the door I gave in. Seeing me, Susan laughed and didn’t stop laughing. She spent the next hour, unsuccessfully I must say, trying to pull the cloth belt off, the only thing keeping the robe closed and me from exposure. Over the next months we joked about that quite a bit.

I continue to wonder what Susan would have become? There’s no way to know, of course, but I feel sure if she were alive her home would be a place I’d look forward to stopping at whenever I was back in Waltham.

 

The Work You Must Do

My father and grandfather when my father was back from WWII and still on crutches.

My paternal grandfather, “the well-known auto repair man” as a Portsmouth, New Hampshire newspaper had referred to him, was an inventor who’d obtained at least six patents for mechanical devices and processes.[1] As far as I know the last of these was titled “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks,” which, if I read the specification correctly, improved the production of cardboard boxes with a more efficient way of scoring, gluing and folding them into completed receptacles.[2] The prototype was designed and constructed with my father’s help in the machine shop my grandfather started and ran in Waltham, Massachusetts.[3] My grandfather would die a year after the patent was granted by the U.S. Commissioner of Patents (in 1952) when a blood vessel hemorrhaged in his brain, and not much longer after that the shop went bust. Why my father wasn’t able to keep it going, he never explained to me, though by the time I was old enough to surmise a world where appearances were the topics of the day and the realities behind them never discussed, I understood its failure as one of the troublesome subtexts behind the many problems he and my mother had.

The box blank machine.

The shop on Charles Street Ave. was a thousand square feet of clutter, of lathes, milling machines, drill presses, small motors, cans of oil, gears, greasy tools, and hundreds of other gadgets and parts needed for whatever was being worked on at the time.[4] It prospered by providing welding, custom design, metal stamping and other machine tool services. At least five other machinists worked in it. The exact number was iffy in my father’s recollection. But while business was going well, and they had skilled help, time was freed up for he and my grandfather to work on the projects they’d hoped would bring them riches. And that was, even more than providing a livable income, vital as that hard fact of life was and remains, the shop’s intention all along; to be a venue where they could employ their talents and express their ideas to invent and design and develop.

They must have felt certain, or at least hopeful, that at some point one or more of their creations such as “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks” would bring large sales or a sizable lump-sum payment from a company that would go on to produce many thousands of them. But my grandfather’s abrupt illness, and my father’s failure to keep the business going, put an end to those expectations.

“He was a great man. If that hadn’t happened to him we would have been rich,” my mother never hesitated to tell me when the topic came up. Then inevitably, she’d add, “Your father’s talented, but he doesn’t know anything about running a business. He’s not practical-minded like your grandfather was. And he never learned how to toot his own horn.”

My father explained the shop’s demise from an entirely different viewpoint. “No luck,” he replied with an inward gaze the few times I’d asked him what happened. “I swear to you the name has a curse on it. You’ll find that out someday.”

Apparently, that was a persuasive enough argument to keep him from taking a stab at starting another company. His father’s success,[5] and his failure to keep the shop going, must have always been right there with him, and after a while he rarely (and I mean almost never) mentioned either. It was obvious he’d convinced himself he wasn’t equipped to sell an idea and get financial backing and manage people. And there was his family to think about, a burden on his conscience and wallet. A steady income was needed, and so from then on he worked as a machinist and tool designer.

And that was how I knew him, as a discontented forty-hours-plus a week laborer who brown-bagged his lunch to the places that employed him, a variety of companies that included military contractors, research outfits and universities he’d stay at for one or two or three years before moving on for whatever reason there was to leave: a layoff, the expectation of more uninspired assignments he wanted to liberate himself from, a personality conflict with his boss; there had been plenty of those.

Aside from his hourly wage earner role, my father never lost the urge to create. It was a desire he satisfied by filling spiral drawing pads with diagrams of machines, electrical devices and toys. Some were easily recognizable: a mechanical soldier in ceremonial dress would be depicted in a series of Muybridge-like frames marching forward and backward while blowing steam out its ears. But others were true imaginings. Only he knew what they were, how they operated, and what practical function, if any, they might have. Asked to describe one of the more obscure, for example, a machine on four wheels that would roll sideways and had a single long arm with a roller at the end shown moving vertically, he’d smile, lift his eyebrows and say, “It’s just an oddball idea right now. But maybe it’ll paint a wall while you stand around and watch it.”

Just where some of those oddities came from is impossible to pinpoint. They might have been leftover from conversations he’d had with his father in that disarrayed shop on Waltham’s west end. Or maybe they’d sparked up while he was reading one of the books or magazines he’d browse on the couch after dinner and on weekends, that included issues of “Popular Mechanics,” science fiction paperbacks (he had more than twenty by Asimov), early computer manuals, and volumes with titles such as Science of Billiards, Modern College Physics, Chemical Magic and Z80 Instruction Handbook.

It was the latter that intrigued me most when I came upon it after he died in 1993. Computers, in fact, fascinated him. Had he been born in the era I’d grown up in he might have gone on to study them formally, no doubt tinkered with their electronics, and maybe, if all fell into place (the curse on the family name be damned!), even invented something he might have been granted a patent for and got him the attention he’d wanted.

I know his first PC was the Radio Shack TRS-80 he’d ordered from the back of “Popular Mechanics.” Introduced in 1977, it featured the Z80 processor he had the handbook for, with 4 kilobytes of RAM, a small keyboard, a black-and-white video display and a tape drive. With a brief Internet search I was able to find out it sold for around $600, a sum, I’m certain, he’d lowered by a few dozen percentage points when my mother asked him what the thing cost.

The only other PC he ever had was the used, Korean-made IBM-clone I’d replaced and given to him in the late 1980s. A more advanced machine than the TRS-80, he took it apart and put it back together, fascinated with its sophisticated components, and at the same time, I imagine, thinking in his own self-confident way that with the right knowledge base and enough time and money he might have built something from scratch just like it, or maybe better.

But while the computer’s hardware was easy enough for my father to figure out, he had difficulty understanding the applications it was designed to run. I still remember the phone call he’d made to me one night complaining about a popular word processing program, and the conversation about it going something like this:

“Hey Paul, can you help me? I’m having trouble with this damn software.”

“What is it you can’t figure out?”

“Everything, that’s what. How do you people get anything done on it? I sure as hell don’t know. And to tell you the truth, I’m starting not to want to.”

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Except for when he was ill those last years of his life (“No ambition,” he’d answer when I suggested he try to do some work) my father never stopped drawing in those spiral pads he bought at Nickerson & Hills on Main Street. There was always the need to be involved in something besides what he did during the day and being with his family at night. He never had a shortage of ideas to flesh out. He penciled lines and shapes and descriptive fragments no matter who was around or what other activity was in progress. Even when he was sitting at his favorite end of the couch (where no one else, not even guests, would settle) he seemed to be working out a problem, undistracted by the chatter or blink of colors flashing on the t.v.

He filled those pads with the intention of doing more than setting them aside to gather dust. Some of the drawings became the guidelines used to bear something into the 3-D world. To my delight, he constructed the above-mentioned mechanical soldier, though when idea met reality he had to make one important modification. Instead of steam coming out its ears, a function that would obviously prove to be problematic in an independent mechanism built on a small budget, its hat moved up and down in time to the taps of the drum strapped to its waist.

“Silly isn’t it,” he said about it. “You can have it if you want.”

He did that work in the basements of the buildings we rented apartments in. A few weeknights after dinner and most weekend afternoons, he put on the stained gray work smock and stood, never sat, at the heavy wood bench that was covered with tools, spools of wire, dozens of glass jars with nuts and bolts, coffee cans filled with oil and solvents, a selection of plugs, coils, capacitors, transistors, springs, small motors and whatever else might be useful. The chestnut-stained toolbox with multiple levels of drawers he’d owned since before I was born was kept within arm’s reach. It was the size of a small trunk, incredibly heavy, and held many of the tools he needed: wrenches, gauges, screwdrivers, drills, files, calipers, wire cutters and others. I was fascinated with its slick, polished exterior and the fine quality of its contents even if he warned me not to get too familiar with any of it. He feared, I knew because he’d told me, that I might be lured into making a living doing what he did.[6]

I recall those hours in the basement being some of his most serene, when he was at ease with himself, clear of vision, and fully involved in the moment; the same lighted satisfaction he must have seen on his own father’s face when an idea bloomed then obsessed him. He enjoyed being alone with his thoughts and materials, his skills employed for purposes that didn’t have to do with the bottom lines of large companies or for the military to destroy things and people with.

The dream of commercial success long over, he nevertheless approached his projects methodically, as if someone or some enterprise was waiting for them: the concept imagined and re-imagined, conveyed to paper, the parts gathered on his workbench then assembled meticulously, soldering, grinding, tightening, fitting and refitting with the most fastidious workmanship. He wasn’t bothered or burdened by failure. If something wasn’t working out as he’d wanted it to he’d move on to whatever was next in the imaginary queue he must have kept in his head; after all, there was more to build than there was time for.

Some of his larger constructions included a lathe he designed and made all the parts for and a telescope with lenses he ground by hand. (One evening, as I was watching him sand down one of them, he implied the glass had cost quite a bit. When I asked how much, he responded, “More than five hundred bucks, Paul, but don’t tell your mother, she’ll have my head if she hears that.” And then he let out a long, low whistle. It was a secret I was able to keep for as long as he was alive.)

Other constructions included an oscilloscope he had no real use for and a can opener that could open four cans at once (though only in theory, it turned out) and that looked oddly similar to the parachute jump amusement ride at Coney Island he might have been aware of. There was also a giant remote control airplane made of balsa wood that I watched him fly a few times at Brandies University’s athletic field.[7] Whatever their purpose, or lack of one, he felt compelled to build them, or he wanted to prove to himself he could make them, or he wanted to get a chuckle out of seeing them function, which may have been satisfying enough. The days spent in earsplitting machine shops that paid rent and bought food were time-consuming distractions when he was fully involved in something “down there,” as my mother, brother and I would say, sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically. The only events that could deter him more than a day or two were a major family crisis (which were recurrent enough) or a Bruins playoff hockey series. He derived great pleasure from working, but just on the things that interested him.[8]

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As generous and inoffensive as my father was, he wasn’t a social man. At times he could be gruff and distrustful, difficult to get close to and figure out. I know when he was at his jobs he stayed by his machines during his breaks instead of spending the hour or so connecting with his co-workers. Instead, he used that time to make something for his projects out of whatever scrap material might be leftover around the shop. It was a self-absorbed activity that I’m certain made him seem distant and might have even instigated more than a few stressful moments of the kind that can develop between people who are uncomfortable with each other but still have to work in the same physical space five days a week. I’ve no doubt that was another reason he changed jobs often as he did (only rarely did he mention how his day had gone, and when he did his descriptions made me aware they’d not been easy or enjoyable).

When he was done with a project, and my brother and I were still living at home, my father would emerge victoriously from the basement to get our attention. We were his only regular audience. Rarely would my mother be interested, and never when he was between jobs. (All that tension between them was also a battle between the practical and impractical worlds.) After the demonstration, wanting to find out if his effort was successful, he’d assume his usual, skeptical air and ask us, “So what do you think about that? Any good?”

If it were a toy, or something we could play with, it might entertain us for a day or a week until we abandoned it like a cheap Christmas present. Eventually, it would find its way back to the basement where my father would clear out a spot for it on a dusty shelf, or put it to rest in a cardboard box he’d stack on top of other boxes that had works of his in.[9] By then, anyway, he’d be deep into something else. The process from idea to drawing pad to building the object provided the creative satisfaction he needed. Beyond that, the finished piece would have little more value than to mention to visiting relatives or neighbors with a grin that would imply he’d made something with his hands that was pretty impressive even if they might not know how impressive or think much about it at all.

No matter what the reaction, or lack of one, he continued doing the work he wanted to do even if it had no sensible or profitable place in the world (that was all going to hell anyway, according to him).

He did make one attempt I know of to sell an idea. After he died I discovered a paste-up board in a brown envelope for a product called MAGCHEK, an electronic sight for bows he’d advertised in the back of a national archery magazine. “Tomorrow’s sight today” stated the catchy sales pitch. I’m not sure how many months the magazine carried it. I don’t remember him mentioning a word about it. I’m also not sure if he had any buyers. But from the price he was asking, $19.50 ($12.50 for replacement parts), he was obviously planning to keep his day job.

Only a few objects remain, one MAGCHEK, the tube and tripod stand for the telescope (but not the expensive lenses), a loose-limbed wood puppet that looks like it might have been a maquette for something more ambitious. It’s all that’s left besides memory to remind me that was what he chose to do with some of the precious free hours he had. And in saying that it’s taken me this long to see the similarities in what I do as a writer, in my own creative urges and struggles, and in the tremendous frustrations and surprising hidden joys of it as well.

—Paul Perilli

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Paul Perilli

Paul Perilli‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The European, Baltimore Magazine, New Observations Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and others. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in bioStories, Hektoen International, The Transnational, The Satirist, Coldnoon, Litro, Intima, Numéro Cinq and Thema.


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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I say at least because much of the documentation from 1924 to 1951 is missing. Whatever was developed and formally submitted to the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in those intervening years, and what might have happened to it, remains unknown to me at this time.
  2. If my information is accurate, the first patent issued to him in 1928 was titled “Propelling Mechanism for Vehicles,” which, put simply, was a “walking automobile.”
  3. The shop was on Charles Street Ave., a side street in Waltham’s west end and my father began working in it after he was back from WWII. As of 2015 the building is still intact and in use, though it’s much smaller than I remembered or imagined it being.
  4. It’s likely I was in it, perhaps many times, but, as I would have been less than a year old, I have no memory of being there.
  5. The manifest from the Citta di Napoli that brought my grandfather to Ellis Island listed him being twenty years old (he would actually be twenty four months later), single, a peasant, illiterate, and having $16 on him, thus making his activities after that fairly impressive. I’ll speculate some here, and say they might have been too much for my father to try to match or exceed,
  6. My father was so adamant about keeping me away from the skilled trades that my wife, a visual artist familiar with tools and materials, is often amazed at how inept I am repairing things around our house.
  7. He eventually crashed it into the stands and the damage was so extensive he never repaired it.
  8. My father had other diversions. Actually, he had a lot of them. He was also a fine figure skater, archer, bowler, pool player, woodworker, landscape and portrait painter (and self-proclaimed as someone who could “do anything well but make money”). He approached each with the same ferocious dedication he’d built that telescope and lathe with and also was, in a way, his own equipment manufacturer. A bowling ball, for example, would have to be sanded down so the weight was to the smallest fraction of comfort; the forefinger and thumb holes cut into it had to fit just right or be filled in, re-measured and re-cut until they were. The top brand of bow purchased new would transform from a finished product to raw material after he brought it home. Taken to the basement, he’d strip it down to its basic components and rebuild it, tinkering with the string and pulleys to get the right feel in the draw, honing the stabilizers so the arrows released with the absolute minimum vibration. Arrows were treated the same, new tips would be added, any decorative paint scraped off.
  9. As an artist, my wife requires even more room, equipment and storage space than my father needed (or could afford). Whereas I, when looking for a creative outlet, saw writing was the cheapest, least physically intrusive and most mobile of all.
Jul 032017
 

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The narrow windows had black-leaded panes, you could see the tombstones of the cemetery through them. The sky lowered, and greyed, and the houses huddled with their small chimney pots, crooked; all covered, it seemed to me, in soot, in centuries of old black soot.

It was 1978, and I was a new immigrant with my family in London. I was eighteen years old. Instead of life speeding up and becoming more exciting though, as I had thought and imagined it would, it seemed to be slowing down. Things around me slowed, and seemed to have darkened and closed in, while I felt myself with a centre that grew more and more still.

I felt my perceptions to have altered, so that I saw everything through a grey veil, that nothing, no tossing of my head, no long sleep, could lift or shake. I thought I would go on a tropical holiday to Kenya, to feel better: I leafed through travel brochures about Kenya. Why Kenya? Because it wasn’t South Africa, that deeply loved place we had left: my home, which we had left behind.

Our left-behind home.

So, Kenya. Kenya didn’t have apartheid. Kenya wasn’t my deeply loved, deeply anguished home. I could go to Kenya.

Meanwhile, I lived, perched precariously it seemed to me, with my parents and brothers in a house in a suburb of London. The house overlooked Golders Green cemetery, the white and grey tombstones were visible from our windows, our narrow, old-English windows with leaded glass.

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A friend I made was working as an usher at the Young Vic theatre. He said he wanted to be a director, a theatre director, a distant category of person in my mind: an unimaginable ambition to me, at eighteen years old (although he was eighteen years old too). He got me a job ushering at the Young Vic with him. I was happy to have a job: to have something to do I might like, to earn a few pounds for something, I couldn’t imagine for what.

My studies had been proceeding on Frognal Avenue in Hampstead, we waded through Homer’s The Odyssey–such a long, long journey, with no end. Later those studies would falter too. The Odyssey, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and all the other books I was reading, became too much, too much to read, by far.

My job as a theatre usher began. Each evening my mother drove me to Golders Green tube station, near the end of the black Northern line. There was a wait, always a wait, then I’d get on a train, which travelled, through tunnels and tunnels, south, past stations I soon knew and could anticipate by heart. Hampstead; Belsize Park; Chalk Farm; Camden Town; Mornington Crescent; Euston; Warren Street; Tottenham Court Road; Leicester Square; Charing Cross; Embankment. Waterloo.

That was my stop. Waterloo, grey and gloomy, and tunnels to walk through, twenty minutes of walking, to the theatre, in its unassuming home on the South Bank, dark also and gloomy in my memory.

There was a black-coal overpass, I remember it.

The Young Vic was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second home (Stratford-on-Avon was its first). That season, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were starring in Macbeth, with Trevor Nunn directing. I was an usher for the season.

My job was to stand at the doors, take tickets, and direct people to their seats. Then I could stand inside and watch the play, or stand just outside, in the lobby, and talk with the other ushers. When I left each evening, I was paid a few pounds, in cash. I would talk with Michael, my usher friend, for a few minutes, about nothing I now remember, we probably discussed the play, or some gossip about the other ushers. Michael lived in south London, in Dulwich, where I’d never been. I tried to imagine it. There must be an expanse of low chimney pots in Dulwich, narrow houses, windows with leaded panes too. Michael had longish, dark hair, and a pale English skin. I thought he might be gay. Perhaps he suggested having a drink sometime, but I don’t remember.

I’d start on my journey home.

There was the twenty-minute walk again through tunnels: the black turnstyles; the odd people about; the concrete and echoes in the tunnels; sometimes happy theatre-goers going home; other people, even crazy, or homeless ones; and sometimes, in my memory, no-one about at all. Just me, and my thoughts, which seemed very slow, and slowing, then. And then the long train ride home, through all the stations. This time, in reverse, like a familiar song, with its chords rearranged. Embankment; Charing Cross; Leicester Square; Tottenham Court Road; Warren Street; Euston; Mornington Crescent; and onwards, north.

The black Northern line split in two, so sometimes I took the wrong train, and passing through Bank, Moorgate and Angel stations, I’d know it was wrong. I’d imagine the City at those stations, the financial centre of London, deserted now, at night. I’d have to get out and wait again, for the right train, the right Northern line, the one that ended at High Barnet, with Golders Green, my stop, on its way.

The tube stations had machines dispensing Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars, and Bounty bars, and I’d buy one, the twenty-five-pence coins in my palm, so vividly remembered, now. The sweetness of the dense-white coconut in the Bounty bars was a counterweight to the grime and lateness and solitude of the night train.

There would still be the dim night bus from the station, or my mother picking me up, to get home, to our house of the leaded panes, its chimney pot like all the thousands over London: distinctive London chimney pots, dark and small and old.

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Nowadays if you Google the 1978 Young Vic production of Macbeth where I worked as an usher, and in which a young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench played the leads, you will read that it was a defining production of the play: a glittering and historic theatrical milestone. There was no scenery, the backdrop just a black curtain, and the set just a few black boxes which were moved around when needed, as chairs, or steps. There were no costumes: the actors wore black, and nothing else, no adornment. There was no time or place reference, so the story of the play could be occurring anywhere, at any time. The only prop was a dagger–the crucial dagger.

Come, let me clutch thee.

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The Young Vic was a small, in-the-round theatre. The effect of this and the sparse set was that you felt as though you were in personal communion with Ian McKellen as Macbeth, or Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth. Just a spotlight on their faces as they spoke. The words the most important thing: Shakespeare’s words, alone.

There were perhaps sixteen performances of that play. As the lights went down each evening and my work was done taking tickets and directing people to their seats, I didn’t go out into the lobby to talk to Michael, or do nothing, as I was free to do. I stood inside at the back, and watched the entire play of Macbeth, from beginning to end. Sixteen times, as I said.

I knew Macbeth as I had studied it in high school. I also knew, in my dim awareness–so many things not clear–how rare it was, to watch these actors, this play, in such proximity. So I watched, in darkness. Sixteen times. Ian McKellen’s spotlit face, night after night.

By the end of the run, I knew every breath of every single word that Ian McKellen spoke, every gesture he made, every nuance or quaver in his voice. I could predict in exactly what tenor or tone he would say something, and detect tiny changes he might make. I spent daylight hours, at home, repeating lines to myself, as the music of them gave me so much pleasure. I seem to think my sleeping hours must have been filled with that music, those cadences, too. And I’d repeat words, simple words, as Judi Dench’s voice, her black-garbed figure, carried through my days.

Will all the oceans of Arabia sweeten this little hand?

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There was nothing in the dark play of Macbeth that related in an obvious way to the life experience I had had, and my life experiences at that moment were full of other concerns: concerns about being alien and alone in a new and foreign place. My home–as I said–left behind.

No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green, one red

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Many years later I understood that the darkness I experienced was not only London in winter, a northern European winter that was so alien to me, a South African. It was also a paralysis in myself that had started quite suddenly, then seeped further, and further, almost into my body.

My clearest memory of that time might be the black tale of Macbeth. Standing in a darkened room and hearing Shakespeare’s words was a profound solace to a young person floundering: it was an assurance, I now recognize, that art can offer, an assurance of beauty in darkness, of beauty that might transcend things, of a beauty that might last.

I had lost family and friends, a sense of connection and belonging, and a landscape—strange and wide and sun-drenched— that was mine. There was the injustice in South Africa, and the possibility of doing something about it: the moral clarity of something I could do, even a sense of duty about what I must do. I had lost that, as well.

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It was a long time before I took full measure of that loss. It was a long time before the grey veil began to lift, before I found and made a new home, before I found the beginnings of clarity.

I live in a new city now, not an old one. I love leaded glass windows. I also like stained glass, but only old—especially antique—stained glass. Alongside the blackness of the veins, there are the colours: blood-red, or ruby-red, and grass-green, and blue, like the sky. But which sky? Not an African sky, and not a faded English or European one. It is some other sky: a sky that exists only in the window, and is a deeper blue than all the other skies.

Macbeth keeps its hold. I have an idea that its words and music exist in me, like bones. Ineradicable. I have an idea they made me a writer.

Blackness exists and lives alongside colour and beauty–and truth. I intuited that in that long-ago theatre, although I only dimly understood it, then.

—Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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Jul 022017
 

Author photo by Jada Lillo

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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Introduction to an introduction

In her introduction to the 1989 edition of Best American Short Stories, Margaret Atwood describes her selection process. In this essay, called “Reading Blind,” Atwood talks about the “voice of the story,” an elusive quality she defines as “a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across space, across the page, but through time” (xiv). I’m fascinated by this idea of time as narrative’s medium, like a painter’s oils or a potter’s clay. Of course, the narrative voice doesn’t travel through time with only the writer for company; narrative needs readers. If narrative is “a score for voice” (xiv), as Atwood claims, then the reader’s imagination is the instrument.

However, narrative is not music, and the reader’s task of reading this score for voice is more haphazard than a musician’s experience of reading a musical score and performing a song. A musician performs a song after hours of practice, after absorbing the music as muscle memory. In contrast, the reader imagines a narrative voice at the pace of the words on the page. With novels this pace can span days or weeks. To account for this difference, Atwood shifts metaphors in her essay and describes reading as follows:

[From] these scraps of voice . . . we [the readers] patch together for ourselves an order of events, a plot or plots; these, then, are the things that happen, these are the people they happen to, this is the forbidden knowledge. (xv)

The familiar elements of plot are here, but what is this “forbidden knowledge?” And what might this forbidden knowledge have to do with narrative’s medium, time?

Atwood’s essay does not address these questions. Instead, she concludes her thoughts by finding a unifying factor in all the stories she chose for the anthology. For Atwood, this factor is a “sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear” (xviii).

For a long time these ideas have rattled around in my head: narrative’s medium is time; narrative is a score for voice; stories share forbidden knowledge; narrative must be urgent, compulsive, imperative. If I accept Atwood’s observations then what does that mean for the novel I’m writing? What do these criteria look like on the page? How do writers create this elusive voice of the story, and most importantly, how can I do this myself?

Margaret Atwood Best American Short Stories collage_1

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Character thought: a crash course

At first the answer to my questions appears simple. In the context of a first-person narrative, every word, gesture, image, idea generates from the character. Technically speaking, first-person novels are all character thought. However, as readers of first-person novels, we have felt how this reading experience differs from reading other first-person accounts: letters, journals, interviews. And what does a novel have that these other modes of discourse lack? The answer—character thought—seems simple, which should have been my first clue that I had a lot to learn. In a section called “Novel Thought” in Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover gives an excellent crash course on the subject, which I’ll quote and paraphrase here, but I recommend a full reading. To begin his discussion Glover describes character thought as “stylized and systematic, unlike real thought” (12); he also says character thought “functions by concentrating on time and motive” (12); finally, character thought occurs within the point-of-view character’s mind (14).

Stylized and systematic language, time and motive from inside the point-of-view character’s head are just the beginnings. For example, Glover continues his analysis by elaborating on how writers use character thought. First, character thought looks back, “remembering where [characters] have been and why they have come to where they are . . . obsessively” (12). Also, characters constantly “[assess] where they are now . . .” (12), even though “they don’t have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before” (12); finally, characters must “[look] ahead” [12] and decide what actions to take based on what’s happened before (13). Here is a partial answer to the question about how writers work with time: characters project into the future, evaluate the present, and reflect on the past.

But what makes these temporal gestures both “stylized” and “systematic?” How does character thought distinguish itself from the other elements of first-person narration? While Glover’s descriptions of character thought provide a significant starting point, I couldn’t answer my questions without returning to the original teachers: books.

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Categories of character thought

I identified four approaches to character thought. As with most things to do with writing, these are broad categories that often overlap and are not intended to be proscriptive. However, throughout the novels I studied this semester, I encountered these patterns again and again, with each author implementing these approaches in idiosyncratic ways. As I read and studied, I noticed that each of these approaches provides some insights or intuitions about my questions related to the first-person voice and character thought. The categories are as follows:

  1. Direct Statement: the author uses signal phrases, such as “I thought,” “I wonder,” “I understand,” etc., to transition into a direct statement of the character’s thoughts.
  2. Indirect Statement: the stylistic use of diction with powerful, personal connotations—often times, indirect statement happens at the adjective, noun, and verb level.
  3. Comparative Language: metaphor, simile, analogy create opportunities for character’s to reveal their thoughts in a dynamic, stylized way; in addition to figurative language, comparative language happens in the syntax (through devices like antithesis) and in the content.
  4. Parenthetical Expression: character thought set off between commas, dashes, parentheses; these expressions interrupt the normal syntactical flow of the sentence and often shift the tone, which of course reveals the character’s attitude toward the subject matter

With these general categories in mind, I’d like to look at the novels I read that formed my ideas about how writers use “systematic and stylized” character thought to create the first-person voice, work with narrative’s temporal medium, and reveal the forbidden knowledge of these stories.

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Discovering Cassandra

Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Cassandra reimagines the story of Cassandra of Troy, Priam and Hecuba’s daughter who prophesies the downfall of her city, but Apollo’s curse ensures that people do not believe her visions. The frame story for this novel transpires in a matter of hours, beginning with Cassandra’s arrival at Mycenae and ending with her execution. However, the material of the novel ranges through different times in Cassandra’s life—her childhood as a member of the royal family, her adolescence as a priestess, her adulthood as social pariah, prisoner, and fugitive—; the chronology remains loose and is sometimes elusive, but by the ending I have a profound sense of Cassandra’s desires, how her actions and choices have shaped her life, what she believes and why. As a reader, I have gathered the scraps and stitched together the who and the what. I have discovered the forbidden knowledge. But how does Wolf’s writing make possible my reading experience? How does character thought work in this novel?

Cassandra cover image

Early in the text, Wolf makes it plain that forbidden knowledge is one of the overt subjects of this novel. Here is a representative passage, from pages four and five in the Jan van Heurck translation:

The same sky over Mycenae as over Troy, only empty. Shiny like enamel, inaccessible, polished, clean. Something in me matches the emptiness of the sky above the enemy land. So far, everything that has befallen me has struck an answering chord. This is the secret that encircles and holds me together; I have never been able to talk of it with anyone. Only here, at the utter-most rim of my life, can I name it to myself: There is something of everyone in me, so I have belonged completely to no one, and I have even understood their hatred of me. Once “in the past”—yes, that’s the magic word—I tried to talk about it to Myrine, in hints and broken phrases. Not to obtain relief, there was no relief; but because I believed I owed it to her. Troy’s end was in sight, we were lost. Aeneas had pulled out with his people. Myrine despised him. And I tried to tell her—no, not just that I understood Aeneas; that I knew him. As if I were he. As if I were crouching inside him, feeding in thought on his traitorous resolves. “Traitorous,” said Myrine, angrily raining ax blows on the undergrowth in the trench surrounding the citadel, not listening to me, perhaps not even understanding what I said, for since I was imprisoned in the basket I speak softly. It is not my voice that suffered, as they all thought. It is the tone. The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.

This passage begins with comparative language—Mycenae’s sky versus Troy’s sky. This comparative gesture begins with a clear declarative: the skies are the same. However, Wolf quickly moves into a qualification of the similarity. Mycenae’s sky is emptier, shinier, and these qualifications become more precise through another layer of comparison: the simile linking sky to enamel. Through the use of comparative language, Wolf works within narrative’s temporal medium: Mycenae’s sky is now, Troy’s sky was then. The character’s present and past are connected through both similarity and difference, accomplishing one of Glover’s dictums about character thought. The character both assesses the present and reflects on the past in this example.

Next, Wolf continues her stylized construction of character thought through an extension of the previous comparative gesture. However, this extension changes the comparative terms, with Mycenae’s sky now connected to Cassandra’s self—she matches this “sky above the enemy land.” Through this comparative gesture, Wolf characterizes Cassandra, not as others have seen her and portrayed her in art through the millennia, but as Cassandra sees herself. Whether or not she is accurate in this self-assessment does not matter, as Glover asserts, but this self-assessment must show the character as true to herself.

While comparative language demonstrates the “stylized” nature of character thought, the next three sentences develop through direct statement. The “systemized” nature of character thought demands this change because the previous comparatives set up the necessity. For self-assessment to function as character thought, the narrative must show Cassandra’s fidelity to herself. In these sentences, the shift from comparative language to direct statement occurs with the signal phrase, “So far . . .” This signal phrase introduces an idea Wolf develops through a series of sentences, all self-evaluative, all connecting Cassandra’s now to her past. Also in this series, Wolf announces a portion of her subject matter: Cassandra’s “secret.” This secret has to do with Cassandra’s power, not as a prophetess, although that’s part of it, but as a woman, as herself.

Included in the edition I read are four essays Wolf calls, “Conditions of Narrative.”  In the final essay, which is actually a letter, Wolf talks about this thematic concern—what is Cassandra’s power?—not as I would when teaching high school English, but as a writer who is still discovering her story. Wolf describes Cassandra’s power as follows:

This whole earthy-fruitful hodgepodge, this undisciplined tendency to merge and change into each other, this thing which it was hard to put a name to, this throng of women, mothers, and goddesses which it was hard to classify and to count, was brought under control, along with the right of male inheritance and private property, after what appear to have been long, difficult centuries, which now are described as “dark” and have been forgotten. (282)

Cassandra’s treacherous tendency to contain all the others, and to belong to no one but herself, this “undisciplined tendency to merge and change” is Cassandra’s secret, and the exploration of this secret conveys the novel’s forbidden knowledge, knowledge that is both dark and forgotten until a reader gathers the scraps of Cassandra’s voice into a narrative whole.

To return to the original passage, Wolf’s development of character thought continues, although direct statement gives way to what I’d always considered as the grunt work of narrative: there’s a scene, where Myrine the Amazon hacks at overgrowth with her ax, and the plot detail of Aeneas’s departure becomes the subject of dialogue between Myrine and Cassandra, progressing the characterization of Cassandra, Aeneas, and Myrine. This work in scene is important, and Wolf handles the technical difficulties of scene with finesse, but what interests me in this scenic material is Wolf’s continuous insertion of character thought. There’s the parenthetical expression of “yes, that’s the magical word”—and Cassandra’s reflective tone delves into a moment of discovery, revelation, recognition in the present before returning to the work of the scene, which is to describe an event from the past. There’s the comparative language linking Cassandra to Aeneas, signaled by the phrase “as if,” which shows Cassandra’s undisciplined tendency to merge into others, the reason for both her power (as a woman; as a seer) and her punishment (her imprisonment in the basket; the destruction of her people).

In the final sentences Wolf returns to comparative language, a symmetry that has been a hallmark of Wolf’s gestures throughout this passage. With these sentences, Cassandra takes up the subject of her voice, the musicality of it, and this music’s connection to her past experiences, as Atwood suggests any urgent narrative must do. After her imprisonment in the basket, Cassandra’s voice has not “suffered,” as her people believe, but its “tone” has changed. To quote: “The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.” These final two sentences demonstrate the precision of indirect statement, or character thought as connotation, one of the distinguishing characteristics of first-person narrative. The word “annunciation,” with its implications of sacrifice, duty, self-destruction, reveals Cassandra’s assessment of her past. The word “happily” shifts Cassandra’s self-assessment into the present with an ironic lurch. With annunciation “happily gone,” Cassandra is in full possession of her powers. This “happily” can co-exist with her future, her death within hours. These connotations stretch character thought into all three temporal dimensions: past, present, and future. In these examples of indirect statement, this high degree of temporal flexibility, this simultaneity, generates urgency. When taken with what’s come before, the passage’s final gesture is one of highly-structured synthesis. Through different approaches to character thought, Wolf’s narrative shapes time, explores the forbidden knowledge, and tells the story as Cassandra must tell it, and as the readers must hear.

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Absence in The Blind Assassin

In her 2002 essay called, “Descent: Negotiating with the Dead,” Margaret Atwood uses a question as the subheading: “Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?” The main thesis of this essay answers to this question in the following way: writers make the trip because writing, at heart, presents an opportunity to rescue something from the oblivion of time. To quote Atwood: “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead” (156).

As the essay develops, Atwood claims for writing a specialized territory not occupied by other arts. According to Atwood, writing’s relationship with mortality is unique because “it survives its own performance . . . as voice” (158). For Atwood, the novelty of narrative’s artistry is how “the voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change” (158). Much like Christa Wolf, Atwood claims the voice’s mutability as a source of power because, for Atwood, the writer’s “deeply forbidden” journey through the Underworld bears worthy fruit when “life of a sort can be bestowed by writing” (172); Atwood’s metaphors imply that life-bestowed-by-writing derives from the vitality of voice and the searing pain of absence.

Blind Assassin Negotiating with the Dead collage

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin takes absence as one of its overt subjects. The Blind Assassin is a family novel, telling the story of Iris and Laura Chase, sisters who come of age during the Great Depression. This story unwinds through three modes of discourse: first, Iris Chase’s first-person narrative of her family history, childhood, marriage, and the aftermath; second, a novel-within-the-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which Iris published under her sister’s name, after Laura’s death. This novel-within-the-novel is a third-person limited story of an affair between an unnamed “he” and an unnamed “she” that takes place during the inter-war years and ends during World War II; and third, a series of newspaper and magazine clippings, small announcements, obituaries, political and fashion columns, all mentioning people intimately connected to Iris.

Atwood’s novel is, ultimately, about absence. As Iris’s first-person narrative unfolds, she reveals a history of betrayals. Her marriage to Richard Griffen, an economic arrangement intended to keep open the Chase family business, ends in ruin. Richard closes the Chase factories; he uses Iris as a sexual object and abuses her; later, he transfers his physical and sexual abuse to Laura, but Iris cannot see what is in front of her because she is mired in betrayals of her own. During the years of Laura’s deepest trauma, Iris engages in an affair with Alex Thomas, the man Laura loves, and when Iris reveals this information to her sister, this revelation propels Laura to suicide, the suicide announced in the novel’s opening sentence: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (1). However, through most of Iris’s first-person narrative, Alex is an absent entity, a gap, a hole, in contrast to his presence in the other modes of the novel, for example as the “he” in the novel-within-the-novel. As I read this novel, my questions once again center around the word how? How does Atwood create this tension between absence and presence? How does a character vanish from the narrative while at the same time establish a presence in Iris’s every action?

The answer is through character thought. Throughout the complicated structure of this novel, character thought systematically links the various modes of discourse through association and reflection. For example, in the chapter “The Chestnut Tree,” Atwood begins with a two-paragraph sequence that is entirely character thought:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.

You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones. (395)

Just as in the Christa Wolf passage, this example from The Blind Assassin announces its subject: absence. This passage begins with direct statement, signaled by the subject/verb pairs “I look back,” and “I know.” This sentence situates the reader within a triangular relationship between what Iris has written in her first-person narrative, and what she remembers, which is just as must absence as presence. The narrative is “wrong” because of what is missing. This contrast between absence and presence continues as the sentence transitions from direct statement to comparative language, signaled by the “not because . . . but because” correlation. With no full stop between direct statement and comparative language, the second gesture becomes an extension of the first. As Iris reflects on her writing in the present, she recalls but does not express her past. While moving through different modes of character thought, this sentence also moves through time. Now the writing is “wrong” because of what Iris has “omitted” from back then—behind that word “omitted” is a remembered history. There, in those memories, is the forbidden knowledge, and Iris’s voice spirals around it but does not touch it directly . . . yet. As character thought, comparative language makes this spiraling between times possible. The spiral structure lends itself to the discussion of absence: the circular movement around a narrowing gap.

The final sentence of this paragraph confirms this spiral structure. The sentence begins with direct thought—Iris’s commentary on her writing—“What isn’t there has a presence.” Then the simile (“like the absence of light”) moves the sentence into comparative language, echoing the gestures from the previous sentence, but at a quicker pace. The spiral narrows. In this comparison, presence becomes absence, darkness become light. The forbidden knowledge takes on dimension.

The next paragraph changes rhetorical direction with the direct address of “you.” However, rather than functioning as a move away from character thought, this rhetorical shift adds another temporal dimension to the character thought sequence introduced in the previous paragraph. The use of anaphora—“You want . . . You want”—and the simple, declarative syntax indicates character thought through direct statement. In addition, the “you” isn’t another person in the room; instead, the “you” is a projected future reader, Iris’s estranged granddaughter Sabrina. These “you” sentences project Iris’s thoughts into the future, but they remain Iris’s thoughts.

In the paragraph’s last four sentences, Iris responds to the projected “you.” The conjunction “but” and the direct statement, “two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth,” set up this turn and lend a call-and-response structure to this paragraph. Within call-and-response structures reside another implicit reference to time; first the demand then the response, a structure containing both sequence and causality. In this example from Atwood, time unfolds in several ways within the call-and-response; first through the future projection of “you” reading and wanting certain responses; second in Iris’s answers to “you’s” demands because these answers transpire in not only the now of her writing but also the future of her voice talking to “you,” to her granddaughter Sabrina. In this future, Iris will reveal the forbidden knowledge of their family’s history. That this extension of Iris’s voice takes her into a future beyond her death shows another way Atwood uses character thought to explore the nature of absence. Even as Iris writes, the movement of her thoughts through different temporalities generates the presence of her absence.

Finally, the last three sentences return to the gesture of comparative language. All three sentences use metaphor to express Iris’s thoughts about the slippery nature of truth. The first two metaphors announce their relationship to the paragraph’s previous sentences through anaphora: “two and two equals.” Syntactically, this comparative language connects to the previous direct statements, which continues the temporal dimensions of the previous sentences. Iris writes now; her granddaughter will read her voice in the future. In addition to present and future, these metaphors also stretch character thought into the past: “ . . . a voice outside the window” and “ . . . a wind.” Within the context of the overall novel, not to mention this specific chapter, both the voice and the wind connect to memory, to the past, to regret, to absence.

The last sentence makes these connections explicit; the metaphor shifts away from the “two and two” echo to convey Iris’s thoughts about the ambiguity of truth: the “living bird is not its labeled bones,” Iris writes. In this metaphor, time and mortality, presence and absence exist within the single figure. The image of the bird—alive then dead—and the distortions of truth—the living bird is more true than the bird’s bones, but the bones are also true. Presence and absence exist within both of these comparative terms: the bird once lived; one can imagine the living bird by labeling its bones, which exist now, have presence now, but not living presence. This metaphor applies not only to truth in the abstract; this comparative language also applies to Atwood’s entire novel. Each of the modes of discourse—first-person narrative, novel-within-the-novel, and newspaper clippings—also presents a version of truth, but as separate entities these modes are only the bones of a story. Character thought connects the novel’s three modes of discourse; through this connection the novel becomes a living bird.

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Conclusion: The Golden Notebook

In Doris Lessing’s 1993 “Introduction” to her novel The Golden Notebook, she comments on her surprise at the novel’s progress through the decades, surprise at how many people read the novel, surprise at the book’s many lives. In this introduction, Lessing speculates on why The Golden Notebook remains a vital experience for multitudes of people. As she observes, “novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavor of a time in a way formal history cannot” (x), which is why she “[has] to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record” (xi). Emotions and time, fiction and truth—here are the prerequisites for Margaret Atwood’s urgent voice; also in Lessing’s ideas are the necessities for character thought.

Doris Lessing Golden Notebook collage

Throughout The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Anna Wulf—woman, writer, communist in 1950s London—describes a private, euphoric experience she calls “the game.” In the game, Anna imagines herself in her room, builds the room object by object around her. Once her mind secures the room, she imagines the house, the street, the neighborhood, London, Great Britain, Europe, the world. With each addition, Anna also maintains the image of herself, her room, her house. On good nights, Anna can, for an instant, finish the game—her imagination holds all these places together, what Anna calls “a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness” (513). A brief vision of spectacular unity before the moment passes: pure “exhilaration” (513).

I think the game makes a good analogy for character thought in fiction. In a technical sense, character thought provides the apparatus for the writer to create an emotional matrix through the medium of time, to create voice. Character thought infuses plot with meaning, and meaning is what grants fiction with its texture of reality, its feeling of truth. Reading a good novel, being caught in the net of character thought, feels a bit like Anna’s game: exhilarating.

—Erin Lillo

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In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. Her poems appeared in an earlier issue of Numéro Cinq. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Jul 012017
 

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I remember sitting outside on my patio around 8 a.m. on June third wrapped in a drab green blanket—late spring mornings in Maine are still too chilly for short sleeves—while steam rose from a neglected mug of coffee and twirled away through the air. I’d just finished my second semester in a master’s degree program in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I’d imagined that when I reached the midway point of my degree program I would feel elated. Instead, I felt lost. Time and again in letters from my advisors and comments from peers in writing workshops my essays had elicited the same questions and prompted the same critiques.  “Maybe you should cut the first three pages?” Or, with inky red arrows pointing to a specific paragraph, “I feel like the essay starts here.” Others would ask: How old are you in the essay? At what time (of the year, month, or day) does this essay occur? How many years passed between the time of the experience and the time of writing about it? In the work I’d received back from my advisor that morning he’d asked the same types of questions. So I sat on my patio with coffee cooling beside me and the ocean fog still thick over the fields, and I felt like I too was under a fog. What was I doing wrong? Chronology in my essays seemed obvious to me—I’d been there after all—but how was I failing to convey the basic sequence of events to readers?

Three weeks after that morning I started my third semester, none the wiser on how to crack my chronology problem. During the third semester at VCFA students write a critical thesis on literary works, themes, or craft. Douglas Glover, my new faculty advisor, said that to tackle the critical thesis I should focus on an area of my own writing that was deficient and rigorously examine the successful deployment of that technique in the writing of others. I described for him the trouble I had coherently moving my essays forward through time, but said I didn’t know what to call this technique. “Time control,” he answered, summoning to my mind images of Time Lords and a TV show I’d watched as a child in the late 80s where a teenage girl—half human, half alien—could stop time by touching her right and left index fingers together. While this would have been a useful trick to learn, narrative time control requires no superhuman abilities and is far more necessary as a writer.

Prepared now with the name for the literary technique I needed to study, I rallied to begin my research, but surprisingly I found nothing on the topic of time control as it pertained to creative nonfiction. Science fiction, yes, just look at H.G. Wells. And there was even literature on narrative time control for fiction writers and memoirists. But when it came to personal essays, the type of creative nonfiction I was working on, I found that the well of craft books had run dry.

Not to worry, Glover intimated in a letter to me, because there are just a few basic techniques through which writers control time flow. These he called time stamps; tenses and tense changes; temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases; syntactic constructions; and meta-text. Seemed simple enough to me and I was certain I knew what at least half of these listed techniques were, but I wondered if a writer could really use those techniques time and again without bogging essays down with dates, or crafting artificial narrative with tailored auxiliary clauses. In order to truly understand how writers artfully control time with these techniques I decided to examine and compare two personal essays: Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”

One Man Meat Slouching Towards Bethlehem collageCollections containing the essays.

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion tells the story of how she fell in love with New York City as a twenty-year-old woman, and how as a not-so-young woman she suddenly and dramatically fell out of favor with the city. I say “not-so-young” because Didion was twenty-eight when she left New York and returned to her native California, but Didion notes in her essay that New York—bursting with vitality, opportunity, and an endless supply of “new faces”—is “a city for only the very young.” Originally published in 1967, “Goodbye to All That” gained wide recognition in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem and has since inspired generations of writers who have loved and left New York. A reflective, first-person narrative, “Goodbye to All That” is thirteen pages long and is broken into four sections. The essay’s central action spans eight years and was written three years after the main action had ended.

In “Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White tells of his return to an idyllic lake in Maine where he had often vacationed with his father when he was a child. On his return journey, White is accompanied by his young son, and he is provoked by memories into a deep and ultimately unsettling meditation on how time has affected him and that “holy spot” of his youth. White weaves together memories of his boyhood with his father and memories of his week-long vacation with his son and realizes that as he is now the father figure, he is also nearer death than he once was.

A favorite of personal essayists everywhere, “Once More to the Lake” was published in 1941 in Harper’s Magazine. A reflective personal essay with a first-person narrator, “Once More to the Lake” is six pages long and has only one section, which is comprised of thirteen paragraphs. The essay’s basic chronology is based on the writer’s week-long trip with his son.

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Time stamps

The first time control technique I examined was what Glover had termed time stamps, as this seemed like a universally recognizable, and therefore reliable, way to establish time flow. Time stamps are any text that identifies a specific date, such as a year, a day of the week, a month, or a holiday. Other time stamps could include historical references, car models, or objects that are time-related. I began by scouring “Goodbye to All That” for time stamps, expecting to see some time stamps scattered around the first paragraph. To my surprise, I found none until the third page of the essay. Didion uses the word “December” on the third page (227), “Christmas” on the fourth page (228) and twice again on the sixth along with “Easter” and “May” (230). “Saturdays,” and “Saturday” appear on the seventh page (231). On the ninth page Didion refers to “faded nightgowns which were new in 1959 or 1960,” (233). “Saturday-afternoon,” appears on the eleventh page (235), “April” and “January” on the thirteenth (237), and then “January” once again on the final page of the essay (238).

I noticed several scenic descriptions in Didion’s essay that, while they are not time stamps, gave temporal context. For example, she writes “the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes” (227) and “the first snow had just begun to fall” (228). Didion often enhances scenes with what I’ve termed sensory time cues, and as I continued to read I realized these descriptions are generally auxiliary to time stamps, though they can appear before or after them. The foregoing sensory time cue comes just before the time stamp “Christmas”: “I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white. . .” (228). While subtler than time stamps, these still give temporal information. Of a winter evening at 6:30 p.m. Didion writes that it was “already dark and bitter with a wind off the river…” (229). Of an early morning she writes, “the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of the traffic signals” (234).

Didion uses time stamps as anchors: they clearly identify a context around which she builds more elaborate descriptions in the form of sensory time cues. However, as time stamps appear less often and later in Didion’s essay than I had anticipated, it was plain they are not her primary method for establishing time at the beginning of her essay. While universal time stamps are sparse, it occurred to me that Didion often gives the reader a sort of time marker that solely pertains to her: her age. Didion often states her age in scenes, which orients readers as Didion leaps forward in time. While not a time stamp per se, it is clear that an age stamp (be it the age of a minor character or of the writer, which I’ll call an authorial age stamp) can be used to establish time flow and sequence events in the same way as time stamps.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968

Following this trail, I searched “Goodbye to All That” for authorial age stamps and noticed that most scenes in the essay were sequenced or given temporal context through identification of Didion’s age. For example, the opening paragraph does not have any time stamps but Didion writes that she was twenty when she arrived in New York, and she also makes an observation about how she felt when she was twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three. The word “twenty” appears three times in “Goodbye to All That,” “twenty-one” appears once, “twenty-two” appears once, “twenty-three” appears three times, and “twenty-eight” appears twice. It is interesting to note that Didion uses the word “time” or “timed” fourteen times in as many pages.

What about “Once More to the Lake,” I wondered; does White use time stamps with the same frequency as Didion? Does he root his sentences with time stamps and build out sensory time cues from that base? Does he use any age stamps for himself, his son, or his father? The first thing I noticed was that most published copies of “Once More to the Lake” (the essay often appears online and in various anthologies, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay) retain the original publication date, August 1941, which precedes the text. I then looked at the first paragraph for time stamps:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer—always on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

In the first sentence, White provides the reader with two time stamps: “1904” and “August.” Then “August 1” appears in the third sentence. While White uses time stamps in the way I had expected Didion would, as an expedient way to establish time at the outset of the essay, only four more time stamps appear throughout the rest of the text. “September,” “June,” and “Sunday” appear on the third page of the essay (535) and “August” appears once more on the fourth page (536). White uses fewer time stamps than Didion in total, but this is predictable as “Once More to the Lake” is less than half the length of “Goodbye to All That,” and the basic chronology is shorter, spanning only one week as opposed to eight years.

Unlike Didion, White never explicitly states what his age is, either at the time of writing or during his boyhood visits. Nor does he mention his father’s age or the age of his son. White references his father’s seemingly “enormous authority” (536), he mentions “what it felt like to think about girls” (537) when he was young, and in the final paragraph White also writes that he felt “the chill of death” (538) when he revisited the lake as an adult. However, White does fill his narrative with temporal context through sensory time cues in the same way as Didion. For example, in the second paragraph White recalls how as a boy he would dress quietly in the early morning “so as not to wake the others” and he’d take a canoe out on the “cool and motionless” lake, keeping near the shore “in the long shadows of the pines” (533). And later, he remembers how the tennis net “sagged” and the court “steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness” (535) when he would walk up to one of the farmhouses for lunch. Most of White’s sensory time cues pertain to the time of day or the time of year.

What amazed me was not only that White’s writing is inlaid with sensory time cues, but that even the insistent use of this time control technique reads so beautifully, not at all like a captain’s log or a list of historical dates one might have to memorize for an exam. It is worth noting that the word “time” occurs ten times in six pages, including when it appears in the words “summertime” and “daytime.” It is interesting, also, that there are no time stamps, age stamps, or sensory time cues in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake,” that it is the only paragraph in which these do not appear, and that it is the shortest paragraph by several lines:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

As I read the ending of “Once More to the Lake,” which seemed to comment on the passage of time without any direct references to time itself, it was clear that time stamps and sensory time cues were not the extent of the time control techniques used by White. Some other technique was at work here. I opened my letter from Glover again to see how else White and Didion might be controlling time.

E.B. WhiteElwyn Brooks “E. B.” White

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Tenses and tense changes

The second time control technique that Glover had listed was the use of tenses and tense changes. This refers to a writer’s decision about what tense to use, or how to express the time during which the main action in the essay takes place, and any intentional changes in that tense. I looked again at “Goodbye to All That” to see what tense Didion uses in her narrative. The first paragraph of the essay is twenty-five lines long and is comprised of only five sentences. (Long, complex sentences are typical of Didion’s style, so complete quotations often seem excessive and unnecessary; however, I’ve provided the first paragraph in its entirety here to serve as an example of how Didion controls time through tense and tense changes, and for future reference.) The narrator begins by making a statement in the present tense, and then eases back into a memory in the simple past:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the exact moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be the same again. In fact it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. (225-226)

The essay begins in the simple present with the simple present verbs “is,” “see,” “see,” “can remember,” “makes,” and “constrict,” but then the tense dances between simple present and simple past with the verbs “began,” “cannot lay,” “ended,” “can/cut,” “is,” and “was.” This final change to simple past smoothly transitions to the simple past verbs that the following sentence begins with: “saw,” “was,” “was,” and “got off.” However, in the middle of that sentence, Didion changes from simple past to past perfect, with “had seemed” and then switches back to the simple past, “smelled,” “programmed,” and then switches tenses again with the past perfect trio: “had/seen,” “had/sung,” and “had/read,” before using a final modal verb, “would never be.” This complex sentence is followed by the simple past tense declarative statement, “In fact it never was.” In the next sentence Didion changes again to the simple past, “was,” “went,” and then “used to be,” and “used to wonder.”  The next sentence starts in the simple present tense to contrast her present self with her past self (“know,” “wonders,” “is doing,” “being,” and “is”) before ending with the present perfect “has/happened.”

Within this one paragraph Didion moves with startling grace through several tenses and times. She navigates between the time of writing and the time of her experience with stunning grammatical complexity. She begins in the present moment (the time of writing, or what I call the narrative present) with the simple present tense, and then moves to a specific past time (the moment of her arrival in New York) with the simple past tense. She switches briefly to the past perfect to reflect on a decision she made in Sacramento (an event in the slightly more distant past) that she regrets upon arrival in New York (the more recent past) using again the simple past tense. She then uses the past perfect tense to reflect again on her life prior to New York and how she “had been” prepared for her arrival in New York, which spans a period of time from an unspecified point in the past up to a specific past moment. Didion then moves to a more recent past event in which she recalls feelings of nostalgia for a more distant past, using again the simple past tense. Finally, Didion brings the reader back to the narrative present to share her current understanding in the simple present tense, but she ends on a twist with the present perfect tense, which begins at an unspecified time in the past and ends in the present moment.

In total, she uses simple present, simple past, past perfect, present perfect and a modal verb to describe seven different times. This general pattern repeats, with some variation, throughout “Goodbye to All That.” Paragraphs often start with a simple present reflection, leading to a simple past scene, followed by a past perfect reflection, then returning to a simple past scene, and ending with a simple present reflection. The final paragraph of the essay, in which Didion reflects on her last visit to New York, serves as an example of a variation on that general pattern of tense and tense changes:

It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since. Many of the people we knew in New York think this a curious aberration, and in fact tell us so. There is no possible, no adequate answer for that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to “afford” to live in New York right now, about how much “space” we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles “the Coast,” but they seem a long time ago. (238)

Here, Didion begins with the simple past “was” and “told,” and then switches to the present perfect “have lived.” The second sentence moves from simple past “knew,” to simple present “think” and “tell.” Then Didion starts the third sentence with the simple present “is” and continues in the simple present, including one modal “would,” throughout that and the following sentence. Then she transitions from the simple present tense statement “All I mean” to the simple past reflection, “I was very young” back to the simple present “I am not that young anymore.” This moves the reader nicely into her next piece of reflection, her trip back to New York, which occurs in the simple past and her reflection on what had happened to her old friends, whose actions take place in the past perfect tense, “had moved,” “had gone,” and “had bought.” The next sentence starts again with simple past, “stayed” and “took,” then uses the modal “could see,” “smell,” and then the past “knew,” “was,” “keeping,” and “kept.” In the final sentence Didion moves readers from the simple past, “were” and “called” to end in the simple present with “seem.” Here Didion uses simple past, present perfect, simple present, and past perfect to express action occurring at seven distinct times.

Goodbye to All That

I wondered if “Once More to the Lake,” uses tenses and tense changes similarly to “Goodbye to All That.” White’s essay, like Didion’s, is framed by a present-time narrator who reflects on a past time and, like Didion, White’s essay isn’t about a specific event that occurred in the past, but rather it’s about a place where past action occurred over several seasons. I looked again at the first paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to see what tenses and tense changes White uses.

Unlike Didion’s essay, which begins in the present tense, White’s essay begins in the simple past. In the first three sentences he refers to his childhood adventures on the lake with the verbs “rented,” “took,” “got,” “had,” “rolled,” “was,” “thought,” and “returned.” Then the fourth sentence switches to the present prefect with “have/become,” and then the simple present “are” and “make” as White writes about his current preference for the ocean over lakes. Then in the fifth sentence, the final sentence of the paragraph, White expresses his nostalgia for the placid lake of his youth and the tense returns to the simple past, with the verbs “got,” “bought,” and “returned/to revisit.” There is also one occurrence of “used to” in that fifth sentence, which acts irregularly (much like “would always”) and refers to the repetition of past actions.

As I continued to look through the essay, I realized that most of the action in “Once More to the Lake” occurs during two distinct times in the past: the past of White’s childhood on the lake and the past of his recent visit to the lake. The only exceptions are the brief use of the simple present and present perfect in the opening paragraph when White writes of his preference for saltwater, and a present modal in the second paragraph when White writes of memory: “It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back” (533). When writing about and comparing two past times they can easily become muddled without strong grammatical indicators, but it occurred to me that White likely controls his choice of verb tenses and changes between tenses in order to clearly express these two distinct past times.

I looked for text that describes White’s week-long trip to the lake with his son to see what verb tenses he uses to describe that time and landed on the fifth paragraph, where White and his son go out fishing:

We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches above the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was the same as it had always been, that the years were a mirage and that there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor…We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the top of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted, two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of. (534)

White starts this paragraph in the simple past with the verbs “went” and “felt” and the past continuous “covering.” In fact, all of the following action occurs in the simple past tense (“saw,” “alight,” “hovered,” “convinced,” and so on) until White reflects that the lake and the activities that take place at the lake are unchanged from when he was young. When White harkens further back he writes “everything was as it always had been,” and “there had been no years.” Both statements are in the past perfect tense. Then White returns to the simple past and past continuous as he refocuses on the fishing expedition with the verbs “were,” “chucking,” and so on. This pattern of referring to the recent past trip to the lake with his son in the simple past and past continuous carries forward into the next paragraph when a fish is caught: “We caught two bass, hauling them briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat…” (534). And the tense changes again to the past perfect when White iterates for a third time that there “had been no years” (535) between his own boyhood on the lake and his son’s.

I decided then to look at text that primarily describes White’s boyhood experiences on the lake to see what verb tense is dominant there. I selected a paragraph on the fourth page, focusing on the second half of the paragraph where White watches his son learn to use an outboard motor and reflects on how he had used a motor when he was young:

Watching him I would remember the things you could do with the old one cylinder engine with the heavy flywheel, how you could have it eating out of your hand if you got really close to it spiritually. Motorboats in those days didn’t have clutches, and you would make a landing by shutting off the motor at the proper time and coasting in with a dead rudder. But there was a way of reversing them, if you learned the trick, by cutting the switch and putting it on again exactly on the final dying revolution of the flywheel, so that it would kick back against compression and begin reversing…It took a cool nerve because if you threw the switch a twentieth of a second too soon you would catch the flywheel when it still had speed enough to go up past center and the boat would leap ahead, charging bull fashion at the dock. (536-537)

I found here that instead of using the past perfect tense to express actions that occurred or conditions that were present during his boyhood, White predominantly uses modal verbs and conditionals to express repeated actions in the past. The foregoing excerpt begins with the past continuous “watching” and then the modal “would remember,” and “could do,” where the modal verb “would” expresses repeated past action and “could” expresses a past ability. This is followed by the conditional “could have/if,” which expresses a possibility. In the next sentence, White uses a modal “would” again, then an “if/would” conditional in sentence after that, and he finishes the paragraph with an “if/would/would” conditional.

White’s use of modal verbs continues into the next paragraph when he recalls the trip with his son as a completed past event: “We had a good week at camp…We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside…Sleep would come easily and in the morning the red squirrel would be on the roof, tapping out his gay routine.” In these cases, the modal “would” is used to express past actions and conditions repeated over several nights of the week-long stay.

While nearly all of “Once More to the Lake” occurs in the past, White uses different verb tenses to express different types of past action. To describe an active scene, such as fishing with his son, White uses simple past and past continuous, but to describe patterns of action that happened when he was younger, or patterns of action completed in the more recent past, he uses modal verbs. When reflecting on the ways in which the lake was unchanged from the time of his boyhood to the time of his visit with his son, White uses the past perfect tense. These clearly delineate for the reader what type of past action is occurring: White’s own distant past, his recent past with his son, or the lake’s past.

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Time clauses: temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional and adverbial phrases

However, there was more to White’s and Didion’s time control than time stamps and verb tenses. As I searched for tenses and tense changes, I noticed that time-related information was often offset in a separate clause, which I learned is called a subordinate clause of time. Clauses of time are always subordinate, or auxiliary, and contain information about when the action in the main clause occurs. In “Goodbye to All That,” for example, Didion writes: “It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” The sentence begins in the past tense with a subordinate clause of time which tells when an action occurs (in this case an action revealed in the previous paragraph of the essay) and then switches to the present tense in the main clause which refers to a present condition, i.e. her living in Los Angeles.

I noticed a key word in the main clause that Glover had flagged as another time control technique: the word, “since.” In his letter, Glover said to look for conjunctions of time, adverbs of time, and adverbial phrases of time. Temporal conjunctions tell when an action happens. The most common temporal conjunctions are: when, whenever, after, before, until, since, while, once, and as. Temporal adverbs are more varied and can be broken into four main groups. The first type of temporal adverb expresses the definite time of an action, for example: now, today, tonight, then, tomorrow, yesterday. The second type expresses the definite frequency of an action, for example: daily, nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly, annually, and so on. The third type expresses the indefinite frequency of an action: always, ever, constantly, generally, frequently, often, sometimes, occasionally, rarely, seldom. The fourth type of temporal adverb expresses time relationships between actions: already, before, first, finally, just, since, last, late, later, soon, still, yet. There is some overlap between temporal adverbs of this type and temporal conjunctions. Temporal adverbial phrases are two or more words that serve as an adverb, such as: in a minute, any time, as soon as, after the movie, and so on.

I looked to see how Didion uses temporal conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases in “Goodbye to All That.” I started again with the first paragraph, where Didion uses the time conjunctions “when,” “once,” and “before.” Temporal adverbs are more common. In the first paragraph, “never” appears three times, “ever” appears four times, and “first,” “already,” “late,” and “now” each appear once. Didion also uses two temporal adverbial phrases: “some time later” and “sooner or later.” As I kept reading, I was surprised to see  how abundantly Didion had scattered temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That.”

An excellent example of Didion’s frequent use of temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases (as well as her complex sentence style) comes a couple pages into the essay when she foreshadows the end of her time in New York in a scene where she is still enjoying her early days there:

I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there— but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month. (228-229)

Still attuned to Didion’s use of age stamps, sensory time cues, verb tense and tense changes in essays, I noticed that in these two sentences Didion uses the authorial age stamp “twenty-two or twenty-three,” she hints at summertime with the sensory time cues “peach” and “soft air blowing,” and she begins with the modal verb “could” and continues in the simple past, “smell,” “knew,” before switching to the modal “would,” and simple future, “will,” “pay.” The second sentence starts in the simple past “believed” and “had” and uses the modal verb “would.” Now that I was looking beyond those time control techniques I could also see that she uses the temporal conjunction “when,” and the temporal adverbs “later” and “then,” and “still” twice. In addition to those, she uses the temporal adverbial phrase, “sooner or later,” and a string of three phrases, “any minute, any day, any month.”

After reading through “Goodbye to All That” with an eye trained to this new time control technique, I noticed that Didion often uses temporal adverbs of indefinite frequency to express ultimate conditions. For example, it isn’t Didion’s style to write that the majority of the songs and stories she heard about New York led her to believe that living there would change her life. Instead she writes “all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me it would never be quite the same again” (226). In fact, the word “ever” appears seven times, “never” appears thirteen times, and “always” appears five times in the essay. “First” is used seven times and “last” is used three times. The most common temporal adverbs pertaining to action that occurred while she lived in New York express relationships in time, such as “already,” “often,” “still,” and “later.” There is not a single paragraph in all of “Goodbye to All That” that does not contain temporal conjunctions, adverbs, or adverbial phrases.

I noticed something else, too. Throughout her essay Didion writes the time of day during which scenes take place. These she often writes as temporal prepositional phrases, which act like adverbial phrases but contain a preposition and a noun. For example, her use of “at night” in the first paragraph: “Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went ‘but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that” (226). Didion uses several temporal prepositional phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That,” including “in the spring” (227), “on nights like those” (229), “in the morning” (233), “in the early morning” (234), “in the night” (234), “at dawn,” (234) and many more.

I wondered if White uses temporal subordinate clauses in the same way as Didion or if the two writers’ methods of time control  differ on the level of conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases. The first thing I noticed looking at “Once More to the Lake” was that White uses far more temporal adverbial phrases than Didion, starting with the phrase contained in his essay’s title, “once more.” I read again the opening paragraph of the essay and found that nearly every sentence contained temporal adverbial phrases and saw that White had used temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional phrases as well:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summeralways on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

White uses three temporal adverbial phrases in the first sentence: “one summer” and “along about 1904,” both of which are offset in temporal subordinate clauses, and “for the month of August.” I noted that two of these adverbial phrases also contained the time stamps “1904” and “August.” In the second sentence, White uses two adverbial phrases: “night and morning” and “from then on.”  The third sentence contains the temporal adverbial phrases “summer after summer,” and “for one month,” the temporal adverb “always,” and the prepositional phrase “on August 1.” The fourth sentence is the only sentence without an adverbial phrase, but it does contain the temporal adverbs “since” and “sometimes,” the temporal prepositional phrases “in the summer,” “across the afternoon,” and “into the evening,” and the temporal conjunction “when.” The fifth sentence contains two temporal adverbial phrases: “A few weeks ago” and “for a week’s fishing.”

As I continued to look through “Once More to the Lake,” I noticed that, as in Didion’s essay, every single paragraph contains at least one temporal conjunction or adverb, or temporal prepositional or adverbial phrase. Most of them contained many more than one. I also noticed that he uses the temporal adverb “first” often, seven times in the essay with two of those times occurring in the adverbial phrase “first morning.” But unlike Didion, White never uses the word “last.” I noticed that White also routinely uses temporal prepositional phrases, such as “in the daytime” or “at night” (536), and in these he often inserts an adjective, for example “in the still evening” (536) and “in the shining night” (537).

It was then that I realized what time control technique White uses in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to elicit a sense of time passing without making use of time stamps, age stamps, or dramatically shifting verb tenses. I read that paragraph again, this time looking for temporal conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions. I found four, one in each sentence:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

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Then/now constructions

By this time, I was beginning to feel like I had a solid grasp on time control techniques. I’d read “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake” at least a dozen times each. I’d learned about time stamps like “Christmas” and “1904.” I’d scoured both essays for verb tenses and tense changes and observed how each writer uses them differently to express time changes. I’d looked as temporal conjunctions and adverbs, and temporal adverbial and prepositional phrases. Surely this was sufficient for a writer to move a story through time, to establish the chronology of events and deftly move from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. However, when I looked back to my letter from Glover I saw that my exploration of time control was not yet over. In his letter he wrote that the use of syntactic then/now constructions allows writers “to quickly juxtapose a past event with the present.” When I began to explore then/now constructions I saw that time control is more than just establishing a coherent baseline for a story, a beginning that leads to a middle and then to an end; time control is the key to showing how the writer is affected by and changes in response to the events within a text. Then/now constructions carry this trick off with aplomb.

Didion’s first use of a then/now construction occurs in the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That.” Didion recalls hearing a popular song after she’d lived in New York for some time, she relates how the lyrics of the song affected her when she heard it and what she thinks about them in the narrative present: “…there was a song on all the jukeboxes that went ‘but where is the school girl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later…” (226). Here, “then” is expressed in the “used to be me” of the lyrics and echoed in “I used to wonder.” This is followed by “I know now,” which concisely juxtaposes, as Glover had said, the way Didion thought at the time of the experience and the way she thinks at the time of writing.

In the second paragraph of “Goodbye to All That” Didion uses a then/now construction when she reflects on how she had been sick in bed for three days after her arrival in New York, laid up in a hotel room with a broken air conditioner. She writes that she never called the front desk to have the air turned off because she wasn’t sure how much to tip the person who would come to fix it. She reflects, “was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was” (227). When using then/now constructions, Didion tends to vary her word choice. That is, she doesn’t exactly say “Then I was young, but now I am old,” but she repeats this sentiment throughout her essay using different phrases and constructions. Often she expresses “then” through the past tense, and will follow that implicit “then” with an explicit “now.”  For example, close to the end of the essay, as Didion’s time in New York is nearing its end, she contrasts two “thens” and a “now”: “I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure I understand now, but I understood that year” (237). Here, “before” and “that year” express two previous times with a “now” in between. By juxtaposing a happier “before,” a despairing “that year,” and a happier “now,” Didion book-ends a particular time, thereby showcasing how she was affected by staying too long in New York.

In the final paragraph Didion is more direct in using the then/now construct than elsewhere. She writes: “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more” (238). Here Didion expresses “then” through “I was” and expresses “now” through “am not/any more.” This passage also reveals how crucial the then/now construct is in conveying the central thought of Didion’s essay, and exemplifies how then/now constructs are a key component of the personal essay as a form, which often explores a past experience through a present-time lens.

As I was looking for then/now constructions I noticed another time control technique that Didion often employs. When transitioning from a scene in the narrative present to a past scene or when contrasting present and past, Didion often uses a phrase to fade into the past. For example, in the first paragraph she begins the first sentence in the “now” but transitions to the past with the phrase “I can remember”: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now…when New York began for me…” (225). Didion starts the second section in a similar way: “In retrospect, it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later” (227). And again at the start of the second paragraph of the second section: “I remember once, one cold bright December evening…” (227). By using what I came to think of as reflective fades, Didion transitions the reader smoothly into another time. “I remember” is used most often and appears in various iterations: “I can remember now” is used once, “I remember once” is used once, and “I remember” is used three times. Additionally, “in retrospect” and “I recall” are both used once in the essay.

It occurred to me that White’s approach to the then/now construct would likely differ from Didion’s because most of his essay is set between one distinct past time and one habitual past time with very little “now.” And whereas Didion’s essay focuses on contrasting the relatively distant “then” of her youth in New York and the more recent “then” of her aging out of New York with the “now” of the narrative present, White’s essay is about how the lake of his youth and the patterns of life are unchanging, how “then” is just like “now”; at moments it almost is “now.” However, I recalled that there are some incidents of contrast in “Once More to the Lake,” times where White notices a few small changes around the lake and in society and also notices how he has changed. I wondered if he uses then/now constructions to show these contrasts.

Essays of E.B. White cover image

I didn’t have to look far for an answer, and I found that White’s then/now constructions do appear differently than Didion’s. In the first paragraph White recalls how after his family’s first vacation “none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine.” After a brief sentence about how the family returned to the lake, he contrasts “then” when he preferred the lake to all other places with: “I have since become a salt-water man…” (533). This is White’s clearest use of the then/now construct to show how he changed over time, however White does use similar constructs to describe the few ways in which the lake had changed. For example, White recalls that when he was a child and his family visited the lake, arriving “had been so big a business in itself.” A farm wagon would pick them up at the train station, and they’d load all of their trunks and head for the lake where they were greeted by other campers with “shouts and cries” (536). White writes, in a parenthetical sentence, “(Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car…and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks)” (536). Here, White uses the past perfect tense “had been” to indicate “then” and juxtaposes it with “nowadays.”

In the next paragraph White contrasts another difference at the lake with a then/now construct as he talks about how outboard motor technology had advanced:

The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. That was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. (536)

The word “now” is contrasted with the temporal prepositional phrase “in those other summertimes,” which are “then.” As in the example from the essay’s first paragraph, White spreads his now/then construction over three sentences, with a descriptive sentence between the times he’s contrasting. I noticed as I was looking for now/then constructions that White also uses reflective fades but in a slightly different way from Didion because he only uses the narrative present in the first two paragraphs. In the second paragraph, White writes, “I guess I remembered,” and then again, “I remembered” (533), and then later, “I kept remembering all this,” “I would remember,” and “I kept remembering everything” (536-537).

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Meta-text

Syntax certainly added some fireworks to time control and began to connect the chronology of a story to the meaning of a story. However, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is time control really just about grammar? Is it all parts of speech, word choice and order, and juxtaposing then with now? I referred again to Glover’s letter and saw one final time control technique on his list, something he called “meta-text.” Meta-text, Glover said, “comments on memory or time and tells the reader how the text is organized in terms of time.” So meta-text tells the reader how time functions within the essay and how it functions for the narrator or characters within the essay. It seemed too good to be true, this claim that a writer would explicitly tell readers how to read their essay. And surely, I thought, I would have noticed the first ten or so times I read White’s and Didion’s essays if they had. Yet back I went for another reading of “Goodbye to All That.”

To my chagrin I saw Didion’s meta-text had been there the whole time, plain as print in the first two sentences of the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That”:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. (225)

This passage illustrates how meta-text can either comment directly on how time flows within the narrative or refer to how memory functions for the writer. For example, when Didion writes, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” and that she can “never cut through the ambiguities…to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer” optimistic, this informs the reader that Didion’s essay has a clear beginning, but otherwise it lacks a linear chronology. There is no decisive climax, but rather a series of events that move forward and backward in time, and are “ambiguous” but somehow lead to the end. And when Didion writes that she can “remember now with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict,” this tells the reader how memory functions for Didion, and sets up an expectation for scenes to be written with detailed precision.

In fact, this is how “Goodbye to All That” reads. The essay starts with this reflective, self-referential text and shifts to the scene where the essay’s action clearly begins, her arrival in New York. She describes her arrival with clarity, as predicted, noting that it was her first time in New York, what age she was then, what model plane she arrived in, what terminal she landed at, what she was wearing, how she’d felt about what she was wearing at two separate times (“…a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already…” [225-226]), how the air felt and how it smelled, and how she felt internally about her arrival all in the third sentence of the essay. In the fourth sentence she jumps ahead in time (using the temporal adverbial phrase “some time later”) to when she listened to a popular song playing on jukeboxes on the upper East Side and felt nostalgic for her younger self, and then jumps to the narrative present (using a now/then construction previously examined) to comment on her past feelings. This non-linear time flow, which shifts from the present to a distant past, to a more recent past, and back to the present, is coherent for the reader because Didion explains at the outset of the essay that this is what the reader should expect.

Didion uses meta-text to illustrate both time-flow and the workings of memory twice more in “Goodbye to All That,” at the beginning of the second section and at the beginning of the third. In the second sentence of the second section Didion writes:

Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick-shots—the Seagram Building fountains dissolve in snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. (227)

Didion begins again with meta-text, explaining that the essay flows through eight years and passes from year to year and scene to scene with the “ease of a film dissolve.” She then refers to her own memory, stating that the eight years she was in New York are like a montage of “sentimental” fades. The next paragraph begins with Didion bringing a friend to a party one December evening to see new faces (227). The next paragraph is about how Didion “was in love with New York,” and she recalls walking around one twilight in spring eating a peach, and she recalls getting her first job in the big city, and peering into the windows of brownstones in the winter (228-229). Sentimental scenes dissolve into each other that are seemingly uncorrelated and decidedly unchronological.

At the beginning of the third section Didion writes from the narrative present that when she remembers New York, “it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would affect the distortion with which it is commonly credited” (233). As with the two previous examples of meta-text, Didion restates that the sequence of events is non-linear and instead of being driven by chronology, her essay pops with “hallucinatory flashes.” Didion also reiterates that her memory is precise and scenes, however hallucinatory, are “clinically detailed.”

As promised in the essay’s initial meta-text, Didion is unable to identify at what point she was “no longer as optimistic” as she had been, and the third section ends with Didion still enjoying parties. She lists various sorts of parties she enjoyed and says it was a very long time before she “began to understand…that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair” (236). Then the fourth section begins: “I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is it was very bad when I was twenty-eight” (236). In the first paragraph, Didion describes how time flows in her essay, says that the basic chronology is non-linear, and that scenes, though perhaps ambiguous or appearing in a broken sequence, are written with vibrant sensory details. Additionally, she predicts that there will not be an “exact place on the page” where her transformation from young and optimistic to older and less optimistic would take place, and so readers are prepared when Didion jumps from enjoying being young in New York to suddenly feeling “very bad” at twenty-eight.

Is White as explicit as Didion about how time flows in “Once More to the Lake”? And does he also tell the reader how time and memory function for him as the narrator? Again, I didn’t have to look far for an answer. White’s first use of meta-text appears in the second paragraph. He writes:

I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and paths behind camps. I was sure the tarred road would have found it out, and I wondered in what other ways it would be desolated. It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. (533)

White uses meta-text to inform readers that he will be comparing the lake of his childhood with how the lake is in the narrative present, and will thereby judge if time is a force that only and always mars and desolates. Like Didion he comments on how memory functions for him, saying one memory sparks another memory. However, unlike Didion he is not only interested in how time has affected him, but in how time has affected the lake. In this respect the lake itself becomes a character in his essay and so White entwines how time affects both himself and the lake.

White uses meta-text again in the fourth paragraph, where he writes that as soon as he and his son settled into camp he could tell “that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before” (534). The sameness of the lake and the smell of the camp and the presence of his young son warp time for White. Of his son he writes:

I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation. (534)

This “simple transposition” sets up the conflation of past and present time that occurs in the following scene when White takes his son fishing. While the two are on a boat with their rods in the water, a dragonfly lands on the tip of White’s rod, just as he recalled had happened when he went fishing as a boy. This occurrence confirms for White that “there had been no years” between the trips of his childhood and the trip with his son, a sentiment which he expresses two more times before they pack up and quit fishing. Then when White and his son go up to dinner that evening at a farmhouse he notes that “the waitresses were the same country girls” as had served him as a child, “there having been no passage of time.” This is followed by perhaps the best remembered passage in “Once More to the Lake,” which also is a piece of meta-text and could serve as the essay’s treatise on time:

Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottagers with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky…This was the American family at play… (535)

This reflection, which comes about halfway through the essay, also cues the reader that White’s twining of himself and his son begins to unravel. Summertime, the woods, the lake: these provide the unchanging background. But the design does change somewhat over time: the waitresses have clean hair, the boat motors are different, the roads are tarred, the paths are for cars rather than horse-drawn carts, and White has grown older. The “simple transposition” which carries White back to his boyhood also places him in the role of the father, and in this role he can feel himself falling away from the vivacious current of life. When White’s son and several other campers decide to go for a swim after a thunderstorm, White remains on shore. He watches as his son pulls on wet swimming trunks and the essay ends: “As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death”(538).

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Conclusion

That was it, I’d gone through Glover’s entire list of time control techniques and found that both Didion and White use every single one to manage, manipulate, and comment on the flow of time in their essays. Some techniques they use similarly and some techniques they use to produce different effects, but they both use all of them. I was not surprised to see that both writers use time stamps, or that Didion uses more than White as her essay is longer. Nor was I surprised that both writers change between verb tenses to show different sorts of action occurring across different times. I was surprised, however, to see how Didion expresses past scenes primarily in the simple past with frequent jumps to the narrative present, and how White remains almost entirely in the spheres of two past times, which he expresses using distinct forms of the past tense and modal verbs. That both writers use temporal conjunctions and adverbs and temporal prepositional and adverbial phrases was similarly not a surprise, but I was astounded by how often they use them and how often they repeat particular words and phrases; for example, Didion’s tendency to talk about the “first” and “last” time events occurred and White’s frequent use of temporal prepositional phrases, like “in the morning.”

I was somewhat familiar with then/now constructions before writing this paper, but had previously thought of them as a tool of narrative voice, not of time flow. Yet when I considered then/now constructions as a time control technique it became clear that the desire to look at their past experience through the lens of their present self is the defining paradigm and driving force of both White’s and Didion’s essays, and perhaps of personal essays in general.

What was most surprising was that both writers use meta-text to guide readers by describing how time flows in their essays, how scenes are sequenced, and what to expect of the essays’ basic chronologies and conclusions. For example, Didion explains that she is examining a period of eight years, and so her essay is predictably longer than White’s, who is recollecting a week-long trip and comparing it with the month-long trips of his childhood; Didion writes that her essay flows like a series of film dissolves and writes her scenes accordingly; White writes of how one memory sparks another memory, and so he describes a fishing scene with his son that reminds him of fishing when he was a boy.

It was early in June when I’d started wrangling with time control, unsure then of what the technique was even called, and it was late September when I finished my study. I reached for the same drab, fleece blanket that I had wrapped myself in that chilly morning a few months ago as I headed out to my patio, hot coffee in hand, to marvel at all I’d learned from two little essays by White and Didion. Time control techniques pervade “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake.” Didion and White use time flow not only to clearly and cleanly move between scenes and events in their essays, but also to convey how time affected them as children, spouses, parents, and as writers, and to share the lessons they learned from memory. Time control in the personal essay is much more than a technique for establishing chronology; it is a vehicle for theme, an expression of mental and emotional evolution, and when properly managed, it makes writing soar. For readers the effect of masterful time control is not too far off from a ride in H.G. Wells’s time machine.

—Rosanna Gargiulo

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “Goodbye to All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Simon and Schuster, 1979, 225-238.

Glover, Douglas. “Packet response.” Received by Rosanna Gargiulo, 8 August, 2016.

White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1995, 533-538.

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Rosanna Gargiulo graduated from UMass Amherst with a B.A. in Journalism in 2013. She lived in the Balkans, southern Africa, Mexico, and beyond, before returning to her home state, Maine, to work at her local newspaper. She currently lives in Bath with her husband and is a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She likes to go for long, muddy walks along the coast with her three rescue mutts.

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Jun 092017
 

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In Alice Munro’s work Lives of Girls and Women—billed as a novel, though it is more of a collection of linked stories—“Baptizing” plays Del Jordan, a high school senior seeking sexual initiation, against three antagonists. Two of these encounters end in comic humiliation, while the third is a breathtakingly carnal adventure until she breaks up explosively with her boyfriend.

First, Del meets Clive through her friend Naomi at a trashy bar, but the encounter goes no further than making out drunkenly. Second, she halfheartedly dates her brilliant, socially awkward high school classmate Jerry Storey. And finally, she has a full love affair with a Baptist lumberyard worker named Garnet French. As Glover notes in his essay “The Style of Alice Munro” (from The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro), “this strategy of varying plot structure by using different antagonists in each plot step is also used in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ in which the protagonist Gabriel interacts dramatically with three successive women, Lily, the maid, Miss Ivors, the fellow journalist, and, finally, his wife” (48).

dubliners

Let us start, then, by examining “The Dead.”

Glover expands on his analysis of the Joyce masterpiece in Attack of the Copula Spiders (27-29). In each encounter, Glover says, Gabriel oversteps by making assumptions about the women, who put him in his place. Each of the three set pieces end with Gabriel miffed, nonplussed, humiliated, and disabused of some modicum of his self-delusions. Gabriel jokes with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter that everyone would be going to her wedding to a fine young man one day. This is harmless banter of the sort Gabriel thinks should brighten the day of any working girl. But Lily has had it with her fine young man—with all men, really—and she holds Gabriel accountable for the failings of his wicked gender. “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” she says. Gabriel colors in embarrassment.

Next he crosses swords with Miss Ivors, a patriot who gratuitously insults Gabriel’s honor as an Irishman because he has the temerity to write book reviews for a British paper. (The nerve!) “West Briton!” she calls him. She apologizes passive-aggressively but smilingly repeats her slander, leaving Gabriel embarrassed and angry. She possesses the passive-aggressive’s gift for detecting a tender spot in her interlocutor’s psyche—a place of insecurity, self-doubt, weakness, or shame—and jabbing him there with a well-filed fingernail. Gabriel pettily avenges himself with oblique allusions to a strawman version of Ivors in a toast over dinner—after she has left the party and can no longer respond. So there!

Finally, the shifting fault lines of the party unearth the coffin of a buried conflict with his wife, Greta. She suggests that they go to Galway for a visit. “You can go if you like,” he says coldly. In a later conversation in their bedroom, Gabriel, aflame with lust for Gretta, is astonished when she bursts into tears. Turns out she is crying over a boy named Michael Furey whom she was in love with, and who died in Galway years ago. Though frail in his health, he stood out in a cold rain pining for her, fell sicker yet, and died. “I think he died for me,” she says. Gabriel achieves an epiphany of sorts, a bitter one: he has never really known his wife, and now he sees her as someone whose soul he cannot fathom, who has loved another more deeply than she will ever love him. He cannot forgive himself for his petty preoccupations in the face of his wife’s deep, true grief. His newfound self-knowledge is rendered comical by his fantastical, exaggerated self-lacerations, of a sort familiar to psychologists. If he must fail, Gabriel must do so in a spectacular manner: “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts…” Joyce leaves us with a Gabriel-in-a-hair-shirt who is the mirror image of his former vain self. A few sessions with a good shrink might help him sort out his self-image, even if there is little that can be done about clownish male lusts.

Glover states that in these encounters, “Each woman is more important to Gabriel than the previous one. Each comes closer to threatening and overturning his core psychic constructs. And each woman confronts him with the truth” (Attack, 29).

lives-of-girls-and-women

Similarly, in “Baptizing,” Munro arranges three stories that, individually, are broken up in a series of steps, Glover states, “so that they form a miniature story, a dramatic whole within the larger structure of the story.” Each chapter of this tale ends in Del walking home alone.

In the first set piece of “Baptizing,” Del is an inexperienced newcomer in the grotty Gay-la Dance Hall, which her mother, despite her irreligiousness, compares to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. The man Del is paired off with, Clive, amuses himself faking Dutch immigrant and black accents with his friend.

“Hey, Rastus,” Bert says “spookily” (210—gap-mouthed italics my own). Clive is a fancy, inventive dancer who leaves Del feeling awkward as she tries to match his moves. Back at the table, she “drinks like a fish,” as Naomi approvingly observes. But when the foursome leave and drive about in Clive’s friend’s car, Clive pounces on Del (so drunk she has forgotten she is sitting beside him) and slides his tongue down her throat “like an enormous, wet, cold, crumpled … dishrag” (208). They all end up in a hotel, but after heading down the hall to use the toilet, Del removes her shoes, climbs down the fire escape, and walks off barefooted. In her drunken confusion she first wobbles to Naomi’s home, waking Naomi’s father (who later gives his daughter a belting when she returns home). Del finally ends up in her own bed, alone and hungover, in a dry-mouthed conclusion to this failed romantic evening.

The second set piece likewise ends in failure and with Del fleeing into the night. But it veers even further into slapstick, “something jerky and insane from a silent movie,” she later reflects (226). The story involves the teenage genius Jerry Storey. Student body opinion has paired off Del off with the boy for the sole reason that they are the two top scholars. Almost against their will, they fall into a relationship. Jerry shows a not-atypical masculine preoccupation with himself and his achievements. A science and math prodigy, he is baffled by Del’s areas of giftedness, as in her love of literature. Fairly or not, one is tempted to merge the character Del with a young Munro, yet it is Jerry who daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize in, oh, let’s say ten years or so, maybe twenty (217). Like Clive, Jerry uses fake accents—those of British sophisticates or characters from the comic strip “Pogo,” though this time Del joins in with him in silly dialogues that cover their sense of awkwardness together. As with Clive, their sexual exploration is desultory and amusingly unsexy.

Our hands lay moistly together, each one of us wondering, no doubt, how long in decent courtesy they must remain. Our bodies fell together not unwillingly but joylessly, like sacks of wet sand. Our mouths opened into each other … our tongues rough, mere lumps of unlucky flesh (222).

(Again, those dreadful tongues down the throat.)

The relationship climaxes (in a literary if not physical sense) with Del undressing and lying on Jerry’s bed. Embarrassed, they resort to Pogo accents: “Yo’ is shore a handsome figger of a woman,” he tells her (223). But ludicrously, Jerry hears his mother returning home, and he shoves his naked girlfriend into the basement stairway, leaves her there in the dark. Later he tosses her clothes down the laundry chute. She climbs out a window, and again walks home at night in shame and fury. (They make up the next day.)

As authors must, Munro saves her climactic story—her most affecting and beautiful one—for the conclusion. Del has a love affair with lumberyard worker Garret French. She meets him at a revival meeting that she, a nonbeliever, whimsically decides to attend after a teacher who is a Presbyterian elder gives her a promotional button that reads Come to Jesus. There, Garnet spies Del from across the room and works his way over to her. They don’t even know each other’s name, yet he holds her hand as they listen to a hellfire sermon from an itinerant revivalist. It’s a gorgeous way to create dramatic tension—to have the seduction occur, irreverently and irresistibly, in a religious service. Here Munro nods to another work by Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which recounts a sermon delivered amid Stephen Daedalus’s preoccupation with fleshly depravities. In “Baptizing,” the preacher’s key image, that of the sinner crossing a rope bridge held by a thread over the chasm of Hell, also alludes to Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but in a comic twist, Del and indeed the entire audience do not quake in their seats, like Edwards’ congregation, but are entertained by a threat of damnation from which they consider themselves personally exempt. As the preacher orates, people sing out, “Amen.” Del muses, “Movie stars and politicians and fornicators gone beyond rescue; it seemed, for most people, a balmy comfortable thought” (233). The affair that follows is all-consuming, even before it is consummated. Del lies awake sleepless until dawn, reviewing every kiss and touch. “Sex seemed to me all surrender—not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility” (239—italics mine).

Glover discerns echoes among Munro’s three set pieces. Del and Garnet visit each other’s homes for a meal, just as Jerry and Del do. Garnet’s sprawling, working class family attracts Del in a way that Jerry and his widow mother do not, but there are similarly uncomfortable sexual revelations in each household. Jerry’s mother, ambitious for her boy’s future, warns Del to use birth control when having sex; Garnet carves the names of his conquests into a beam on the porch, Del’s last of all, underscored and surrounded by stars, indicating she would be his wife.

All three relationships implode, the first two comically, while her final, deepest one ends in tragic rage and a kind of betrayal (a betrayal, that is, by Del; she admits this to herself, even though she is a victim of Garnet’s physical brutality). Del and Garnet go swimming together after making love (258 ff). Garnet tells her she must get baptized as a member of his church. Although minutes earlier she has agreed to bear his children, she resists baptism, recognizing that to do so would be to surrender something essential about herself. His half-joking attempt to baptize her himself turns vicious as he realizes the love he has offered is not reciprocated—that “I had somehow met his good offerings with my deceitful offerings … matching my complexity and play-acting to his true intent” (260). He nearly drowns her, but she refuses to give in and manages to escape his clutches. For a third time, the end of a relationship leaves her walking home.

This final set piece provides a revelation to Del, an epiphany, which unites all three panels of the literary triptych. “The scene has the force of a spell being broken: Del speaks of sleepwalking, of waking up,” Margaret Atwood writes in The Cambridge Companion (111). In her encounters with Clive and Jerry, Del was denied not only sexual fulfillment, but the enlightenment of self-knowledge as to where she stands in relation to men. With Garnet, she finds a deeply satisfying sexual relationship—rare in this life, as she is aware—but with a man with whom she has no future. She must give it up to awaken herself from the spell.

—Russell Working

Works Cited

Alice Munro: Lives of Girls and Women
James Joyce: Dubliners
Douglas Glover: Attack of the Copula Spiders
Douglas Glover, Margaret Atwood et al.: The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro

 

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Russell-Working

Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

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Jun 072017
 

Childhood in the Brooklyn streets influenced Neugeboren’s work, in particular novels like Big Man and Sam’s Legacy.

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Sam left the train at Church Avenue. A few blacks guys got out. “Ours is a neighborhood in transition,” Ben had said, and Sam had to laugh. A neighborhood in transition—that was rich. When he’d been there, growing up, it had been mostly Jews, mixed with some Catholics, Irish and German. Sam didn’t mind though. The blacks never hassled him. Maybe the word was out that he had some kind of business with Sabatini. He touched his side pocket. Some guys—his buddy Dutch was one—said you were crazy to keep a blade on you, that if you got cornered and they went for you and found it on you, you’d get it ten times worse. But Sam did what he wanted. He liked feeling the blade’s weight against his thigh.

From Sam’s Legacy 1973

A little more than ten years ago, I asked novelist Jay Neugeboren to take me on a walking tour of Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood he describes above in Sam’s Legacy. I asked because I’d been reading his novels then, pretty obsessively—as I have been reading them again lately—and wanted to get a closer look at the streets that had inspired them. I was interested, too, in the notion of inspiration. Wondering at that particular time (as I am still wondering) about the proposition that we (as writers, as people) are marked by our first glimpses, by the immediate shadows about the crib, the childhood streets, and all our life is an effort if not to escape then to get a better glimpse.

Neugeboren was widely acclaimed early in his career for his portrayal of urban subcultures: for his Cassavetes-like attention to detail, to off the radar characters. In mid-career, he all but disappeared as novelist—not publishing a novel for 20 odd years—until a recent revival prompted in part by small press Two Dollar Radio. This has brought his older work attention and five new novels into print

Neugeboren is an innovative novelist, conjuring forms that defy easy categorization. His characters leap through multiple identities—racial, familial, sexual. He is master of a particular American prose style, one that owes as much debt to European novels as to the dialect of the immigrant streets. It is a style translucent in its lyricism. There is durational quality: in the accumulation of detail, in the way the writing dwells in the moment, in the naturalistic surface. At the same time there is something else: a wash, a tint, a coloration that makes no pretense to realism at all.

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Jay is a Jewish writer, second generation, born Jacob Mordecai Neugeboren. I first met him in 1980, when I was a student of his at the University of Massachusetts. He was just finishing The Stolen Jew: the central novel in what has become known as The Brooklyn Trilogy.

He was somewhere in his forties then, his hair tight, curly (or that’s the way I remember it), just verging toward grey. Thirty years later, that day in Brooklyn, he possessed (and still does) the gait and manner of a man much younger. He is a small man, athletic by nature. He has high cheekbones, tapered features, a cleared eyed smile.

Neugeboren 1973

Flatbush—on that sunny afternoon in April 2006—was a Caribbean neighborhood, West Indian and black, colorful, yes, full of life, but also poverty. The poverty had been there when Jay grew up, though in different ways. Further down Flatbush Avenue— in the heart of the old immigrant hive—the old King’s Movie Palace sat empty and deteriorating, as it had since the mid-seventies. The famed Erasmus High School stood with its gates shuttered and closed.

Flatbush Avenue where we walked in 2006

The streets were crowded. A mother in a hurry pushed her baby in its carriage.  A cluster of young gangsters stood languid on the corner.  Nearby, an old man coughed into his black fist.  It was the old Flatbush, but then it wasn’t. Us, loitering there, no matter our historie