Dec 062016
 

henry-green

I would argue that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time.—Dorian Stuber

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Loving
Henry Green
New York Review of Books, 2016
224 pages; $14.00

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The English novelist Henry Green wrote nine beautiful and elliptical novels, all worth reading, but Loving (1945) is the best of them, indeed, one of the best English novels of the 20th century. This new edition—part of a welcome plan to reissue his works in the US—is cause for celebration.

Loving is set during WWII at a sprawling estate in Ireland called Kinalty Castle. Kinalty is owned by the ironically named Tennant family; fittingly, the Tennants are newcomers who have purchased rather than inherited the property. Mr. Tennant is dead; his son is fighting in the war. Mrs. Tennant lives with her daughter-in-law, Violet, Violet’s two small children, and a large group of servants.

In classic upstairs-downstairs fashion, the masters are not particularly important in the book (indeed, they are off in England for much of the time). Instead the servants are front and center, and we follow their sometimes rancorous, sometimes affectionate relationships. There’s Charley Raunce, recently ascended from the position of footman to butler, full of bluster and fear and the occasional kindness who finds himself out of his depth when a flirtation becomes something more. There’s Agatha Burch, the much put upon head housemaid, who oversees Edith and Kate, the two lovelorn under-housemaids. There’s Mrs. Welch, the alcoholic and suspicious cook. There’s old Nanny Swift, who took care of Violet as a girl and now looks after her girls. There’s Albert, the pantry boy, naïve, kind, and touchy. And there’s Paddy, the Irish lampman (the house has no electricity), who only Kate troubles herself to understand.

Much of the material for Loving came from Green’s childhood; servants had always been part of his life. Born Henry Vincent Yorke in 1905—he took his deliberately banal pseudonym as a way to separate his writing and business lives—Green grew up at Forthampton, the family seat in Gloucestershire.

In his memoir Pack my Bag, Green claims, “Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years.” Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them.

It seems that Green knew already at a young age what he would explore in this novel in particular: that loving is a messy business, bound to lead to hurt feelings. In his life and writing alike Green was at home with complexity, especially in terms of social class. Green, who memorably described himself as “a mouthbreather with a silver spoon,” at one stroke both acknowledging and ironizing privilege, said that his childhood taught him “the half-tones of class”. It’s fair to say that Green knew the family servants, to whom he devotes the first pages of his memoir, better than either his mother, whose primary interests were shooting and riding and with whom the boy spent only one precious hour a day, or his father, a formidable Victorian polymath who pursued an interest in archaeology while running a company that cleverly manufactured both beer-bottling equipment and bathroom plumbing.

Young Henry was sent to Eton, where his contemporaries included Eric Arthur Blair, who would himself take a pseudonym and publish under the name George Orwell. Later he went up to Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh and shared rooms with Anthony Powell. He hated both schools. At Oxford he drank a lot, went to the movies twice a day, and wrote his first novel, Blindness, before leaving without a degree. He went to work the floor of the family factory in Birmingham, an experience he fictionalized in his second novel, Living. Later Green moved from the factory floor to the office, rising to become managing director.

Green published his memoir in 1940, when he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would be killed in the coming war: “surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” Happily he did live, and even thrived. He published five books during the war years and during the Blitz served courageously and happily in the Auxiliary Fire Service. But Green’s production slowed markedly after the war. He wrote three more, increasingly laconic books (the last two composed almost entirely in dialogue). Then, after 1952, silence, even though he lived for another twenty-one years. Jeremy Treglown, Green’s excellent biographer, vividly describes him in his last years as a vagrant in his own home, drinking because he couldn’t write and unable to write because of his drinking.

The downward trajectory of Green’s life is at odds with the sly pleasures and enlivening strangeness of his prose. The first thing readers of Loving will notice is its vivid dialogue. Here’s Edith revealing to Kate her feelings for Raunce:

‘All right then I’ll learn you something, Edith said and she panted and panted. ‘I love Charley Raunce I love ‘im I love ‘im I love ‘im so there. I could open the veins of my right arm for that man.

And here’s Miss Burch responding to Kate’s half-fearful, half-longing speculation about what would happen to them should the Germans invade:

‘Mercy on us you don’t want to talk like that,’ Miss Burch said. ‘You think of nothing but men, there’s the trouble. Though if it did happen it would naturally be the same for the older women. They’re famished like a lion out in the desert them fighting men,’ she announced.

These examples are moving and funny and a little alarming—characteristic of the emotional roller coaster the book puts us through. The absence of punctuation paradoxically makes the pauses and emphases clearer. Green delights in the clichés and hackneyed images (“I could open the veins,” “They’re famished like a lion out in the desert”) of speech without looking down on the speakers.

But the novel’s narrative voice is even more memorable than its representation of speech. To be sure, narration is simply opposed to speech in the novel. Sometimes narration apes the agrammatical or idiomatic qualities of speech, such as when it uses adjectives as adverbs: “He picked it up off the floor quick”; “He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk.” Sometimes it takes on the rhythms of speech, its unpunctuated flow: “Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives.”

But sometimes the narration is stranger than anything we find in its speech. Whereas the latter aims at clarity, the former finds meaning in obscurity. Such uncertainty is especially true of its unsettling of traditional English-language syntax. In this example from early in the book, Kate and Edith come across Paddy asleep in the old stables. The windows of this room are covered in cobwebs. As, it seems, is Paddy himself:

Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between these windows, a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed.

Note the excess of qualifiers in the first half of the sentence: Paddy snores “over a corn bin” and “between these windows”; the placement of that last modifier emphasizes the phrase “snoring between these windows,” which highlights in a peculiar, excessive way the specificity of an action. “Snoring,” after all, is hardly dependent on place. (In fact, the verb here is not “snoring” but “lies snoring”: the inversion of subject and verb—“Over a corn bin… lay Paddy snoring” is odd, almost archaic.) Also typical, and related to this ambivalent specificity, is the demonstrative “these” rather than the definite article “the,” a tendency the critic Frank Kermode once described as Green’s way of hinting that the text is singular, not easily reducible to something else.

Certainly the most singular quality here—though it is in fact typical of Green’s style—is the sentence’s unstable grammar. The sentence pivots (or collapses, as the case may be) on the comma after “windows.” What comes after it—“a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed”—seems at first to be a subordinate clause, but on re-reading proves to be something else, something agrammatical. Adding that ungainly phrase “and which” turns this subordinate clause into the dominant clause for the sentence’s final bit of information. Bewilderingly, “web” is both a predicate referring to Paddy (it is strung from a lock of his hair to the sill above) and a subject in its own right (it rises and falls as he breathes). On a first reading we expect the final “and” to connect “above” to another preposition (so that it would read something like: “the sill above and beyond him”). When this expectation is foiled, we stumble over what comes next, the adjective clause “which rose and fell as he breathed.”

Green’s prose disguises its strangeness as ordinariness. He’s not an overtly ostentatious writer. Yet his ostensibly straightforward prose is profoundly unsettling and unusually hard to parse. The longer we pause over a sentence like this one the weirder it seems. In this way, he reveals himself to be one of the most genuinely experimental writers in the English tradition, writing prose that both demands and resists interpretation. (Webs being a conventional figure for interpretation, we could read the spider webs in this scene as a joke about our felt need to make sense even of things that resist sense.)

What is true of Loving’s syntax is true of its use of plot and character as well. Neither of these attributes is as straightforward as it seems. In general, Loving is not much concerned with plot. Even the question of whether Raunce will get together with Edith—the event that most approximates a conventional plot arc—is supplanted by the more intriguing but more difficult to answer question of what the two even want from each other. Several subplots are braided around the Raunce-Edith relationship, each of which rises to a crescendo of antic complexity that would be more at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel but each of which fizzles out before coming to any resolution.

Take, for example, the business with the peacocks. The castle’s extensive grounds are ornamented by some two hundred of the birds. When they suddenly disappear, Mrs. Tennant summons Raunce for an explanation. Raunce, new at his job and insecure, as well as constitutionally shifty, does not want to tell her what has really happened: namely, that the nephew of the cook, a belligerent nine-year-old recently evacuated to Kinalty from London to escape the bombing, has strangled a peacock that had the temerity to peck at him, and that Paddy, the Irish lampman, has locked the rest of the birds up for safekeeping.

In his interview with Mrs. Tennant, Raunce equivocates about the convoluted, variously incriminating event. Unsatisfied, Mrs. Tennant continues to mull over the matter. She confides to her daughter-in-law that Raunce seemed afraid of something, adding:

“Frightened of what I’d like to know? I put it to Raunce. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say.”

“Which is just like the man,” the younger woman interrupted. “Always hinting.”

Violet’s insistence here reflects her unshakable belief that everyone is always talking in code about her affair with a neighbouring landowner. The exchange between Mrs. Tennant and Violet is typical: Loving’s characters repeatedly talk at cross-purposes. But the passage is unusual in that by explicitly referencing hinting it talks openly what is otherwise hidden: that Loving challenges our interpretive abilities. Everything is a hint, nothing is a clue.

The novel’s distinctive narrative voice is particularly vexing. Unlike many writers of the period, Green doesn’t have much use for free indirect discourse: his third-person narration doesn’t slip into and out of the perspective of particular characters. We rarely have access to what characters are thinking or feeling. Consider a passage in which Raunce studies the notebooks left behind by the previous butler, Eldon, and learns that Eldon has been systematically cheating his employer, for example about her whisky:

Not only had Mr. Eldon never credited her with the empties, that was straightforward enough, but he had left whole pages of calculations on the probable loss of the volatile spirit arising from evaporation in a confined space from which the outside atmosphere was excluded. He had gone into it thoroughly, had probably been prepared for almost any query. Charley appeared to find it suggestive because he whistled.

Admittedly, we could read this material as coming from Raunce’s perspective: the aside “that was straightforward enough” could certainly be his. Yet the passage’s use of names is puzzling: we might expect Raunce to call Eldon “Mr.” but he in fact is anything but deferential to his predecessor’s memory. Something like “the old man” would have fit better. And why Charley, rather than Raunce, which is what the text usually uses? Moreover, the description of the evaporation—“the probable loss of volatile spirits”—doesn’t sound like Raunce at all, he’s nowhere near that articulate. Are we supposed to think Eldon has written something like this in the notebooks that Raunce is parroting, as if reading aloud? Impossible to say: we know almost nothing about Eldon.

But the strangest thing here is the passage’s final sentence. Just when we would expect the prose to inhabit Raunce’s consciousness most clearly so as to tell us what he makes of the situation, we’re left with nothing but uncertainty: Raunce “appeared to find it suggestive.” Why doesn’t the text know?

Green answered this question in a radio interview from the 1950s:

And do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure? … We get experience, which is as much knowledge as we shall ever have, by watching the way people around us behave after they have spoken.

For Green, art follows life. All a narrator can do is to observe what people say and how they behave and then make guesses about the relationship between them. Loving is littered with such expressions of narrative uncertainty:

“Well now if it isn’t Arthur,” this man said hearty and also it appeared with distaste.

“And that reminds me,” he went on seeming to forget he had just given another reason for his presence.

Then she added as though unable to help herself, “It should do you a mort of good.”

Miss Burch fixed a stern eye on Kate so much as to say a minute or so ago just now you were about to be actually coarse.

“Ah Mrs Jack,” Miss Burch put in as though sorrowing,

“It was Edith,” he answered at random and probably forgot at once whom he had named.

On the one hand, these narrative amplifications tell us much more than a simple “he said” or she replied.” Moving down our list of examples, we learn that one man dislikes someone called Arthur, though he pretends he doesn’t; another man can’t keep his stories straight; a woman is at the mercy of her (at least ostensible) concern for another person; and so on down the list.

And yet on the other hand they tell us much less. We learn only that characters seem to say things in a particular way, with particular consequences or implications. “Seems” and its variants “Seeming” and “seemingly” appear regularly; they are accompanied by similar expressions of doubt: “it appeared,” “so much as to say,” “as though,” “probably.” We always have to choose between the specificity of these descriptions and the hesitant manner in which they’re offered. Whenever the narrative tells us something it casts doubt on that telling.

This is, to say the least, disorienting for the reader. When Edith and Raunce argue over whether to give back a missing ring they’ve stumbled upon, Edith throws the ring into the fire before hastily rescuing it:

“Ouch it’s hot,” she said, dropping the thing on the rug. They stood looking down and from the droop of her shoulders it could be assumed that her rage had subsided.

Are we able to ignore the suggestion that Edith is no longer angry? Once the hint’s been made, aren’t we forced to take it? But hints can’t be hints if they’re really just disguised orders. We have to hear the “it could be assumed” as much as the “her rage had subsided.” Loving doesn’t let us naturalize its repeated qualifications. We have to take them seriously, for the book’s aim is to force us not just to read about but also to experience the uncertainty that its characters feel towards each other and in relation to their historical moment, in which it is by no means clear how the war will end.

This uncertainty is mirrored in Green’s title. Whether we take it as a gerund or as a progressive verb, “loving” is hard to pinpoint. The noun would refer to an abstraction that doesn’t just apply in a single case. The verb would describe a continuous action nullified or completed were it ever to stop and therefore without beginning or end. Words like “loving”—Green titled several of his novels in similar fashion: Living, Party Going, Concluding—suspend meaning. Like Raunce in Violet’s description, they are “always hinting” but never resolving.

I would argue in similar fashion that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time. True, he was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and possessed like many modernist writers a brilliant, inimitable style. And yes, he had gone to school with or traveled in the same social circles as many of the leading writers of the 1930s and wrote social comedies that sympathize with the working class. Yet Green is neither a modernist nor a social realist. He wriggles free of categories, the true strangeness of his prose not always evident until we slow down to see it has been hiding in plain sight.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to say, as earlier readers have done, that Green is like no one else. (The American novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, for example, famously called him not a writer’s writer but a writer’s-writer’s writer.) Instead, Green is like a handful of other English writers from the middle part of the century who don’t fit into prevailing narratives of twentieth century literature, writers who subtly distort realism without abandoning it, writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Comyns. Like them, Green hints that there is still much to be discovered in a literary tradition too often thought of as timid and unadventurous.

—Dorian Stuber

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Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Nov 142016
 

laura-thompson Picture: Roger Wyman

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. —Laura Michele Diener

the-six

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
$29.99, 400 pages

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I.
Thanks to Tolstoy, we know all about happy and unhappy families, and why unhappy families are by far the most interesting. Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” And rarely was it more clear that she found inspiration in her blood kin.

Their charm was collective as well as singular. Men from John Betjeman to Winston Churchill fell in love with one or the other of them or more likely, the whole lot of them, brother Tom included. After reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “So true to life being in love with a whole family, it has happened in mine.” Waugh himself was a lifelong devotee of the Mitfordian charm. He fell in love with Diana for a time but admired Nancy far more. Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were both published in 1945, the year the war ended, and when great families like the fictional Flytes and the real Mitfords wondered where they fit into the new order. Both novels contain a melancholic nostalgia, but Nancy approaches her’s with out-and-out humor and what Thompson terms “a will to joy” that delighted a war-weary English audience.

Thompson identifies herself as a longtime admirer of Nancy Mitford. She has written a biography of her alone, Life in a Cold Climate (2003). “When I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be souffle-light as well as monolithic, and still hold monolithic truths.” It is this tone of truth, delivered with a light and gracious hand that Thompson strives to imitate in The Six. She sparkles, delights, and barbs in the voice of Nancy. In Nancy’s classic style, Thompson peppers her book with epigrammatic gems:

“Feminism notwithstanding—female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type.”

And then there’s that sharp Mitford prickle: “Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story).”

And a choice amount of dry observations:

“She [Nancy] was not especially good at men. In truth all her sisters (but especially Diana and Deborah) were better at handling men than Nancy. When the men in question include Adolf Hitler, one might justifiably say that this was not a gift worth having.”

And just as Nancy could unexpectedly lapse towards the lyrical, Thompson trills out a lovely turn of phrase. She describes the fortune of Diana’s first husband, Brian Guinness (of the brewery), as “the kind of wealth that shrugs off slumps and depressions, like coats falling from one’s shoulders.” Later she refers to “the strange echoing poetry of the Times social pages.”

Nancy Mitford in 1931Nancy Mitford, 1931

In addition to Life in a Cold Climate, Thompson has previously written a biography of Agatha Christie—Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007)—and a biography of the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 may or may not have attempted to murder his wife before he may or may not have committed suicide—A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014). Her first book, the history of greyhound racing in England, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She is clearly fascinated with the eccentric, the wealthy, and the lovely (and, why wouldn’t one be? one of her genteel subjects might easily declaim). And while being healthily critical of class, she waxes nostalgic for the confident cleverness that sustained the Mitfords as they sailed through the grimmest years of the last century, writing, fighting, and speaking exactly as they pleased without apology.

Thompson attempts to describe the particularly Mitfordian way of stringing words together as “part-childish, part-posh, part-1920’s exaggeration . . . yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality.” Not to mention an insistent British cheerfulness coupled with a blithe self-confidence. As Nancy wrote reassuringly to Jessica, worried about her daughter on holiday in Mexico, “People like us are never killed in earthquakes.”

Although Nancy’s writing became the most celebrated, all the siblings practiced wordsmithery. As children, they remoulded the English language into something quite thoroughly Mitfordian. Like the Brontës, the sibling pairs invented their own languages—“Boudledidge” and ”“Honnish”—and created an increasingly ludicrous string of nicknames: “Muv and Farve” (Mother and Father), “Boud” (Unity and Jessica), “Honk (Diana), and Stubby (Deborah).

II.

Without doubt the Mitford girls were born into immense privilege. Their family was of fine Saxon stock, dating back to pre-Conquest days. Although Nancy famously described their childhood home as unheated and uncomfortable, the girls occupied a cozy space right in the center of England’s interconnected maze of peerage. They possessed all the connections they would ever need to marry men like their father, David, Lord Redesdale, the first cousin of Clementine Churchill’s cousin (and if rumor was to be believed, potentially her half-brother.) Like other men of his class, he exercised his noblesse oblige in the classic manner, chairing charity committees and decrying the Labour Party in Parliament. In his spare time, he mismanaged his dwindling fortune and prospected for gold whenever he needed spare cash. His daughters later insisted they never had any money, and Nancy “came out” as a debutante wearing a homemade dress at a ball in her living room, with her aging uncles as dancing partners. But of course, Thompson remarks, “as poverty went, it was relative.”

Over the next ten years, three more sisters debuted into society, and the world darkened significantly. When the rumbling currents of Fascism and Communism exploded, the sisters gravitated to all ends of the political spectrum. Thompson pinpoints 1932, the year of Unity’s debut, as the moment when the charmed lives of the Mitfords all went to pieces, the year when Diana, sedately married to the charming if somewhat mousey Lord Brian Guinness, met the odious Lord Oswald, and for better or for worse (the reader can decide, but it’s pretty obvious where Thompson’s sympathies lie) hitched her glorious fortunes to his Fascist wagon. In 1932, Mosley was apparently walking sex, Flynn and Fairbanks combined, and had mesmerized a group of disenfranchised working-class men into believing that Fascism was the cure for a Depression-era Britain. An admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, he had begun the New Party, which then became the British Union of Fascists. His appeal to the unemployed working class was somewhat inexplicable: he dripped money, having married one of the daughters of the immensely wealthy Lord Curzon, all the while blithely sleeping with the other two, their step-mother, along with a dizzy array of chorus girls and peeresses. Despite, or perhaps because of his supreme self-confidence, Diana left her incredibly nice husband and his immense fortune, and set herself up in a little Eaton Square house near Oswald, faster than you could whistle “Lili Marlene.” “From that moment the Mitford family began to fall apart,” Thompson writes, “Unity and Jessica’s actions would be influenced by Diana’s nonpareil act of rebellion.” By the following year, the Black Shirts were promising change and threatening violence, and Diana’s adoration of Mosley led her to Berlin. After the unexpected death of his first wife, Diana and Oswald married in Berlin in 1936, with a begrudging Adolf Hitler by their side (apparently he too nursed a crush on the ethereal Diana.)

Diana Mitford, 1932

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. She struggles to reconcile that utterly gracious soul of her acquaintance with the same Lady Mosley who elegantly heiled Hitler in old photographs. There must have been something to this woman who counted Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington among her closest friends, and it must have been more than beauty (although golly gosh, she was beautiful, with a glamor that only existed between the wars, the kind only captured by black-and-white celluloid. On aesthetic grounds alone, it’s not hard to see why Nancy’s great friend Evelyn Waugh defected to Diana’s side for a few pre-Mosley years, dedicating Vile Bodies to her and adding in her husband Brian Guinness for form’s sake. “She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation,” Waugh wrote besottedly in 1929. Like the rest of his Bright Young generation, he was in line for a great deal of disillusionment.

Diana is a little too clearly Thompson’s favorite Mitford sister, and the number of comparisons she makes between Diana and fine sculpture verges on the excessive, (well-defined cheekbones don’t exactly outweigh a vacuum of human compassion), but Thompson does sincerely investigate her moral complexity. In fact, it is a credit to her biographical endeavor that she doesn’t dismiss Diana out of hand, but rather tries to sift through her paradoxes and view them in the context of her age. For generations, the English upper classes had admired all things Teutonic. Their paternal grandfather had been on intimate terms with Wagner, just as their father had been fast friends with his son Siegfried, hence Unity’s middle name of Valkyrie. Others wanted to simply avoid war at all costs. Even Nancy, the staunch patriot of the family, wrote after the war that everyone had gone to the German embassy in London. “They deny it now, of course.” Yet Thompson returns to the same question: “How, one wonders, did the Mitford love of laughter not cause her to fall about at the sight of Mosley in his black and his boots? Similarly—how could she have watched Hitler, screaming his nonsense at full volume, without the family sense of the ridiculous kicking in?”

In discussions of the sisters, Diana and her younger sister Unity get lumped together as the two who were pals with Hitler, but whereas Diana flirted with evil, Unity muddled merrily into its center. Thompson tackles the unexplainable Unity Valkryie, the artless, clumsy, Mitford giantess, who trounced guilelessly into Hitler’s affections, such as they were. At the very least her milkmaid good looks and childish prattling entertained him, so that before 1939, they met about 140 times, at tea parties, opera boxes, embassy balls, and other extraordinarily civilized settings. For all their Germanophilia, her family was baffled by increasingly unstable behavior and responded in their characteristically unhelpful ways. Her vile brother-in-law Lord Mosley referred to her as “stage-struck.” Nancy sent her mocking poems: “Call me early Goering dear/For I’m to be the Queen of the May.” Her alarmed mother tried to distract her with a cruise. Nothing changed, and Unity attended the Olympic games in Berlin alongside the Goebbelses, with whom she had become fast friends.

Thompson refers to her as an innocent, unstable, and generally mad young woman who fell in with the wrong (really the most absolutely wrong possible) crowd. “Perhaps they found the evil in her, as well as the madness.” Had she been born today would no doubt have been diagnosed on one or the other end of a spectrum and heavily medicated. When England declared war with Germany, she shot herself with a Walthur pistol. To her family’s guilty regret, the bullet left her alive but also incontinent and even more childlike (she was said to have the mental age of ten). With “something resembling human emotion,” Hitler returned her to the care of her mother in England, where she chattered away to kindly bewildered strangers about how Adolf would be the perfect name for the eldest of the ten children she knew she would have one day, and bestowed all the lively affection she used to reserve for Hitler on farm animals. “Oh, Boud, I have a Goat!” she wrote ecstatically to her Communist sister Jessica living in America. “In a strange way she had been the happiest of the sisters,” Thompson surmised. “Yet she had not a clue as to how to live.” She died in 1948 at the age of thirty-four from meningitis caused from the bullet wound.

unity-hitlerUnity Mitford and Adolf Hitler, 1936

Unity and Diana defy easy explanation. It’s too easy to dismiss them as monstrous, without plumbing why they chose to spend their days among monsters. “The times in which this pair lived were terrifying: most people crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and prayed for it all to be over. For reasons that can never quite be explained, these aristocratic young women embraced it instead.” Perhaps with the cushions of youth, family, beauty, and money, they thought they had nothing to lose. Unity may never have understood what was at stake, and Diana (no one could call her cowardly) was always willing to risk it. “I can’t regret it,” she freely admitted in 1989. She was referring to her friendship with Hitler but could have meant the rest of it too—the love affair with Mosley, the break with propriety, and even the vitriol that awaited her in her home country.

After Britain declared war on German, the family fortunes shifted to a new set of extremes. Back in England, Diana and Oswald Moseley spent the war in prison as collaborators. Serves her right. She recalled it as an incredibly happy interlude, as for the first and only time in their marriage her husband was entirely faithful. And for a moment, you feel sympathy for this extraordinary woman and the cost of her choices. Family feeling was running high against her, as the other Mitfords did their bit for the war effort and then some. Tom, the inglorious but beloved Mitford brother, fought first on the North African front and then in Burma, where he died from a bullet wound in 1945. Pamela’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, serving as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down somewhere over the North Sea in 1941. Nancy, experiencing the terror of the Blitz firsthand in London, went so far as to suggest to her friends in the Foreign Office that Diana was “an extremely dangerous person.” She had been throwing herself into war work since 1939, when she traveled to France to help Spanish refugees, and then back in England, where she operated a first aid post, drove an ambulance, and opened her home to Polish Jewish refugees, to the outrage of her mother (Hitler was her favorite son-in-law, Nancy always quipped). She also informed on her sister Pamela, whom she suspected of Fascist tendencies. Intriguingly, neither Jessica nor Nancy ever blamed Unity for her bizarre adulation of the Führer and the three shared gossipy loving letters throughout the war years.

III.

With their vastly different politics and their lifelong rivalry, Nancy and Diana act as the twin poles of The Six. Yet, as Mitford sisters go, it’s hard to resist the obviously spunky Jessica, who ran off during her debutante season to fight with the Spanish Guerrillas, and then married a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco, while her sisters were enjoying tea in Munich with Hitler. She later became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Congress, campaigned to legalize abortion, and basically fell on the right side of every modern feminist cauJese. She makes Lady Sybil Grantham look like a Tory living comfortably in Sloane Square. Yet Thompson cuts Jessica no breaks, portraying her as an extremist, just “more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.” She spends almost no time on Jessica’s acclaimed investigative journalism, including The American Way of Death, an expose of the money-grubbing funeral industry.

Jessica MitfordJessica Mitford

Poor old Pamela gets the least amount of space, but she appears less mysterious and controversial than her colorful sisters, spending the bulk of her adult life raising chickens and dairy cows, although apparently she innovated legendary technologies in the field of animal husbandry. Of Pamela, Thompson writes, “She had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses.” Her rebellion may have been quieter. After her divorce from scientist Derek Jackson (himself a Fascist, but with the good grace to keep his beliefs to himself), she lived discreetly with a Giuditta Tommasi, and according to Jessica, “became a you-know-what-bian.” Like all her siblings except for Nancy and Jessica, she lunched with Hitler before the war, but was chiefly impressed by the chicken served.

The youngest sister, Deborah, came of age while her sisters were already making headlines on either side of the Atlantic. She rebelled against her mad mad family by embracing utter normalcy, at least for her rarified context. Two weeks into her successful debut season, she met her husband, a good Cambridge man, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When fate kindly swept him aside and made her Duchess, she resolutely managed her estates, holding up under the impositions of death duties and Labour politics. Despite her sex appeal, “the divine Debo,” as the press nicknamed her, stuck by her first sweetheart till death did them part. Very unMitfdorian, according to the sisters’ general self-assessment. “Debo’s absolutely pure,” Nancy reminded Diana, who had proclaimed, “We’re all adulterers and adulteresses.” While she spent literally three days at school, which she later recalled with self-deprecating horror (“no dog, no pony, no Nanny!”), she clearly inherited her fair share of family wit, publishing her own well-received chatty memoir, Wait for Me! (2010). Her death in 2014 was received with the kind of national outpouring of nostalgia reserved for the Queen Mum.

IV.

What with Unity’s antics, Diana and Lord Mosley’s unrepentant Fascism, and Lady Redesdale’s cheerful Teutonism, the Mitford’s were no one’s favorite family by the end of the war, and a prime example of why the average Brit wanted to chuck the class system down the chute along with the rationed coal. Hence the importance Thompson ascribes to the The Pursuit of Love in the creation of the Mitford myth: “Just as Diana led the troops into the darkness of battle by her defection to the Fascist cause in 1932, so Nancy did the same with her shift into the sunlight of public adoration.” The Pursuit of Love was not Nancy’s first book—she had been a successful novelist since 1931—but it was and would remain her most beloved. The delightfully eccentric Radletts are obviously the Mitfords refracted with affectionate nostalgia through Nancy’s effervescent voice. Their story is narrated by kind sensible cousin Fanny, who experienced life at her cousins’ estates at Aconleigh (based on Asthall Manor) during holidays, and later witnessed their multiple marriages and madcap escapades.

mitford-sistersMitford Sisters

Nancy crisply layers the poignant and the hilarious together with a social observation worthy of Austen. On meeting her aunt’s new betrothed Fanny states: “My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle.” Her characters deliver social cuttings, devastating in the innocence of their delivery: “Oh the horror of important people—you are lucky not to know any.” All the elopements and scandals of the Mitfords are played for laughs, as when Linda Radlett leaves her banker husband for a Communist (a playful nod to both Jessica’s elopement and Diana’s affair, although neither appreciated the gesture). Linda innocently laments her new social life:

But I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind so dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.

Despite the ingenuousness of its characters, The Pursuit of Love contains a fair amount of darkness as the war threatens and then explodes around the Radlett children. But like Nancy herself, they cheerfully plunge forward into the new world that awaits them.

After the war, flush with the commercial success of her novels, Nancy moved to Paris, from whence she wrote fantastically funny letters to her family in that same tone of wide-eyed knowingness. She was always on, always entertaining. And even though Nancy was the intellectual of the bunch, the sisters were all clever and witty. As Diana wrote, referring to Jessica’s second marriage: “When all was said and done, Jessica was the only Mitford to ever harm a Jew.”

To be honest, it’s difficult to read Thompson’s book and not fall just a little in love with the intelligent, mysterious, and utterly original Mitford girls. Despite having only about two terms of school between them, they produced over twenty-five books, many of them award-winners and bestsellers, suggesting that childhoods full of animals, reading, and prodigious free time are highly underrated. Somewhere between riding to hounds and debuting, they must have learned something besides not putting the milk in first. They were funny enough and joyful enough that people still read their letters, and not just for the references to famous people who clustered around them. And their upper-class mannerisms, while out of fashion, are laced with just enough self-deprecation to read as charmingly ironic rather than insufferable. “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris,” Deborah declared definitively. “Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

“These girls are prize exhibits in a museum of Englishness,” Thompson insists. “And whatever one’s opinion of what they represent, it is impossible, in truth, to find them boring.” Rather.

—Laura Michele Diener

N5

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Nov 142016
 

babysitter

George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. — Benjamin Woodard

The Babysitter at Rest
Jen George
Dorothy, a publishing project, 2016
168 pages, $16.00

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Late every semester, as attention spans wane and final project deadlines loom, I treat my Composition students to a day of stress relief by cobbling together Exquisite Corpse stories as a class. I usually write the openings ahead of time and then pass them to one student, who adds his or her own lines, and then carefully folds the paper, accordion style, so that the next writer can only see the most recent sentence of the growing story. This continues until the pieces have circulated around the room and the pages look like tiny venetian blinds. Then I unfold the stories and read the results aloud. The students get a kick out of hearing me say some pretty bizarre things—once they realize I’m going to perform each story, they take it upon themselves to add in a naughty word or two—but what always impresses me is the coherence of these tales. Without seeing anything but a few words written by their tablemates, my students somehow create these Frankensteinish narratives that abide by perfect dream logic, where characters bounce from scene to scene, yet never lose sight of a singular goal. Ideas lost between students sometimes reappear five lines later, as if the air itself whispered a clue to a writer further down the table. The cheesiest way of describing these stories is to say they’re like catching lightning in a bottle, but there’s something true to employing that phrase. The room feels electric as my students and I realize the consistency that threads our crazy tales together, and that electricity vanishes the moment the class is over.

Jen George’s wild, funny debut collection, The Babysitter at Rest, gives me that same electric jolt only the feeling doesn’t fade. Perhaps this is partially due to the form the volume’s five stories take, as they—like an Exquisite Corpse exercise—often contain dreamlike swerves. Yet there’s also a vivid realness at the core of each piece. George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. For example, the following sequence, from “Take Care of Me Forever,” sees George’s protagonist, a sick woman waiting to die in a hospital bed, deciding to walk to the bathroom:

“In the bathroom, I notice a large hole in the wall. An opening. I enter the opening with my mobile IV. I make my way through pipes, drywall, and rotten wood into what seems to be a strip mall dentist’s office hallway. All of the office doors are locked and the snack vending machine at the hallway’s end is empty.”

From here, the character finds both a bucket of teeth and another passageway inside a janitor’s closet. The passageway leads her outside the hospital and into a football stadium, where a naked painter with a small penis sits on a stool at the fifty-yard line, surrounded by bookcases and a television. The characters know each other and talk about their past love affair—“The great love of my life with whom I wanted to have children left me because of the penis,” the painter admits—and the woman takes a look at the man’s artwork, conveniently displayed nearby, before returning to her hospital room. The progression, one of many found in “Take Care of Me Forever,” is surreal, certainly, and its non sequitur unraveling resembles a language game like Exquisite Corpse, but the unpredictability of the events here keeps the narrative consistently lively. A thousand questions flood the reader: Is this really happening? When were these two characters lovers? And, most importantly, what the hell is going to happen next? This liveliness creates curiosity, and it helps drive George’s stories, shuttling the reader into unique worlds where just about anything is possible. But within these worlds, characters confess their dark thoughts alongside jokes, and the author anchors her stories with just enough reality to never lose her audience.

In addition, George peppers her collection with a brilliant series of inventories and lists that maintain audience interest while also setting rhythm. “Guidance / The Party” relies heavily on this technique while telling the two-part tale of a woman learning how to throw a party from a drunken “Guide” and then following through with its—The Guide is genderless—instruction. When learning how to present herself, The Guide rambles off a series of lists to the woman, including:

“Wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford, in order to ensure you will not feel like a chubby street urchin halfway through the party. Refer to the manual for information on weight loss via dieting/cleansing prior to the party, taking saunas, eating cotton balls soaked in castor oil, ephedrine use, Epsom salt baths, and salt flushes.”

Then, as she hosts her party, the woman is faced with the revelation that her female guests are pregnant, which results in the following passage regarding the pregnancy-adverse foods the host planned to serve:

“All of the French cheeses are unpasteurized, then there’s the matter of the raw oyster bar, which was the second main spectacular food item, and also the raw egg, the mercury, the shaved mad-cow boar hoof, the tuna, the tonsil stone, and the lorazapam in the 10,101-ingredient mole.”

The baby-related lists continue in “Futures in Child Rearing,” where a woman, hoping to get pregnant, states all of the traits she expects from her child:

“She will look good in clothing and without. She will be adored but respected. She will follow a clear life path, free of too many obstructions, full of loving and successful friends who wear beautiful dresses, have lovely parties in the desert or at the beach, and who have about them an airy lightness. She’ll know how to go about getting what she wants. She will be capable. She will not have crying jags.”

These lists and inventories are equal parts funny and peculiar. They establish a rhythm within the text, yet they also jolt the stories with a sudden burst of prose, adding a new layer of captivation to each story. Like the rambling, zigzag narrative paths already mentioned, George’s lists keep the text active, create charming juxtapositions, and root the reader to the page.

In early press and reviews for The Babysitter at Rest, George’s writing has been compared to the playfulness of Donald Barthelme and Chris Kraus, but the collection’s title story, both in subject matter and structure, also brings to mind Robert Coover. Though George shies away from giving the story a metafictional shade, she does, like Coover, capitalize on the classic Penthouse Forum fantasy of an affair between a man and his child’s babysitter. Also like Coover, the relations between these characters are highly sexual and graphic, broken into short fragments, and it’s here that George ratchets the strangeness of her story to comment on gender inequality. The husband saunters through life wearing cool guy sunglasses, acting as a generic vessel of affluence and depravity, while the babysitter, who lives in a group home with a slew of degenerates, spends nearly all of the narrative prancing about in a bikini—she loses her other clothes—valued solely for her sexuality and youth. This exploration of primal and stereotypical instinct is frequently hilarious—more than once, the babysitter says she’s, “Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” a clever quip commenting on men’s justification of the well-worn fantasy of the sexy schoolgirl—but it also provides the collection with a universal thread of female exploitation, which comes up again and again. “Take Care of Me Forever” contains a sexual relationship between the dying hospital patient and her doctor, as well as a crudely worded help wanted ad that seeks applicants willing to “listen to problems and musings of (all male) staff,” be “flirtatious with all,” and who must “not have boyfriend,” and hopefully live with “cute roommates A+.” And in “Instruction,” the collection’s final story, a young female pupil becomes both the star student and sexual plaything of her professor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands.” In his conquest, he feigns interest in her ideas (“‘Welp, cool idea. Really neat.’ He succeeds in stifling laughter.”) to get in her pants, and the explicit results draw the ire of the student’s peers.

What is Jen George trying to say by including so many examples of older man/younger woman exploitation in her collection? It’s easy to argue that the answer is up to the reader, but the author offers up several hints as to her potential mission. The student artist in “Instruction” eventually breaks away from her instructor and wanders the country, sparking artist revolutions and turning “The Teacher/older man with large hands” into a lost soul, who eventually begs the student to explain to him why she abandoned their relationship. Meanwhile, “The Babysitter at Rest” sees the title character, after all of her adventures, holding her charge, a “forever baby” who will never age, in her arms and deciding that he is fortunate to never grow up into his father’s good looks or fortune, that remaining a baby is far more advantageous. If he never grows up, he can never become a predator.

In a way, these two women gain an upper hand in their situations, and while their moments of clarity may be short-lived, this evolution speaks volumes. And maybe this is what George wants her readers to notice. Then again, perhaps the ultimate goal for The Babysitter at Rest is to provoke the reader into considering the ways we all use one another to our own advantage. In any case, the collection is a wonderful experiment, full of electric twists that linger.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartCorium Magazine, and Storychord. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Nov 112016
 

nell-zink

Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. —Carolyn Ogburn

nicotine

Nicotine
Nell Zink
Ecco Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.99

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It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems, one character tells another in Nell Zink’s new novel, Nicotine. “That was something your dad used to say, about how it’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems. If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused. It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal. Any distraction is noise. Anything extraneous is noise. Now try to define extraneous. In life, nothing’s extraneous. There’s no noise. It’s all signal.”

In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.

Every aspiring midlife novelist will likely be familiar already with the oft-recounted biography of Nell Zink, but her story seems to remain somehow blurred, evocative, just enough like every one of us to be any one of us but also distinctly, markedly unique. It doesn’t dull with repetition. Zink, like many of us, missed the “5 Under 35,” and the “20 Under 40,” mailed off her first manuscript in her late 40s to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, with whom, in a twist of fate that only real life can contrive, she’d begun exchanging emails about the songbirds of the Balkans. Her emails (which he would describe using words like feisty and presumptuous) were both remarkable and relentless; Franzen assumed she was a writer he’d met already, and playing some sort of a joke. When he finally understood she was not, he actively encouraged her to try writing fiction. Zink is said to have replied: “Oh, I’ve already done that.”

Nell Zink was born in Corona, California in 1964; she and her two brothers were raised in rural King George County, Virginia. She finished high school at Stuart Hall School in Staunton, VA, then majored in philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After undergrad, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived in anarchist coops (not unlike the ones she describes in Nicotine) and where, from 1993-1997, she published Animal Review, a ‘zine that interviewed punk musicians about their pets. She moved to Tel Aviv, then Berlin. She earned a doctorate in media studies at the University of Tübingen. She got married, and unmarried, and married again. She’s worked as a secretary, a technical writer, a translator; she’s waited tables and worked construction. She worked for four years as a bricklayer in the Tidewater area of Virginia, a job, she told Kathryn Shultz in the New Yorker, that was “more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career. In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.”

In other words, she lived the kind of private life of many people who, not being famous, do not have to explain their lives. As Zink says, “there’s a very clear distinction between taking your career seriously and taking your writing seriously.”

Because Zink was taking her writing seriously. For over fifteen years, she wrote fiction that she showed no one but the Israeli writer Avner Shats, to whom she’d been introduced by her second husband, the Israeli poet Zohar Eitan. (Two of the novellas Zink wrote for Shats have been published this month under the title Private Novelist.)

At the age of 50, Zink’s first published novel, Wallcreeper, was named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2014. Wallcreeper explores the topic of marriage through bird watching and eco-terrorism. Her second, Mislaid, takes on racial and sexual identity; it was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.

§

Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman in her 20s. Her father, Norm, is a self-help guru with massive real-estate holdings and a following of self-actualization groupies. His second wife, Amalia, is Penny’s mother; Amalia was a child of 13 when Norm first met her in the Colombian town of Cartagena. He adopts Amalia in order to bring her back to the United States after his first wife disappears, leaving her two sons, Penny’s half-brothers behind. In this free-wheeling familial structure, one that echoes the anarchist households in which the adult Penny will live, the boys’ mother’s absence is barely noticed.

Here’s what’s Zink writes about those self-help groupies who seek the promise of a better life, a description which again harkens forward to those communities Penny will find herself in as an adult:

There is tacit agreement among Norm’s followers that they make the world a better place by loving in it. They don’t change it. They redeem it, through the searching way they live their lives. The cult is populated by realist aesthetes. A cult of personality for those cultivating personalities. Expecting nothing more from life than self-actualization, accepting nothing less. Willing to settle for others’ self-actualization if their own turns balky.

Amalia is first shown at the age of thirteen; Penny is first shown at the age of twelve, naked and smoking and, shortly thereafter, accusing her decades-older half-brother Matt of attempting to rape her. The accusation is quickly dismissed both by her father and even Penny herself, but incest hovers like a palimpsest throughout.

The story proper opens in April 2016, exactly a year from the novel’s actual date of completion in April 2015. She tells us Penny, now in her 20s, is a graduate of an unnamed business school; her half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, and her mother, Amalia, are in their mid-40s. Her father, Norm, dies within the first pages of the book, and it’s his death that triggers a series of dissolutions that frames the narrator’s existence, if not the plot of the book itself. Zink’s book describes as closely as I’ve ever seen the transient nature of a certain variety of intimate relationship.

The first dissolution is Penny’s first encounter with death. She loves her father, seemingly the only one who does. She stays by his side as he enters Hospice care, whose dictate to do nothing to either prolong life or speed death means that he doesn’t get pain relief, and it’s up to Penny to swab out the crust from his throat. It’s not every novelist who would take on Hospice care in a satirical manner, but Zink’s attention is a serrated knife that takes no prisoners.

Once Norm dies, the family enters the well-known stages of estate management, another form of dissolution. In Norm’s case, this means primarily real estate holdings, some of which have already been sold, and others claimed. But, Penny is told, there is Norm’s parents’ home in Jersey City, which had been abandoned for years. When Penny is evicted from her father’s rent-controlled apartment upon news of his death, her step-brother offers her the abandoned house, advising her to evict the squatters living there. Instead, she falls in love, and moves in as a squatter herself.

As it turns out, the home, called Nicotine, is one of many semi-organized illegally occupied group houses throughout Jersey City. Though Zink describes only one of her many characters as “ageless and about thirty-five,” this breezy description could apply to just about everyone living in these collectives. There’s Stayfree, a feminist collective (“of both men and women”); Tranquility, whose residents protest for indigenous peoples’ rights; the DJD, the environmental collective that’s named for the enormous and enormously expensive couch that resides in the house. Nicotine’s ostensible purpose is to advocate for tobacco users’ rights, but most of the residents’ abundant free time is spent in the kinds of discussion familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time with the rootless, international community of artists, grad students, armchair philosophers, and trustifarians who, while drawn from a diverse cross-section of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, share the same attitude, both cynical and speculative, toward identity as they do towards property in general. That’s globalization; that’s modern life, Zink seems to be hinting. The reader quickly loses track of residents who come for discussions of, say, class or gender privilege, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The dissolution of identity, whether politics, gender, sexuality or any other belief system also plays a major role in the novel. Forget the regional distinctions of nationalism; forget the myth that some people are indigenous and others aren’t. When a character (Sunshine) tells Penny, “It’s just context-dependent! That’s how identity works,” the reader, like Penny, starts to feel a little queasy. There’s a vague feeling that we’re being led on: a lot of this is satire, after all. But where the lines of satire are drawn is far from clear.

Aphorism may be Zink’s most natural setting. “Smoking is like moving to Fukushima for the privacy,” she writes. Or, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” Zink’s cultural references are drawn with journalistic precision: she briefly references Donald Trump’s campaign, and a fictive President Hilary Clinton; includes 2016 state-of-the-art Virtual Reality sex toys, and describes a character retreating to her bedroom where she eats an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watches two episodes of Nurse Jackie. But the most contemporary element in Nicotine may be Zink’s slightly manic level of attention which offers what it needs to in two or three sentences before moving on. Almost everything is said via dialogue, in this style of writing, the ideas expressed more important than the character expressing them. This is literature styled by Twitter-feed, hashtagged by topic. Facebook is for old people.

Like Twitter, Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. It’s a kind of self-actualization of a narrative arc, pushing the reader into stasis, to rest in whatever is already known in the moment rather than pulling the reader towards what isn’t yet revealed. There’s a reason thrillers and mystery novels aren’t typically written in the present tense, but in the past. “And then I saw the gun, there, on the bed,” is inherently more suspenseful than, “I see the gun, there, on the bed.” (In fact, both a gun and a bed, make appearances in Nicotine; though both are used as guns and beds are often used, and occasionally in ways they’re not, there’s little in the way of suspense, which I place squarely on the use of the present tense.)

Zink herself refers to her choice, in a playful tongue-in-cheek way that’s characteristic of her writing. The rally against the TTIP (no one can quite remember what it stands for, but it’s clearly referencing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership) is coming up and two Nicotine residents (Rob and Anka) are brainstorming slogans which can be converted to hashtags for their protest signs:

“How about TTIP SUX?” he suggests.
“Present tense is a tactical error,” she says. “Makes it sound like we already lost.”

And maybe we have, in fact, already lost. We, westerners of whatever background or belief, live in a time of global dissolution and climate collapse that none of us understand. There is a despair that pervades this seemingly light-hearted novel. When Zink writes, “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying,” the reader almost feels the deep, smoky intake of breath herself, can almost see that breath drift across the warm night air. It’s one of the few passages that’s written to slow down attention, to welcome reflection.

The novel’s end finds the residents of Nicotine scattered—another form of dissolution—and the home itself transformed into a different kind of community center. Penny takes a job at her mother’s bank and shacks up with the no-longer-asexual Rob. The ending seems to belie the premise of the book’s title: nicotine, after all, is the addictive portion of tobacco. Nicotine isn’t what kills the smoker, not directly. Nicotine is what makes smoking so difficult to quit.

At one point, the novel’s sexy siren Jazz looks up from reading Jean Cocteau’s memoirs, sighing “He’s got that breezy, casual sophistication I’m always aiming for and never hitting.” Zink surely aims for breezy, casual sophistication, and in Nicotine, she almost hits it.

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5

Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numéro Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

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Nov 082016
 

I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. —Lawrence Sutin

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My Private Property
Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2016
128 pages, $25.00

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As I am a friend of Mary Ruefle, I will not pretend to be an objective reviewer, if there is such a thing. But as I loved her writing before I ever knew her, I am no mere shill. I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. Ruefle kneads imagination and thought together into a delicate yet chewy dough that rises into brilliant little lyric rolls and pastries. The kicker is that, after eating your fill with delight, you may find yourself unsettled. Nothing you think makes sense any more because Ruefle’s language has untamed your mind.

In the two longest pieces in the book, “Pause” and the eponymous “My Private Property,” Ruefle makes use of diametrically different forms. “Pause” is made up of multiple short sections that are sometimes only a single sentence. “My Private Property” is one long paragraph that goes on for fifteen pages. “Pause” is about menopause of which Ruefle writes in bile-filled warnings as one who has moved on to “happy old age” with its “grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.” The essay thus encompasses the lifespan of woman, as viewed by Ruefle, with menopause serving as the liminal passage out of the past of human ties, procreative ties, that have inhibited one’s creative evolution—“there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself.” “My Private Property” is about shrunken heads in all senses, not only the fearful physical shrinkings but also the bejeweled, bedaubed and photographed miniatures favored by every human culture as a form of remembrance. Ruefle takes in colonialism at its worst, the sketchy consolations of her own psyche, and the tenderness of loss and death. Having seen the Congo Museum in Brussels as a teenaged student abroad, she recounts in vividly accurate prose the shock of waking up, as an adult, to the history behind the museum’s sanctimonious cultural acquisitions—“wealth acquired by force of so filthy an unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist.”

The inadequacies, the pliabilities, the mutabilities of language are frequent points of exploration for Ruefle, who well knows the roles of both writer and reader in language games. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle sketches in a Daoistic manner the pleasures of succumbing to somnolence, an oft-overlooked effect of artistic receptivity, be it to music, the visual arts, or writing. The examples Ruefle employs are the classical composer Brahms (his Lullabies), the Swiss sculptor Giacometti (his supple elongated figures) and—the surprise choice—the American writer Henry Miller. Ruefle’s portrayal of her hypnagogic psyche taking in Miller is a model of how, languidly and hilariously, to disarm a male language harangue without disturbing one’s composure: “I often fall asleep while reading him. When he uses that hard word cunt again and again, it finally becomes something soft, so very soft, which is startling because a cunt really is soft, it’s a warm, soft, wet-while-young place, a spot really, given the size of the universe, the way a star is a spot, but there are so many of them—I mean cunts—who can keep track?”

Scattered throughout the book (untitled on the pages themselves, though single-word color labels—Blue; Purple; Black; and so forth—are given in the table of contents) are a sequence of eleven short takes on sadness keyed by color—the other shades being gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown. These allow Ruefle to display her gift for imagistic writing as emotionally compelling as Expressionist paintings. Ruefle does not stray into psychological judgments of the natures of her sadnesses. By using precise details that are not strictly tied to color scheme (so as to avoid becoming too matchy-matchy), she rivets the reader by revealing the prismatic secrets of her sadness spectrum. Take, for example, green sadness, which is, among other moments in Ruefle’s imagination, “the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.” Because vivid, specific details inherently (given the nature of human consciousness) contain multiple emotional valences, Ruefle’s pieces take on a trans quality. Ruefle’s note at the back of the book is astonishingly accurate: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

To be fair, something does change. With the substitution, each piece remains subtle, vivid, and true. But the reader discovers that happiness and sadness happen in the same colors, which we can paint howsoever our minds allow. My one complaint about the design of the book is that I think the color-sadness pieces should have been given a sequential section of their own so as to foster their cumulative impact, rather than be scattered here and there between other writings.

My single favorite piece in My Private Property is a short work entitled “The Sublime.” In it Ruefle employs a trick often employed by poets though relatively seldom by prose writers. One chooses a title that serves, as it were, as the answer to the riddle of the ‘secret’ meaning of the piece. In this case, Ruefle describes a literally hair-raising drive over hair-pin mountain roads. The closing line: “Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” Again, as in the color-sadness pieces, Ruefle allows us to see that first-rate writing reveals more than we can possibly expect, which is why we read.

—Lawrence Sutin

N5

Larry Sutin

Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 052016
 

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Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

novel-explosives

Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

I.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

N5

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.
Nov 042016
 

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The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. —Joseph Schreiber

panorama-cover[larger image requested]

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

So, maybe we could start with a short piece of film. This novel is narrated by an unnamed man who resembles Šarotar—a Slovene writer, of approximately the same age, who travels to various locales, either to work on a manuscript or give a reading. Here then, is a glimpse of the author himself. The setting is the Ljubljana Railway Station. A light snow is falling, and the trains come and go. This video is part of an online documentary project entitled Gathered: The Secret Side of Things We Share in which a number of prominent Slovenian writers, artists, philosophers and other academics were invited to offer their reflections—to muse out loud—about the state of modern society and the impact of technology on our relationships with nature and each other. It dates from 2013, the year before Panorama was originally published and presents, perhaps, a broad context for some of ideas he was exploring at the time.

Šarotar admits that when he sits at the railway station (an activity that will ground several important encounters in the latter part of his novel) he always thinks about time and space: “We are basically determined by time,” he says, “and by the fact that we are mortal, that we come from silence and we are returning to silence.” He goes on to consider that although we have very efficient modern means of transporting people, information and money; the most basic and fragile things, those that capture the essence of our humanity, are always the most difficult to transport through space:

A change in human society always followed a radical change in transport. At first, humans were conquering the steppes, then came the next generation braving the oceans and now we live in a time when mankind has conquered the entire globe and reached the limit. There are no ships, trains or aeroplanes that can take us beyond. We have reached what I call the limit of the universe. Today’s man is ready to head for the universe. It’s an imaginary limit of space and time. Poets, however, would say that the universe is a space within us. So I think it is no longer a question about communication or logistics, it is more about correspondences between the visible and invisible, between what’s the deepest inside us and everything that is furthest outside.

Panorama opens in Galway. The narrator has come to this Irish county, set at the very edge of Europe, to find a quiet place to work on an unfinished manuscript. Upon his arrival, he meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who will serve as his occasional driver and tour guide during his stay. Much of his time will be spent exploring the windswept mountainous landscapes and rugged coastline of the Connemara region. Here, and back in Galway City, he is haunted by thoughts of the thousands of starving refugees who set sail from these shores to face a dangerous and uncertain journey across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Famine. The crumbling abandoned houses and the solemn monuments stand as silent testament to these desperate souls. Migrants and refugees will be a recurring motif throughout the book, as will the related connections between landscape, memory, language, and loss.

As Gjini, who is also a writer, accompanies the narrator on sight-seeing adventures—hikes though the hills, a rough trip out to an outlying island by hydrofoil, a visit Kylemore Abbey—he shares his experiences as a newcomer, arriving eleven years earlier without a word of English, his wife left waiting behind until he can find his footing. Woven into his story, is an account of his friendship with Jane, a woman who had come from North America, to make sense of her own roots and identity. Her father was born in Connemara area. After the Second World War, some good-hearted nuns had put him on a ship bound for Canada, along with other war orphans and immigrants. Her research and journeys had taken her, he said, to Belgium and France and on into Central Europe as far as Sarajevo. As two outsiders, with a connection, however loose, to an area of the world close to the home he was missing, he was happy to have her company and offer his services as a driver. Gjini, and through him Jane’s story, become part of a key thread that will be picked up again, as the narrative progresses.

Shortly after his Irish visit, the narrator travels by train from his home in Slovenia to Brussels. This time, the main purpose of his visit is to give a reading in Ghent. The landscapes that attract his eye here, are urban—gothic structures played against inner-city decay and ruin. While in Belgium he will meet or re-connect with colleagues who have some tie with the states of the former Yugoslavia; individuals who articulate, in their own ways, the complex interrelationship between language and identity, and how it becomes distorted through time. And he will meet up again with Gjini who now, in his role as a freelance journalist, is intent on tracing yet another line of Irish-related migration, that of the Benedictine nuns who abandoned their destroyed convent in Ypres and made their way to Connemara after the First World War. Finally, chronologically speaking at least, the peace the narrator has been seeking for his work on his manuscript is found in Sarajevo where he stays with some friends.

On a superficial level, given this rather rough outline, Panorama might sound like a travel diary. The grainy black-and-white photographs that illustrate the text reinforce this impression. However, the narrator’s travels do not delineate the narrative, as much as they offer a framework against which the voices of his characters can be woven into a larger multi-layered meditation. He allows those he meets and spends time with a space to articulate the tensions they feel between their inner experiences and their relationships to the borders they have crossed in the course of their lives—whether those are lines marking identity, nationality, or even the policed barriers of a city under siege. The disorientation caused by the loss of one’s language, or the lack of contact with others who share one’s native tongue, is a persistent theme. Gjini describes it well on one of their early outings:

When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving.

While in Brussels, he reconnects with Caroline, a fellow writer whom he had met on his first trip to Belgium a few months earlier. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t have my own landscape, I search for and invent the spaces of my language,” explaining that although she was born in Belgium she lost her mother tongue growing up in Spain before she went on to study Romance languages and work in Paris and Nigeria.

…I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond; consider, she had said, people who are immigrants, refugees, the various diasporas, and so I ask myself what is still left to the writer’s experience.

The act of writing, the nature of tangible memory, and the complex relationship between language and landscape are the questions that ground this richly textured novel. Šarotar’s long, winding sentences evoke the meandering flow of reminisces while his narrative effectively compresses time—the encounters the narrator describes are not locked in the moment, they are broken and retrieved, guided by his remembrances of previous meetings, the memories recounted by these friends and colleagues, or even the tale of a complete stranger who buttonholes him after a reading in Ghent, to share—or perhaps confess—a family secret. The absence of chronological consistency creates an ebb and flow of recollections—some directly experienced, some reported and some imagined. In the beginning, the absence of quotation marks within paragraphs that extend for pages on end, can make it difficult to tell exactly who is speaking. Yet, with surrender to the movement between speakers and accounts, the reader will find the confusion falls away as the narrative repeatedly returns to pick up earlier threads and move forward.

The influence of W. G. Sebald is unmistakable, witnessed in the unnamed narrator with a curious similarity to the author, the long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, and by the employment of imbedded photographs. Šarotar has read and been inspired by Sebald’s work. Toward the end of Panorama, he even offers a direct allusion to Austerlitz as the narrator waits to meet a friend at the iconic Antwerp Station. However, Šarotar’s style is not strictly imitative. If Sebald acquired some of his narrative energies from Thomas Bernhard (seen, for example, in the repetitive occurrences of “Austerlitz said” in the secondhand accounts that form the basis that eponymous novel), Šarotar’s work maintains an even stronger Bernhardian sensibility at times, especially in the nesting of Jane’s story within Gjini’s accounts:

… a few times I remember when, after we’d been driving around all day in the car or just walking in the countryside, usually by the sea – she loved the bluffs, the high cliffs with the waves crashing far below; yes, that’s something you still have to see, he said, I’ll definitely try and organize it – yes, so, late at night, when we got back and had already said our goodbyes, he said, Jane would say, I’m going for a swim. I was surprised, of course, and tried to talk her out of it – not now, Jane, it’s late, it’s raining and the waves are rough, I’d tell her, and it’s night, there’s nothing you can see now, Gjini said; the lighthouse, Mutton Light, is shining there in the distance, Jane said; I can see its beam in the darkness, so you go on now, I’m going to have a swim; I’ll meet you here in the morning – good night, Gjini, Jane said; good night, Jane, Gjini said.

As well, with respect to the use of photographs, Šarotar, himself a photographer, is—or at least appears to be—using his images more intentionally. Sebald was a great collector of flea market finds around which he crafted his narratives. The portraits included in this text seem to stand in for characters who may or may not actually exist, but another significant influence on Šarotar’s photography is the work of German photographer and painter, Gerhard Richter. In fact, it is Richter’s retrospective show, “Panorama,” that gives this novel its name. The dramatic stormy cloudscapes that feature in so many photos are especially reminiscent of Richter’s well-known images of clouds.

cloudGerhard Richter, “Cloud Study”

In tone, Šarotar’s prose maintains a distinctly rhythmic poetic feel, captured beautifully in the translation by Rawley Grau. His narrator, a writer, imagines himself in line with the traditions of other Balkan literary heroes, especially Slovenian poet and songwriter, Gregor Strniša, and Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić. The latter’s poignant short story “Letter from 1920” figures toward the end of this novel, as yet another echo of the endless trend of leaving one’s homeland when a viable future can no longer be imagined. This piece is one of a number of Andrić’s stories that could be said to be of questionable autobiographical authenticity, as if truth and imagination are somehow incompatible. Panorama raises the same questions about where the line between fiction and nonfiction lies. But why is that an issue at all?

For Šarotar, it comes down to the way that literature is understood in Central Europe. If asked to draw a distinction between literature and journalism, he says that, for him, literature deals with the soul, that is, it begins with memory; journalism, by contrast, starts with “facts.” He claims to be writing from memories—writing about what it was, not how it was.[1] To enhance that sense of memory, small intentionally misremembered facts are left uncorrected in the text. As a more specific example, he offers an interview with Amos Oz from the Paris Review. When asked about the very serious way Hebrew writers seem to be taken in Israel, in contrast to the way they are seen in the west, Oz responds:

We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. Whether any of the characters, even the narrator, bear more than superficial resemblance to “real” people does not matter. This is a work that gets at the heart of important truths that couldn’t, at this moment, be more relevant. As the human flood pouring into Europe reaches crisis proportions it is more important than ever to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The forces driving the desperate movement of men, women and children—conflict, violence and poverty—have similarly forced individuals, families, and communities to cross waters and borders for millennia. This meditation on memory, time, identity, language and loss circles continually back to the price that migrants and refugees pay and the wounds that never completely heal.

—Joseph Schreiber

 

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jschreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. D. Šarotar, (personal communication, Sept. 28, 2016)
Oct 092016
 

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Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson

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The Angel of History
Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.00

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What if you were Satan’s chief delight? How chilling, how disturbing, how psychosis-inducing would it be to discover Satan—yes, the actual devil, Mephistopheles, the Morning Star, Lucifer—said that you rejuvenated his jaded heart? Who would want to know that? In The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine’s newest novel, we learn the answer to this question, for Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, is Satan’s delight, and the fallen angel makes it his mission to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past.

The Angel of History is Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book and fifth novel. Born in Amman, Jordan, he spent his youth in Kuwait and Lebanon. After moving to the United States, he first pursued an engineering career, but gave that up for painting, and then writing. In 1998 he published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Koolaids, a blistering indictment of war and a harrowing examination of the ravages of AIDS. His other novels include the experimental I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001), The Hakawati (2008), which draws on the tradition of Arabian fables, and the bibliophile’s delight, the sublime An Unnecessary Woman (2014), which won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now fifty-six, Alameddine spends his time between San Francisco and Beirut. Once again exploring the subjects of AIDS and war in the Middle East, with The Angel of History, Alameddine gives us provocative storytelling at its finest, a fabulist tale that explores how we grieve and how we succeed and fail in confronting our most painful memories.

Jacob’s Elegy

Ya‘qub, the protagonist and narrator of two-thirds of The Angel of History, arrives one rainy night at a crisis psychiatric clinic in San Francisco determined to be admitted. The fifty-something Ya‘qub has used the Americanized ‘Jacob’ since moving to San Francisco in the 1980s as a young man. Jacob explains to the triage nurse that he has been suffering from hallucinations again and is depressed. His employer had suggested he seek counseling, but it wasn’t until Jacob saw a report of another U.S. drone-strike on a Yemeni village, this time his mother’s hometown, perhaps the one where he was born, that he finally broke down. He needs an emotional holiday, and his ideal version would be three days in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Hospital with a nice Haldol-Ativan cocktail served with a chaser of Lexapro—after all, drugs had helped before—something to quiet the voices, something to deaden the pain, something to turn out the light of memory.

The majority of the 300-page novel is arranged in three titled sections—“Satan’s Interviews,” “Jacob’s Journals,” and “At the Clinic”—each of which is divided into twelve chapters, many with titled subchapters. Alternating in sequence, the three major sections present three parallel plots from multiple points of view providing a nonlinear reconstruction of Jacob’s history.

A poet who earns a living as a word processor for a law firm, Jacob lives alone in his San Francisco apartment except for his large black cat, Behemoth, whom he named specifically after the infernal feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—another novel featuring a well-tailored Satan. Jacob suffers survivor’s guilt. All of his friends, including his beloved partner Doc, died from AIDS-related diseases twenty years ago during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Overcome with anguish for his lost friends, Jacob hasn’t been able to write poetry for some time, but his old muse, his “angel of remembrance,” Satan, has returned.

The primary plot of the novel, set in the notional present and narrated by Jacob in the “At the Clinic” chapters, covers his breakdown the night he seeks admission to the hospital. Jacob’s narration is often in a stream of consciousness style, mimicking thought, as in this example where he explains the reappearance of Satan in his life:

It has been getting worse, Doc, I don’t seem to be able to cut him off, I am all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness, it wasn’t always this bad, I went along for years doing rather well, didn’t hear his voice, but then one day he reappeared, and he’s been getting more demanding, more irksome, hissing, hissing, and I get headaches, I fear the return of the great migraine storms, I need a break, Doc, I need a break.

Devastated when his friends died, Jacob spent time as an inpatient in the same hospital to which he is once again applying. He had thought he was stable, he had thought he had escaped the trauma of history: of losing his friends and his mother and the memories of his childhood. As he writes in his journal, always addressing Doc:

While my mind processed the chaos that passes for thought in the early morning, I had cracked five eggs by the time I realized I was about to make you an omelet as well. Decades may have passed and sometimes it feels like only yesterday that we had our breakfast together. . . . I’d had a life since you left . . . I did yoga . . . I went to art openings . . . I watched bad television shows . . . I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.

Moments such as these reveal Jacob’s deep grief and give the impression of a hollowed out life. Jacob’s tender admission evokes the tone of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, another novel that addresses living day-to-day with heartache for a lost partner.

“Jacob’s Journal” is part requiem, part confession, and it is also where we learn what Jacob remembers about his mother, a teenage Yemeni maid who became pregnant by the equally young son of her wealthy employers in Beirut. Kicked out, she becomes a homeless wanderer through squalid desert villages where she is forced into prostitution. Mother and child finally settle in a Cairo whorehouse for the most stable and in many ways happiest time of Jacob’s childhood. But these memories have been repressed, or lost, or ignored for too long. Jacob writes about his childhood:

You, Doc, wait, I need someone to hear this, listen to me. . . . I don’t know why I tell you all this about me, I need to, I guess, but with this need to tell comes the concomitant desire to forget everything . . .

An assiduous Satan has been working against Jacob’s “desire to forget,” and Jacob’s journal and ensuing breakdown have been the result. In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Jacob tells a bartender, “I am your angel of history”; namely, a being who sees the past as a single, unalterable catastrophe.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

Angels and Ministers of Grace

The most significant subplot of The Angel of History unfolds in “Satan’s Interviews” and involves Satan’s attempt to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past. One of the most entertaining, often hilarious, and clever parts of the novel, “Satan’s Interviews” features third-person omniscient narration, usually limited to Satan’s locus of perception.

Being supernatural, Satan simultaneously coaxes Jacob to leave the clinic and hosts interviews with his son, Death, and a group of Catholic saints at Jacob’s apartment. The devil has a long tradition in literature, with some of the most memorable and most human versions found in Milton, Goethe, and Bulgakov. Alameddine’s Satan is eerily human with a voice as beguiling as one might expect from the personification of temptation. Jacob does a fine job describing Alameddine’s Satan (in a sly metafictional stroke) when he writes in his journal how Doc “endowed the devil with wickedness and perseverance, you made him fun, witty, intelligent, frisky, lively, ironic, and above all, petty, all too human, like us.” But for Jacob Satan is Iblis, Islam’s whispering jinn, a sulking, lonely creature with nothing better to do than torment him.

Satan is a fully realized character, complete with his own conflicts and a clear desire: he wants Jacob back. During Jacob’s first hospitalization he was drugged to near catatonia, and after leaving the hospital he spent many years on antidepressants and a variety of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. Satan doesn’t want his favorite whipping boy tumbling down that rabbit hole again.

In the first of “Satan’s Interviews” Death—whimsical, mocking, irreverent—asks his father why he is intervening in Jacob’s life now; Satan replies: “Because he has been sleepwalking through life since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories.” However, it could be worse, Satan concludes, horror of horrors, Jacob “could write a novel.” Satan’s motivation, ostensibly for the benefit of Jacob’s art, is, not surprisingly, purely selfish: Jacob “rejuvenates my jaded heart” Satan confesses to Saint Blaise. Furthermore, Satan tells Jacob that it was him, not the saints, who saved Jacob from AIDS:

funny you should credit the silly saints with healing you, and not me, Death came for you and I intervened . . . I sat him down, told him your soul was mine, a long time ago I claimed you, you child of pestilence, you squashable worm . . .

And this is part of Satan’s interest in Jacob, namely Jacob’s squashability—most clearly reflected in his sexual history. Jacob’s experience with sex begins violently when a customer of the Cairo whorehouse demands that the ten-year-old paint henna on his penis. In his Lebanese boarding school Jacob is beaten and repeatedly humiliated by bullies. As an adult in San Francisco, jealous of Doc picking up another man, Jacob visits an S&M club where he is whipped—and it will not be his last indulgence in masochism.

Death asks Satan if he is going to interview “the others”—meaning the saints that Jacob prayed to as a child and as an adult until AIDS took everyone from him. In a Catholic tradition dating to the Black Plague, there are a group of fourteen saints—known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers—who are prayed to for specific maladies. Satan doesn’t interview all fourteen, but he does call upon them, remarkably, for assistance. It seems that Satan has done his job all too well in helping Jacob remember and now he needs help in keeping Jacob sane and off memory-impairing medication. Death, whose job is to offer the cup of forgetting, the waters of Lethe, expects Jacob will choose him, and so the dance between remembrance and oblivion begins.

In his depiction of the saints, Alameddine shows us compassionate but weary caregivers, for eternity is long and people exasperating. The interviews also offer humorous, welcomed breaks from Jacob’s somber memories. For example, Satan is unnerved by Saint Denis holding his decapitated head in his lap and insists he return it atop his neck, and Saint Margaret mocks Satan by holding a balloon of a baby dragon, for according to legend, Satan, in the form of a dragon, swallowed her but then choked on her cross. It is Saint Margaret who asks Satan to bring Jacob back to poetry: “A poet is tormented by the horrors of this world, as well as its beauty, but he can be refreshed, reborn even; he can take to the sky once more.” Saint Catherine sympathizes with Jacob’s past choices, she feels he only “did what he had to do during the time of sunder, he girded himself against the dirge,” but in the present she agrees with Satan’s assessment: “We must wake him and hazard the consequence. We must offer the apple.”

14-helpersTilman Riemenschneider workshop, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, c. 1520

War All the Time

In addition to the three major divisions of the novel, there are three sections labeled “Jacob’s Stories,” each containing a single short story independent of (but harmonizing with) the novel’s plot. The elegiac tone of Jacob’s journal changes to bitter resentment when he thinks of the humiliating final stages of his friends’ suffering, and his anger, inflamed by the interminable carnage he witnesses in the land of his birth, is vented in his stories.

Alameddine displays a formidable gift for satire in “Drone” and “A Cage in the Penthouse.” The latter, reminiscent of George Saunders’s equally acerbic “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” features a wealthy couple who keep a caged Arab as a pet in their Manhattan penthouse. In “Drone” we see U.S. drone strikes through the point of view of a sentient, self-righteous attack drone named Ezekiel.

 Through Jacob’s thoughts and his stories, Alameddine reminds us how easily wars are forgotten. Indeed, one of the epigraphs is from Milan Kundera (a writer who has had much to say about war and memory): “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” War tears through the countries of the Middle East daily, and for Alameddine—who grew up in Lebanon and spends much of his time there—this subject runs through his fiction like a scar.

Finding Time Again

The Angel of History shares more than a few characteristics with that paragon of memory novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Jacob’s past is what Satan and the saints are there to help him find and keep. Alameddine’s talent for nonlinear narrative—evident in Koolaids where the Lebanese civil war is starkly juxtaposed with the AIDS epidemic—shines brightest in The Angel of History with its exquisitely interlaced chronology, multiple plots, and points of view.

“Jacob’s Journals” presents a conventional memoir: Jacob thinking about his past. “At the Clinic” is more complex; here Jacob is thinking about his present, past, and future, but the narration feels like an extension of his journal, as if the events of his night at the clinic are added to his journal in the future. Satan’s interviews take place concurrently with Jacob’s night at the clinic but tell the story of Jacob’s mother and his childhood through the saints’ recollections. Satan’s imperative to the Fourteen Holy Helpers is clear: “What I hear he remembers . . . Remind him of himself.” Each interviewee recalls different parts of Jacob’s history which Satan then channels to Jacob. The ingenious conceit of the interview chapters is that, given the supernatural nature of the interlocutors, time is irrelevant and all the interviews can be simultaneous in an eternal moment. Furthermore, in these chapters Alameddine uses third-person, taking advantage of a wider range of point of view. These shifting times and points of view reveal Jacob’s memories in manner much like the actual process of remembering, a process during which we often take two steps back for every step forward.

Alameddine leaves little doubt about his admiration for Proust’s fiction in An Unnecessary Woman. Here as well, Proust informs Alameddine’s novel, from the simple homage—naming Jacob’s roommate Odette—to more direct references. For example, Jacob has moments of involuntary memory, such as in a grocery store where “the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory. Proust had his mnemonic madeleine, but bleach was all ours, Doc, all ours.” Note, Alameddine doesn’t miss an opportunity to layer his images, here alluding to Mephistopheles. But to emphasize such references, as fun as they are, would be to neglect the genuine beauty of how Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.

§

In An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya pleads with writers to “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Rabih Alameddine is not a fan of epiphanic endings, and you won’t find one here. The Angel of History asks questions and raising issues for which there are no simple answers. Is ignorance bliss? Can we deny our past? Should we try? The Angel of History tasks us with the necessity of facing our memories, even the most painful ones, for to neglect them is to surrender to Death, to drink from the river Lethe, to become complacent drones (pun intended). Alameddine’s book is a statement on memory, on surviving loss, on war and disease and how we cope with them, and finally on art; and that poetry, or any art, cannot exist in a memoryless (and thus painless) vacuum.

On his walk home from the clinic through the nighttime streets of San Francisco, Jacob stops to write impromptu poems and statements on storefronts he remembers from happier times; on a No Parking sign he writes:

You all dead
I still walk
Therefore I am
I know it is so
For I long
I long for solace
How does one find such
Among so many ashes?

Jacob’s question cannot be resolved in a single moment of enlightenment, and like him, we too must confront our losses, for there is no solution to grief other than learning how to live with a shadow of hell.

—Frank Richarson

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Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Oct 072016
 

mel-headshot

It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson

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The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

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Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Oct 032016
 

olzmann

Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. —Patrick O’Reilly

contradictions_cover

Contradictions in the Design
Matthew Olzmann
Alice James Books, 2016
100 pages, $15.95

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Early in Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection of poetry, Contradictions in the Design, we are introduced to a young boy. For his birthday, the boy has been given a box of hand-me-down tools. “Immediately, he sets out to discover / how the world was made / by unmaking everything the world has made” (“Consider All The Things You’ve Known But Now Know Differently”, 9). The boy may serve as a stand-in for Olzmann himself, who excels at finding connections between the broken, the incomplete, and the obsolete, and who eyes every artificial thing with skepticism. As he claims in one interview, he is “the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side.”

With his award-winning debut Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), the Michigan-born poet earned a reputation for his humour and accessibility, and his talent for juxtaposing seemingly incongruous images. Now residing in North Carolina, and armed with the confidence a well-received debut brings, Olzmann continues to explore his sometimes-jarring narrative style in Contradictions in the Design.

One stand-out poem is “The Millihelen”, named for “the amount of beauty that will launch exactly one ship.” Olzmann discovers such overlooked poetic sources with ease, and elaborates them masterfully. “The Millihelen” revisits the Trojan War, and considers a single ship leaving the entire fleet. Is this a ship carrying a disillusioned soldier away from the beachhead of Troy to a love he left behind? That’s not entirely clear, though it certainly seems that way. In any case, this ship is given more importance than the thousand Greek frigates sailing towards battle, a part bigger than the sum.

In “The Millihelen,” beauty is a destination. But that raises a possibility: perhaps this ship is the one which carries Paris and Helen away to Troy. That would be more consistent with the rest of the collection, where beauty and art are positioned as false virtues, traps which an audience could fall prey to. Certainly Paris’s own overly-enthusiastic pursuit of beauty had disastrous consequences.

The idea of beauty presents challenges for the artist as well. “Femur by mandible, I know what it means / to watch your good fortune change its mind,” Olzmann writes in “The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur”. That’s every poet’s pain, no doubt. But the poem itself depicts a dinosaur skeleton made up of mislabeled and mismanaged parts, the product of misguided creative labour, and exposes the blind faith and false assumptions required to not only appreciate, but to create art.

How Olzmann himself struggles for or against this artificial beauty is not always clear. There is little to suggest the kind of painstaking editing necessary to more intricate or experimental verse. Throughout, Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. What recommends Olzmann above them is the sense of cohesion in these poems: while most poets of a similar style still go in fear of literalness and overstatement, often to the point that their poems devolve into non-sequitur, Olzmann spares no effort to ensure that the reader follows every step of his associative process.

Olzmann’s talent lies not in his simple situational observations, but his observation of the whole metaphor, his observation of actors in a metaphor. He pursues the metaphor from its superficial meaning down to its pulp, showing the reader just where and why that metaphor is so poetically resonant. Think of him as a miner with a silver hammer, tapping the vein all the way to the motherlode. Oddly, Olzmann’s gift for drawing connections does not extend to other forms of comparative language. His similes, for instance, are usually duds: houses go “dark / like condemned buildings”, hair unfurls “like a flag”. These suit Olzmann’s unfussy, conversational style, but add nothing.

Olzmann is a noticer, rather than a craftsman. Coincidences and contradictions occur to him, and he draws them into the right perspective, but he never shapes them. This usually works. While not “formal poetry” in any traditional sense, nearly every poem in Contradictions in the Design operates under a particular formal apparatus wherein the poem is set up as a meditation on some single object or situation, then veers off in a completely unforeseeable direction, before returning to its thesis. This strategy, which I’m calling the “Olzmannian diversion,” makes it nearly impossible to quote from one of these poems and do justice to the whole poem, but it allows Olzmann to consider his subject from every angle, as though walking around a statue rather than merely looking at one face-on. As such, most poems in Contradictions in the Design have a satisfying sense of completeness.

Take, for example, “The Man Who Was Mistaken”, about a man who reconnects with his own sincerity thanks to a drug-addled roommate. The poem begins by mentioning the speaker is often mistaken for another professor at his university, who in turn is often mistaken for Moby, the electronica artist beloved by the speaker’s roommate. Then the turn:

Once he thought our furnace was talking to him.

Which is when I said, Why don’t you tell me
what the furnace was trying to say?

Which is when he said, It said
that me and it would always be enemies.

Which is when I said, Son, that’s a fight you can never win.

Which is when he said, Okay, and then went outside
to dance on the hood of his car.

Which is when the cops came.

Perhaps he was right. Jesus was inside the music.
And that music was inside my roommate.

And the state could not tolerate it.

I should note that this is just one small part of a long chain of events; “The Man Who Was Mistaken” follows Olzmann’s typical form: an opening gambit, a turn into shaggy dog territory, and then a return to the original theme in the third act, sort of like a sitcom. And the poem, already a page and a half long when this anecdote begins, goes on for another fifteen lines. The final line in the excerpt serves as that second turn, bringing the poem back to its original line of thought. While it acts as a punchline, dripping with false indignation toward “the Man,” it is also filled with genuine dismay that such harmless enthusiasm should lead to police intervention. The line rests precisely between the cynical and the sincere, which is where much of Olzmann’s best work happens.

But Olzmann’s competence can be its own trap. This is not a book one should read cover to cover. Taken at random, and with few exceptions, any one poem in this collection would be considered very good. The imagery is evocative, the humour charmingly ironic. But this one jarring, book-ended form would be more effective if used more sparingly. Reading Contradictions in the Design comes with a sense of degradation: inevitably some poems don’t seem to hit as hard as those which came before, and add nothing that earlier poems didn’t imply to greater effect. The Olzmannian diversion can lend a poem a sense of efficiency that it does not usually deserve.

This is a limitation to Olzmann’s style, as well. While the hyper-colloquial first-person narration affords him a degree of freedom not found in other poetry, it can also lead him to strain for importance. Such is the case with “Still Life With Heart Extracted From The Body Of A Horse” (16), a clearly personal, pointed poem, which devolves into bromides and clichés and eventually ends with a thud. When Olzmann gets political, as he does with this poem or “Imaginary Shotguns” (14), his politics are unthreateningly liberal[1], more bumper sticker than rallying cry.

What does one look for in a poetry? How can one define it? Olzmann himself might view even the question with suspicion. The poems which make up Contradictions in the Design are not challenging in any sense, but some might assert that “not challenging” is not necessarily the same as “not good.” I find myself, admittedly to my own surprise, in this camp. Olzmann draws insightful, even profound, connections between object and meaning. An artful poem, where several components work together in harmonious efficiency, such that you cannot replace a single mark for fear of breaking it, offers a kind of wonder. Here is a thing that shouldn’t exist, yet can’t possibly exist any other way, a made thing that feels innate. Olzmann’s poems are robbed of this wonder. But if the poems are without wonder, they still provide something like relief: that thing you noticed about the photocopier? Matthew Olzmann noticed, too, and he’s found some meaning in it that you hadn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

—Patrick O’Reilly

N5

Patrick OReilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Be advised: this is the opinion a Canadian critic. Issues like gun control and same-sex marriage, more or less settled here, may demand a less daring or incisive take in the United States.
Sep 142016
 

di Benedetto

Di Benedetto precisely evokes themes of alienation and absurdity through Zama’s futile supplications for promotion and the humiliations…. Evocative of history without being a historical novel, Zama shares in a rich tradition of existentialist fiction. — Frank Richardson

zama

Zama
Antonio di Benedetto
Translated by Ester Allen
New York Review Books Classics, 2016
224 pg, $15.95

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Adead monkey, drowned but undecomposed, washes against a pier where a man stands, alone, separated from his family by half a continent of jungle, desperate to escape, dreading the suspicion he will share the same fate as the corpse drifting in the water. And so we meet Don Diego de Zama, the eponymous antihero of Antonio Di Benedetto’s most celebrated novel. First published in Argentina more than sixty years ago, Zama—extolled by Julio Cortázar, Roberto Bolaño, and Juan José Saer—is now available for the first time in English courtesy of NYRB Classics and master translator Ester Allen.

Born in 1922 in Mendoza, Argentina, to parents of Italian descent, Antonio Di Benedetto studied law before turning to journalism. In 1953 his first short story collection, Mundo animal, was awarded a prize by the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores, juried in part by Jorge Luis Borges. His first novel, Zama, appeared in 1956 and was followed by the novels El silenciero (1964) and Los suicidas (1969; made into a film in 2005). A collection of his selected stories is forthcoming in English from Archipelago Books and a film adaptation of Zama is due out in 2017.

Antonio Di Benedetto traveled the world and lived a life as incredible as any fictional character, including, unfortunately, the horrors he suffered under the Videla dictatorship. For reasons unknown, he was imprisoned after the 1976 military coup d’état and held for eighteen months, during which time he was tortured and stood in front of a firing squad four times (a terrifying experience to have in common with Dostoyevsky, his literary role model). Ester Allen’s insightful preface includes the remarkable story of Di Benedetto’s release, in part due to efforts by Heinrich Böll and Ernesto Sábato. A testament to his spirit, Di Benedetto continued to write stories in prison, stories he published as the collection Absurdos in 1978 while living in exile in Spain. He wouldn’t return to Argentina until 1984 and died in 1986 in Buenos Aires.

Castaway

Don Diego de Zama, the protagonist-narrator of this first-person tale of existential descent, is a castaway in the midst of a crowd. Appointed by the Spanish Crown as a court councilor in the remote colonial outpost of Asunción, Paraguay, Zama’s greatest desire is escape—preferably by promotion. Zama reports to the provincial governor (Gobernador), but despite his high rank, the Gobernador treats him with disrespect since Zama is an americano, a criollo—of Spanish descent, but born in South America—unlike the other Spanish-born officers living in the small community. Ironically, the fact that Zama works for the Spanish government alienates him from the americanos. Isolated from his family, isolated within his own community by prejudice, and given his own admitted “nonexistent capacity for making friends,” his hope for escape becomes for him a “long soliloquy,” a record of his frustration and fear and anger and pain as the years tick by and he falls farther and farther away from his expectations and dreams. He sums up his situation:

Here I was, in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs. America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.

Di Benedetto precisely evokes themes of alienation and absurdity through Zama’s futile supplications for promotion and the humiliations he endures at his bureaucratic job—themes similarly explored by Kafka, to whom Di Benedetto is frequently compared. Called to the Gobernador’s office, Zama is “condemned” to wait in the antechamber, “writhing with impotence,” “humiliated” at being of “apparent equality of status” with a group of locals waiting for an audience with the governor. The irony of the situation becomes clear when the Gobernador tells Zama that he has summoned him to deal with the troublesome old man and young woman with whom he has been waiting. When told, he storms out past the petitioners and into his own office where he broods:

First they would have to grow weary of waiting for their audience with the governor. They would bestir themselves and approach the secretary, only to be informed that it was the learned councillor they should see. Then they would wait another long while before they were received at last and came to the realization that the learned councillor was none other than myself, that is, the very man in whose presence they had already wasted an irrecoverable half hour.

Zama will reap what he sows, for he too will “grow weary of waiting,” he too will “bestir” himself (and to the point of madness), he too will dwell on “irrecoverable” time. The 198-page novel comprises 50 numbered chapters distributed in a 3:2:1 ratio across three sections labeled by date: 1790, 1794, and 1799. These sections represent discrete states of mind for Zama and the dwindling ratio mimics Zama’s psychological dissolution as he spirals toward destruction.

Terribly alone, Zama’s only preoccupation besides leaving is sex. The 1790 period of the narrative is dominated by his almost hysterical lasciviousness for any woman, and his pursuit of conjugal relations is simultaneously pathetic and comical. Zama does miss his wife, but he also convinces himself that “No man . . . disdains the prospect of illicit love.” His primary would-be paramour, Luciana (the wife of a colleague), when she realizes his interest in her, strings him along, teasing him with promises, then kisses, then the hope of a midnight assignation. She deliberately fuels Zama’s expectations with no intention of ever consenting to his desires. When Luciana won’t have him, he tries Rita, the daughter of his host, despite a growing paranoia that people are laughing at him behind his back over his overt concupiscence. One night, in passing a random woman in the street, he is convinced she’s attracted to him and follows her home. A comically absurd moment ensues when the woman’s dogs emerge to defend her and Zama, believing himself her deliverer, attacks them with his sword in a seizure of quixotic lunacy.

Zama’s conflicts drive him to constant contradiction. The episode of anger at work distracts him from the aid he promised an injured native woman. When he learns that the help he finally sends is in vain, he feels “so disoriented that my unease and remorse were visible, my guilt at neglecting a human being . . . .” He sees himself as a faithful husband, yet behaves lecherously. He sees himself as a good Samaritan, yet neglects the ones he would help. He sees himself as dignified, but behaves pettily. While we can assume he began his exile with some of the character traits that define him, his isolation exacerbates some and creates others and all are amplified as months turn to years. Don Diego de Zama is no hero, but he is a complex, vibrant character through which Di Benedetto ingeniously illustrates the contradictions and flaws that make us human.

paraguayNicolaus Bellin, Carte du Paraguay et des Pays voisins Pour servir a l’Historie Generale des Voyages, 1760

Descent

By the end of the first part, almost all of the people Zama knows have left Asunción. Four years pass and 1794 opens with Zama in the same town with the same job, but living with a Spanish widow, Emilia, with whom he has a son, born “sickly.” But Don Diego has only changed for the worse, and his namesake becomes symbolic as neglect reduces him to an animal-like state:

Propelled by his knees and his filthy little hands, the child moved about on the dirt floor. With no one to clean them, his nostrils dripped, and the two streams of snot had reached the upper lip . . . The little one rubbed his face, smearing the snot around with a dirty hand . . . His viscous little fingers then dug back into the dirt, which made a revolting mud. . . .

My son. On all fours and so filthy that in the twilight he was indistinguishable from the earth itself: a kind of camouflage. At least—like an animal—he had that defense.

When Zama’s wages are overdue from Spain he must sell almost everything including his sword. He soon abandons Emilia and his son and moves to the cheapest lodgings he can find where he exists in the fog of his own expectations; thinking only of the future, the present decays into hallucination. Neurotic and at times feverish, he is alternately lucid and confused, lost in fantasy. Zama’s oneiric narration during this period is similar (though not nearly as stream of consciousness in style) to the surreal “Report on the Blind” section of Ernesto Sábato’s 1961 novel On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato’s character Fernando, obsessed with a conspiracy of the blind, plunges into the depths of his unconscious, metaphorically represented by the sewers of Buenos Aires; Di Benedetto’s Zama, plagued by an interminable isolation created by forces both without and within, loses himself in fantasies of women. The internal forces prove most destructive, a fact Zama will eventually realize when he reflects that “the search for freedom . . . is not out there but within each one” (Di Benedetto’s italics). In an essay on Sábato’s novel, William H. Gass wrote that Sábato “believes deeply in the reality of evil, in the hell that each man is . . . whereas for the kingdom of heaven, or the reality of the good, he has only hope.” In his isolation, Zama creates his own hell and the possibility of a heavenly future remains only a hope.

Leaves of Existentialism

Zama shares many of the themes associated with existentialism, including, but not limited to estrangement, anxiety, despair, and the absurd. His alienation from family, colleagues, and community is self-evident, and although Zama’s “soliloquy” gives the reader a sense of his anxiety and despair, Di Benedetto doesn’t rely on Zama’s exposition alone. In his afterword to Di Benedetto’s Animal World, Jorge García-Gómez notes the parallels between Di Benedetto’s fiction and Kafka’s in their use of animal imagery to elucidate a character’s existential state. For example, while Zama contemplates the drowned monkey—a striking image itself—a fellow officer joins him on the pier and tells him of a fish that “the river spurns, and the fish . . . must wage continual battle against the ebb and flow that seek to cast it upon dry land.” Disturbed by his colleague’s story, Zama walks into the jungle where, minutes prior to spying on a group of bathing women, he imagines a puma and reflects “on games that were terrible or that could turn terrible.” In another example, while adjudicating the case of a murderer, Zama discovers the man believed he had grown a bat wing and in a frantic attempt to cut it off, had, in reality, stabbed his wife to death.

And, there are insects.

Zama the predator (puma) becomes symbolic prey when Luciana tells him of the pompilid wasp nest she found in her room; female pompilids prey on spiders, paralyzing them with venom so that the wasp’s young, when they hatch, will have something fresh to eat.

waspPompilid Wasp

Another layer of Di Benedetto’s representation of Zama’s psyche is his prose style. Allen wrote that that recreating Di Benedetto’s prose was a great challenge, that the style of Zama is “sui generis: choppy, oblique, veering and jolting from sentence to sentence, often rather opaque, a bit mad.” All the more perfect for this novel, for capturing the nature of this character’s consciousness. For Zama is oblique, he does veer from thought to thought, from plan to plan, and he is certainly more than a bit mad.

When his psychological state is most strained, sentences are separated by line breaks as if to punctuate the manner in which Zama experiences his world—through curt, dour moments, isolated inside his own mind:

I slept very late.
I did not leave the room until I sensed an absence of light outside.
I perceived the moon, like a woman seated on the horizon, naked and fat.
I went to the rear yards.
I searched for something to chew on in the kitchen garden but it was much neglected and had no fruit trees.
I drank maté in the kitchen.
I was not thinking of the dead girl. By now she was far away. I remembered the blond boy. He had reappeared now, with four years gone by, under incomprehensible circumstances. I did not devote much thought to him. . . .
I was isolated, besieged, defenseless.

In the final part, 1799, Zama joins a company of soldiers sent to apprehend a local bandit, Vicuña Porto, and as the company rides deeper into a heart-of-darkness jungle, the prose becomes even terser:

The wind would topple the cross. Later, someone would carry off the stone.
Bare earth.
No one.
Nothing.
I shuddered, without moving.
This could not be. This could not be for me.
I must go back, expose myself to this no further.
Give up the search.

With all the white space on the page and the pauses between lines, you can almost hear Zama taking deep breaths between each thought.

In style, Zama is similar to Camus’s L’Étranger. Camus’s novel also features a disturbed first-person narrator, and although Meursault and Zama have different stories, characters, and motivations, nevertheless they assume a similarly abrupt tone, and what both characters do not say often echoes as loudly as what they do.

§

Evocative of history without being a historical novel, Zama shares in a rich tradition of existentialist fiction. For much of his life Antonio Di Benedetto lived in Mendoza, a self-imposed outsider apart from the literary scene of Buenos Aires. Through Zama he gives us a glimpse into the human condition that is alienated, absurd, comical, desperate, afraid, and yet, hopeful. Zama’s life is one of unfulfilled expectations, one of waiting, reflected in Di Benedetto’s epigraph: “A las víctimas de la espera / To the victims of expectation.” At the end, during a moment of clarity, Zama thinks:

. . . that uncertain though I was as to our goal, I became possessed of the certainty that my fate would be the same anywhere.

I asked myself not why I was alive but why I had lived. Out of expectation, I supposed, and wondered whether I still expected anything. It seemed I did.

Something more is always expected.

Something more is always expected. But isn’t this one of our greatest strengths? Unfulfilled hope is not hope in vain. One thing is certain, we can be grateful that Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel will now reach generations of new and eager readers all replete with their own great expectations.

— Frank Richardson

N5

Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Sep 132016
 

2014-06-02-Merwin1

W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning —Allan Cooper

garden time

Garden Time
W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
96 pages, $24.00

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We seem to live many lives before we die. One of the great joys of growing older is when one of those accumulated moments comes back with sudden clarity, when we least expect it. We are young and old, male and female, and sometimes even two redstarts perched on a plum twig return to find us:

…in the dusk
two redstarts
close together before winter
lit on a plum twig
near my hand
and stayed to watch me

(“Portents”)

W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning:

ONE SONNET OF SUMMER

Summer has come to the trees reaching up for it
it has come in daylight without a sound
it arrived when the trees were dark in sleep
they dreamed it and woke knowing it was there
but I am an autumn child and my first
summer I was here but was not yet born
I heard the leaves whisper on their branches
and the cicadas growing in their song
I listened to all the language of summer
in which the time was talking to itself
I was born in autumn knowing the sound of summer

There are many questions in this book, questions about life, death, and the passage of time. The opening poem repeats the phrase “would I love it” several times like a mantra:

THE MORNING

Would I love it this way if it could last
would I love it this way if it
were the whole sky the one heaven
or if I could believe that it belonged to me
a possession that was mine alone
or if I imagined that it noticed me
recognized me and may have come to see me
out of all the mornings that I never knew
and all those that I have forgotten
would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees
would I love it this way if I were in pain
red torment of body or gray void of grief
would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is
here now anything anything

Memory is a major theme in “Black Cherries”– how we store the past, those moments of clarity and understanding and carry them forward. In this poem a synergy is created between the goldfinches “flutter (ing) down through the day” and Merwin eating black cherries:

Late in May as the light lengthens
toward summer the young goldfinches
flutter down through the day for the first time
to find themselves among fallen petals
cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows
of the garden beside the old house
after a cold spring with no rain
not a sound comes from the empty village
as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

A small poem called “Rain at Daybreak” is about living firmly in the present. It ends with a Zen-like koan: “there is no other voice or other time.” W. S. Merwin first came to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken in 1976. Merwin doesn’t wish to chat about Buddhism in a casual way, and I respect that. But in an interview with Ed Rampell of The Progressive (October 25, 2010) Merwin talks a bit about this, and the connection between Buddhism and Christianity:

Certain things, if one pays attention and is concerned about them, in one’s temperament, in one’s outlook on the world, in one’s attempt to understand something about the world, certain things confirm what one is groping one’s way towards. I didn’t have the words for that, but there it is… For me, there are various places where one can find things like that. Blake, or Daoism, there are even things in the New Testament. I’m not a Christian but I think Jesus was an amazing occurrence on the planet and I think we’ve made of him something that he never was or ever wanted to be. But there are incredible things that he said. I heard a Japanese teacher say where Christianity and Buddhism are very close is when Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” If it’s not there, it’s nowhere.

Merwin also understands that at this time, many of us have less and less knowledge of the natural world. In this excerpt from “After the Dragonflies” he begins:

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing

Rather than being stewards of this planet, we have literally lost touch. Merwin seems to imply that what we do not know, or do not want to know diminishes us. The poem ends with “there will be no one to remember us.”

And yet there are ways to reconnect with the world. Thoreau built his small cabin, ten feet by fifteen feet near the shores of Walden Pond as part of his mission to live in a closer relationship with the land. For Merwin it was Maui, where he bought three acres of land depleted by erosion, logging and pesticides. Over the years, he and his wife Paula built a house there and began restoring the land. The Merwin Conservancy is now 19 acres and contains over 800 varieties of palm trees. It is “one of the most comprehensive palm forests in the world.” (Merwin Conservancy, biography.) Merwin doesn’t speak of meditation as such in his poems, specifically Zen sitting or zazen, but it seems that his translations, his own poetry, and his work as a gardener in his palm forest are all a personal form of meditation. We could say there is a connection between his creative life, his gardening life, and what we might call his spiritual life. They flow into one another and form a kind of third consciousness. When we spend more time in the natural world, our reservoir of fear, which is immense in this century, tends to lessen. Then there can be commerce between the human world, the natural world, and the invisible world where the old gods – if we’re lucky – step out to meet us. In “Voices Over Water”, Merwin says “There are spirits that come back to us…some of them come from the bodies of birds.”

§

There are moving, heartbreaking poems about childhood in Garden Time. As a friend said to me recently, when we hear the right words that express our loss and our grief, our visceral response is to weep. “Loss” is about his stillborn brother and how his mother tried to come to terms with it. Merwin understands loss; he also understands how our attempts to dismiss it rarely work. In this poem Merwin faces it head on, naming it in the opening stanza:

Loss was my brother
is my brother
but I have no image of him

his name which was never used
was Hanson
it had been the name
of my mother’s father
who had died as a young man

her child had been taken away
from my mother before
she ever saw him

to be bathed I suppose

they came and told her
that he was perfect in every way
and said they had never
seen such a beautiful child
and then they told her that he was dead

she sustained herself by believing
that he must have been dropped
somewhere just out of her sight
and out of her reach
and had fallen out of his empty name

all my life he has been near me
but I cannot tell you anything
about him

In the second poem Merwin becomes his mother’s way to find her life again – the laughing child. Nowhere in this collection is the sense of the past as extant in the present more evident. It is one of the finest poems of the last 60 years.

THE LAUGHING CHILD

When she looked down from the kitchen window
into the back yard and the brown wicker
baby carriage in which she had tucked me
three months old to lie out in the fresh air
of my first January the carriage
was shaking she said and went on shaking
and she saw I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved
before I was born and she had just begun
to believe that she might be able to
keep me as I lay there in the winter
laughing it was what she was thinking of
later when she told me that I had been
a happy child and she must have kept that
through the gray cloud of all her days and now
out of the horn of dreams of my own life
I wake again into the laughing child

The Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said we experience these moments somewhere “between tears and laughter.”

§

Many of us would agree that poetry is one of our oldest and most poignant forms of expression. The poem is a container for those things that move us profoundly but which many of us can’t quite put into words. The poet names things, gathering them in images which centre and focus our experience. Here are a few of Merwin’s ideas about the uniqueness of poetry, again from The Progressive interview:

Poetry uses the same words as prose but it’s physical. It was that way – poetry may be the oldest of the arts. Because it’s probably as old as language itself. Its closest relation would probably be music and dance. Those three things together; before the visual arts, the first Paleolithic paintings, and things like that. Anyway, it’s very, very old, and theories about the origins of language suggest a different source for it, very close to poetry, in the origins of language itself. A number of theorists think it comes out of an inexpressible emotion, something that was just so, so urgent that the forms of expressing it weren’t adequate to it.

The final poem in Garden Time is called “The Present.” We don’t know for sure if Merwin means the present, the now, or a gift which has been given. Coleman Barks in one his poems says “mountain laurel overhanging the water, letting blossoms go to keep us constantly in the same thought with the falling rain: the gift is going by.” Merwin says:

As they were leaving the garden
one of the angels bent down to them and whispered

I am to give you this
as you are leaving the garden

I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it

you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able

to keep anything
yet they both reached at once

for the present
and when their hands met

they laughed

Hands touching, then laughter: W. S. Merwin catches those urgent, inexpressible moments in his poems. Like Han Shan, the Chinese recluse poet, he faithfully tends the garden of compassion and sudden awareness that is inside all of us.

—Allan Cooper

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allan cooper

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Sep 112016
 

teixidor

They challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. —Joseph Schreiber

Black-Bread

Black Bread
Emili Teixidor
Translated by Peter Bush
Biblioasis,  2016
400 pgs,  $14.95

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.There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.

In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

The recent release of Black Bread as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, in a wonderful rendering by Peter Bush, brings one of the major novels of modern Catalan literature and its author to an English language audience for the first time. Born in 1933 in Roda de Ter, a small town halfway between Barcelona and the French border, Emili Teixidor was a writer, teacher and journalist. He began to write fiction for children and young adults in the late 1960’s as restrictions against publishing in the Catalan language were gradually relaxed. In a short essay written in 1998 when he was still best known as a children’s author, he addresses the satisfaction of writing for young readers and the value of the imaginary worlds we encounter in our formative years:

. . . I think that there is a mystery or secret that concerns us all, old and young, such as an inkling of the immense possibilities regarding the future that these years hold, so that the seriousness and even the sadness of adults would be nothing more than the awareness of loss or the wasting of this original force. These images, these books, also have a liberating function. They have the capacity to help us to escape from specific situations that overwhelm us. There is nothing more frustrating than the impossibility of escaping, of fleeing. . . . The dramatic urge to live and the ferociousness of existence would seem to pose a threat to the wealth of wonders that we accumulated during our early years. But the reserve of these possibilities and the indestructible trust in the achievement of the desires expressed by these images or sentences, situations or characters, is probably the only thing that can keep us solely hopeful and strong during the difficult years – if not the only thing that can keep us truly alive.

There is something telling in this observation, it illuminates a concern that grounds the larger story that Teixidor sets out to tell about life during these tumultuous years of Catalonian history. By building on the delicate tension between the child self’s desire to hold on to the world of the imagination and the adult self’s disillusionment, he creates the compelling narrative voice that drives his most famous literary work.

Black Bread derives its title from the dark bread rationed to the poor throughout Spain during the 1940’s, the so-called “hungry years.” The early post-Civil War period was marked by widespread deprivation, the growth of a black market, and the persistent efforts of the Franco regime to root out suspected political agitators of all stripes. As the story opens, eleven year-old Andreu is living with relatives. His father has been imprisoned on suspicion of ties to political activism, while his mother works long hours in a textile factory. Her free time is consumed with gathering paperwork and support for her husband’s defense. Yet out on the tenant farm with his indomitable paternal Grandmother Mercè, he is not the only “refugee. His younger cousin Nuria, nick-named “Cry-Baby,” doesn’t even know the whereabouts of her parents who were forced to escape to France following the war. Together with their brash and confident older cousin Quinze, they spend long summer days lounging on branches high up in the plum tree. From this secret vantage point they can monitor the comings and goings of the adults to and from the farmhouse, and peek over the wall of the nearby monastery. If they want to get closer look they stand right by wall so they can observe with morbid fascination the naked bodies of the tubercular young men who lie languishing in the garden, drawing whatever faint benefits the sun can offer their ailing bodies.

Teixidor makes skillful use of his adolescent narrator’s limited retrospective stance, allowing his understanding to swell in response to the different circumstances he encounters. One has the sense that Andreu is aware that the fragile innocence of childhood can be easily threatened. His relationship with his parents, for instance, is already tinged with a bitterness and resentment that only grows stronger over time. After his father is arrested and their home is turned upside down by officials, he immediately finds himself emotionally estranged from his mother. His memories of the time he spends in town contain little child-like wonder:

She now spoke to me as if I had suddenly grown up. She spoke to me as you speak to adults. And that, rather than the brutal police raid, made me understand how serious the situation was. Suddenly, that despondent woman had no warmth of feeling left to see me as the child I still was; overnight she stopped holding my hand, that she put elsewhere, and no longer carried me around her neck so I had to walk by myself; now there was no time for singing and hugging because all her attention was required for someone in a much more fragile state than I was, and at a stroke I felt exposed and unprotected. I understood in a vague, confused way that she was simply feeling a new, acute pain, that the wife now predominated over the mother, and a wife’s harshness and tension overrode a mother’s loving inclination.

By contrast, the farm with its fields and orchards and forests, provides a refuge, a place where Andreu can still be one of the “young-un’s” as he puts it. Here mystery still exists. Efforts are made by the many adults around him—Grandmother Mercè, his aunts Ció and Enriqueta, “Dad” Qunize, the farmhands, and Father Tafalla from the nearby monastery—all try to protect the children from the very real threats that exist around them. This is, after all, a time when the slightest provocation could bring the authorities to the door. People were very careful to conceal their thoughts and communicate indirectly rather than risk speaking openly.

Andreu does not imagine himself a good student, or a bookish type, but he is acutely aware that the language the adults use is doubly charged with meanings that he can only guess at and he is alert to the fact that there are things that are not discussed in his presence. He and his cousins struggle to figure out the moral location of the words they hear bandied about so much. They are eager to know what makes someone a “bastard” or a “bugger” and what defines the difference between “our folk” and “others.” Yet they are enraptured by Grandmother Mercè’s stories, the funny and scary tales she regales them with, especially at night. Her tales are a comfort and an entertainment, but the stories of the goblins who run up and down the stairs provide a cover for the maquis, or guerillas, who still pass through the farmhouse seeking food and shelter on their way to France.

Although they live in a time of much subterfuge and unspoken tension, the children work out much of their own anxieties and excitement through the games they play in the forest. Here, together with “Oak-Leaf,” a girl Quinze’s age, they challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. There is a raw enthusiasm to their attempts to figure out the “facts of life,” and their desire to make sense of the more arcane truths of the world.

Doubts do begin to work into Andreu’s conscience as time passes. With the hormonal stirrings of adolescence, he and his young cousin begin to tentatively explore each other’s bodies but, for some reason that he can’t quite fathom, his thoughts tend to be preoccupied with an image of a particular young man lying among the ill and dying in the monastery garden. He cannot reason why the sight of this one youth commands his passions so completely. But, by this point he has noticed that some adults manage to hide dark secret lives, so he assumes that this is simply a hint of the double existence all grownups lead, something he will come to understand in due course. His more serious doubts begin to extend into the realm of religion, social class, and the limitations imposed by society. A cynicism, borne of what he has witnessed with his own parents, sets in. He vows to avoid being tied to a life on the land or on the factory floor, the fate awaiting most of his peers:

I didn’t consider myself to be either strong or courageous enough to be like them, but I had learned that the providential, orderly universe that my agricultural-labourer or factory-worker schoolmates intended to inhabit was an illusion, and that if I wanted to survive, I should trust only in myself, that my strength lay in my powers of dissimulation, my inner struggle, my partial, oblique adaptation to the moment and the concealment of my true intentions; my weapons were treachery, sleight-of-hand and deceit, if need be.

However, when he is offered an opportunity to escape, with the means to continue his schooling and create his own future, Andreu is caught off guard and isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do.

The true power of Black Bread lies in the author’s ability to capture the nuances of adolescent experience in a time of turmoil and change. A cast of memorable characters, interpreted through the memories of his sensitive young narrator allow Teixidor to create a world with true emotional depth. Although this novel only covers about three years of Andreu’s life, it has an epic feel. As elements of sadness, grief, and anger slowly begin to work their way into our hero’s voice, it easy, as a reader, to feel a sense of loss; it is as if we have allowed ourselves to grow up again alongside him. Here one can’t help but feel that Teixidor’s experience writing for children and young adults has been parlayed into a narrative that rings true to remembered childhood experience, but is clearly aimed at the adult reader. In the end, we are reminded how important the “wealth of wonders” that we accumulate through the imaginary worlds we encounter in literature are to our ability to understand and survive challenges in our own lives. For Andreu who has been nourished on the stories that his Grandmother, his teacher, and his friends tell, we are left to wonder whether it will be enough to provide him with the strength he is likely to need in the years that lie ahead.

—Joseph Schreiber

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JSchreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Scofield and The Quarterly Conversation. He tweets @roughghosts

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Sep 042016
 

toussaint

The most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. — Jason Lucarelli

Naked1
Naked
Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
124 pages, $15.00

.

.Some couples are always breaking up and getting back together. Their love says no, says yes, sometimes in the same breath. Every apparent end is punctuated by a flash of renewal.

Take the unnamed narrator and Marie in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy—Making Love, Running Away, The Truth About Marie, and Naked—who spend all four novels (mostly) breaking up. “But breaking up, I was beginning to realize, was more a state of being than an action, more a period of mourning than a death agony,” says the narrator in Making Love. While each novel in the tetralogy follows Making Love, events do not always follow in chronological order.

In Making Love, Marie invites the narrator to accompany her during one of her exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, and they spend most of the trip “separating for good.” Running Away occurs the summer before the breakup when the narrator travels to China on an errand for Marie, and later joins her on the island of Elba for her father’s funeral. The Truth About Marie, occurring the spring-summer after Making Love, concerns events surrounding Marie’s other lover Jean-Christophe de G. (Marie accompanying Jean-Christophe the day after her exhibition as he transports a racehorse, Marie watching Jean-Christophe have a heart attack in her apartment), and a few summer days on Elba where Marie and the narrator grow closer over crisis (a great fire burns over a section of the island). All of this is just what happens, the succession of incidents, plot stuff.

But the most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. Describing Toussaint’s fiction, Tom McCarthy writes, “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.”

Jean-Philippe Toussaint—Belgian-born writer, filmmaker, and photographer—is the author of nine novels, originally published in French by Les Éditions de Minuit, and published in English by E.P. Dutton, The New Press, and Dalkey Archive Press. He is the winner of the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth About Marie). Early critics were quick to classify his work as part of the ‘nouveau Nouveau Roman.’ Toussaint prefers the term “infinitesimal,” which, he says, “evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small…the two extremes that should always be found in my books.” He refers to Samuel Beckett as “the most important reading experience of my life” and “my only model.” While Toussaint’s earlier works contained loopy but concise narratives, detached yet analytic narrators, and plot opportunities offered but rarely exploited, his newer works give a little more, and build upon these earlier facets in exquisite and scrupulous detail. His authorial concerns for “energy,” “rhythm,” “dynamics,” and “the standards of the form” are on peak display in Naked, the conclusion to his magnum opus, translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

From the beginning of Naked onward, Toussaint reaches back into the narrative, to previous novels, to reference events, and revisits them with variation in a cyclical, dizzying effect. Take for instance the beginning of Naked’s first half, as the narrator and Marie return to Paris after making love on their last night on Elba. Before separating, they share an extended exchange in the taxi. They hesitate to part. The narrator says, “…I was unable to tell Marie how I felt about her—but had I ever been able to?” It’s a sentence that recalls one from Making Love: “…I had not made the slightest declaration of love to her—but have I ever made her any declaration of love?” On the level of plot, the narrator’s passiveness is one of his primary traits. In some ways, it’s to blame for him staying on the wrong side of the breakup for so long. On the level of form, the two phrases showcase Toussaint’s signature parallel structuring of incidents.

The narrator spends the next two months waiting for Marie’s call. At his window, looking out at Paris, his mind goes back to the time they spent in Japan: “That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up…” Eventually he reveals that he was present during the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa and not, as Marie might have suspected, on his way back to Paris:

It was only now, more than seven months later in Paris…that I had gained the necessary distance to apprehend all the elements of the scene then underway…So where was I? Where—if not in the limbo of my own consciousness, freed from the contingencies of space and time, still and forever invoking the figure of Marie?

The narrator, “in memories or the resurrected past,” makes his way across the museum grounds as he did in Making Love, but this time on opening night as opposed to the night prior. As he tries to gain entry to the museum, a guard takes special notice of him (the same guard who caught him at the conclusion of Making Love looking for Marie), and the narrator climbs the roof to escape confrontation. On the roof, he peers through a porthole looking for Marie amongst the attendees. Searching the crowd, he sees a guest look up at the ceiling, and leans back to avoid being seen. At this point he realizes that this was the evening Marie met Jean-Christophe de G. and that he had likely been an “eyewitness to their encounter.”

In a perspective shift typical of the tetralogy—Toussaint turning first person perspective into a kind of speculative third person—the narrator describes how Jean-Christophe de G. found himself at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, how he decided to leave with Marie on his arm (a woman he had never met before), how he mistook another woman named Marie for fashion-designer Marie, and how he gazed up at the porthole to spot the narrator’s figure in the dark. Jean-Christophe, bewildered at having chosen the wrong Marie, considers:

an excuse to ditch everyone and slip out of the museum or even, if possible, to vanish from this story altogether, return to nothingness, from which it seemed he’d been plucked for a brief moment to beget, at his own expense, an evanescent ribbon of life, airborne, twirling, futile, and fleeting.

The narrator abandons Jean-Christophe and recalls the moment he finally spotted Marie through the porthole. He watches her: “I love you, Marie, I told her, but no sound came from my mouth, I couldn’t even hear myself say it, maybe I hadn’t even opened my mouth, maybe I’d only thought it…” He reveals his true feelings to no one but himself.

The flashback ends and the second half of Naked picks up back in Paris, when the narrator receives Marie’s phone call two months after returning from Elba. She says she has something to tell him and they should meet. The narrator recalls that every time Marie called him “out of the blue” was to inform him of a death: her father’s (in Running Away) and Jean-Christophe de G.’s (in The Truth About Marie). The narrator meets Marie at a cafe (he finds her looking “different”) and she informs him that Maurizio, the caretaker of her father’s house in Elba, has died (“when all was said and done, she only called me up in the event of a death,” he says), and that it would be good if they attended his funeral together. The narrator agrees, but holds on to the premonition that Marie held back what she really wanted to tell him.

Traveling to Elba by ferry, approaching shore, the narrator and Marie are greeted by the familiar sight of smoke: “It was so striking that it seemed to me the same fire as last summer, even if that was no doubt impossible, the same forest fire now finally winding down but still burning, and pursuing us, awaiting our return.” Always in the mind of the narrator the present parallels the past, every event mirrors another.

The narrator and Marie are greeted by Maurizio’s son, Giuseppe, who has been keeping watch over Marie’s father’s house. He tells them about the source of the smoke on the island, the burning chocolate factory. Instead of going directly to the house, they stop at the factory and the narrator observes Giuseppe (“…he seemed instead to know the place like the back of his hand…”). During the drive back to the house, Giuseppe explains everything he knows about the fire, “unable to hide a dark, grim satisfaction, the morbid pleasure that comes from announcing bad news when circumstances allow it.” An element of vague danger brought on by the arrival of Giuseppe’s character hovers over the second half of the novel, which chronicles the couple’s stay on Elba, Maurizio’s funeral and Marie’s withheld secret. But Toussaint is not one to tie up loose ends. A few plot options are left unresolved.

Naked is filled with constant ruminations on lost love, memory, absence, fantasy, loyalty, art. Sticking solely to its structure is to downplay its music, pacing, comedy, drama; its ability to captivate, to surprise. Take the prologue where the narrator, before addressing his relationship with Marie, depicts Marie the artist by describing her most ambitious dress design, a dress made entirely of honey:

Developing a theoretical reflection on the very idea of haute couture, she had returned to the original meaning of the word couture as the sewing of cloth using different techniques, stitching, tacking, hooking, binding, which allow fabrics to be combined on models’ bodies, twinned to the skin, and joined together, to present this year in Tokyo a haute-couture dress without a single stitch.

Later, he mixes his musings on “artistic creation” with those of love:

[A]ny true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

It’s fair to say that in order to feel fully immersed in Naked is to have in mind the other books in the tetralogy. (Read at least Making Love and The Truth About Marie before proceeding.) The narrative in Naked constantly reinforces the “superimposition of simultaneous presents,” a concept spanning the entire tetralogy (see the opening of The Truth About Marie when both the narrator and Marie are “making love in Paris in two apartments” at the same time). In Naked, no passage balances this duality better than the final paragraph where Marie pulls the narrator into the guest room of her father’s house, the same room where they made love last summer (“The place was the same, the people the same, our feelings the same, only the season had changed”). They kiss and hold each other “tightly, madly,” and, in the final line, Marie says, “Then you love me?” It’s a phrase that points back to Making Love, to when Marie first accused the narrator of not loving her. The phrase creates the feeling the passage describes: being in two places at once. Now, in the present, the narrator is challenged with providing an actual answer—instead of whispering it on a rooftop—to the question Marie first posed seven months ago. But readers are left answerless, and one almost sees the entire breakup replaying, beginning all over again.

— Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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N5

Aug 122016
 

moya_nina_subinAuthor Photo: Nina Subin

A blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding
the cynical side of our souls. — Benjamin Woodard

Revulsion

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein
New Directions
88 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2539-7

 

Originally staged in 1995, multimedia artist Bill Viola’s “The Greeting” plays over a tall, vertical video screen, and functions like a painting come to life. From the left side of the frame, a visibly pregnant woman in a flowing orange dress approaches a pair of similarly dressed women chatting on a stylized city street, and as their conversation is interrupted, the group acknowledges each other and the woman in orange pulls the woman closest to the viewer in for a hug. The natural flow of the trio’s movements, in real time, takes less than thirty seconds to transpire. But in his installation, Viola slows his footage so that it spreads over ten minutes. Under these specifications, the figures crawl toward each other, and subtleties lost at normal speeds become amplified. The simple gesture of a hug opens itself up to endless nuanced observations. For example, during this embrace, the woman in orange whispers something—it’s impossible to know what—into her friend’s ear, while the woman outside of the caress peers toward the viewer, her face stressing disappointment as a slight breeze wafts her loose clothing. It is a hypnotizing display, and by the end of the sequence, Viola implies to the viewer a narrative much larger than the small moment depicted.

“The Greeting” was inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s painting, The Visitation, yet literature enthusiasts may see a bit of writer Thomas Bernhard floating on the screen, too, for like Viola’s installation, Bernhard’s novels often cover very little present time, instead dwelling on the thoughts and memories of characters as they experience brief physical exchanges: sitting idly at a table, or walking into a remote inn. Regular readers of Numéro Cinq are no doubt familiar with the work of Bernhard (in fact, we recently ran a review of some of his short stories), yet I offer Viola’s artwork as a visual equivalent for those yet to experience one of the late Austrian’s narratives.

Bernhard, through his darkly funny, rambling, oddly italicized, tense shifting, comma splicing, yet verbally thrilling storylines (typically published as one long paragraph), cemented himself as one of the most respected and original literary figures of the 20th century, and his popularity among readers has only risen since his death in 1989. Such celebrity often lends itself to imitation, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a brilliant parody of Bernhard’s stylistic tics, a slim novella that winks with fans of Bernhard while also recounting the hilarious tale of perhaps the least cheerful man in El Salvador. When originally released in 1997, though he had already published several books and worked as a professional journalist throughout Central America, Moya’s rambling story earned him death threats. Prideful residents of El Salvador, the author’s homeland, failed to find his bitter cultural critique funny and Moya avoided the country for two years. Now nearly twenty years later, Moya’s Revulsion (or, as he refers to it in an included author’s note, “the little imitation”) is seen as his signature work, and for the first time, it is available to the English-speaking world, thanks to a superb translation by author Lee Klein and publisher New Directions.

The entirety of Revulsion takes place at a bar in San Salvador between the evening hours of five and seven. The only speaker is Edgardo Vega, who has returned to El Salvador for the first time in eighteen years to bury his mother, and who has coaxed his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya to meet him for a few drinks. Over about 90 pages, Moya sits and listens to Vega’s monologue dedicated to what he really thinks about El Salvador.

As the story opens, Vega greets the fictional version of Moya with a sentence that immediately brings to mind Bernhard’s style:

Glad you could come, Moya, I had my doubts that you would come, so many people in this city don’t like this place, so many people don’t like this place at all, Moya, which is why I wasn’t sure you’d come, said Vega.

Here, Moya exaggerates Bernhard’s penchant for repetition for comedic effect, employing variations on “come” three times, the name Moya twice, and the phrase “don’t like this place” twice. Vega cannot speak with economy. He must find multiple ways to express each thought. This repetition continues as Vega tells Moya that he is the only one he feels comfortable around, and that he must vent his frustrations about El Salvador before they consume him. He says, “I have to chat with you before I leave, I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here.” Again, we see Vega rattle off variations of the same statement, and once more, Moya the author lets these repetitions string themselves together without inserting an expected period, splicing commas instead. The result is a barreling sensation, similar to that of Bernhard’s work, yet one swelling to the point of ludicrousness.

The reader learns that Moya was the only of Vega’s childhood friends to show up at the funeral. “What luck I didn’t run into any of them, except for you, of course, we have nothing in common with them, there isn’t a thing that unites me with one of them,” Vega proclaims. “We’re the exception.” From here, Vega, now a Canadian citizen, begins a verbal assault on El Salvador, which essentially consumes the rest of the text. He complains of the country’s beer (“it’s only good for inducing diarrhea”), its residents (“a putrid race”), its politicians (“so ignorant, so savagely ignorant, so obviously illiterate”) and its cities (“truly vomitous…where only truly sinister people can live”). After spending the previous two weeks living with his brother and his family, waiting to finalize paperwork for his mother, Vega has moved out and checked into a local hotel to escape the household noise:

…I want to make it clear that my brother has three televisions in his house, you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they often turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is, Moya, I’m thankful to have left that house of lunatics this morning, they only spend their time watching television…

In condemning everything he has encountered while back in his birthplace, Vega shouts in a hyperbolic manner that, like his heavy use of repetition, mimics the diction of a Thomas Bernhard protagonist to an extreme. Take, as illustration, the narrator of Bernhard’s The Loser, who readily complains about both Austria and Switzerland about a third of the way through the novel. He calls the sights “nothing but utter tastelessness,” and claims that Switzerland is “where cretinism reigns supreme.” Recalling the city of Chur, Bernhard’s narrator notes, “the taverns…served the worst wine and the most tasteless sausage,” and “the Churians struck me as despicable in their Alpine cretinism.” When placed side by side with Moya’s Vega, these complaints feel comfortably at home, yet the major difference between a Bernhard narrator and Vega is that Bernhard’s narrators drift in and out of hyperbolic rants, whereas Vega’s entire monologue builds itself on a foundation of hyperbole. There is never a time in Revulsion where Moya lets his character slip from this mindset, for even when he shifts to rare moments of offering compliment, he speaks in an exaggerated register. Early, while acknowledging Moya’s various achievements, Vega can’t help but temper his kindness with the query, “how could it occur to you to return to live here in this shithole, to settle in a city that sucks you down more and more into its pit of filth.” Then later, after a long diatribe against local politicians (“they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering”), Vega attempts to shift gears again, only to fall back into a hyperbolic rage:

But we should hope, Moya, we don’t want to spoil our reunion thanks to these castrated politicians that each day ruin my meals, appearing on the television that my brother and his wife turn on the minute they sit down at the dining table.

Very deliberately, Moya constructs Vega to be a Bernhard character to the nth degree, and the result is a comical curmudgeon with certainly less intelligence than Bernhard’s fictional counterparts, but one who contains an overabundance of the verbal flair that lovers of Bernhard cherish in his writing.

Moya slips other nods to Bernhard in throughout Revulsion, most prominently Vega’s insistence of listening to various concertos while he and Moya sit at the bar, but perhaps the greatest tribute in the novella comes when Bernhard’s name is actually uttered by Vega himself. This occurs at the end of the story, and though divulging too much here would ruin the conclusion of Moya’s narrative, it’s safe to reveal that, after mentioning Bernhard’s name, Vega claims him as a writer nobody in San Salvador would recognize. It’s one final act of hyperbole on Vega’s part, and yet the real life controversy that surrounded Revulsion in El Salvador upon its first publication seemed to prove Vega right. Where Moya produced a biting parody, albeit one with the intention of challenging San Salvador’s culture and politics, readers saw it simply as an attack on their homeland. With death threats came the idea that Bernhard’s legacy in El Salvador was exactly as Vega claimed. Yet, knowledge of Bernhard only enhances the pleasure that is reading Moya’s Revulsion. Operating as both a parody and a darkly funny, explosive rant of a man who detests his homeland, it’s a blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding the cynical side of our souls.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewVol. 1 Brooklyn, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter..

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Aug 102016
 

Ben Lerner is seen in Brooklyn, New York on Monday September 14, 2015. Adam Lerner / AP Images for Home Front Communications

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” — Ben Lerner

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The Hatred of Poetry
Ben Lerner
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016.
Paperback, 86 pages, $12.

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Ben Lerner’s monograph, The Hatred of Poetry, is an extended meditation on the nature of poetry (or, Poetry) and its relationship to the reader. Lerner first broached this topic in his 4000-word essay for the London Review of Books in 2015, in which he concludes, “You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”  While much of The Hatred of Poetry is derived from thoughts shared in this essay, the revised version is subtler, cannier, and ultimately claims, if only in passing, “a place for the genuine.”

The essay can be read as a tribute to Lerner’s teacher, Allen Grossman, the late poet and critic, and Grossman’s influence on this writing is found everywhere. Only a few pages in, Lerner recollects Grossman’s retelling of the story of 1st century Caedmon, the earliest known Anglo-Saxon poet. The illiterate cowherd was, according to the account rendered by the Venerable Bede, transformed through a dream into a poet; the poem with which he awoke, however, was never as good as the one in his dream, “for songs, be they never so well made, cannot be turned of one tongue into another, word for word, without loss to their grace and worthiness.” From Bede’s rendition of Caedmon’s dream comes Grossman’s characterization of the poem as “necessarily a mere echo” of the truer poem, the “virtual poem” existing just out of reach for the poet. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner writes, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”

From this apocryphal beginning, Lerner deftly sketches a characterization of poetry as a long-beleaguered medium, wearily defended and just as wearily attacked for millennia. Lerner himself, of course, is a poet, author of three volumes of verse. His first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth Prize; his second, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two novels, both of which feature self-reflexive narrators (the first, Leaving Atocha Station, is told by a successful poet [Adam] abroad on Fellowship money; his second novel, 10:04, is told by Ben, a poet in the wake of a surprisingly successful first novel) have been widely acclaimed. Born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, Lerner has already been awarded a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has every logical reason in the world to rest comfortably, yet his work brims with self-abnegation, a “self-subverting whisper” which persistently threatens to spill over into self-pity, but never actually does.

The Hatred of Poetry may be Lerner’s answer to his own unspoken questions. Of poetry – “I, too, dislike it,“ he asserts in the well-known words of Marianne Moore –Lerner writes, “Sometimes this refrain (which Lerner has made of Moore’s words) has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

The rest of Moore’s poem, quoted on Lerner’s opening page, reads, in its entirety: “Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In order to reserve such a place, however, a great deal must be cleared away. In Lerner’s telling – harking back to Grossman’s “virtual poem” – poetry itself is used as a means to provoke negative capability, poetry meaning poetry showing what poetry is not, i.e., words on the page. Whether dissecting the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall or Emily Dickenson’s broken lines (“a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance”), Lerner suggests that poetry makes “a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”

That negative image of the ideal Poem (that poem that “we cannot write”) is reinforced through poetry critique. From Plato’s provocative (to contemporary readers) banishment of the poet as citizen of the ideal city, through, for example, Mark Edmundson (“The Decline of American Verse) and George Packer (“Presidential Poetry”) who bemoan the current state of poetry as being mired in the particular to the expense of the universal, Lerner’s point is that prose written about poetry upholds the place that poetry provides for the “glimmer of the virtual.” In other words, the “defense itself becomes a kind of virtual poetry – it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.”

Lerner closes with a relatively extended meditation upon the virgule, signifying the slash, the virgula or “little twig” used to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry in the context of prose. He observes that Claudia Rankine, in the pre-publication galleys of Citizen: An American Lyric, used the virgule “where it could be read as a typographical representation of verse’s felt unavailability.” In the final copy, however, these virgules were gone, leaving only what Lerner calls “a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation” behind. Rankine’s Citizen, is named lyric where otherwise that quality would not be likely assumed: the poem is, after all, comprised almost entirely of prose. “What I encounter in Rankine,” he writes, “is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry — and especially as lyric poetry — catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb.”

The seeming divide between poetry and prose is a border that Lerner has blurred before: in his first novel, the narrator (a poet) writes, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose (…) where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” He quotes this passage twice in the pages of The Hatred of Poetry, before making a final – and, yes, lyrical – segue towards the essay’s coda. The virgule, he writes,

can be heard in Virgula Divina, the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground…(It can be heard) in the name of Virgil. Dante’s guide through Hell. And in the meteorological phenomenon known as “virga”… streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, between the dream and fire; it’s a mark for verse that is not yet, or no longer, or not merely actual; they are phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.

Throughout the book, references to Grossman are made, off-stage as it were, including Lerner’s telephoned conversation with poet/critic Aaron Kunin (“also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s”), or recognitions of Grossman’s influence on this or that observation. Then, abruptly, a few pages from the book’s close, Lerner writes: “Today, June 27, 2014, Allen Grossman died.”

In Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” the poet writes:

(O)ne of its (personism’s) minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

O’Hara’s manifesto is typically read as mocking; Lucky Pierre is a slang term for the middle person in a 3-person sexual encounter. Of course Lerner, with his love for ambivalence, would produce a manifesto of his own, one placed “squarely between the poet and the person.” But which is which? Who is the person, and the poet – is it Lerner? or is it his teacher, Grossman? Who, of course, can no longer be reached by phone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would suggest that perhaps The Hatred of Poetry could be read as a poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” Lerner writes that poetry is, “where relations between people must appear as things.” Its final pages certainly merit such a reading, as it. By the second to the last paragraph, Lerner can assert that poetry “is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real.” We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

One of the aspects of Lerner’s writing that I find most compelling is the way he distrusts his own facility with language, his self-conscious working against a fluency that he cannot seem to dismantle (as he writes, in Mean Free Path: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed / its quality as object with transparent darks / This is a recording.”) If, as he writes, the “closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them,” then the acknowledgment of that distance is itself the truest kind of faith. In The Hatred of Poetry, we find, I think, the truest kind of love.

— Carolyn Ogburn

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Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

 

 

Aug 012016
 

Rikki Ducornet photo

 Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to reveal the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. —Jason DeYoung

Brightfellow1

Brightfellow
Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press, 2016
$15.95

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The prized vision in Brightfellow is that of youth and innocence, where the dream of life is perhaps the purest, strongest, and most vibrant. Over and over we are shown this vision along with how the adult characters long to return to this state, yet they are most twisted by life events: by cruelty, by misunderstanding, by repression, by the denial of the imagination. It is a convincing portrayal by Rikki Ducornet of what she writes about in her slim volume of essays, The Deep Zoo (a skeleton key, if you will, to how she thinks and creates): “The betrayal of infancy is ubiquitous, and its forms are many.” Our main character embodies perhaps the deepest betrayal—the denied childhood.

Brightfellow is a dynamic short novel by one of our most linguistically creative writers. I don’t believe I’ve ever come away from one of Ducornet’s novels uninspired. They are all marked by a fecundity and richness, yet not overwrought. She is the author of nine novels—including most recently Netsuke (2011) and Gazelle (2003)—as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has twice been honored by the Lannan Foundation, and she is a recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. She is also a gifted visual artist and collaborator, which Numéro Cinq was pleased to highlight in July.

Like much of Ducornet’s work, Brightfellow packs multitudes into a small number of pages. The cast of characters is few, but Ducornet’s craft is so practiced that it feels like a larger novel. Brightfellow is divided into two sections. Part one is brief, running only about sixteen pages; part two takes up the rest of the novel. The first part recounts a few particular childhood memories of the main character, Stub[1]. We meet him when he is six years old, in the midst of imaginative play, an adventure he has devised of crossing pitfalls and evading animals he envisions into the linoleum. He is a lonesome boy, but happy. His mother is a local radio personality and his father is a traveling seed salesman. Of this time the narrator writes: “If you could peel him like an orange you would find laughter all the way through.” Yet there is suffering, too. Stub’s mother shakes him when she is angry, and his father, whom he knows will never hit him, is distant. When both parents are home we are told that Stub’s “secret life” is silenced.

Around this time, Stub’s parents hire Jenny, a young woman who has spent some time in a “madhouse,” to be his afterschool nanny. She is strange and vibrant—she easily enters the imaginative worlds Stub creates for them to play in, and she tells the boy of some of her hallucinations. Their play will become so intense one day that Jenny ignores the phone when Stub’s mother calls to check up on them. This becomes the reason, perhaps, for sending Jenny away. But Stub is a child, with a childlike understanding of the world and a limited understanding of how adults operate. All he knows is that his playmate has been sent away, and later, his mother, who will want “more of the world, more of life,” will leave too. “And there they are, Stub and his dad, sitting in silence face to face, the favorite green and white dishes scolding and cold to the touch, the linoleum purged of magic…”

We catch up with Stub years later in Part Two. He is now living in the shadows on the campus of the university nearby. He isn’t a student, but just someone who haunts the university. When asked who he is, he claims to be someone else. In truth, he is there researching Verner Vanderloon, an author Jenny introduced him to years ago. He lives by hook and crook—stealing food, stealing money when he can, going through the garbage at the end of each semester to retrieve the nice things well-off students toss. It’s hard to fix a time in this novel, but it is pre-internet, set after a dimming war, television is in black and white, and the Marx Brothers are still of interest and easily present in conversation.

Two people come into Stub’s life—one by observation, the other by accident. The first is a little girl around eight years old named Asthma, one of the professors’ daughters, who is “my own fairy child,” as Stub writes in his journal. “I hope to know her as well as…I know every pop and snap the library makes in the dark after hours and the taste of canned minestrone when you have spooned it into your mouth for twenty consecutive days.” For Stub she is a marvel to behold—imaginative, innocent, energetic. In Asthma, Stub believes that if “he could play beside her, he would recover all that is lost, all that was taken from him—so long ago now—when Jenny was sent away and all the games they had played together were reduced to the worst feeling of absence.”

The other character Stub meets is Professor Emeritus William Sweetbriar, ‘Billy.’ As with most encounters with professionals on campus, Stub invents a spur-of-the-moment identity for himself. He tells Billy that his name is Charter and that he’s from South Wales, and he affects a slight Australian accent. He tells Billy that he is on a Fullbright, there to study Verner Vanderloon’s archived papers and writings. Billy, a sympathetic and kindly old professor (also gay) takes a shine to the young scholar, and insists that he come by for dinner, which leads to Stub (who is now known in the text as Charter) moving into Billy’s upstairs. Billy lives on the “Circle,” where many of the professors live. Astonishingly, by proximity and angle, the upstairs apartment provides Charter an unobstructed view of Asthma’s room.

What we see between this point and the final (but brief) cat-and-mouse game that culminates the novel, is a kind of doubling of shaded relationships—Asthma is to Stub as Charter is to Billy. These relationships don’t necessary take on an erotic coloring (or if they do, it’s faint and something not necessarily recognizable in a common sense), in fact the erotic is often denied. These relationships are built instead on imaginative play; characters are nourished by other character’s imagination, vision, creativity. Billy is enlivened by Charter’s fanciful tales of Verner Vanderloon’s more esoteric and obscure writings—all of which Charter invents. Charter/Stub is enchanted by the earthiness and wonder of Asthma: “[He] relished the proximity to her skin, her little ears, her impossible eyelashes, a vague smell of piss, of violets. He thinks she is oblivious to her beauty, which is like a flame. He thinks, That is what angers Blackie. This flame. (Blackie is Asthma’s hateful mother.) Despite the intimacy of these details, however, it doesn’t seem to be erotic love Stub feels, but the “child’s promise,” which is described as “immeasurable.”

Running like a dark wave through the novel are quoted passages from Verner Vanderloon’s works. Vanderloon was a reclusive professor at the same university, his coevals being well-known scholars such as Levi-Strauss and Geertz. Known to be eccentric and irascible, his sociological writings describe a “dark” and “cruel” world; campus legend has it that at his retirement supper, he’d asserted “our species is doom to perish cursing its own boundless absurdity.” Some of the works cited by Vanderloon are quite kooky—as this fictionalized academia takes a disrespectful view of his work—but in one quoted section we grasp something at the center of Brightfellow, which offers a philosophical backdrop to the novel:

Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the one who ‘knows how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic—sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming human, just as it is also about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away for the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon’

It is this passage that Charter dwells upon while gazing at Asthma from his window, knowing that he would “never get closer to life,” despite entered the “fabric of things” by creating the fiction of Charter. He laments that his new identity will not get him closer to “true life,” which he wants. Yet what he doesn’t know is that many of the other characters live a fiction. Mirroring Charter’s struggles are the sketched subplots of the other professors living on the “Circle”—each one isolated by desire, circumstances, misunderstanding, and envy. In Brightfellow, a portrait emerges of a lonesome boy surrounded by other lonesome people, their loneliness unbeknownst to one another—not one understanding, as Dr. Santa Fofana puts it toward the end, that the “world is a dream.”

As I mentioned above, Ducornet’s prose is consistently fun to read for it rhythmic qualities and primal exuberance. There is a kind of uplift to her writing, even if it’s dark; and there a potency and passion in its more quite corners too, where she sprinkles in a odd detail or gives a new name to the mundane. It’s somehow elemental and lights the mind. Here’s a lively passage, just as Charter is becoming a little more comfortable in his new skin:

How good it is to smoke a cigarette, one’s back against a solid wall, the breeze playing in the leaves, the Circle silenced, each window the promise of a shadow-puppet play. Pathos and terror, black comedy, tenderness and loss, fire and ice, pleasure and punishment—all this surging and ebbing in those ruthless, wondrous, persistent rooms. Such sweetness! Such menace! He looks on as lives grow stale, are renewed. As kittens grow into cats; as betrayal rustles the sheets, rolls under the crib, and comes to rest there; as Death catches a glimpse of a maiden and cannot turn away.

“Beautiful words are the mind’s animating flame,” Ducornet writes in her essay “The Deep Zoo.” A delicate and airy novel, Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to bare the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. Albeit a tragic short novel, its scope revals a hopeful glimpse into one of the things that make us human—our ability to imagine.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

 

[1] You’ll notice the character names in this novel are downright Dickensian: Stub, Pea Pod, Goldie’s Rod, Verner Vanderloon, Jiggs Wiznet, William Sweetbriar, and (my favorite) Dr. Santa Fofana.

Jul 122016
 

ericdupont~614

Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. —Joseph Schreiber

QCFINF16-CoverLivreMatane_RVB

Life in the Court of Matane
Eric Dupont
Translated by Peter McCambridge
QC Fiction, July 2016
$20.00, 265 pages

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Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.

Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.

Eric Dupont was born in 1970 in Amqui, Québec and, like his protagonist, grew up in Matane, a town on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River some 400 kilometres east of Quebec City. He completed his post-secondary education in Ottawa, Salzburg, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto and presently he lives and works in Montreal. A bright light on the Québec literary landscape, he has been called “one of the province’s most daring and original writers” by La Presse. An eager reader, haunting the town library from an early age, Dupont lists Apollinaire, Anouilh, and the surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues among the writers that first delighted him when he began to study literature in university. He would go on to encounter Calvino, Cortázar and, with particular enthusiasm, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As he confesses: “We each take our secret weapons where we can find them.”

In keeping with its original French title, Life in the Court of Matane takes its structure from the medieval Bestiary, a series of allegorical or moralizing fables based on the appearance and habits of real or mythical creatures. Each chapter is named for and features a different bird or animal. Some take on magical qualities, engaging young Eric in conversations that may or may not be imagined, whereas others have more grounded, albeit symbolic, roles. However, the English title speaks to one of the most provocative features of Dupont’s childhood reality as he presents it—his fragmented family is governed by a skewed reincarnation of a Tudor king and his despotic queen. In this portrait, he invites the reader to imagine his police officer father as a woman-obsessed Henry VIII collecting wives “like others collect cars.” His mother, the fun-loving and playful Micheline Raymond, professional cook, as her children refer to her, is cast as Catherine of Aragon, the first queen who has been deposed by decree of the Family Court system. In her former throne sits wife number two, Anne Boleyn, a woman enamored with science, numbers, and order. In the newly reformed household, she sets the tone:

It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I foresaw the chance to walk toward the future a new man. Memories would be no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before the monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their backs and the day when Henry VIII would come to his senses. I waited and learned.

Our precocious protagonist is but seven years of age when the summer of 1977 brings the Great Upheaval and a life once delicately balanced between the uneven parallel bars of the post-divorce parental gymnastics routine is suddenly disrupted by placing an impossible distance between the two bars. With the impending arrival of an heir apparent, a younger half-brother, the court decides to relocate 300 kilometers to the east from Rivière-du-Loup to Matane. Eric will find himself marooned on the Gaspé Peninsula for nearly a decade, facing a new existence marked by years of relentless school bullying and daring dreams of escape until, at the age of sixteen, he will finally manage to fly the coop.

Lest there be any doubt, the king’s children from his first marriage quickly realize that the past is past. Over the years, new rules of memory are introduced through a series of royal edicts. Edict 101 strictly forbids the utterance of the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Beyond that, along with the expected edicts extolling cleanliness and academic achievement; Cadbury chocolate products are outlawed, all talk of religion is banned, and unconditional support for the sovereignty movement is commanded. Under the reign of Anne Boleyn, the vassals must learn to adapt or, at best, disguise their transgressions.

Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a near photographic memory, Eric Dupont—the author that is, not his narrator alter ego—has a deep and abiding interest in remembering and forgetting in literature. Memory is a theme appears repeatedly throughout this novel. Edicts notwithstanding, the queen can no more force the children to forget their mother than young Eric can fill his theoretically finite mental real estate with facts and figures in an effort to drive his memories of her into the distance. The longing he and his sister feel for their mother is, quite naturally, profound and heartbreaking. But, in the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and Melville’s Bartleby, they embark on their own form of passive resistance. If the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook, cannot be spoken, it can be celebrated through a collaborative effort to reproduce their mother’s infectious idiosyncratic laugh. Memory contained in the joyous eruption of sound becomes remembering as inability to forget.

The corollary of being unable to forget someone you love, is the fear that they will forget you. This concern is echoed in the longest and most magically inclined chapter, “The Dog (1980).” As Eric bonds, however uneasily, with Anne Boleyn by mastering the Rubik’s Cube and sharing her interest in stamp collecting, he invites the reader to imagine a series of late night encounters on the wharf with a stray dog who will talk if one cares to listen and comes well stocked with meatballs to encourage her to engage in conversation. This dog, it turns out is the ghost of Laika, the ill-fated proto-Cosmonaut, somehow rescued miraculously from her doomed Sputnik mission in the late 1950’s to be forever condemned to wander the misty streets of Matane steadfast in her faith that Oleg, her beloved trainer, is searching for her and will soon arrive to take her home to Moscow. She cannot relinquish her memories of the one human she believes ever truly cared for her. Eric’s dreams of Laika, whom he first discovered on a Romanian stamp, will fuel his own fantasies of stealing away aboard a ship bound for the USSR, to heroically sacrifice himself to the Soviet space program. Six years later, when at last he truly makes good his escape, this time to study in Austria, the narrative once again turns to the magical, involving memory and a Baudelaire quoting owl. By that point though, he is fully prepared to move on and, if he is anxious to forget anything, it is his long years of subjugation under Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the succession of erstwhile queens that follow in her wake.

Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. It is rich and intentionally enthusiastic in the bold effort to stuff in everything including the kitchen sink. The ins and outs of a Catholic education, fallout from Québec Referendum, Cold War politics, the reproductive strategies of the brown-headed cowbird, Grimm’s fairytales, Heidi, the economics of egg production, Micmac folklore and much more are all washed down with copious amounts of Château Rancour. However, there are distinct challenges and risks involved in sustaining a consciously comic tone over what can be painful personal terrain, and successfully navigating excursions that extend from exaggerated metaphor to tip into the realm of magical realism then pull back again. Dupont manages all of this with an admirable measure of control. There is the sense that the royal imagery he is playing with, within a structure derived from the Bestiary template, allows him to blur the line between memoir and fiction, and tell a story that may in truth be very close to home. The real sorrow of growing up in a divorce fractured family rings through, and serves to solidly ground the wildly imaginative tales that he delights in spinning.

Voice is also critical. Narrated from the perspective of early mid-life, this novel strikes the just right balance between the adult’s telling and the child’s logic, or the adult’s sarcastic humour and the child’s naiveté. This is wonderfully illustrated in twelve year-old Eric’s long standing confusion around the epitaph “faggot,” as in this scene from a time during which the family lived in a village outside of Matane:

The school yard was a sad place where tensions between the village and rural parents were atoned for on a smaller—albeit no less cruel—scale. I learned all kinds of fascinating things there. Some children’s parents, for instance, were convinced that police officers pocketed the fines they handed out for themselves and that this was how they were paid. And so the day the king came home with a second-hand Volvo, they shouted at me that the car had been basically stolen from the people of Saint-Ulric. Or rather they didn’t shout. They grunted, and the grunting was followed with a shove to the ground. As a narrative epilogue to the violent episode, they shouted “faggot,” a word whose true meaning I was unsure of and that never failed to spark a deep epistemological crisis. For the longest time, I thought that a faggot was someone who knew how to read. I tried to explain that, in point of fact, police officer’s salaries were paid by… But really, what was the point?

Literature is littered with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families aside, unhappy families often have much in common, and their stories can run the risk of falling into a certain routine, with a sameness that blunts the edge of the drama and emotion. Not so with Eric Dupont. His penchant for story telling allows him to create a world that brims with larger-than-life vitality while capturing the tensions of growing up in a family divided by divorce, ideology and distance. The result is a remarkably sensitive and intelligent coming-of-age story told with an irresistible blend of heartache, humour and magic.

—Joseph Schreiber

N5

Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts

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Jun 302016
 

Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic…the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” —Jason DeYoung

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Vaseline Buddha
Jung Young Moon
Translated by Jung Yewon
Deep Vellum, 2016
$ 14.95

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What lies at the source of thought, the nameless narrator of Vaseline Buddha asks, what do you finally reach when you cast thought back to its source, “like a fish that swims upstream”? Nothing, he promptly tells us, nothing is to be found at the source of thought. The source of thought is just more empty thoughts, “just as nothing lies at the source of everything.”

Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic, Vaseline Buddha is an enigmatic, time-bending odyssey through one man’s thoughts and memories. But these are the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” Can we trust what he tells us? No, as he often explains at the end of his stories, some things really happened, others didn’t, or perhaps did happen but at a different time, which he manipulates through narrative into happening simultaneously with other events. “How easy is it for such words to be without truth?” This Vaseline Buddha, it’s slippery.

Described as South Korea’s tallest, most handsome author—just look at the introspective guy above, and that hair!—Jung Young Moon was born in 1965. His literary debut was in 1996 with A Man Who Barely Exists, a title that hints at another character staring down the liminal. He has since published several novels and collections of short fiction, and he has translated nearly forty books by such authors as John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. Vaseline Buddha is the first novel of Moon’s to come out in English this year: Dalkey Archive Press will release A Contrived World soon. Dalkey Archive also released a mesmerizing short story collection by Moon called A Most Ambiguous Sunday in 2014. This collection was my first experience with Moon’s work and I remember being beguiled by how uncommonly strict and topographically flat his prose read, and how confidently he wrote about boredom and doing nothing and made it work. Here’s passage from “The Afternoon of the Faun”:

I felt bored, and thought dimly that boredom was saturated in nature and was one of nature’s primary characteristics, and thus what a person would feel when they became a part of nature; I had the vague thought that the boredom of nature was different from the boredom of the city, the streets, or the house, because out of all the various types of boredom, the boredom of nature gives you the most dense and intense feeling.

Vaseline Buddha­, fresh out from Deep Vellum, is also about ennui, as much of Moon’s work is. It opens with the narrator (who is also a professional translator) sitting on his windowsill, thinking about writing a story, when he sees a thief attempting to climb into a window. The thief is startled, falls, and runs off. This incident is the inspiration that starts the meditative text that then runs for 226 pages and begins with: “For some time, I’d been in a constant state of lethargy… But an urge to write was awakened within me as if the thief, who went away without actually doing anything, had done something to me…The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little, and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them.”

His vague form, in the end, is circular. Vaseline Buddha is written presumably over the course of a year, starting in summer and wrapping up in late spring. Images that appear in the beginning reappear at the end, and in between there is always this push toward not making meaning or of writing something without substance. It is these things, those without substance, which “exerts the greatest influence” on narrator’s life, hence he sees no option but “to clumsily write something without substance.”

Parts of Vaseline Buddha read like automatic writing, wandering associatively topic-to-topic, while other parts are clearly designed to feed into the narrator’s intention, such as his mediation on the following line of poetry from John Hollander’s “Coiled Alizarin”—“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The line, we are told, is an example of a grammatically correct sentence “that has a logical form but makes no semantic sense and thus has no intelligible meaning, and can be discussed at different levels.” This idea of something that’s logical in form yet without intelligible meaning is what the narrator of Vaseline Buddha is after.

So what comprises a non-novel novel? The narrator would like for you to think that there’s no structure to this work, a work he would like for you enter and “get lost, like setting foot in a world from which you can’t extricate yourself.” But there are clear repetitions and patterns at play here that, yes, deny the design of the conventional novel, but function as stand-ins for traditional form.

Take for instance the overall plot, which is to write something without substance. He’ll return to make this point in various ways, reiterating it, reflecting on how he’s doing. The subplots of Vaseline Buddha, in turn, are stories meant to demonstrate or exercise this wish for senselessness. They include philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and reality, travelogues that are intentionally pointless and meandering, description of the narrator’s dizziness and the rooms he lies in while trying to recover, asides and fantasies about animals for which the narrator is particularly drawn, various and unsatisfying encounters with women, and the narrator’s fondness for Paul Morrissey’s Trash, a movie that he watches “without an expectation,” and shows him “how powerful saying nothing could be,” and becomes one of the best movie he’s seen.

Trash, Paul Morrissey (NSFW)

Among the eclectic comic tales in the novel which range from Yasser Arafat’s affection for Tom & Jerry, a farting German woman on a trampoline, and a turtle-licking cow is an existential seriousness. “[T]here were no grounds for my existence anywhere,” says the narrator, “the idea that everything in existence existed by accident, that inevitability was only a part of a tremendous accident, was something I could never shake off, and made my life so difficult, and yet so easy.” In addressing this difficulty and ease, he ends up overloading the novel with the “everyday,” with the stuff of his existence, with the banalities of his life, in an effort to show how most of life is fairly pointless. The title itself is part of this spew of life-stuff. Toward the end of the novel, a friend gives the narrator a cheap wooden[1] Buddha statue which the narrator suddenly has the cockamamie thought of covering in bandages and Vaseline, which he then thinks would be a good title for what he has been writing. All these vague little stories and thought about writing, he thinks, could be titled Vaseline Buddha—”the name was something that could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled.” It sounds good, but its meaningless, empty, just the sort of things that would go above some vague text.

Vaseline Buddha never gets too deep into Buddhist teachings, or at least not in a direct way like when when the narrator starts going on about Wittgenstein, whom he admires for his gardening. But there is definitely Buddhist thought at play, especially when the narrator writes about accepting all human emotions and the nature of reality, which might be beyond the grasp of our linear vocabulary:

I imagined creating a self-contained world of my own in which communication was impossible and unnecessary. Perhaps the very thing that constitutes a person’s inherent nature is something that can’t be understood by others. Only the thoughts that I couldn’t share in their entirety with another person seemed to be my genuine thoughts. I thought that the emphasis on communication, rampant among people and even forced upon them, was so excessive that, in a way, it kept a man from squarely facing the fact that he was, in the end, alone.

Eastern and Western philosophies merge in this text, and echoes can be heard of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and Dōgen’s admonition “If you want to travel the Way of the Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” What the narrator seems to be saying is that the life is is important, and it isn’t. It’s meaningful, and it isn’t. The novel is important, and it isn’t.  It’s perhaps best to accept these duel natures.[2]

A lot of the publicity materials around Moon’s work call him Korea’s Beckett, and tag his work Kafkaesque, which is true, but the influence of Thomas Bernhard (without all the disgust and aversion) can be felt too. The novel is marked by a hyper-precise language that often wrest the surreal from the weary reality of its narrator, and translator Yewon Jung deserves credit for a masterful translation of what is presumably difficult Korean into English sentences that boldly loop and twist:

I kept on thinking that I should, not submitting to it, in a way, commit an atrocious act of some kind. But it helped to have had my fill of such undesirable thoughts about swans. By having various thoughts about swans, I could keep myself from actually doing something to them. Thinking a lot about something was a great way to keep yourself from carrying your thoughts out into action, although, of course, it depended on the way you thought. By thinking a certain thought, you could think that you’ve carried the thought out in action, or done something more.

Jung Young Moon’s work is remarkable for its eccentric modes of thought and how it tests the limits of the novel and our notions of what fiction can do. It looks beyond the basic form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go. It also reveals crisply the cryptic nature of everyday life, which if examined with deep seriousness, will inevitably lead to deep absurdity—and that makes its futility somewhat pleasing.

—Jason DeYoung

N5Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not to be confused with a “Vaseline glass Buddha”—although I’m sure Moon delights in the possible confusion.
  2. “Our body and mind are both two and one…our life is not only plural, but also singular.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1987. Page 7.
Jun 132016
 

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Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. —Mark Sampson

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The Fat Artist and Other Stories
By Benjamin Hale
Simon & Schuster, 2016
288 pgs.;$26.00

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Call it book reviewer’s pride. I was infinitely pleased with myself that I had caught, without prompting, the literary reference in the title of Benjamin Hale’s new short story collection. Because I am a responsible critic, I went back and reread Kafka’s fabled tale “A Hunger Artist” before I even cracked the covers of Hale’s book, thinking it would prepare me for what I assumed was an album of short fiction that wears a Kafkaesque homage heavily.

But Hale resists this temptation. While the title story does acknowledge its antecedent in Kafka and borrows from his dark, absurdist world view, The Fat Artist and Other Stories is, on the whole, influenced more by famed footnoter David Foster Wallace, and by the gritty, violent realism of, say, Raymond Chandler, than it is by that Czech scribbler writing prescient tales about the looming horrors of the twentieth century. What’s more, Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. Hale is the author of a previous novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and he has been (forgive the pun) hailed as a dark, comic risk taker in his fiction, someone unafraid to mix together tenderness and the weird. This new book lives up to such a reputation. It’s about what to do with bodies: bodies that have died and need disposing of, bodies that have aged and betrayed their owners; bodies that need nourishment and respect; bodies that have grown fat for the sake of art.

Indeed, the title story here is an unalloyed masterpiece. Tristan Hurt is an avant-garde artist who slogs through the duo battles of staying on top of the New York art world and hiding from everyone that he is, more or less, a fraud. He shares with the reader some of his more embarrassing secrets:

As a person, I was nearly as lazy as I was self-absorbed. I had never actually read very much. Almost nothing, really. All that critical theory in college and graduate school? All that heady French gobbledygook? Not counting the front and back covers, I probably read a cumulative fifteen pages of it … I knew the names of the writers I was supposed to have read, and could pronounce them with haughty accuracy and ironclad confidence that withered on the spot those who had actually read them.

(Despite his general disinterest in reading, Tristan does possess a rich vocabulary of ten-dollar words that had me digging with glee into the dictionary: bloviate, piccolo, petrichor, soporate, etc.)

Tristan begins a shaky romance with a creative writing instructor named Olivia who can see through his ruses. As a gift, she gives him a copy of her beloved collected stories of Franz Kafka, leaving a condescendingly harsh inscription inside: “Tristan— Here you go. Most of them are pretty short. Olivia.” (We soon learn just how precarious this romance is: Tristan discovers that she had bought a previous copy for him, but had to get a new one after she accidentally wrote “Love, Olivia” in the inscription.) Being what he is, Tristan immediately latches on to the story “A Hunger Artist” included in the book, a tale of a man who sits in a cage and starves himself as a work of art. But when Olivia breaks things off with Tristan, he goes in the opposite direction. Exiling himself to his New York City condo, he spends 10 months in near-total isolation, doing nothing but eating, drinking, doing drugs and watching online pornography. He emerges as a 500-pound fatso, broke and in desperate need to re-establish himself in the art world. After attending a hoity-toity party, he gets an idea: he will become his own artwork, the inverse of Kafka’s creation, gaining even more weight in full public display with the aim of reaching 1,600 pounds and thus becoming the largest human being ever recorded in history. Here’s his rationale:

The concept was elegant in its simplicity: to turn Kafka on his head. “A Hunger Artist” in part derives the power of its allegory from the sheer horror of self-abnegation. Why on earth would anyone deliberately starve himself to death? But in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self abnegation no longer retains the primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior.

The project is thus: Tristan is set up on a large bed-cum-weight scale in a museum, with catheters attached to his anus and penis to pump waste away unseen from his body. The public lines up around the block day after day to both see him and bring him something to eat. Provided the gifts are edible, Tristan sets a rule for himself that he must eat everything his audience brings him: buckles of fried chicken, boxes of pizzas, plates of spaghetti, bags upon bags of candy. He inhales it all, and his weight climbs accordingly. The installation is a smash! Glowing reviews appear in the media, and the crowds keep coming. Tristan’s weight soon plateaus around 1,360 pounds as he tries to push through to his goal.

But then, just as quickly as the public embraced him, it soon loses interest in his project. The crowds disappear and Tristan’s visitors dwindle to a trickle. He actually begins to lose some weight. Here, Hale’s commentary is subtle but clear: even when the artwork involves our bodies, the interest in that artwork is capricious at best. The story is both rib-cracklingly hilarious and a little bit sad, especially when Olivia shows up at the end to visit Tristan in his now morbid state. She comes with news of the death of his father, and brings Tristan flowers as a gesture of condolence. What he does with those flowers after she leaves the museum is both deeply comic and wholly heart-wrenching.

It would seem the haughty, art-world humour in “The Fat Artist” comes naturally to Hale, which makes the fact that he is able to write in other, equally adept registers in this collection all the more impressive. One story that feels like the polar opposite of the title piece is “If I had Possession over Judgment Day”, a dark and intricately laced narrative set in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world. There are several threads and tropes weaving throughout this piece, and Hale leads us through them with a skilled hand. The story opens with images of satellites orbiting the earth, hovering like silent observers to the violence about to unfold. The narrative shifts and introduces us to two characters, Caleb and Maggie, whose relationship begins in childhood with an act of unmistakable cruelty. Caleb, age nine, is the habit of pinning Maggie, age seven, down on the ground after they’ve gotten off the school bus in order to spit in her face. But the way Hale describes this attack hints at a more sexualized overtone that foreshadows events later in the story:

[Caleb] would dredge up a glob of snot from the back of his throat with these exaggerated sucking noises, mix it with his spit, let it dribble out, coil onto her face in a long string. He liked to get it in her eyes and her hair … [H]e would slurp it back up like a yo-yo, chew on it some more, until he could no longer abstain from the pleasure of seeing it slopped on her face.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caleb and Maggie fall in love with each other much later on, in high school, and eventually move in together for a time. But then Maggie leaves him for a guy named Kelly, and the two soon marry and have a child together named Gabriel. Caleb, however, remains on the periphery of Maggie’s life.

The narrative then shifts to describe Kelly in his struggles as a breadwinner and father. Maggie becomes a plumping, unemployed stay-at-home mom, and Kelly needs to work two grueling jobs in order to support them. The first is working on a construction site by day, and the second is delivering newspapers overnight using his frequently unreliable pick-up truck. Hale takes us into the very core of Kelly’s misery: he loves Maggie and Gabriel but knows that he is failing them, failing life, and that he is not quite man enough. The pressures of his hanging-on-by-a-thread poverty imbues each day with whetted despair.

Things take a turn when Maggie accuses Caleb of coming over one night while Kelly is at work and raping her. The narrative shifts once more and adopts the gritty, street-lingo diction of one of Kelly’s coworkers as the two of them plan their revenge on Caleb. The idea is to lure him to a deserted park at night and assault him with a crowbar. Meanwhile, the satellites in their sky look on.

While all of this happens, there is a subplot to “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” involving a photographer named Fred looking to take artful nude photographs of his intellectually precocious 16-year-old niece, Lana. Their conversations are charged with flirty literary allusions, and there is something deeply sexual about their interactions even though Lana wears full body paint for the photo shoot. The two of them end up in the same park as Kelly and Caleb during the attack with the crowbar, and the way these two narrative threads loop into each other is nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, all of the elements that have been in play for several dozen pages – the constantly stalling truck, the naked teenager, Maggie’s scolding over Kelly’s lack of manliness (“I want you to grow a dick,” she tells him at one point) come to a head beautifully.

Another stand-out in this outstanding collection is “Leftovers,” a tale similar to “Judgment Day” in its subject matter and well-plotted narrative. A soon-to-be-retired corporate lawyer in southern Texas named Phil Grassley is having an affair behind the back of Diane, his wife of 30+ years, with a young woman from his office named Veronica. While Diane is out of town at a conference, Phil invites Veronica over for an evening of dinner, margaritas, and fucking. Over the course of this date, we learn just how shallow and entitled Phil is: he looks forward to a retirement of drinking beer, sailing his catamaran, and enjoying these dalliances behind his wife’s back, without a care about how hurtful his actions are. As he takes Veronica on a tour of the house, we learn about Phil’s three children, the middle of whom is a screwed-up drug addict named Julian that nobody has heard from in over a month.

It comes to pass that, after Phil and Veronica have had sex in the bed he shares with his wife and fallen asleep, Julian arrives at the house in the middle of the night looking to steal the TV in order to, presumably, sell it for drugs. Phil hears the intruder and creeps down in the darkness to confront him. Whereas “Judgment Day” uses a crowbar as its weapon of choice, “Leftovers” finds Phil taking up the rolling pin he had used to crush the ice for the margaritas to defend his home and property. He doesn’t discover that the invader is his own son until he’s cracked him over the head. Not that it much matters – the assault reveals just how callous Phil really is, and it’s Veronica, now emerged from the bedroom, who shows Julian some kindness.

But things grow complicated when Julian comes to and discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. The broader intent of the story becomes clear: Phil, we see, has a life full of what Alice Munro would call the kindness of women, and yet he is completely oblivious to his great fortune, and cannot see past his anger at Julian for being such a fuck-up.

And a fuck-up he is: the boy is still in rough shape, a stoned and wrecked-out mess. And when he dosses down on the couch and then dies in his sleep after choking on his own vomit, Phil has an opportunity to rid his son from his life for good and also hide his sexual dalliances from his wife. He conscripts Veronica in his plan:

“Nobody knew where the hell Julian was for a month, or more. He was totally incommunicado. We still don’t know, actually, and probably never will at this point. Point is, this didn’t have to happen. You see what I mean?”

Eventually, she saw what he meant.

It’s striking how little editorializing Hale does as Phil concocts a plan to use his catamaran to dispose of his own son’s body in the Gulf of Mexico. The author keeps the moral gauge at neutral and does not lose the story’s propulsion despite the fact that his protagonist is an entirely vile human being. It’s an impressive feat in a tale – much like “Judgment Day” before it – about keeping a murder secret.

This authorial detachment is just one of Hale’s skills. Throughout The Fat Artist, he shows a talent for writing in multiple registers, for tackling a variety of subject matter and giving each of his stories its own rich, believable world. In “Venus in Her Mirror”, we have another dead body that someone is unsure what to do with. Rebecca is in her late thirties and working as a BDSM call girl under the name “Mistress Dalilah.” Divorced and wanting a child, she’s developed a close bond with a client, a high-profile Democrat in Washington whose name is Sam but goes by “The Representative” in their sex play. When he dies suddenly from a heart attack during one of their engagements, Rebecca is forced to confront both the realities of her own life as well as the secrets of the man whose corpse she must now deal with.

“Beautiful Boy”, meanwhile, shows us the confluence in early 1980s New York City of the murder of John Lennon, drag queen culture, and the rise of AIDS. The final piece in the book, “The Minus World”, set in Boston, shares a kinship with “Judgment Day”: Peter is fresh out of prison/rehab and down on his luck, turning to his brother Greg and his wife Megan to help him get his life turned around. Greg lands Peter a job driving a truck that delivers squid from the wharf to the biology lab at MIT. But like Kelly in “Judgment Day”, Peter just cannot get a handle on his various vices, and the story ends with a violent vehicle accident that snaps into focus just how desperate his life has become.

Individually, these stories are immensely compelling and brilliantly imagined. Taken together, they reveal a broader vision that is so much more enriching than that Kafkaesque tease in the title would suggest. I suspect it will be a long, long time before I enjoy a short story collection as much as I enjoyed this one.

—Mark Sampson

NC
Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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