Thursday, 30 May 2019

The compulsion of disgust

I am better, though still coughing. This morning I intended to resume my routine of meditation, breakfast and writing, but it was not to be. I was wiping the kitchen bench and the top of the cooker, for they were strewn with crumbs.

Crumbs?

The crumbs were alive, they moved, they wriggled! Maggots, white squirming maggots!
Another fell onto the surface as I leant over examining them. It arrived from above: I looked up and backed away: more were dangling from the interstice between the light fitting and the ceiling itself,  about to fall. I stood further back, revolted. I didn't want a maggot to fall on me.

P normally sleeps till late but I went to wake him.
I told him he had to come, come and see, which he did.
He stood in front of the cooker in his dressing gown, his hands in his pockets, observing the maggots. After a while he said: "They're falling at a rate of three a minute."

We fetched our nice clean white dustpan and white brush and swept up the maggots, tossing them out of the adjacent window. More kept coming.We called our tall son for help.

He stood on the kitchen ladder and removed the light fitting, while I tutted and fretted below: in a cloud of dust (old insulation foam), among a myriad of blind writhing maggots, the corpse of a rat thudded onto the cooker . The men dealt with it, business like.
As for me, I was not business-like.
                                                                           
                                                                          * * *

It is past midday. We have been cleaning and cleaning. P has taken a long shower. My turn next.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Sick on the sofa

I have been too sick for the last two weeks to do any sensible writing. But today is better. Still on the sofa, but able to sit up and type.

I have been enticed away from Knausgaard and have not finished The End. He mentions writers I have not heard of whom I discover to be giants in their country of origin and I feel obliged to try them out. Have given up on Broch and his Virgil, the language too intemperate for my liking, endless neologisms which irritated in the long run, and the story stalling. I did finish a book by Peter Handke  The Moravian Night: A Story, (translated by Krishna Winston, 2016) which is a meander through parts of Eastern Europe, or rather the story of a man who used to write and is telling his friends, during a night on the river Morava, about his meander. Except that the title is not to be taken literally: yes, there are people on a boat moored on the Morava, during the night. But the tale is of the darkness and the disappearance and the horror and pain that happened there over the last century, if not earlier. This dawns on one gradually. I found  I had to stay with it until the bitter end, though not sure what was so compelling. I have known people from that area, damaged by their experiences, who have committed acts of evil - vengeance or is it retribution?

The book has won many prizes. I shall read more Handke if the opportunity presents itself. I tried to resume reading The End but either too much time had gone by or I am still not well enough: I was unwilling to do the work.

What delights me at the moment is re-reading Colm Toibin's The Master. Whole sentences had stayed in my mind from the first reading, some 12 years ago, and whole scenes too.

Meanwhile, my editor E has looked at my manuscript and critiqued it and inserted commas everywhere. I am not protesting: this is what I want her to do. She does not like my ending, quite rightly, because it reflects a withholding on my part.

I chose to end the story when a character we like is intensely alone and suffering. This is the unadorned lot of the exile and refugee, I thought:  a reader should not be allowed to believe all ends well, because it does not.

Though she did not use those words, E may have recognised my punitive intent. I caved in: I have already written material for the ending,which was not included in the MS because it requires more work. I have been sick now for 2 weeks, so things are at a standstill.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The burble of Virgil's mind


The last volume of The Struggle (by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker, 2018) is titled The End. I am reading it very slowly. It's practically a stand-alone book, even though it's the last in the series. I don't think one needs to have read the previous five volumes to understand this one. 

He roams all over the place. I am reminded of the way Talmudic scholars allow themselves the luxury of tangents: he explores to the right and to the left, wandering off to both sides of the path he is on before going forward, analysing Hitler's Mein Kampf on the one hand and Paul Celan's Death Fugue on the other.

I read at night when I'm tired so I don't read for long and I miss getting a sense of the broader sweep of his writing. I do feel that he writes without restraint, no shyness, no reserve, it is all on the page: I read to celebrate his courage hoping maybe to learn how to do something like that one day, though I do not have his intellect. I shall reread him in due course, I'm already looking forward to it.

In the course of his artful rambling, he mentions Hermann Broch, of whom I had never heard. Our wonderful Central Library - closed two days ago because the building has suddenly been deemed unsafe in an earthquake - our wonderful Central Library had duly produced their old (1946) and battered copy of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil for me, which I am now reading, alternately wanting to throw it across the room and becoming more and more enamoured of the characters. 

Yet another Jew forced to flee Germany. Broch's book was first published in the US in English rather than German, thanks to Eva Starr Untermeyer, a gifted translator who was also a poet. His language is florid, to say the least, his sentences long, one could say that he indulges in perseveration  - same words and terms repeated with slight variations as if they were being examined with care from all possible aspects - and yet.

Almost at random from the middle of p. 54 - the text flowing without a break, without paragraphs, one solid bloc on the paper -

'...the square patch of heaven stretched over the court now permitted the stars to be seen again, their breathing light once more visible though occasionally dimmed by the smoke-clouds trailing beneath them, but even these were permeated by the soft, drizzling tone-mist, sharing in the wandering-weaving misty murmur which impregnated the courtyard and shrouded each single thing, objects, odors and tones blended, mounting towards heaven in the stillness of the night...'

One has to work one's way through this - what does the 'breathing light' of the stars mean, or a 'drizzling tone-mist'mean? Until Virgil's thoughts become more interesting, such as the moment when, deathly tired, he enters the room which has been allocated to him courtesy of Augustus Caesar, and finds everything perfectly suited to his state of mind and his state of ill-health:

'Nothing was lacking, an armchair for contemplation stood near the bay-window and the commode stood in the corner of the room; the luggage was piled up in a way easy to handle, the manuscript-chest was pushed by special order near the bed, everything fitted so neatly, so noiselessly, exactly as an invalid could have desired it, but still this was no  longer the beneficence of Augustus, this was just the smooth planning of an irreproachable, fully equipped, royal household, there was no friendship in it.'
I understood that the extreme sensitivity and great attention to detail which characterise the previous descriptions are entirely Virgil's. (Another reader would probably have realised this sooner.) This one simple sentence: 'there was no friendship in it' stands alone and strong against all the previous burbling. The burbling is the burbling of Virgil's mind, his on-going response  to whatever happens around him, a burbling which, unsurprisingly, is different in quality, more precise, more focussed, more insightful, than that of an ordinary person's mind.

I am hooked. 

I want the opportunity to think about the way Broch writes in comparison with Knausgaard. I am only half-way through The End and find myself now immersed in The Death of Virgil. I shall reread what Knausgaard says about Broch, it may help me understand them both better.


Struggling

I have been sending my MS to agents in the UK, and not being successful. No one has given any feedback so no idea why.

I am reading Knausgaard's My struggle, which is engrossing. I finished Vol 1  A death in the family quickly and moved onto Vol. 2 A man in love. He writes with a kind of abandon, every detail seems to be noted...The style of Emily Perkins' book The Forrests was similar - an intricately chiselled shell, beautiful but empty - lovely language, nothing to say. Ultimately  boring.

Knausgaard is different, first because he writes about himself, his family and his friends with searing honesty, and secondly because the reader is privy to his thoughts about issues which confront every one of us, love, life, death.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Antonio Yammara is not a nice man. I hardly liked him enough to read the book again, but I managed to, reading at a slow pace. I got involved in Colombian reality. It was an exciting and at times amusing experience, also an education.

The translation mostly reads well, as if it were written in the original language, except that now and then - not often - there are sentences that are bad, sentences which read as if a word is missing or which made me stumble. As if Ann McClean had delegated the work to a novice. Until now I had always been impressed.

I may not have explored this book in as much depth as it merits. My first reading was quick, to get what I think of as the first level of meaning out of the way.  I knew nothing of Colombia except for the drug cartel based in Medellin and South American culture as portrayed by Herge in one of his Tintin books. (Nothing of the South American literature I have read seems to contradict what I learnt there.) As a gringa who has never visited South America, let alone Colombia, I was sure I was bound to miss the subtext unless I made an effort. And even when making an effort, I believe I missed meaning.


The book's main themes:

Beyond the wonderful opening sentence with the hippopotamus, the early pages announce what this book is about: "The alacrity and dedication which we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning," contradicted by the following sentence "...the death of that hippopotamus put an end to an episode of my life that had begun quite a while ago, more or less like someone coming home to close a door carelessly left open." In the long conversation between Maya and Antonio, they agree that it is possible to live without thinking.  I suppose that the book reveals what happens when someone begins to think.

On p. 15, about the relationship between experience and memory - between parentheses: "...we're terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn't actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read."

At the beginning of section 6, I liked the following sentence: "Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control.[...] we associate adulthood with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what happens to us next." And a page later: "It's always somewhat dreadful [sic] [...] when it's another person who reveals to us the slight or complete lack of control that we have over our own experience."

Structure

In the first three of the five parts Antonio is a man only concerned with himself. He is the One, this is reflected in the titles: One single long shadow, Never One of my dead, The gaze of absent ones. Aura is attracted to him - why is a mystery: "Professor Yammara introduces her to the law." He sees the caricature of himself at a time when he has been rendered impotent. And from then on there develops a search for meaning. Why would someone want to kill Laverde?

Recurring events and objects

I liked how some features of the story were repeated - in my view for emphasis - though when I spoke of this to other readers they looked at me as if I were mad. You be the judge:

Two scarred men, scarred through no fault of their own, three if you include Elaine's father who returned with one leg missing only to disappear from her life.

Two fathers disappearing, Elaine's father and Ricardo, though Elaine's father never came back - family break-down.
Two beloved little girls, two mother - the goodness of women.
Twice (only) the colour brown in the same location.
Twice the huge penis.
Two sets of grandparents who are ignored - family break-down.
Two instances of shots fired without aiming, one with terrible consequences, one with none
Twice seeing a little girls' expression on the face of an adult woman.
Two green doors - Laverde means the Green One
Listening to the recording twice.
Three air crashes if not more: the sound of things falling.
Two Christs in the church where Elaine and Ricardo  get married.
Two haciendas, two gates.
'I understand perfectly,' once Ricardo to Elaine, once Antonio to Maya. Men lying?

The choice of names: the name Elaine refers to the woman who loved Lancelot  and bore Galahad. And it is in fact related to Elena despite the fact that this is denied by Maya. Elena means sun beam.
Aura: may mean breeze, but also light, ie it is similar to Elena's name.
Both are mothers, viewed as a source of warmth and light. 

Leticia: the 1930s war between Peru and Colombia centered on a town named Leticia which is the Southern most town of Columbia. It was originally founded by the Peruvians under the name San Antonio - the same name as our hero - and was later awarded to Colombia in a secret deal between the two countries. Peru tried to annex the city and surrounds in 1932, Colombia sent in the army and the conflict was finally resolved with the help of the League of Nations. This is the war in which Ricardo's pilot grandfather fought.

I wondered why Maya had been chosen to be a bee-keeper and discovered that there is a famous children's book about Maya the bee, an independent and adventurous bee, loved by the bee colony she belongs to despite her rebellious nature.

Antonio claims to deny Lutecia's and Aura's existence to contain the contamination of pain and fear. Is this the truth or something he is telling himself? He has begun his relationship with Maya on the basis of a lie, so it has no future though he could easily stay with her: "I understand you completely."Returning to Bogota, he confronts loneliness but it is different from before, he seems at peace now.

Here is a question: why does Maya call him a user? He says that all the story he read was about him. How can that be?


One discovery amused me: Elena visits the church where her 'small almost clandestine wedding' will take place. It is the church of San Francisco of Assisi, which fits with the theme of Ricardo's love of animals. She likes the church because she thinks of silence and noise, of light and darkness, both pairs as she is about to become part of a pair. She looks at the illuminated altar and then discovers the two Christs, one on all fours the other in a cage.

This is what amused me: the photo I found online revealed that the illuminated altar is huge and completely plastered with gold. This is the altar that the tourists come to see. It does not impact upon Elena: what impresses her is the little Christ in a box behind the metal bars: The saviour of agony, or maybe the agonising saviour would be a better translation. This Christ is miraculous because his hair is supposedly continuously growing. She puts in a coin and the Christ is briefly illuminated. And then  "Elaine knew she would be happy all her life." And we discover that her happiness will be brief, just like the flash she saw, that Ricardo is the darkness to her light, the noise to her silence.

In this portrayal of the limits of personal power, The Sound of Things Falling (2011, 2013) reminded me of Timothy Mo's outstanding novel The Redundancy of Courage (1991) and  the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's classic Things fall apart (1958). This 2013 translation won the prestigious 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.



Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The giver and the receiver

Four stories by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

Re-reading after some years: Shadows on the Grass, published in the 60s (Penguin).  The cover illustration is an oil painting by Blixen, of a Somali child  who was one of her servants in Kenya. She came to realise that he was a mathematical genius. When he begged to be to sent to school, she 'scraped the money together', She also bought him a typewriter when he asked for it. Many years later, he wrote to thank her and explained that  the typewriter gave him a significant advantage when he applied for jobs. He became a judge.

She wrote in English, a foreign language for her. Are writers for whom English is not the mother tongue more free to write in unusual ways ? (Thinking of the Pakistani/British writer Nadeem Aslam, for instance.)

Here are the two sentences I most loved:

The first for the way the structure represents Berkeley Cole's leisurely, round-about journey:

"On a day in the beginning of the long rains Berkeley Cole came round the farm from up-country, on his way to Nairobi." (p. 69, The Great Gesture)

Also, for being thought-provoking:'
"A gift may be named after both the giver and the receiver, and in this way my inspiration is my own, more even than anything else I possess, and is still the gift of God." (p. 96, Echoes from the Hills).

All along this book, I heard in my mind the deep longing in Meryl Streep's voice at the start of the film  Out of Africa: "I had a farm in Africa." Great acting.


I have just read Penelope Lively's How it all started, about the unexpected ways in which a person's action can affect others. Clumsy and uncharming in comparison, though Blixen does set the bar rather high.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lows and highs


Have I mentioned my book group?

We meet once a month. Our last meeting focus on Illuminations, the story of  Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrat. I had chosen that book myself, confident it was good because it had won a prize. Disappoinment: the known facts revealed about Hildegard were the only attraction. The writing was poor, the author failing to evoke what it means to be a genius in the body of a medieval woman.The prize - the name of which I cannot remember - is awarded to writing in the New Age genre, which describes this book well. It is facile, though many people raved about it.

Dutch author Cees Nooteboom has written a book I am re-reading called - in the English translation - The Following Story. Having finished it - it is nice and slim - I went back to the beginning, laughing to myself as I realised how much he'd revealed which I only understood at the end. I may have been particularly dense. I believe that he intends for his unwitting reader to embark on a voyage of discovery. I won't reveal more.

Now in his eighties, Nooteboom has won many respected prizes and continues to write. Some of his articles and books are in the travel genre which he derides in The Following Story. Another feature of his writing is that he kindly provides opportunities for digression - he refers to other authors and their works, to artworks, to places. I find myself following his hints with pleasure. In The Following Story his hero walks through Lisbon and I followed his footsteps (thank you Wikipedia and Google), amused and edified.

I have also read Niall Williams for the first time and wonder how come I've not heard of him before, nor had anyone else in the book group.