Book Diary: Little Labours (Rivka Galchen)

After I read New American Stories , I made a list of all the fabulous new authors I had discovered through the anthology.  However, as I live in a Spanish-speaking, European country, these American authors are not so readily available.

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On a recent trip to the UK, I held out hope that I would find a few more there, to which end I spent a happy half an hour in the first bookshop I could find, with a very sympathetic shop assistant who clearly understood my need.  Despite all the people-power behind the search, I was still only able to find two further authors on my list.

Rivka Galchen was one of these.  However, when the shop assistant read me the description of the book he found by her, I didn’t really like the sound of it.  It is about motherhood, something I don’t know anything about and doesn’t particularly interest me.  So I bought it for my sister instead, as she is nearly 8 months pregnant.

The next day of my trip, I went to see my cousin, who I hadn’t seen for about 12 years, and her two small sons.  Her sons are the first in the next generation of the family on my Mum’s side, and the first time I’ve met children that are directly related to me.  I was really surprised by the strength of the biological reaction (for want of a much better way of putting it).  They weren’t just small, uninteresting non-adults – they looked like my cousin, and I loved them immediately and without question.

Thus, on the plane on the way back to Madrid, I decided to read Little Labours.  I already knew that I really liked Galchen’s style of writing and by the time we had landed I had already finished the book.  It really has helped to engage me with a theme I had happily neglected previously, but much more significantly, I now feel engaged with the idea of being an Aunty, something that I hadn’t exactly struggled with, but was taking some getting used to.  Galchen’s writing about writer-mothers, her observations about how the world sees and treats mothers and children was fresh and insightful anyway, whether the topic touches your own experience or not, but for me it served as a kind of stylish self-help book.

It also served as self-help for my sister.  About a week after arriving back to Madrid, she was hospitalised following a slight complication with the pregnancy.  She had more time to read than normal, being incarcerated on the ward, and Little Labors was her part of her entertainment. I arrived for one visit and she was alone in the hospital room, with a monitor strapped to her bump.  There was a noise filling the room, which she told me was the baby’s heartbeat. She took my hand and placed it on her stomach, I felt the baby’s head on one side and it’s feet on the other, he/she (we don’t know the gender yet) was wriggling around and then suddenly hoofed me with it’s foot.  That was the moment – thanks to this book, thanks to my cousin’s small boys, thanks to the modern science allowing me to hear the heartbeat of a yet unseen person – that I became an Aunt.

Book Diary: The Hatred of Poetry (Ben Lerner)

Ironically, I picked this essay up at a poetry reading.  I bought it, and then had to sit with it in my lap all through the reading, as if I were in silent protest. Hopefully those present knew that Lerner himself is a poet.

I’m really a big fan of Ben Lerner and so I was very excited to happen upon this book.   The premise of the essay is painfully beautiful: that poetry is problematic for poets and readers alike because it cannot ever really achieve its desired purpose, which is to reflect and faithfully record moments of sublime beauty and elevation.

In Lerner’s essay he used the example of Caedmon to explain this paradox: “…the first poet in English whose name we know, learned the art of song in a dream.”  Caedmon wanted to be able to sing with his fellow goatherds, but felt unable.  One night some sort of God visits him in a dream, and in the dream Caedmon is able to sing words of great beauty and he awakes as a poet.  However, when he tries to recreate the dream-song in the waking world, although still beautiful, it is not transcendent as was the dream-version.  Thus:

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the the finite, the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or divine.  You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse.  But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.

I thought about this a lot.  And then – as seems to happen to me frequently – I coincidentally had it reflected back at me in section 23 of Rayuela, which I’m making my way through at the moment.  Cortázar’s Oliveira talks of exactly that impulse, the experience of that dream state, where everything is beautiful and meaningful, but is also fleeting, and becomes ever so tricksy at the moment of trying to translate it into reality:

Pero todo eso, el canto de Bessie, el arullo de Coleman Hawkins, ¿no eran ilusiones, y no eran algo todavía peor, la ilusión de otras ilusiones, una cadena vertiginosa hacia atrás, hacia un mono mirándose en el agua el primer día del mundo? … Oliveria … sentía ahora que la verdad estaba en eso, en que Bessie y Hawkins fueran ilusiones, porque solamente las ilusiones eran capaces de mover a sus fieles, las ilusiones y no las verdades.  Y había más que eso, había la intercesión, el acceso por las ilusiones a un plano, a una zona inimaginable que hubiera sido inútil pensar porque todo pensamiento lo destruía apenas procuraba cercarlo.

But all that, Bessie’s song, Coleman Hawkin’s coo, were they not just illusions, and were they not even worse than that, the illusion of other illusions, a vertiginous chain going all the way back to a monkey looking at himself in the water the first day of the world? … Oliviera .. felt now that the truth was in that, in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving to faith, illusions and not truths.  And there was more that that, there was the intercession, the access through the illusions to a plane, an unimaginable zone that would have been useless to think about because all thought destroyed it as soon as you tried to get near it (my translation).

Towards the end of Lerner’s essay he presents his way of assimilating this gap between waking and dreaming, between vision and reality, between poetry and the dream-song, by exploiting that very gap, using it to imbue language with an odd, different kind of beauty and meaning:

If you are five and you point to a sycamore or a idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient – the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rain water or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish.  To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified?  I think that’s poetry.

Much in the same way as Adam, Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station reinvents the act of listening in a language that is not native to you:

I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

In the end, I found in all this a balance that, for me- perhaps ironically – is beautiful. And that speaks of an alignment, of an harmony, both artistically and emotionally that I for one, am happy to live within.

Book Diary: The Dying Animal (Philip Roth)

A good thing about having friends who are 24 years older than you is that they know more stuff, about stuff.  My friend Antonio is constantly educating me in art, in films, or in where to find the best bars (and pimientos de padrón) in Madrid.

One of his recent offerings was, Death In Venice.  We watched it one Sunday night and the final scene haunted me for days afterwards: Gustav von Aschenbach collapsed in his deck chair with his foolish, painted face melting and running down his real face, gaze fixed on an object of pure beauty, until his dying breath.  I couldn’t get that image out of my head, I just kept thinking: Desire is ugly, and it makes you ridiculous (to which I later conceded an additional, “unrequited”).

Antonio didn’t see it that way, however, he thought that the film explored the idea of perfect beauty in Art as unachievable, and was not related to sexual desire.  Hence, the image of Aschenbach reaching toward the idea of perfection (the boy Thaddeus, who in turn is reaching toward he sun) in his dying moments.  However, he did add – and the film clearly explores this also – that desire gone bad (ie. obsession, or “ill desire” (as he called it)) causes us to suffer greatly.  Thus, the pursuit of beauty will always lead to ruin, as – although it sounds like a contradiction – passion for perfection, will eventually eliminate passion, and cause all manner of wretchedness along the way.

These comments came back to me when I picked up – just a few days later, and by total coincidence – Philip Roth’s, The Dying Animal.  The title taken from Yeats’, Sailing to Byzantium:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The novel is about University Professor, David Kepesh and his sexual obsession with a female student 30-odd years younger than him, and in particular with her body, and even more particularly with her breasts, which he considers to be perfect.  Although the two breed a relationship of sorts, in the end it only leads to heartbreak and depression.

Perhaps as a result of having recently watched Death In Venice, what I read into this book was that – as with humans, as in Art – desire always going to be irreconcilable.  That there is a balance between the desired and the desire-e that is forever changing and shifting, but never harmonising.  An idea that, in the novel, was also linked to Art.  Kepesh’s friend says to him after the relationship is over:

…Look,” he told me, “see it as a critic, see it from a professional point of view.  You violated the law of aesthetic distance.  You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl – you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment.”

I then got to thinking about Lolita.  Both Death in Venice and The Dying Animal contained shades of Lolita, another mediation on beauty, desire and obsession (all three works involve objects of desire that are very much younger that the ones doing the desiring; the juxtaposition of youth and vitality with the depreciating letch making the space between beauty and non-beauty all the more gaping).  However, after reading Lolita, I didn’t feel despairing, as I did after reading The Dying Animal and seeing Death in Venice, both of which made me look at the relationships around me in a new (and not very flattering) light and made me question why sexual relationships are so endlessly difficult and often humiliating.  The only reason I can think of for this is because to me Lolita is the most beautiful book I have ever read, so perhaps in the end Antonio was right in another of his comments on the film: when something is so beautiful as to reach near perfection, it elevates us and moves us on, as long as as the balance doesn’t tip from light, to shade.  However, how you stop that from happening, I do not know.  Maybe somewhere out there Art has the answer.  If it does, I’m sure Antonio will lead me to it.

Book (Talk) Diary: La Noche de los Libros 2017

My favourite day (and night) of the year fell last weekend – bookworm Christmas as I like to call it: International Book Day.  Every year in Madrid there are a ton of activities and, in addition, there is always a headline act who gives a talk at the Real Casa de Correos, right in the centre of Madrid, in Sol.  This year the it was Irvine Welsh.

Real Casa de Correos

He was really funny, and charming.  I liked his un-writerly way of talking about writing and the writing life.  The first question from the interviewer was whether Welsh thought Margaret Thatcher was the primary reason for the increase in heroin consumption in Scotland in the 80s, drugs always seeming to become a recourse for the dispossessed.  Welsh agreed that the politics of the time had an clear effect, and he described how life was where he grew up, in Leith, during that time.

The talk finished and my sister and I queued up to get a book signed (my sister told him how the first book her Venezuelan boyfriend read in English was Trainspotting, and we talked a little about translation as he signed my sister’s copy of his latest book in the Spanish edition) and I didn’t think too much more about Thatcher and heroin, until the following day…

The description of the next event I went to sounded to me like music and readings and projections, well, actually, that was the exact description in the programme.  However, by total coincidence, it was in fact a talk by a local author who had written a trilogy about the area he grew up in, in the suburbs of Madrid, that had a big problem with heroin addiction in the 80s, thanks to feelings of political and social dispossession.  Without meaning to, I had come to exactly the same talk as the night before.  I had stumbled upon the Spanish Irvine Welsh.

From there I went onto an event that is run every year, which is a continuous reading of Don Quijote, it takes around 48 hours and goes through the night without any pauses.  I love anything that runs through the night, for some reason it seems romantic, such physical dedication to art.  There are famous people who read their favourite parts, there are live video links with Spanish citizens all over the world, it is a real celebration of Spain’s most famous book.  I walked in and it took me a while to realise someone was reading the text in English.  It turned out that there was a delegation from the US Embassy in Madrid taking part.

It seemed it was a weekend of reflections, or refractions – I had heard the same talk by two versions of the same author, discussed translation of Scottish colloquialisms for South American readers, and heard a Spanish classic read in English.

Book Diary: A Manual for Cleaning Women (Lucia Berlin)

I picked this book up because I thought it said: “A Manual for Unclean Women”.  It wasn’t until I was in the act of buying it that I realised my error.  I don’t know exactly why that mistaken title enticed me (well, okay, maybe I do), but I’m glad I was wrong and I’m glad I have discovered this incredible woman through a silly mistake like that.

I sometimes have a problem with books that I have really loved, where they leave me without words to describe the love I have felt for the words I have read.  I have this issue even more so with Berlin because her stories are so personal, and draw so much on her own life, that I feel that I love her also.

Additionally, when I know that I’m one of many people who (rightly) feel similarly, it can be best to leave the experience of reading something so beautiful in a place without words, so as to just feel instead.

I want to tell everyone who hasn’t already read her, to read her, to live her, but you can’t force beauty on people, it has to arrive.  So, I’ll leave it there, with these three quotes, that made me feel so very, too, much:

The world just goes along.  Nothing much matters, you know?  I mean really matters.  But then sometimes, just for a second you get this grace, this belief that it does matter, a whole lot.  

He felt that way too.  I heard the catch in his throat.  Some people may have said a prayer, knelt down, at a moment like that.  Sung a hymn.  Maybe cavemen would have done a dance.  What we did was make love.  “El Sapo” busted us.  Later, but we were still naked.

***

Of course I have a self here, and a new family, new cats, new jokes.  But I keep trying to remember who I was in English.

***

In Albuquerque, when we were young, before I met him, I had listened to him play saxophone, watched him race Porsches at Fort Sumter.  Everybody knew who he was.  He was handsome, rich, exotic.  Once I saw him at the airport, saying goodbye to his father.  He kissed his father good-bye, with tears in his eyes.  I want a man who kisses his father good-bye, I thought.

Book Diary: Rayuela (Julio Cortázar) (Part One)

Rayuela.  Hopscotch, in English.  So called as the story does not journey from page one to 730, but jumps around according to a pattern set by the author, or according to a pattern set by the reader.  Whichever one chooses.

I know that it is going to take me a long time to read this novel.  When I have told Spanish friends that I’m reading it, they have all said that I am being a little ambitious, why not start with something easier, like Borges?  However, the book was a gift from a dear friend and in her dedication she wrote: “For my pink sky.”  We call each other this thanks to another writer who could be said to evoke the same reaction in people not reading in their first language, or indeed, even if they are: Nabokov.  That was one of his pet-names for Véra.  My friend tried and gave up on my gift to her, Lolita.

I don’t know how far through it I am, as I am following the recommended hopscotch reading of the novel, so who knows how many pages I have achieved.  I don’t want to know either, I’m dedicated to the format.  And it is hard, not just for the language, but because of the voice.  This is why I have always tended to read original English novels translated into Spanish, I struggle with anything that isn’t an Anglo-Saxon voice.  This novel could not be further from that voice; it is winding, dreamy, verbacious.  But that is another reason I’m determined to stick with it.  Who else will educate me, if not me myself?

And here is another.  My friend marked for me in the book her favourite of the 155 hopscotch pieces.  Number seven.  The most perfect description of a kiss you could ever wish to encounter.  You cannot read it without wanting to grab the person next to you and kiss them, and kiss them, and kiss them.  Which is why I should probably stop reading it on the Metro.

Toco tu boca, con un dedo toco el borde de tu boca, voy dibujándola como si saliera de mi mano, como si por primera vez tu boca se entreabriera, y me basta cerrar los ojos para deshacerlo todo y recomenzar, hago nacer cada vez la boca que deseo, la boca que mi mano elige y te dibuja en la cara, una boca elegida entre todas, con soberana libertad elegida por mí para dibujarla con mi mano por tu cara, y que por un azar que no busco comprender coincide exactamente con tu boca que sonríe por debajo de la que mi mano te dibuja.

Me miras, de cerca me miras, cada vez más de cerca y entonces jugamos al cíclope, nos miramos cada vez más de cerca y nuestros ojos se agrandan, se acercan entre sí, se superponen y los cíclopes se miran, respirando confundidos, las bocas se encuentran y luchan tibiamente, mordiéndose con los labios, apoyando apenas la lengua en los dientes, jugando en sus recintos donde un aire pesado va y viene con un perfume viejo y un silencio. Entonces mis manos buscan hundirse en tu pelo, acariciar lentamente la profundidad de tu pelo mientras nos besamos como si tuviéramos la boca llena de flores o de peces, de movimientos vivos, de fragancia oscura. Y si nos mordemos el dolor es dulce, y si nos ahogamos en un breve y terrible absorber simultáneo del aliento, esa instantánea muerte es bella. Y hay una sola saliva y un solo sabor a fruta madura, y yo te siento temblar contra mí como una luna en el agua.

I touch your mouth, with one finger I touch the edge of your mouth, I draw it as if it came out of my hand, as if your mouth was for the first time just barely open, and closing my eyes is enough to undo it and start over. Each time I create the mouth I desire, the mouth that my hand chooses and draws for you on your face, one mouth chosen from all, chosen by me with sovereign freedom to draw with my hand on your face, and for some random chance I seek not to understand, it perfectly matches your smiling mouth, beneath the one my hand draws for you.

You look at me, you look at me closely, each time closer and then we play cyclops, we look at each other closer each time and our eyes grow, they grow closer, they overlap and the cyclops look at each other, breathing confusion, their mouths find each other and fight warmly, biting with their lips, resting their tongues lightly on their teeth, playing in their caverns where the heavy air comes and goes with the scent of an old perfume and silence. Then my hands want to hide in your hair, slowly stroke the depth of your hair while we kiss with mouths full of flowers or fish, of living movements, of dark fragrance. And if we bite each other, the pain is sweet, and if we drown in a short and terrible surge of breath, that instant death is beauty. And there is a single saliva and a single flavor of ripe fruit, and I can feel you shiver against me like a moon on the water.