My annual seasonal depression is slowly but surely kicking in – why do I feel so tired all the time, I text my sister, and she responds, Because winter is coming. Oh, the equatorial child in me can never truly be squashed out – I should have brought my SAD lamp up from Norwich!
How fitting, then, to have read two books this week by two of my lifelong favourite female authors, two books about time passing, about the importance of rituals to acknowledge the passage of time, about how the seasons turn, turn, turn. Two established female novelists, two writers I’ve been reading for decades (one since I was eleven/twelve, one since I was twenty-one).
“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”
“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.
“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”
She thought that over.
“But…” she said.
“But… is that enough?” she asked him.
“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.
(Anne Tyler, Clock Dance)
I wonder if there’s a tendency to take mid-career writers for granted – to under-appreciate them. I don’t really know anyone else who reads Anne Tyler – sometimes I wonder if she’s seen as untrendy. All I know is that I find Anne Tyler deeply, profoundly comforting. Do I believe that the quirky, eccentric neighbours in Clock Dance are this friendly in real life? Probably not. But what does that say about me?
There was an odd little silence. Then Willa said–she couldn’t help herself–“What do you live for?”
“Well, one thing is that when you’re old, everything takes more time. Bathing, counting out my pills, putting in my eye drops… you’d be amazing at how much of the day a person can fill that way.”
“Ah,” Willa said.
Although this was not much use to Willa. She was still very quick on her feet.
“But sometimes it feels so repetitive. You know? Like when I’m getting dressed. I’ll think, These same old, same old colors; I wish I had some new ones. But there aren’t any new ones, anywhere on earth. Or vegetables: same old vegetables. Come suppertime and there’s spinach, or there’s tomatoes, or there’s corn… Why can’t they invent some new vegetables? It seems I’ve used everything up.”
“There’s broccolini,” Cheryl said suddenly. “That’s a new vegetable.”
I LOVED reading this book. The structure is shockingly experimental! We start out with three major incident’s of Willa’s life (all of which are spoiled on the book jacket summary): the night her mother disappears for 24 hours, the day she gets engaged, her husband’s death in a car accident. And then we jump to the longest section, in which Willa is unexpectedly invited to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter (whew!). I found this fascinating – the extreme jumps through time; the way we see Willa change and grow. Definitely as I get older, the themes in Tyler’s fiction (am I a good person? Have I done anything with my life) resonate all the more strongly with me.
This is definitely the kind of book that will remind you to call your grandma more often.
“I mean, sometimes when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I try the opposite approach: I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe.”
“Well,” Willa said, “but doesn’t that make you feel kind of… puny?”
“I am puny,” he said. “We all are. We’re all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe, and whether we remembered to turn the oven off doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
That he considered this to be comforting made Willa laugh.
“That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.” (Ali Smith, Winter)
Winter was definitely less of an escape than Clock Dance, as it deals directly with Twitter, the current U.S. president (not named but blatantly present), the isolating effects of technology, and the history of protest in the UK (specifically the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp). This New Yorker review by James Wood gives a really helpful overview of her recent work – I keep forgetting how pun-ny Ali Smith is, and how much puns drive the themes in her writing. I think my favorite pun-tastic riff in Winter was on “to-day”, in the sense of treating it as a verb. How do you day, one of the characters wonders. Is it the same thing as to love?
The environmental themes in Winter also stood out to me – in one of the book’s many Leonara Carrington-esque surreal sequences, one character sees a piece of coastline floating above the dinner table. I’m reminded of her short stories of the rose bush growing in a chest, or the woman who falls in love with a tree. Is this the most pressing theme of our time? How we relate to the non-human, to the natural world around us? Can the human and non-human exist together in an ethical way? Will embracing interdependent relationshps with nonhuman nature save us?
The world is completely fucked, the new Brazilian president is probably going to destroy the Amazon rainforest, and my Vitamin D levels are super low and getting lower, but I’m glad these two writers are still working. Models to emulate.
Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)
It’s Week 4 of the teaching semester and Week 6 of my Magic Mountain book club, and I am kind of/sort of/maybe starting to feel the tiredness kick in? It probably mainly has to do with me going to London this weekend for a wedding, which was VERY fun – the bride and groom’s first dance was to an Aphex Twin song! Very cool, and nice to catch up with people. However, being in my thirties has made spending the night in hostels increasingly less appealing to me – I’m talking to YOU, Italian ladies, who somehow thought it was appropriate to talk to each other at 4 in the morning, thus inspiring everyone else in the room to hiss and screech at them!
Along with my weekly intake of Thomas Mann (Knasgaard, I have put aside for now – I’m saving him for a long plane journey), it’s been fun to read some shorter books. This article (which is seriously probably the most fascinating pieces of literary criticism I have ever read!) inspired me to (re?)-read Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” series – they’re SO GOOD! I can’t believe I’ve never read them before! Or have I?! I distinctly REMEMBER seeing his books lying around the house in Colombia, but they belonged to my older brother, and he only had the first and fifth one, so maybe I never got around to reading them because I didn’t see the point of starting a series and not finishing it…? I definitely read SOME of the first one, at the very least. Anyway, I have REALLY been enjoying them – a terrific discovery.
And then there’s Die My Love by Ariana Harwicz, which is definitely in the territory of ADULT FICTION. And for very specific adults too – I would definitely NOT give this to any expectant or new mothers!!
This was a fascinating book to read after having finish Jessie Greengrass’ Sight – they make for interesting counter-balances. While the style in Sight is very essayistic, Die My Love is more like a hot, sweaty monologue. This was probably my favorite thing about the book – it reminded me of Mary Ruefle, in the way that sentences jumped from one topic to another so rapidly. The paragraphs are long, but the chapters are never more than three pages. And at barely over a hundred pages total, this is one fast read. It’s almost like a book of poetry, or a collection of monologues, or stream-of-consciousness angry rants. But it’s not boring or annoying at all, mainly due to the crazed voice, which I found absolutely HILARIOUS (in a very dark way).
The story follows a foreign woman (Argentinean? We’re never told), living in rural France (also never specified – I’d have NEVER guessed it was France without the blurb on the back). She’s newly married with her long-time partner, with a newborn son. And she finds herself wondering: “How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of these two individuals? What was I going to do? … I dropped the knife and went to hang out the washing like nothing had happened.” (1)
And so we see that she is slowly losing her grip. Or maybe she’s having a reasonable response to the disarming situation she’s in, that of being in a foreign land with a newborn child. She’s constantly comparing herself with other mothers, judging herself, and having strange fantasies like walking through the patio door glass: “I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish. Here we are, all three of us together for a family portrait.” (3) The frenzied, raw energy reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Darkly provocative stuff, but I honestly found the darkness of it (and sheer outrageousness at times) very funny!
Themes throughout include nature, human vs. animal, desire, what does it mean to have different selves (wife, mother, daughter). I underlined SO many sentences in this. And there were some sequences (like when they hit a stag with the car, and the dog licks the remains off the bonnet, and they christen the unnamed dog Bloody) read almost as slapstick; they seemingly come out of left field.
Highly recommend this. Here are some quotes I underlined (so hard to choose! These are just from the first thirty pages!):
“We don’t hold hands either, we’re always pushing the buggy or carrying the baby instead.” (5)
“Why won’t he stop crying? What does he want? You’re his mother, you should know. But I don’t know, I say, I haven’t the faintest idea...” (6)
“You all have your dark side. But I’m thinking about pacing up and down with the baby in my arms, hour after hour of tedious choreography, from the exhaustion to screaming, screaming to exhaustion. And I think about how a child is a wild animal, about another person carrying your heart forever.” (6)
“How does a wild boar ejaculate?“(8)
“I organise his action figures in order of their arrival in our lives.” (9)
“Why do we women ask our husbands what they ate? What the hell are we hoping to find out by asking what they ate? If they’ve slept with someone else? If they’re unhappy with us? If they’re planning to leave us one day when they say they’re going out for an ice cream?” (10)
“If I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will.” (11)
“Personally, I think if your husband or father beats you up it’s your call to tough it out.” (12)
“If I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.” (13)
“I’m one person, my body is two.” (15)
“I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance.” (15)
“I’ve built up so much rage that I could drink until I have a heart attack. That’s what I tell myself bu tit’s not true. I couldn’t even down half a bottle. My days are all like this. Endlessly stagnant. A slow downfall.” (16)
“Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things. Spiders appear in the sink as I’m having my morning coffee, and they drown as soon as I turn on the tap. The stronger ones manage to resist for a while, folding into themselves like tight little flowers. They’re the ones that provoke me to run the hot water to destroy them. The flies’ turn comes when I’m spreading the quince jelly. They’ve been following us around since prehistoric times and it’s about time they died out.” (29)
“Some people need to be able to see the ocean, but I need to be able to see a firearm.” (33)
My, what a busy, busy week that was! Very Richard Scarry-esque. BUT, I did get to read two amazing books!
THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY (GREGORY NORMINTON)
Uff, reading this the day after the UN report on climate change was released was MUY, MUY fuerte. This had been on my to-read list for a while due to the intriguing set-up: three timelines, ancient Britain, modern Britain, and futuristic Britain. An ancient Briton boy encounters a Roman solider, a traumatised war veteran confronts an archaeologist, and a band of feral children make their way through a burning landscape, a world set aflame through (presumably) global warming (this section is narrated in the first-person plural – very cool). And throughout there’s reflections on the definition of human progress, the relationship with the landscape, what it means to be British, violence and kindness, migrants and displacement, the appeal of terrorism and jihadism, the changing nature of human spirituality, from earth-focused to book-focused… I was reminded of Cloud Atlas and The Buried Giant. This… was exactly my cup of tea!!
The three narratives are literally “connected” by the Roman road that gives the book its title, The Devil’s Highway. As one character comments, “One place is lots of places if you just wait long enuf.” It’s all very cleverly done. It reminded me of what first fascinated me about linked collections – how scenes in different timelines can echo each other. The way a flint tool reappears, for example. Or the different ways we spend our time (like hunting and foraging vs. stacking groceries at the co-op). It all becomes quite powerful – a scene near the end involving blind people had me in tears. And I NEVER cry when reading!! (Though it’s happening more frequently lately – Station Eleven also had me weeping). What’s especially impressive is that this book is SHORT. Barely 200 pages! I find this INCREDIBLY impressive – that the book has been cut down to the bare, naked essentials.
I found the historical part particularly fascinating. The way the Romans viewed the Britons, as savages who used wood and mud, while the Romans brought roads and progress. The presence of feminine gods, the relationship with animals, the importance of physical objects like sticks and stones… all very Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The far-off past is as alien as another planet, innit.
This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
“She can understand the allure of cutting your own path. Who wants to follow a straight official route when everything in nature loops and circles?” (55)
“What’s the point? If everything gets buried again?”
The girl shrugs. “It’s progress,” she says. (123)
“Had he such a thing to lose: an essence that survived death? If so, could it rise from any bonds that earth could make for it? His enemies, every one of them, had a soul. The young fanatics chasing him: so long as he could stand and manage a stick, he would not hesitate to kill any that came his way. There would be no honour in it: they were not worthy adversaries. Yet the druid that found a calling for them, an exalted purpose. Who, in their stultified tribe, had done the same? Only violence stirred the blood. It was a spring that never ran dry. Perhaps that was why the empire existed, pushing ever outwards to keep the rage of its young from turning against home.” (180)
SIGHT (JESSIE GREENGRASS)
Jessie Greengrass is probably one of my favorite contemporary writers now working. God, we are blessed to have her in our midst! I loved her short story collection, and Sight, her first novel, is filled with so many gems. I underlined so many sentences I don’t even know where to start!
Sight, similarly to The Devil’s Highway, is a “broken” novel in the sense that it doesn’t exactly follow a straight path. We have a first-person narrator, a young woman trying to decide whether or not to have a child (though we know very early on that she does, so this definitely isn’t a will-she-or-won’t-she plot). We see memories of her mother’s death, childhood summers spent with her analyst grandmother, and visits to museums with her partner. And interspersed throughout are these sort of mini-essays (or “digressions,” as the author herself has called them), about significant moments in medical history. The discovery of X-rays. The first Caesarean. And the years Anna Freud spent in analysis with her father.
This is another short book – 200 pages. Short books FTW, baby! I don’t have a kid (obviously), nor have I been in the position of having to nurse a parent (yet… no comment :((( ), but nevertheless I found the passages about these two “life milestones” incredibly affecting. The book continuously discusses how having a child is like having an extension of yourself, and yet, the child is definitely “not” you, and that the definition of adulthood is moving away from one’s parent, which can feel like a horrible irony. “Growing up,” the narrator says, “is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us,” (58) an the scenes where she and her mother clean the house after her grandmother’s death is a vivid depiction of this. What does it mean to grow up, to become an adult? How do we “see” inside ourselves, understand ourselves? How is it possible to we can be so hidden from ourselves, that we can possess so little understanding about why we do the things we do? (Man, don’t get me STARTED on this…!) What can the past tell us about ourselves; what can we learn from it; and how do we protect those we love (like our children) from it? How do we balance the routine of a long, meandering, domestic days and try not to be feel frantic about the BIG PICTURE? Is the only way to know something is to live it?
There’s an amazing clarity in the writing here – I was reminded of Knausgaard’s essay writing, and Ottessa Moshfegh at times (namely due to the surly humour, which really MAKES the book). It was so freaking nice, as a young woman, to read a book about motherhood that is thoughtful, balanced, and reflective, as opposed to being all like CHILDREN = LOSS OF ARTISTIC FREEDOM FOREVER. God, this was such a good read. Can’t wait for her next one.
“This is what we all do, after all, this striving to make sense.” (103)
“I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both. The thought of it makes me surly and resentful.” (62)
“What are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions.” (85)
“[I read] because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing, and, perhaps, from a lifetime’s inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” (36)
What a tough week for women! I donated to RAINN. And I read a lot of poetry online, which I hadn’t done in a while. Here are some I found that I liked:
A Whole New Poetry Beginning Here
This is what I am: watching the spider
rebuild — “patiently”, they say,
but I recognise in her
the passion to make and make again
where such unmaking reigns
Everything is Everything
Things seem to come naturally to people
that don’t come naturally to me.
At fifteen I knew how to be a parent
but not a sibling. My mirror neurons
are so overactive, I move my lips
when Homer & Marge kiss.
To speak even gibberish after sex
is to ruin something. This morning I forgot
to write my daily affirmation 15 times.
Now I’ll never destroy white supremacy.
Alexa, play Blessings by Chance the Rapper.
Alexa, is it raining? If you’re recording this
please tell the 45th president I wish he’d die.
Tell anyone who will listen. My exile outfit
is already in a pile, gray on the gray floor.
I zipper it off in bed & step out naked.
When I open the fridge, its cold gust
hits my skin; I open too & it leaves me.
Cleanliness is close to godliness & I
am the opposite of both. My husband left
a single egg with a note. I’m sorry, darling.
A track meet happened yesterday.
Good luck, brother. Outside the rain pauses,
sunlight hits the TV in a quick gash,
& I kiss the egg. We could all be kinder.
MORNING EN ROUTE TO THE HOSPITAL
Snow wafts off the little lake
along Route 66, momentarily encasing the car
in a trance of glitter
Live with your puny, vulnerable self
Live with her
SOUP IS ONE FORM OF SALT WATER
I am making borscht please do not laugh at me
I seem to have ruined my soul the quality of
television programming grows stronger all the time
soon we will live in the ocean we will all return
to the ocean my hands are bright pink like I
have been applauding you for hours my love for
you is louder than I know I saw a show last night
there were four thousand brides left in Iceland I
was laughing but it was not funny the brides
looked embarrassed and cold I must not wash
anywhere but a tidepool I must use a starfish to
scrub at my hands I am writing this to say I am
not leaving you forever I am going to get better
and then I’ll come home
Sorrow Is Not My Name
–after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbour sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
–for Walter Aitkens
State, you have been reckless with my heart
and these endings hurt. I cannot trust again
your wheedling face and pillow talk.
What about those honey days?
Those tended gardens and bread for all?
State, I feel like a fool.
I trusted you and you sold my walking shoes
to someone who only taxis.
State, I’ve killed the children we would’ve had together
and buried them with my passport.
As I believe I’ve stated before, I’ve been reading The Magic Mountain with an online book group. Here’s a tangential rant I went on in the email discussion:
This is a bit of a tangent, but something that’s really been helping me get through this week and all the horrible, awful news coming from the U.S. about the treatment of women, is the idea of using CARING as an antidote to VIOLENCE and HORRIBLE THINGS IN THE WORLD. I was really affected by how women everywhere were just SO UPSET by the Senate hearings, but in a way it also made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one – feeling connected to others, like I’m not alone, is a really helpful way to fight depression for me (my meditation app also encourages this!). My favourite Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says the same thing, that the role of “caring” needs to be more emphasised in society (rather than, say, making money or growing businesses) – and what with A.I.s taking over jobs, we need to turn a switch in our brains and rethink what we see as “valuable work” – namely, raising children! Should be paid! BECAUSE IT IS WORK! But love is such a weird thing in contrast to work, because you can give out an infinite amount of it, something capitalism would find very confusing.
Ugh, fuck last week. Stay well, friends.
I was in Segovia this weekend for a literary festival. Very swag.
I was last in Segovia when I visited my sister in 2006 – I remember we missed the bus, and had “cochinillo” for lunch, and took photos of its little piglet face. I’m looking at the photo album on facebook right now – god, isn’t the ancient digital past a trip?
I had fun at the festival but I also suffered from SEVERE ANXIETY. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is VERY, VERY hard for me to get the sneering voice out of my head, whispering harsh things to me: “you don’t deserve to be here… they made a mistake inviting you… god, everyone is so embarrassed for you right now, why are you so embarrassing? they really regret asking you to come…” God, it’s exhausting! Sometimes I am strong enough to fight this off (getting older helps – seriously, fuck being in your 20’s!), but this weekend, I just couldn’t. I was emotionally worn-out from the move, I think. Overall, I still had a great time and am happy I went (HUGE thank you to the unbelievably gracious and helpful festival organizers), but I want to be honest about my experience and not project the false message that my life is all like Thrills and Chills. Sometimes, it is like this, and that’s okay. And I know for a fact I’m not the only sensitive, early-career artist who experiences this sometimes! BUT. Despite my anxiety, I really enjoyed getting to know the other authors (especially the Czech writer in the taxi, telling me about her wild teenage years, and the other author on the panel with me, who is a SHINING STAR, or the East London poet, who performed a piece about a Syrian mermaid). And I loved meeting the Cuban choreographer – one of the events I did was a “baile literario,” in which I read texts and then she lead the crowd in a dance. BOY, was the audience participation stellar!! You get 5 stars for enthusiasm, Segovia!
I was also able to read the first 60 pages of The Magic Mountain for my sister’s online bookclub – she is OBSESSED with the Magic Mountain, and that’s putting it mildly. We’ll be reading 60-70 pages a week for the next three months – like when I read Infinite Jest, this is a really fun way to read long books! I find that it lets me enjoy it, and read other books at the same time. I’m already fantasising about what we can read next – The Tale of Genji?
It is maybe NOT the best idea to be reading THREE giant books at the same time, though, as I’ve found myself doing… HOWEVER, I have made it past the agonisingly agonising close reading of the Celan poem in Knausgaard and have found myself tearing through it once more! I’ve reached the part where he examines the early days of Adolf Hitler’s youth, which has been surprisingly relevant to the first 60 pages of Magic Mountain. It’s FASCINATING stuff. Knausgaard delves deep into Hitler going against his father’s wishes for him to become a civil servant, insisting on becoming an artist (painter, writer, opera composer, despite being unable to write music!). His obsession with the opera, and theatre, and how this later linked in with how he turned Germany into a theatre, expressing cohesion, identity, and authenticity. It is VERY Bolaño-esque – the way this mental fascist was obsessed with the idea of the beautiful, eternal, and cohesive in art – art as something that elevates, something that has supreme position in society. He contrasts Hitler’s idea of art with Kafka – Kafka’s diary, full of its angsty moans and bowel movement descriptions, is something young Hitler NEVER would have written. And yet who became an artist?
Knausgaard sees Hitler’s failure as an artist linked to his inability to put more of his ‘self’ into his art; he was more obsessed with this idea of being ‘great’ (which he later, big surprise, projects into his politics). It is potentially controversial, in the sense that he tries to be balanced in his portrayal – he discusses how Hitler was orphaned at an early age, beaten by his father, repeatedly failed to get accepted into the Academy (so much of his early life is basically about him being a LOSER, a BUM), produced shitty amateurish artwork (but what 16-19 year old doesn’t, Knausgaard asks), was a shitty annoying friend who ranted and complained about everything to his long-suffering roommate (Knausgaard quotes extensively from the roommate’s diary, a truly valuable resource). And yet what doesn’t result is sympathy, but interest and fascination. It’s important to understand how something like the Holocaust could happen, and it’s important to understand the man behind it.
I’ve highlighted so many passages in this section, it’s hard to only share a few!
“Who would not wish to be a part of something greater than the self? Who would not wish to feel their life to be meaningful? Who would not wish to have something to die for?” [I don’t actually know if I would die for anything, TBH…]
“We live our lives surrounded by commercial goods, and spend great swathes of our waking hours in front of screens. We conceal death as best we can. What do we do if out of all this a yearning for something else arises? A realer reality, a more authentic life?”
“This is the reason I write, trying to explore the connections of which I am a part.”
I am in Sheffield. Or we are, if you count the cat (which I really should). This is the 4th time she’s moved with me in six years. Oh, Puss! What a role model you are to me, with your curiosity and courage! Sure, you are hiding under the bed right now, but you did sniff around and meet a few of the new housemates! You just understand the proper balance between “me time” and “exploration!”
I have been finding Knausgaard tough going in these tough days. Para decirlo de simple… el man me esta aburriendo. I’ve found solace in googling reviews online and discovering that no, it’s not just me finding the EXTREMELY CLOSE READING of the Celan poem slow going. Reader, I skipped to part three, which is focusing more on the Knausgaardian stuff I enjoy (i.e. incredibly long descriptive passages about making coffee and smoking). But I will go back and finish reading part two. Especially since he apparently, at one point, compares Instagram users to Nazi Youths.
What I’ve REALLY been enjoying reading (other than texts in preparation for this year’s courses) is none other than Little Women, by Louis May Alcott. Man, what a book this is! I can’t believe I’d never read it before! As a child I did read a “babyish” version of it, i.e. Little Women redux, with an illustration on every page. Let me tell you, that illustrated kids’ series is basically responsible for me reading ALL of the classics! So many books I can have “claimed” to have “read!” David Copperfield… The Three Musketeers… A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court …. (to be fair I did end up reading this for real in high school…). If I have kids, I’m definitely tracking them down again. And if I don’t have kids I probably will anyway.
I wanted to read Little Women because a while back, Anne Tyler (one of my all-time favorite writers) said in an interview that she tries to reread Little Women once a year, and has probably read it at least 27 times. This made me think of that Mary Ruefle quip, in her essay about reading new books vs. re-reading – how at some point, when your time on earth is becoming more, um, limited, you are faced with the decision of reading new fiction or just re-reading the ones you know you already love. I was recently confronted with this issue when reading a recently published book that I just plain did not GET. Reader, I skimmed the last half. Which is something I normally NEVER do. But life is too short. And besides, Little Women was waiting for me.
There’s something especially lovely about reading Little Women – a decidedly old-fashioned, untrendy book – during these troubling times. Gosh, am I going to turn to classic fiction to help soothe my mind? It helps the classics tend to be a) very affordable b) easily accessed in libraries (not that I’ve sorted out my library card yet; it’s on the list). In Little Women,I can definitely see the Anne Tyler-ish influences – the big families, the urgent chatty energy, the humour. Oh man, the humour! This book is FUNNY – I had no idea!
Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die. (29)
“Don’t use such dreadful expression,” replied Meg from the depths of the veil in which she had shrouded herself like a nun sick of the world. (41) — SICK OF THE WORLD! How often have I felt this!
“Go and eat your dinner, you’ll feel better after it. Men always croak when they are hungry.” (135) — SO TRUE.
And when Beth is crying over her dead canary, and Amy says hopefully, “Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive” – I CACKLED. Oh, and Aunt March’s parrot, that keeps viciously attacking Amy? Comedy gold!
Jo, as many have clearly and accurately attested, is the most interesting character – artistic, clumsy, outspoken. “Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, read, and ride as much as she liked.” (44)
Gosh, who could not relate to her? What I found VERY interesting is how often she wishes she could have been a boy, a man – “If I was a boy,” she tells Laurie, “we’d run away together, and have a capital time, but as I’m a miserable girl, I must be proper and stop at home. Don’t tempt me, Teddy, it’s a crazy plan.” (248) And Wikipedia (obviously the prime source of any background info) says that the author herself frequently declared this as well – that she was a “man’s soul” in a woman’s body. Que interesting, no? I remember that Jo gets married in Part II to someone who’s not Teddy, which already feels like a pretty daring move on the part of the author, considering how well they get along in Part I.
I could do without the frequent Christian moralising about “Him above”… and Beth really is quite wishy washy, isn’t she? But there is something to be said for the book’s value system – about appreciating what you have, rather than wishing you were someone else, and where somewhere else, and had something else. There’s also some good-ole fashioned Protestant work ethic thrown in as well, with frequent quips about the values of “a useful life” – “go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace,” etc. And you know what? There is some truth to that. I know that when I’ve been REALLY depressed or down in the dumps, having something to focus on can really help!
All in all I’m astonished at how modern and readable the language in this is, if not the morals (it pretty much is a “marriage plot” novel, isn’t it?). I’ll be sad when it ends, but then again, Knausgaard’s The End is still calling my name…
‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many things they could actually do. (50)
It does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it? (97)
He was in one of his moods, for the day had been both unprofitable and unsatisfactory, and he was wishing he could live it over again. (163)
“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we ever shall get through it.” (220)
Missing (Alison Moore)
How nice that would be, thought Jessie, just to make a phone call and pay a fine and get back whatever you had lost. (90)
Oh, I love a good ghost story. And this one has enough deliciousness in spades. An inexplicably broken tea mug. A hairline crack in a window gradually getting bigger. Creaks and sighs from upstairs (if you REALLY want to get the crap scared out of you, listen to this story!).
I read this a while ago, over the summer during Salt Publishing’s campaign to save itself from debt. God, I love independent publishers. Something I’ve really learned over the past six years is how much more varied and interesting the indie catalogue is. Thank God for risk-takers!
I loved the quiet, spooky domesticity of this. Sort of like the monotony of Knausgaard mixed with the creepy atmosphere of Robert Aickman. I loved the main character, Jessie, a translator. I related to her very strongly, especially in her obsession with cooking:
She liked to cook. She found it soothing – the chopping, chopping, softening, boiling down. She cooked more food than she could possibly eat on her own; she made enough to feed a family. What she could not eat, she froze. In her freezer, she had weeks’ worth – perhaps months’ worth – of shepherd’s pie and chilli; she had about a square foot of lasagne, in individual portions, which she took out, one at a time. She blasted them in the microwave. (41)
In the margins next to this, I wrote, IT ME.
I also loved the humour throughout this. God, how it made me cackle! Like the dog’s name, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or this part:
Now that she lived alone, and seeing as she worked at home, and given that she spoke only occasionally to her family, she did sometimes imagine dying in some sudden and unnecessary way – perhaps tripping over the cat at the top of the stairs and landing broken-necked at the bottom – and nobody knowing for weeks. The neighbours or the postman would notice a smell, and after a while someone would come and find her lying at the foot of the stairs, and in the meantime the cat would have been eating her face. She did not know about the dog, whether it would try to intervene or whether it would just join in. (53)
So dark! I love it!
Reading this book reminded me that it’s possible to make great art without a lot of capitalist attention. Don’t get me wrong, this book has done very well! Lots of reviews, etc. But it ties in with the latest passage of Knausgaard that I just read (progress has been slow… I’m still only at 36% on my kindle edition). In this long essayistic ramble (there’s been QUITE a few these in the book so far…!), Knausgaard talks about the human obsession with being seen. This is a long ramble, so bear with me. Basically, he starts out talking about how rather than change his father’s name in the book due to a legal request, he instead removes his father’s name entirely, so that within the novel, his father is basically a man without a name. He them embarks upon a reflection of what names mean to people – how one of the most brutal forms of teasing a children can do is to twist around someone’s name. Somehow, our names feel connected to the core of who we are – of how we are seen and understood by others:
“Apart from material necessities, the most important need of any human being is to be seen. Anyone who is not seen is no one. The worst punishment in old Nordic culture was to be proclaimed fredløs, which is to say cast out from society, forbidden to associate with others… We strive to be seen. And when being seen means being seen by all, it gives rise to an impossible craving, since being seen by all is the preserve of the few.”
He ties this in with celebrity and social media, about how people use their names online not only to denote the core of who they are, but also as an ADVERTISEMENT of their own idea of who they are, in terms of creating a context online for their name, a furnishing, “not unlike the way in which a brand is built up or a pop star constructed.” This is my favorite kind of rant, let me tell you! If I am ever trapped in the corner by a drunken Knausgaard at a party, let me tell you, I am NOT moving.
So as a result from being surrounded by this constant BRAND BUILDING and ADVERTISEMENT that is “abstract” and “image-based”, Knausgaard sees an important role for the novel (drum roll): “what the novel can do,” he says, “and which perhaps is its most important property, is to penetrate our veils of habit and familiarity simply by describing things in a slightly different way.”
This is what I enjoy the most about books like Missing. Quiet books, that are all the more brilliant for how quiet they are. They’re not launched frenetically upon the media stage. They’re not loud. But in their firm and resolute way, they are keeping art alive. When I read passages about a woman obsessively making lasagnes and think, IT ME, god, what a comfort that is! The moment of recognition when reading Missing‘s discussion of how a missing puzzle piece (especially a corner one!) can create such a terrible mood around the house! The reflections of a translator on how bloody hard it is to communicate, on what a responsibility it is to try to say exactly what you mean! The familiarity of reading about someone who leaves notes in the margins of library books and checks them years later to see if anyone has responded! Or the way a man chopping onions is described: “He pressed the back of his wrist to his eyes. He looked as if he were acting in a tragedy.” That moment of oh wow, I never saw it put that way.
And also this idea of breaking out of our “veils of habit and familiarity,” which is very much a theme of Missing. God, I can’t even begin with this! That’s probably why I obsess so much about travel, about escape, because it feels like an “easy” fix, an electroshock to the system to make you sit up, take notice, not sleepwalk through your life but take notice of every moment. It’s so hard, as a self-critical young woman, to feel like I’m living my life the way I want to.
But what can I do, but get up, blast one of my microwave frozen lasagnes, and try to get through the day with as much compassion and attention as I can. That’s the kind of art I want to make, too. Quiet and unassuming, and mine.
“We must not contemplate the world, but act within it. We must not read, and we must not look; instead we must go. Go towards something, perhaps; something whose nature is as yet unknown to us.” (Knausgaard, Loc 7430 – WHYYYY do some of my kindle books not provide page numbers? So random and inexplicable!)
Last week contained a bit of a treat – I was able to go to Oxford to meet one of my favourite writers (more on that soon).
This old building is now a Pret a Manger… truly, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore…
I had some time to pop into a museum, where I enjoyed the writing section very much.
And T.E. Lawrence’s robes! Truly, a vintage high school obsession.
“Writing is a way to record facts, ideas, and stories. A reader can understand what you mean without meeting or talking to you.”
I really enjoyed the paintings by this female Japanese artist, who came and lived in England for a while. This was her painting of Stonehenge.
And I loved these rabbits! I hadn’t seen rabbits on Japanese art before (not that I’ve seen that much of it lol).
I also liked this old painting of Oxford’s High Street.
And of course this map of migration of Europe is always topical.
The other fun treat of my week is that volume six of Knasgaard’s My Struggle series, entitled The End, was finally released to my kindle. The last Knausgaard I read was in 2016 – can’t believe that it’s been that long! Here’s where I write about Book One and Book Two – looks like I didn’t write about Books Three and Four, which is a shame, because I really enjoyed them. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the whole lot! Who knows, maybe I’ll re-read them again someday… or Proust?
God, I love Knausgaard. I was ranting and raving about him to N. the other day as we chomped down on our hamburgers. I’m only 29% of the way through The End (god, I’ll be honest, I’m not really looking forward to the 400-page essay on Hitler, but who knows, maybe I’ll sink into it) and I’m sure there’s still a lot more in store for me. But oh, Knausgaard-world! The obsession with death. The mundanity of working with children, shopping. The constant smoking (I read somewhere online that he’s quit, and that he’s also now divorced, and living in London).
The End picks up in 2009, shortly before the publication of Book One of My Struggle. He sends the manuscript to his family members for their approval and is accosted by his uncle, who threatens to sue and contests specific facts in the book. Knausgaard himself ends up wondering what in the book is actually “true”, and what was an assumption of his – had his father fired the cleaner, or had Knausgaard just assumed it? In my head, the fact that the books are called NOVELS should release him from holding himself to a non-fiction, journalistic standard, but whatever, I guess that’s why with auto-fiction things get blurry.
This is probably the most death-obsessed book since Book One. There’s a lot of poignancy in Knausgaard’s interactions with his children, particularly since the entire series has been basically about his father’s death. He wonders constantly how his children will remember him, how they will remember this moment. I particularly loved the passage about Hamlet, and how much he has in common with dead people and ghosts. In a way, Hamlet is more immortal that “living” dead people, who can only live on in the memories of those who knew them (this is a very Coco-esque theme, I’ve just realized). But Hamlet, as a work of fiction, can live on forever. “Does he rise now in his chilly chamber? Does he climb the narrow steps out onto the roof, to the parapets? What then does he see? … What thoughts does he have? Shakespeare told us.”
My favorite moment in the book so far is when Knausgaard and his daughter are running a fun run, a sort of race for children. The daughter’s friend keeps stopping and kindly waiting for her to catch up, and at one point trips and bloodies up her leg. At that point Knausgaard urges his daughter to go, go, go, beat her, cross the finish line! And afterwards all the adults are laughing and joking with him: “wow, your daughter just left her friend behind, haha, she really wanted to win!” And Knasugaard is just like… I can never tell them the truth, that it was actually ME who was so obsessed with a four year old girl winning a race that I made her abandon her bleeding, crying friend. HA!
It’s incidents like this one that make me like the “character” of Knausgaard that appears in these books so much. Constantly ashamed and snivelling, full of self-pity and disgust. Almost Dostoevskyian, in a way. Wondering if he’s a good father, and what it means to be a good person. But committed, absolutely, to his writing. And that’s maybe the most interesting theme to have emerged so far in this book. Knausgaard finds himself wondering WHY he has written this series – why couldn’t he just let sleeping dogs lie? Why is he causing so much trouble to his loved ones? Is he really this ruthless? A sort of literary vampire (“brutal and without consideration, self-seeking and egoistic“), exploiting his family? But then he muses upon how during the actual moment of writing, he never once stopped to think, should I do this, should I explore these themes. It was a compulsion; he couldn’t stop himself, and that was what made writing the books different from writing an essay, or an article: it came from pure feeling, emotions about him and his father.
I’ll try to remember how sad I’ll be when this book is finished when I’m slogging through the more “boring” bits… this statement could probably apply to life in general, too.
“Writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which is never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than everyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed? Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?”
“Life was there to be felt, that was what we strove for, but why? For our headstones to say ‘Here lies a person who liked to sleep’?”