Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Brothers Karamazov

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would, considering how much I complained about it while I was reading it. It was nothing personal–it just took a REALLY long time to finish, compared to the other two Epic Russian novels I read this year (War and Peace and Anna Karenina, respectively). This book is filled with lots of very important themes and questions: the existence of God, (Voltaire’s quotation “If God did not exist we would have to invent him” is repeated throughout), the nature of evil, son and father relationships (I can see why Kafka was a Karamazov fan, especially in context of “The Judgement”) and the search for the Russian Soul. Apart from all those Really Deep Thoughts it’s also a rip-roaringly good murder mystery courtroom drama. I feel like it says a lot about Doostoevsky’s handling of suspense and tension that right before the verdict was about to be announced, I still had no idea what it was going to be. I LOVED the relatively open ending of this book–a good vs. great ending is what really makes or breaks a classic, IMHO.

The tension between rationality vs. faith throughout this book is an interesting one. On one hand you have characters like Zosima, this super holy elder monk, who’s lived his life in a monastery comforting desperate pilgrim peasants. And then you have other characters such as Ivan, the coldly intellectual middle Karamazov brother, who composes this epic poem called The Grand Inquisitor. The poem is about Jesus’ return during the Second Coming, and how he gets locked up in a dungeon by the title character, who tells him that the world is better off without him. Heavy, heavy stuff. And then there’s Alyosha, the story’s hero (named after Dostoyevsky’s dead three-year-old epileptic son–there’s tellingly a lot about dead children and epilepsy and grief throughout this novel!). Alyosha joins Zosima’s monastery but is sent out into the world “to live and experience life” by the head monk himself. Alyosha’s situation makes me think of the whole Into the Wild question: is it better to isolate yourself from humanity and become One with Nature and the Soul and so on, or is better to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the messiness and the chaos and participate in it, despite the pain and agony? It’s Alyosha who has the novel’s final speech, telling a group of children at a funeral of one of their friends who died of tuberculosis, “How good life is when you do something good and rightful!” (776)

Another big question in this book is a great one: WHY DO WE SUFFER? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does life consist of PAIN and HURT and ANXIETY and OMG I just want to numb everything with vodka and pills. Ivan is particularly good at voicing this question, especially when telling an anecdote that according to my trusty history of Russian culture Natasha’s Dance is based on a true story that Dostoyevsky himself heard. The anecdote concerns a peasant child that threw a rock at a general’s hunting dog; the general’s response was to have the child stripped of clothes and torn to shreds by the rest of the pack. Totally reasonable, no? Ivan uses this anecdote as the main source of evidence for his argument of why he cannot believe in a God that would let such an act of totally cruel, senseless suffering take place, most especially since it involved an innocent child:

I say before hand that the entire truth is not worth such a price. I do not want a mother to embrace the torturer who had her child torn to pieces by his dogs… Is there in the whole world a being who could or would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony. I don’t want harmony, out of a love for mankind, I don’t want it.

(I feel like Dostoevsky’s pain regarding his own dead son is reflected in this “But WHY?” sentiment.) Apparently in a letter to a fried Dostoyevsky said that Ivan’s argument was “irrefutable.” This makes a lot of sense to me: I felt like throughout the whole book, Dostoyevsky was coming off as an author who really, really, REALY wanted to have faith and to BELIEVE in all the glories of religion and Christ and so on, but at the same time there were just all these inexplicable horrors that kept getting in the way. I guess that is the human dilemma.

My sister and I were talking about something similar back when she was still here, shortly after I finished reading the harrowing father of a meth addict memoir, Beautiful Boy. The main question I was left with after reading that book was why on earth do people do such things to themselves? Steal, shoot-up, drink, kill, rape, cut, etc. The only answer we could come up with was appropriately Russian: to kill the abyss, to numb the pain, to squash the anxiety, to make life bearable. So we turn to our bottles, our pills, our nail-biting. But then that STILL leaves the question of WHY is life like that? WHY is life such an experience for so many people, an experience that has to be endured rather than lived? Why couldn’t we all be born with peaceful grey blobby brains that could find bliss and pleasure easily? Why is peace and calm something we have to fight or strive for, via meditation and yoga and deep cleansing breaths? Why for the love of God can’t it just come naturally?

I guess these are questions that don’t have any answers. The Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s poem tells Jesus this is why he’s locking him up: because instead of truly “saving” mankind, he left us with the freedom to torment ourselves and live in suffering. So on one hand you have freedom, and with that comes the freedom to suffer. So even though we suffer and make each other suffer horribly, it is still worth being free thinkers…?

Natasha’s Dance calls The Brothers K “an open discourse between reason and belief in which the tension between the two is never quite resolved.” (332) This seems to be a good a way to encapsulate the novel as any. I was very moved by Alyosha’s final speech, which seems to be testifying more on the fundamental nature of human goodness, rather than espousing the Way of the Church or whatever:

Even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time that we loved the poor boy, perhaps better than we really are… You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, perhaps that alone may serve some day for our salvation. (774)

This passage makes me think of another conversation I recently had with my sister: what is the POINT of life? What is the PURPOSE of existence? Is it to travel and accumulate experiences and memories like you’re collecting rocks or stamps? Is the purpose knowledge, to become an expert in one specific topic or highly knowledgeable in many areas? Is the purpose relationships, to form a loving relationship with someone and really get to know them well? Is the purpose art, to make creative works? Is the purpose work, to ascend to a certain level? IDK. Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life said that in order to get a good answer you need a good question, and perhaps “what is the point of life” is just not a very good question. He also compared finding the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band, of letting different elements that make up a satisfactory life (art, relationships, work, love) ebb and flow.

The one thing that my sister and I ultimately agreed on, though, was self-care. I feel like that was the main lesson I learned from this year, and it was a BIG one. YOU have got give you what you need—you can’t find it from anywhere else. YOU have to be your biggest source of love and strength and support. And once you have that, everything else—love, relationships, work, art—will fall into place from there. This is why in the spirit of self-care, after posting this blog entry I’m going to be heading to the Dollar Tree, where I’ll be buying many brightly-colored sheets of stickers, markers and colorful paper. I am going to write positive affirmations for myself, and tape them EVERYWHERE: in my room, my car, the bathroom, the piano, the computer. 2011 is going to be a good year, because I am gonna make it good! Or as this song says: I’ll find strength in pain! And I will change my ways!

Other interesting themes in the Brothers K:

  • the theme of the ‘Word’ and storytelling= lots of references to Jesus as the ‘Word’. The use of storytelling, composition and creativity throughout the novel: letters, poems, speeches, etc. Alyosha as a “listener” or receiver of other people’s stories, which makes his final speech at the end all the more meaningful.
  • the concept of Schiller’s “the great and the beautiful”, referred to in many places in the novel when characters talk about beauty and goodness. I think what this basically means is that beauty isn’t just an aesthetic characteristic, but a moral one: segun Sciller, the Good is the Beautiful. Apparently this concept comes from a novel by Schiller called The Robbers, also about three brothers and their conflicting moralities. Woow this feels like a topic for an essay from Hum 220 (my sophomore-year in college Humanities class).
  •  I also just wanted to say that the whole part with the devil when he appears and gives his spiel is maybe one of the best passages I’ve read, ever. So captivating and utterly unexpected! It really lifts the novel to a whole ‘nother level…

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poems to close out the year

let it go – the (ee cummings)
let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
go

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
dear

so comes love

The Real Work (Wendell Berry)
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Karma Repair Kit: Items 1-4 (Richard Brautigan)
1. Get enough food to eat,
and eat it.

2. Find a place to sleep where it is quiet,
and sleep there.

3. Reduce intellectual activity and emotional noise
until you arrive at the silence of yourself,
and listen to it.

4.

from “Sabbaths 1998, VI” (Wendell Berry)
But won’t you be ashamed
To count the passing year
At its mere cost, your debt
Inevitably paid?
For every year is costly,
As you know well. Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.

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Difficult Literature

I am feeling better about life. It’s a good feeling. I want to enjoy it while it lasts.

There are a couple of things that I think have to do with this: one, I’ve been going to yoga more often. Now that I have a car (which ranks up there with therapy and plane tickets as the best things that I’ve purchased this year), it’s not an issue for me to get to my favorite yoga studio, which is a somewhat long bike ride (easily 40-50 minutes) from my house, and even closer to where I work. There’s something that seems and feels inherently weird to me about “driving” to yoga class, but hey, it’s winter, I’ve been sick with two (!) viral infections since Thanksgiving, so I’m pretty much okay with it.

Especially since it means I can be taking a 6-week workshop there in the ashtanga primary series, which I assume is going to look similar to these posters. the kind that always hang in the bathrooms and changing rooms. It starts on Sundays in the New Year, and I think it’s gonna be a really, really good way to start off 2011. And to top it off it’s taught by one of my favorite teachers too!

Another good thing that has somewhat unexpectedly (re)entered my life is David Foster Wallace. I was reading Girl With Curious Hair with great pleasure and enthusiasm, but now I simply cannot find it anywhere in the house, which makes me worried that I left it in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. BUMMER! Am I gonna have to finish The Brothers Karamaka-(can’t ever spell their last name) now? (Not to diss the Brothers–I mean, it’s a good book too. Just long. And Russian. And it’s WINTER here!! Anna Karenina and War & Peace were easy enough to read, but I was on BEACHES and in JUNGLES in Colombia and Indonesia, for goodness sakes!)

I was surprised, frankly, by how much I enjoyed GWCH. I thought I was “over” that kind of difficult, super-duper postmodernist hyper-intellectualized literature. But then I enjoyed both of Jonathan Franzen’s books so much this year (so funny and yet so scary…), and then I read somewhere that he was not just a fan of DFW but also a close friend. And then I remembered how I really, really enjoyed Brief Interviews With Hideous Men my freshman year in college, before I lent it to the blond boy who lived down the hall I had a crush on and he subsequently lost it (is there anything worse than a book thief? I’ve been guilty of this in the past but am trying like hell to avoid it now…). And THEN I remembered that little blond girl from Hawaii (Jane?) in my CTY summer fiction writing class, who said that her favorite book was Infinite Jest, and the teacher said in a slow voice “You mean you’ve read… all of it?” and then as she nodded, I remember thinking, This sounds like the kind of book that I need to be reading. (At the time I was telling people that my favorite book was The Fountainhead, which I had just finished–ha, ha, ha! This seems hysterically funny to me now).  SO THEN the other week I went to the bookshelf in my room and pulled out my copy (my sister’s copy?) of Girl With Curious Hair, one of the many books I own but have not read (sorry Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, and other victims of a similar fate…), and started to read it.

And I liked it. I REALLY liked it! I loved the first story, “Little Expressionless Animal.” I just found it profoundly moving, right down to the title (which I believe refers to the audiences of live game shows, among other things). It reminded me of the R.E.M. song “New Test Leper.” “Luckily The Account Representative Knew CPR” had the kind of title I would have loved to rip-off in high school, and even though it sort of read to me as a college workshop writing exercise, I still really liked it. The title story is a real killer, what I believe most critics would refer to as a “tour-de-force.” This story just knocked me off my socks. The story is narrated by a psychotic, sexually sadistic Young Republican whose best friends consists of these hopelessly lost drug-addled punk rockers, and follows their attendance of a Keith Jarrett concert. Wow. This is the story that really made me truly believe in DFW’s ability and skill as a writer. In this story, he  fulfills the most fundamental and important capacity of literature: he gets you inside (DEEP inside) the head and the thoughts of a person that you never thought you would relate to. And yet I felt for the guy. I did. I felt for him, even when I was suspicious of him (most tellingly when he said that he never took acid because it never had any effect on him–I immediately thought I don’t trust nor like this guy. I do not trust people who are not affected by acid!).

That’s the thing that really surprised me about these stories: more often than not, I was really moved by these characters and narrators. I felt for them. I didn’t always like them, but I feel like I could relate to them, and sometimes even understand them better than they understood themselves (this is similar to how I felt about Ben Stiller’s title character in Greenberg–after I finished watching that movie in the theater, I turned to my companion and said “Wow, I don’t feel so bad about my life anymore now!”).

The following story “Lyndon” was also good, a story about exactly that, Lyndon B. Johnson. I feel like I would appreciate this story more if I knew a little more about him as a person and about the historical context. I thought the gay narrator was a very interesting choice, as well as his relationship with the cross-dressing Haitian. I wonder if there’s some kind of intense commentary on colonialism and American foreign policy going on at the end, with that strange scene of the Haitian and Lyndon in bed (it’s not what it sounds like, trust me).

Next up was “John Billy,” probably the weirdest story I’ve ever read in my life. I mean, just look at this first sentence: Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed.

As soon as I read this sentence, alarm bells started to go off in my head. Oh oh. This is starting to sound like “difficult” literature. This kind of stuff is why I’ve never read Thomas Pychon, despite owning ‘V” for years. But I kept going, and what I found was a Cormac McCarthy novel on acid, lots of it. Seriously. Reading a review also helped; without it I might not have been smart enough to figure out that the main character’s “damaged eyes extend like the waving ends of antennae from his head, capable of finally seeing things.” I thought the comparison to The Fisher King myth was also pretty interesting.

And then I started “Here and There,” a story about a relationship told only in dialogue that reminded me of Ali Smith, and that’s when I lost the book. Which is making me feel more bummed than ever now that I approach the end of this blog post. But I’m thinking of requesting Infinite Jest via the excellent interlibrary loan system–that should be another interesting, exciting, and inspiring way of starting off 2011.

So yeah. The year is winding down. My first graduate school application is submitted, with recommendations and everything. Only four (five? three?) more to go. My family is slowly but surely trickling into the town, my sister bringing her non-fiction books about Andean cocaine and Beautiful Boy. I went out on the town last night, and for the first time ever I got to play the designated driver role, and I surprisingly really, really enjoyed it: it’s just nice to feel in control throughout the course of the night, and of course not feeling like crap the next day is an excellent bonus.

It’s the time of year where my paper journal entries are full of month by month summaries, and reflections on “sooooo what have I learned?” Was this a good year or a bad year? It’s hard to say. There were a lot of parts of this year that were just really, REALLY hard for me. A lot of things that just made me feel really uncomfortable and unhappy. But then in my yoga class on Thursday, the teacher said something about how one of the great things about yoga is that it teaches you to “live with discomfort.” To be okay with it, instead of trying to run away. I think that’s a pretty swell philosophy. It made me think (ha ha ha!) of David Foster Wallace: there’s parts of his books (like the opening sentence of “John Billy,” for one!) that are pretty difficult to read. My brain is challenged, my brain hurts (I’m sure the infamous footnotes of Infinite Jest will have a similar effect). My brain might even say things like I don’t want to do this… I just don’t want to be feeling or dealing with this difficult, hard sentence right now. But hey, if you live with the discomfort and the difficulty, rewards follow! It’s like the Mary Oliver poem I recently read, “The Uses of Sorrow”:

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Oh god, I just love yoga so much. That’s really the only important thing I’m trying to say here.

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Filed under books, David Foster Wallace, happy, poetry, review, year in review, yoga

Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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