Tag Archives: humor

Upset and Annoyed

“The woman was an example. Of something. Of not making it easy.” (p11)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns must be considered an inevitable follow up to her brilliant Milkman. Both books map the topography of chaos; the damage of whole societies as well as individual persons living in a state of trauma that creates a fractured, splintered atmosphere imbued with an absence of hope—not hopelessness—an absence of hope, like the idea of hope has yet to even be considered. One needs a root in order to fool around with the suffixes—to have the luxury of attaching the lessness to the concept. But Little Constructions takes the Heideggerian aspects of an always already traumatized population into something of a third dimension.

“So what’s going on? Do we have a psychoanalyst or a psychoanalytical psychologist or a psychophysiological profiler or even an unaccredited enthusiast with Jungian leanings in the building who could perhaps do a bit of maturity work for us here? Is this a state of stuckness? A state of sickness? Did these men perhaps leave school before they’d learnt enough and should have? Or is it that they couldn’t get themselves individuated and thus had intermingling mythic mirages, not only in their dreams but in their waking lives as well? I wouldn’t know about interpretations, for my expertise lies in being a bystander.” (p31)

The actually story is brief, but the tale is long, convoluted, and necessarily repetitive as trauma grotesquely repeats itself, doesn’t it? The characters practically all have the same names highlighting the incestuous nature of the situation, both concretely and metaphorically. It is easy to follow because what we have, really, is a simple tale of murder and incest, but at the same time difficult to follow as we have a dizzying array of the casualties, the fall out of the mess is strewn about like shrapnel, one hardly knows how to catch the through line, but fear not, we have our narrator, our friendly bystander, to explain the situation to us with verve and patience.

“And he went off. Ramblings. You know ramblings. So did Jotty. Even before he started, she felt Early Onset Compassion Fatigue Syndrome set in.” p 284

I love a good narrator. The intimacy a good narrator can create with the reader, or at least with this reader, is a powerful attractor. She’s talking to me. She’s funny and smart, and while in-the-know, also, sometimes, as puzzled as I am over the goings on; but as told by her, the dark tale becomes farce and gallows humor is a comfort to us both. The trauma is set off as to expose its ridiculousness. It’s all an absurdity. The real tragedy is the waste. The wasted time of the wasted lives that can’t get beyond the de-personalized injury inflicted upon them. It’s like they are twice assaulted, once by the assaulter, and again by their own fixation on that assault which had, in reality, very little to do with them beyond the happenstance of being there, then. But try telling that to the ruminating machines we call brains.

How do we cope? We say nothing. It’s best to say nothing, after all. Break the machine. Speak and think in code if you must think or speak at all to get as far away as you can from the thing—as if that thing had solid form within our heads—in order to physically get away from it a psychic fracturing is necessary and obviously logical. It’s upsetting and annoying, but it must be done.

“‘Julie,’ she said, and by now she was beside herself. ‘I’ve just come from therapy. Just found out at therapy. My therapist says that even though I say I’m upset and annoyed – she says that in reality I’m much, much more than that!’ […]

Julie was stunned. Both of them were stunned. By this time they had stopped walking and were staring fixedly into each other’s eyes on the High Street.

‘How’d you mean?’ said Julie. ‘I don’t understand. Where is the evidence for your therapist to be saying this? How is it possible anyway, to be more than upset and annoyed?” (pp 245-246)

How indeed.

Companions in Distress

“What shall I do?” I said. “It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.”
—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (17)

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Described as a Surrealist novel, the 1974 book, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is nothing if not dreamlike. Where the novel begins bears zero relation from where it ends and the matter-of-fact tone with which Carrington relates the hairpin turns and oddness is exactly like a dream in which things just are and you don’t necessarily question how you know—don’t ask questions! the facts are whatever they appear to be.

Then a terrible thing happened to me. I started to laugh and could not stop. Tears poured down my face and I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they would think I had a secret sorrow and was weeping and not laughing (45).

The most wonderful thing about the book is the innocently curmudgeon of a protagonist, Marian Leatherby. She is very funny and her friend Carmella is the type of friend we all wish we had:

“I will give you a solution in a few moments,” said Carmella, who was rummaging in a large covered basket that she had brought. “In the meantime I had better give you the chocolate biscuits and the port, before anybody comes” (141).

A woman with priorities! And the one who gives the near-deaf Marian a hearing trumpet which causes her to learn that her odious family, whom she did not in anyway miss hearing, are plotting to send her to a “retirement” home which is where the real adventure begins.

The novel is closer, in my opinion, to a sort of a magical realism in that Carrington does not try ones patience with pseudo-psychological-surrealist imagery. Rather than a deep seeded anxiety, the book has a sort of joyful innocence. Marian is very trusting, and for a fellow-trusting fool like myself, it is nice to root for her.

I leapt right into the boiling soup and stiffened in a moment of intense agony with my companions in distress, one carrot and two onions (176).

*image from L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

 

 

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”

Gehenna on Earth

Exceptionally endowed with those qualities which make for great gastronomic achievement she had, under the direction of the king of gourmets, the lord of perfect eating, lavished upon them the rarest of sensations, the most thrilling experiences; she exalted them, blissful souls, to the highest peaks of cloudless joy (17).
– Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

Who is this “lord of perfect eating” ? the fantastic, if fanatic,  M. Dodin-Bouffant whose brilliant chef, has suddenly died, much to his distress. He is thrown, at the start of the novel, into a search for a replacement, to restore meaning to his life.

We have learned by bitter experience that there is no crisis, no illness, even no death that can equal in suffering and horror the weeks imposed upon us by those sawbones, those abominable “cures” which leave you weak, sick, and breathless. Whatever may lie in store for us, we are henceforth fully enlightened upon the worthless deceit of diets (159).

Okay, so perhaps an out-of-print book (Actually, Ruth Reichl did reissue it as part of the Delectable Modern Library Food Series, so the novel based very loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had a second life) on the reverence of French cookery is solely my kind of summer reading, but, well, it meets the requirements – fun and delightful. Not  unlike a doughnut made to near perfection (not difficult, but you’d never know that by the travesty of doughnut shops not worth my breath…oh but my latest batch!…when I presented my creation to my daughter, well – we nearly wept with joy – they were sublime, ahhh cloudless joys!…but I digress…happily, but still). M. Dodin-Bouffant’s search, discovery, and philosophy is, in my opinion,  the very stuff of sumptuous summer nights.

When confronted with a choice between a luscious young female candidate, to replace the late Eugenie Chatagne, but who is, tragically, of uninspiring ability compared to another candidate, the  luscious chef, Adèle, who is, regrettably, of uninspiring physicality. A moment of weakness overcomes the hero– but just a moment:

To possess this girl was to sign an irrevocable contract, it was the abandonment of his reputation to the unschooled hands and uninspired soul of an apprentice incapable, alas, of any improvement. 

A man of priorities, indeed! I came across this book amongst the rare book collection of one of my workplaces and was taken in by Lawrence Durrell who wrote the forward. At once frivolous and excessive, it is also beautiful in its purity and fidelity to the importance of reaching for greatness within one of the pleasures afforded us humans – cuisine.

Adèle Pidou could not restrain herself; she began, for no reason at all save the pleasure of touching them, to seize the handles of frying-pans and skillets, of copper saucepans, to stroke the rounded flanks of the earthenware pots, to feel the bottles of spices, the boxes of ingredients, to open them, sniff them, examine the stove, inspect the spits and the fish-kettles. Dobin, throbbing with hope, allowed her to pleasure herself (78).

Needless to say, she gets the job. What’s more, when a more lucrative one tempts her away, Dodin immediately and hilariously propose marriage. Ah, love!

The joys of the senses are well represented in the visuals of art, the sound of music, the touch of physical love, but the smell and taste of culinary pleasures are sadly relegated to a lower, greedy order. Certainly, as Dodin discovers, moderation is necessary, gout hurts! still, it is my firm belief that while less is more, the less need never be compromised. Compromise is truly the only Gehenna on earth.

Cuisine is still victim of low and deplorable prejudice. Its most noble geniuses have not yet conquered their rights to sit between Raphael and Beethoven, and before some modest learning could be recognized in this humble collection of stories, we should have to write a fat book to maintain in theses, antithesis, and synthesis the view that the gastronomic art, like all other arts, comprise a philosophy, a psychology and an ethic, that it is an integral part of universal thought, that it is bound to the civilization of our earth, to the cultivation of our taste, and thereby to the superior essence of humanity (161).

* title inspired from pg 155: The afternoon seemed delicious to the epicure emerging from his Germanic Gehenna. – In other words – Dunkin Donuts.

 

 

 

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

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I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Eschew Surplusage

IMG_1153Rule number 14. Eschew Surplages. This comes, as is natural, after rule number 13. Use the right word, not its second cousin. The man is droll. Mark Twain’s essay Fenimore Copper’s Literary Offenses, found in A Subtreasury of American Humor outlines eighteen of the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction- some say twenty-two” (519) of which he claims Cooper’s Deerslayer egregiously violates.

3. They require that the personage in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale (520 Twain).

Possibly one of the funniest scathing reviews I have ever read. And I say that as someone who liked the Deerslayer, in fact I read the whole series (many years ago) back to back. However, it is not as if Twain’s criticism doesn’t ring true – that’s what makes his ribbing so hilarious.

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccaisined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick (521 Twain).

That Cooper gets the details wrong or does not attach himself to working out the engineering or logistical problems of his tales with any fidelity to logic drives Twain a bit nuts.

The difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it (525 Twain).

I find myself drawn to humor writing this time of year. A semi-conscious attempt to thwart the faux-holiday cheer that does nothing but strengthen my cynical heart, crowding out that other kind of heart one wants to foster. No, better that I search for some genuine joy.  That is how I have found myself reading  A Sub-Treasury of American Humor  edited by E.B. and Katherine White. I made the near fatal error of starting with Dorothy Parker’s Glory in the Daytime– she is funny in a “Oh Christ, get me a cocktail to laugh my sorrows into” kind of way, and not really what I was going for. But, I couldn’t help myself, Miss Parker or, as I like to call her- Our Lady of Cynical Hearts, holds an abiding appeal as my patron saint…

Miss Noyes was full of depths and mystery, and she could talk with a cigarette still between her lips. She was always doing something difficult, like designing her own pajamas, or reading Proust, or modeling torsos in plasticine (75 Parker).

Let’s not even talk about how the story ends.

Mark Twain, in the Critic At Work section of the book is the sort of writing that will cause one to break out into laughter all day long as his barbs circulate through the brain.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality […] its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are – oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that (530 Twain).

The Whites have compiled nearly 800 pages of humorous diversions. Hallelujah. I’m ready to face December.

Portrait of a Baker

IMG_0425 Break up the butter in the bowl

once more, a diversion, a

delusion, a hopeless ardor.

Fast fingers work cool

to keep down the warmth

that’s there with its longing

and existential angst.

But a moment

slips

and the quick hands skip,

throwing all the effort on a

wasted hip.

An insatiable desire,

for the sweet yes

one aspires.

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The fruit clings to their stone,

IMG_0434like a love with no home.

Press the dough flat

keep the bits to yourself,

and with sugar, so nice, all

arranged and devised, hell,  you just

might  belie that what won’t be

denied.IMG_0442

Up Bacchus, undiluted.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that ancient Rome was so louche. Latin has a lofty air of the regal, but when it wants to it can be as vulgar, and better, than the rest – at least if the The Poems of Catullus translated by Charles Martin are any indication. Catullus leaves one a little breathless, laughing, with eyebrows raised saying,  Oh my my my. Really!? Why I never! 

43
Greetings to you, girl of the nose not tiny
the feet not pretty, eyes not darkly-shadowed,
stubby fat fingers, mouth forever spraying
language that shows us your lack of refinement,
whore of that bankrupt wastrel from Formiae!
Is it your beauty they praise in the province?
Do they compare you to our Lesbia?
Mindless, this age. And insensitive, really.

Do not piss this poet off – he has a quill and he knows how to use it. One poem after another not only decimates his irritant du jour, but threatens with more poem-bombs to come, if provoked.

Veranius, more dear to me than any
300,000 of my many dear friends,
  – from 9

How touching. Catullus is unashamedly obnoxious (thank god he’s dead or who knows how viciously he might skewer me). But he is also very funny. In poem 50 he relates a wonderful evening spent with his friend playing around writing (according to him, naturally) hilarious erotic verse. He’s so exhausted from the exertion he begs his friend to come to him the next morning to continue their fun:

I beg you to be kind to my petition,
darling, for if you aren’t, if you’re cruel,
them Nemesis will turn on you in outrage.
Don’t rile her up, please – she’s a bitch, that goddess.

Nemesis was the Greek god of retribution the end notes helpfully tells us. The poems are full of whining, lamenting, competitive bitching, lust of both the hetero and homosexual brands – and then there is Lesbia. He does go on about Lesbia. The end notes inform us that Lesbia is actually “the notorious” Clodia Metelli, sister of the populist demagogue no one cares about anymore (Publius Clodius Pulcher). The name “Lesbia” conjures up the esteemed, sensual Greek poet Sappho, we are also reminded. Catullus’ Lesbia, married and apparently fickle, keeps his quill (both) quite engaged.

70
My woman says there is no one whom she’d rather marry
than me, not Jupiter, if he came courting.
That’s what she says – but what a woman says to a passionate
lover
ought to be scribbled on wind, on running water.

Written on running water– that’s quite nice. Never the less, I don’t think I can muster up much sympathy for our debauched meany, Catullus. Even if it would take “as many sandgrains in the desert” of kisses from Lesbia to “sate your mad Catullus!” his love of loves. He’ll be just fine keeping busy with the whores and fellows:

32
I beg of you, my sweet, my Ipsilla,
my darling, my sophisticated beauty,
summon me to a midday assignation;
and, if your willing, do me one big favor:
don’t let another client shoot the door bolt,
and don’t decide to suddenly go cruising,
but stay home & get yourself all ready
for nine – yes, nine – successive copulations!
Honestly, if you want it, give the order:
I’ve eaten, and I’m sated, supinated!
My prick is poking through my cloak & tunic.

*Title from poem 27

Not So Muted Mirth

“It’s nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism – all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (52)

IMG_0288One of the most delightful aspects of this blog is when someone comments that they are excited to read a book or author that I have written about. A rare, but delightful joy. The other morning I was collecting some of the essays that I have written, about the books of one of my favorite authors- Vladimir Nabokov. By the time I was done re-reading and repairing them, as much as I could, for a critical viewing, I was overtaken with desire for more Nabokov. I controlled myself long enough to take a shower but then practically ran out of the house with a towel turban still on my head in my febrile haste to the library.

Once the book was in hand, I had a moment’s calm to reflect, and I was struck with the realization that I was that person! I had influenced someone to run in a dead heat to the library to read something! I was quite pleased with myself. Right up until the moment that dawned – I was that person. Oh. That’s pretty pathetic, Jessica. Might even have to remove the qualifier from that sentence- nothing pretty about it, the narrator in my head added.

Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you an anarchist?’ I answer ” -time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth – (11)

Call me over sensitive, but the narrator of Pnin hovered around charity, sometimes dipping a finger into condescension. I found myself talking to him, “Narrator, be nice. Poor Pnin is trying, and his heart! He’s heartbroken. Do be kind.” Pnin is a Russian émigreé working in the world of academia. With a caustic charm, Nabokov gently skewers the ridiculous people that populate Pnin’s world: from his silly colleagues, truly awful ex-wife, to a hilariously serious conversation about the flawed chronology of Anna Karenina. It’s all wonderfully told.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading the bulk of this book in an examination room of a cardiologist with my client. Every now and then she’d look over at me, “It’s very funny,” I would offer. But her narrator was keeping her busy working her up into a fit of fury that exploded on the doctor’s head when he came in. She was too cold, had waited too long, and had come too far. Finally, the heart doctor made an intellectual decision to say, “I’m sorry.” She was not fooled. “That doesn’t help me AT ALL. You have wasted the time of this valuable person!” All eyes turned to me. Of all three people in the room to have the word “valuable” attached to…I smiled with wholesome disquiet at the floor, looked up to the doctor and gave him an I have no idea what she’s talking about look, but he was done with me before I got to I have n-. Meanwhile my narrator was in a paroxysm of giggles flopping about uncontrollably, mockingly holding up my paycheck- Oh shut up. I went back to my reading.

“Our friend,” answered Clements, “employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are ocacular. He calls my wife John.”  (165)

The narrator of Pnin does not fully insert himself into the story until very near the end, just to underline and dot the head-scratchingly odd awkwardness of Pnin. But it’s not, perhaps, Pnin that is entirely at fault, it’s what’s distorted and lost in translation. That’s a feeling we all understand: translating what we feel, into what we say and how we act, into how we are then perceived- it’s a wonder there are any forms of successful communication at all. Maybe there aren’t. We all just think we understand each other. Pnin’s narrator is at the ready, standing by to laugh under his breath, shake his head just a little, Oh you poor dear. You’ll be alright.

“So I take the opportunity to extend a cordial invitation to you to visit me this evening. Half past eight, postmeridian. A little house-heating soiree, nothing more. Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?”
( Oh, punster Pnin!)   (151)

Pnin is very endearing, but of course it’s the narrator that we fall in love with. He’s the voice in the head of the book, in a good mood, teasing without malice. I wish my narrator was in a good mood more often.

More reads by Nabokov, towel turban or not:

Avoid Vocatives: King, Queen and Knave
More Bleeding Stumps of Verse: The Gift
Sun and Stone: Speak, Memory

The Courage of Your Own Nudity

“The beauty of women has, all through my life, been my most potent inspiration, and I pitied every man who was wasting his time on less urgent concerns.”
Alexander King presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love (61)

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Don Juan painting by Alexander King

I don’t remember having new books on my bookshelves as a child. I do lovingly recall a few heavily used  wonders: Pocahontas and  the Greek Myths by Edgar and Ingrid Parin D’Auliare, a book of Russian Fables by Pushkin with fantastically wonderful drawings of Russia, my sister’s collection of Ant and Bee books that I coveted. When I recently went to the library to pick up a book I had apparently requested using my fancy new library search skills I was immediately reminded of those childhood books.

Children are disgusted with almost nothing, and this is their wonderful, unconscious romanticism. They’re as drunk with life as a lover, who would unhesitatingly drink the water in which his sweetheart has just washed her face. (33)

Over-sized, interspersed with whimsical drawings in fine red pen by the author, the battered,  cover-less book whose faded name on the spine was unintelligible, immediately fascinated me. Not least of all because I had no memory of ordering it nor any idea of why or what it could be.

Just remember that neither you nor anyone else is part of the mass. Maybe sheep and geese are, but I’m not too convinced of that, either.  After all, you have to suffer all your deep sorrows individually, and even your rare joys are profoundly personal; and nothing in your life, as far as I can see, manifests itself mass-wise, except dreary verbal cliches with which you exculpate your lack of thought and initiative. (28)

Over at Wuthering Expectations there is a Buch Party on German and Austrian literature; after examining the book in question for a full ten minutes I felt confident guessing that I had got the name from that blog. I could go back and look again, do my “homework,” but I am terrified that I will find ten more books to impulsively request and add to the pile of books-to-read-before-due towering on my desk.

Altenberg was an Austrian poet who died in 1919, Evocations of Love is a compilation of some of his vignettes and musings with lovely commentary by Alexander King who knew and clearly adored him. Very understandable, considering Altenberg’s enormously sincere, funny, and youthful outlook on life and people. His attitude is so infectious I didn’t mind laughing boisterously in public reading what looks like a child’s book. In fact, that’s the only way to do it.

Woe to those who are lucky in love! They are denied the joyous, painful, slow accumulation of yearning which finally fulfills itself in the heart’s ultimate ecstasy. They have been cheated out of the most valuable gift that life has to offer.
Whom does Don Juan, flitting from flower to flower, actually cheat? He cheats himself. (90)

The stories are very short, and wonderfully funny. My favorites were La Zeerlina in which Altenberg sets up an old age fund piggy bank for a beautiful starlet. In the Service of Beauty is too funny to spoil, you will have to seek this gem out for yourselves. And then there is My Night of Indulgence, somehow Mr. Altenberg has been privy to my own fantasy night of indulgence. Too bad we can’t do it together. On second thought he is probably best loved from a distance, I have the feeling that Mr. Altenberg loved falling in love rather more than being in love.

“Do you think,” he said, “that to act in this way is correct, in principle?”
“Certainly,” I said. “In matters of the heart, the only principle is to have no principles.” (74)

The man is divine, simply after my own heart, the entire book is an absolute delight. I look forward seeking out and  reading his poetry, to hell with my towering pile.

*Title of post from page 60: What is my great artistic credo? Listen to your heart, and don’t be afraid of giving off unexpected sounds. Have the courage of your own nudity.

Drawing by Peter Altenberg pg. 23

Drawing by Peter Altenberg pg. 23