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In League With the World

You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little.
-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (8)

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Divided into three parts: The World, The Flesh and The Devil, Death of the Heart is remarkable book . A society drama in the vein of Edith Wharton, the story centers itself cleverly on the journal of the young and innocent Portia.

“But Matchett, she meant to do good.”
“No, she meant to do right.”
(96)

Having just lost her father, quickly followed by her mother, the sixteen year old, Portia, goes to London to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna (also, the brother’s life long housekeeper, Matchett). Portia and Thomas’s father had made the unforgivable social faux pas of falling deeply in love with a woman other than his wife. When the other woman became pregnant, Thomas’s mother stoically and sacrificially insists that he marry the soon-to-be mother of Portia, thereby more or less exiling the indecorous (if happy) family to wander Europe until their ends.

“Sacrificers,” said Matchett “are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh,  the sacrificers, they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without.” (92)

Anna and Thomas are unhappily married to each other in that smooth cold manner that society generally facilitates so neatly. Anna suffered a serious heartbreak earlier in her life, which is never fully explained, but which warps and poisons her feelings towards Portia. Her heart, and its death, cast Portia’s innocence into a guileless search trying to make sense of the people around her.

In this [Daphne] was unlike Anna, who at a moment of tension let out oaths and obscenities with a helpless delicate air. Where Anna, for instance, would call a person a bitch, Daphne would call the person an old cat. Daphne’s person was sexy, her conversation irreproachably chaste. (188)

So delicious! I love the observations and keen insight Bowen displays – which is cleverly self-referenced in all the talk about keeping a journal. The act of Portia writing down her innocent, and therefore, perspicuous observations is taken as a near act of war. This novel was published in 1938, but the attention to female dispositions and attitudes is notable. Bowen’s descriptions of the various types of women that populate this novel are wonderful, down to the details of how they approach food, one “making a plunge for the marmalade,” (185) or some other fantastically illustrative sketch.

“If you were half as heartless as you make out, you would be an appallingly boring woman.” (318)

When the novel reaches its crisis it is Anna who while answering how she would feel if she were Portia, calls out the crux of the book. The cruel, crushing, corruption of one’s heart by societal mores….and for what?

“Boredom, oh such boredom, with a sort of secret society about nothing, keeping on making little signs to each other. Utter lack of desire to know what it is about. Wish that someone would blow a whistle and make the whole thing stop. Wish to have my own innings. Contempt for married people, keeping on playing up. Contempt for unmarried people, looking cautiously and touchy. Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling…”

To be handled with feeling…because the alternative, as the character of Anna proves, is certain death to the thing we most dearly cherish: our hearts.

*title from page 385: “Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

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Mirror

“Passing life’s halfway mark, I lost my way in a dark wood”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror (film)

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One of my jobs is in a library. I always like to shelve the books first. I’m hidden deep in the stacks, focused intensely on tiny sometimes obscured sequences of numbers, letters, dots and slashes.  I work in the arts and music section, the books are all lovely and tempting…but last Tuesday when I came in I could see there was a DVD shelving emergency underway, so I gave the books a longing look, and got right to work on the towers of DVDs. Still, I have preferences. I always start with the foreign films, then documentaries, and only then attack the regular collection. I find the foreign films more interesting, plus there is a stool on wheels that I can skate around on while running through the alphabet in my head over and over again, which makes it more fun.

Sometimes I don’t shelve them. I put them aside, and when I have a minute I go downstairs and check them out. That’s how I came to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

The paradoxical thing about a task like shelving books is that it requires deep but meaningless focus. It’s just numbers and letters. But then there is the actual object in my hand, which can trigger thoughts, memories, and feelings. My shift is two and half hours and it feels very like to what watching The Mirror feels like: somewhat stream of conscious, deep in thought, with memories, words and images coming from all directions creating a quiet, sometimes profound emotional rhythm.

There is no story, really. Not in our minds, and not in The Mirror. But the engrossing drama of  (presumably) Tarkovsky’s childhood memories,  twisted up with his mother’s history; the sequences of Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, read by the narrator (A. Tarkovsky);  the beautiful cinematography: by random turns, black and white, and then color; the dreams and nightmares, anxieties, regret and hope all converge to express, I think, a visual representation of the deep recesses of our minds in which our foundations, if examined, can be all revealing. Just a glimpse, maybe. But a flickering light in between the letters and numbers of our lives.

*photograph taken by Augustus Accardi

 

 

One Singer to Mourn

Suppose I were not a coward, but said what I really thought?
-Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (273)

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Like most of Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a devastating tale. The story of Miranda, a character who is repeated for the last time in this story and who is based on Porter herself, is one of striking authenticity. Porter has such an incredible gift for weaving into her stories moments of startlingly accurate articulations of life.

The two pairs of eyes were equally steady and noncommittal. A deep tremor set up in Miranda, and she set about resisting herself methodically as if she were closing windows and doors and fastening down curtains against a rising storm (292).

Set against the end of World War I, the specter of the tired war still looming clings to the growing drama of the Spanish flu epidemic. And at the center is each individual. Porter’s humanism, pacifism and yearning for the spark of life are themes that she never overtly articulates, and yet they are the very truths that move one so profoundly when reading her stories.

She spoke his name often, and he spoke hers rarely. The little shock of pleasure the sound of her name in his mouth gave her stopped her answer (294).

In and out of dream states and influenza induced hallucinations, Miranda yields to her heart, giving it fully to Adam. The first and last man she will ever love. Yes, she knows what it’s like to fall in love as well what it is like to be heartbroken. The effort that Miranda makes to feel that kind of love, only to have it shattered, is devastating. As Lawrence Durrell wrote so painfully, it is one of those love affairs that marks one for life.

Her hardened, indifferent heart shuddered in despair at itself, because before it had been tender and capable of love (315).

Porter’s stories are all marked with the bitterness of an intelligent woman trapped in the destiny of her biology, the waste of her body and mind. She uses the elements of story telling to lament the shame of it all, without ever taking on the mantle of victimhood. Her female protagonists have cores of iron, but they are not dull fools.

For ten minutes Miranda smiled and told them how gay and what a pleasant surprise it was to find herself alive. For it will not do to betray the conspiracy and tamper with the courage of the living; there is nothing better than to be alive, everyone has agreed on that; it is past argument, and who attempts to deny it is justly outlawed.

The biting cynicism is full of compassion and empathy. The core of humanity in her writing is as subtle as it is unparalleled. How many people have been cheated out of the happiness which is the natural state of mankind? It is writers such as Katherine Anne Porter that keep tally.

*Title from title song “Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (304).

**The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

New State, Old State

Was this the woman who had shown herself so calm, sensible, so patient the better to ensure her happiness? […] He had hitherto seen her so reserved, so modest, with childish charm that seemed to come from her very nature! But under the threatening blow she feared, the terrible blood of the Boccaneras had awoke within her a long heredity of violence, pride, frantic and exasperated longings. – Émile Zola, Rome (12)

IMG_0676I must have some nomadic blood coursing through my veins, I’ve moved often enough. But if I do, it sours at the complex bureaucracy that governs our every action. Just the amount of stuff to transport is hard enough.  I am an absolute devotee of public libraries and still, I had to weed through some embarrassing number of books to make my move manageable. I went through them with lightening speed- “No. No. You had your chance to read that, no. No- just get at the library. No, Jessica. No. Oh I love this one- yes.” Down to four boxes (okay I am not including my children’s books which I dealt a much kinder cut to considering they read far less than I do and most of them are actually my own childhood books or books I read to them- but damn my relentless sentiment!)

“Oh those Frenchmen,” remarked Dario, to whom the mere idea of a cemetery was repulsive; “those Frenchmen seem to take pleasure in making their lives wretched with their partiality for gloomy scenes.” (37)

Because I have (relative to the average non-nomad) very little “stuff,” it took me all of 3 hours to unpack, hang paintings (with two of my son’s help), and admire my fine work. I found Zola’s Rome among my books, and there is nothing quite like a visit to the DMV to give someone ridiculous amounts of time to read…

Yes, a threat of doom and annihilation: as yet no people, soon no aristocracy, and only a ravenous middle class, quarrying, vulture-like, among the ruins. (52)

I don’t mind, terribly, confessing that it is actually a deep and abiding pleasure of mine to get rid of stuff; the part that is the cause of the searing pain in my head at this very moment is the red tape. Still, I try to have a decent attitude, after all, as long as I have a book to read I can suffer to jump through the endless paperwork hoops.

In his anxiety to bring things to a finish, Pierre wished to begin his campaign the very next day. (61)

However, as I read Rome, whilst waiting for my number A123 to be called, I couldn’t quite decide if I was impressed or bewildered by the manner in which Zola just dove head first into the story. Without any explanation of where, why and with whom I was dealing, I felt as though my foot had gotten tangled in his line and I was being dragged undertow- shut up and swim, Jessica… finally I gasped for breath around number A116 to ponder Zola’s  mad confidence in the reader to just hang in there, groping for the thread of the story. But, in full DMV-conciliatory mode, I read on, who was I to ask questions?

Habitual self-doubt and faith in my idiocy often manifest into a polite deference and acquiescence, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, more than forty pages in,  as I was flipping back to the beginning to verify that I understood who one of the characters was, to discover that what I was reading was volume two of Zola’s novel.

Oh well, I reasoned, I’m about forty years into my life with volume two beginning and letting go of volume one of my epic is not entirely a bad idea, the important parts will let themselves known, so- I read on.

*translated from the French by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly

Love and Silly

But I couldn’t do away with a certain inner sadness, a certain profound disillusionment that accompanied me for a long time, like a double, and corroded away like acid any enthusiasm or interest I might begin to feel for anything or anyone. – Mario Vargas Llosa, The Bad Girl  (146)

IMG_0084My uncle sent me a speech, written on the occasion of accepting the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, by the Peruvian, Mario Vargas Llosa. He thought I might enjoy it.  Before I was even done reading it  I was besotted and off to the library for one of Llosa’s novels. There were more than a few at my library and I wasn’t sure how to go about choosing. I pulled one out and saw that it was translated by Edith Grossman,  I’m familiar with, and like, her work (Don Quixote) so I thought I’d read it.

I fell in love with Lily like a calf, which is the most romantic way to fall in love. (5)

Unless, that is, you are being led to the slaughter, but more on that later. Where to begin? With the title? That came very close to putting an end to my love affair with Llosa before it even began. I spent some time, in fact, ruminating over the the original Spanish, Travesuras de la niña mala, wondering what happened to the Travesuras, which I think translates into “antics.” Okay, The Antics of the Bad Girl doesn’t quite work, maybe “escapades” is too long…but, to me, there is a difference in meaning,  in that, the book is about her sad/evil misadventures rather than her. It pretty much goes right to the heart of what love possibly means. Separating the “what” from the “who” as philosopher Jacques Derrida would say. It’s only possible, in this book, to understand the protagonist Ricardo’s rare love if it is for “the who,” because the bad girl’s antics are unforgivable and utterly forbid being associated with a word like love.  Her “whats” really suck. So. It took me some time to get over my prejudice for what, in English, seems a silly name.

“This is the moment to bring out the cognac,” said Simon, winking at me. “You see, mon vieux, I took precautions. Now we’re prepared for the surprises you give us periodically. An excellent Napolean, you’ll see!” (164)

Yes, bring out the cognac, you’ll need it after you get involved in this love story of sweeping proportions. Ricardo is a boy from Peru, whose dream is to live in Paris. And that’s all: live in Paris. He’s simple, and lovely. Llosa makes it very easy to fall for him. Ricardo’s work as a translator takes him all over the world and each chapter is organized around one of the bad girl’s antics of course, but also, around a friend, different in each section. The depth and complexity that these various friends add to the time periods (the 1950’s to the naughts) and countries (France, Russia, Japan, Peru, Spain, England) from which their connection stems is quite beautiful and engaging.

We’d talk, I’d submit again to the power she always had over me, we’d have a brief false idyll, I’d have all kinds of illusions, and when least expected she would disappear and I’d be left battered and bewildered, licking my wounds as I had in Tokyo. Until the next chapter! (156)

That self-referential last sentence is part of the book’s enormous charm. By the middle mark, the reader is really on Ricardo’s side, trying to help him understand his tragic love story.  The truth is, the bad girl is 99.99% incapable of love. But to someone in love, .01% is not bad, I suppose.

I made the firm resolution, at the age of thirty-eight,  to fall in love with someone less evasive and complicated, a normal girl […]But that didn’t happen,  because in this life things rarely happen the way we little pissants plan them. (109)

Written in 2006, The Bad Girl is a page turner. I really missed it when I was forced to put it aside. In a one sentence synopses, it is the same story as Esther’s Inheritance, but as concise, focused,  and dignified as Sándor Márai’s beautiful twisted, hopeless love story was, Llosas is the opposite: expansive, circuitous, and passionate.

I was filled with despair, afraid I would begin to cry.  You’re not only capable of saying cheap, sentimental things but of living them too, Ricardito. (205)

Cheap, sentimental, and  silly as the title is, it expresses one of the central paranoias of the novel: is love cheap and sentimental? Llosa keeps the reader on the hook to the very end. It almost killed me that the last six pages of the book were interrupted by my life several times over, I just need to find out- I pleaded. After all, what else besides cheap sentiment can make all your mundane obligations (work, meals, errands) seem inflated, empty and silly by comparison?

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

Some Sweet Today

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Pennies on the dollar
mind and time sold cheap,
I always told my babies
your worth is yours to keep.

When it came to look within,
the scold that would deplete
blithely piled on cruel
complications, often incomplete

Somewhere from within
a voice was smothered deep,
yet forced a new direction,
t’was said- a reckless leap

My heart flayed in all directions,
reached for  hand to meet
Lo, despite devaluations
scores of succor there to reap

Soothing doubts by proving,
a worth that can defeat
What seems to be ascending
is a new day- and it’s sweet

JA/2013