The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 29 November 2012

Mister Blue

Hello Gentle Reader

This is the second book by Archipelago Books that I have read – but also happens to be originally published in French. The first book “The Waitress Was New,” by Dominique Fabre was also originally published in French. “Mister Blue,” by the Canadian-French speaking author Jacques Poulin is a deliciate novel; quiet and intimate; much like a cat who has curled up beside (or on one’s lap) and gently purring – these traits make this short novel worth a read. Its Hemmingwayesque sentences are gentle and are not full of hard punches. They are simplistic and poetic. Comparable to watching grass sway in a spring wind; or being hypnotized by how the light reflects on water, creating dazzling and swaying peacock like feather patterns on the walls of a cave. The sentences do not move in a fast action packed pace. They recount and recollect the minute details. From footprints in the sand that have yet to be washed away by the tide; to finding someone living in a cave, and reading “One Thousand and One Nights,” the ever present Coca-Cola clock that sits in the kitchen, to the almost sentient Mister Blue who has a fondness for chicken.

In all honesty what drew me to this novel was the cover. While checking out Archipelago Books website, I noticed the curious display of a book titled “Mister Blue,” that had a soft drawing of a cat. Almost like it were drawn in coloured or dyed charcoal. Upon reading the synopsis, it was decided that it had the premise of an interesting book. When it came, it looked just like it was expected. Reading it was an enjoyable pleasure; which is why I took my time. The book was quiet and simplistic, and with the ghostly hazy border, allows for the subject matter to be viewed in a more affectionate and mellow perspective.

This novel did not waste getting straight to the point. The first chapter surprised me as it followed exactly as the synopsis said it would: the odd discovery of “One Thousand and One Nights,” in a beach cave, where someone has been camping; and from that point on enters into the realms of obsession. Jim the narrator of this novel is the “slowest writer in Quebec,” and is having difficulty penning the greatest love story he will ever write. Perhaps it is the subject matter, in which Jim chooses to write about, that leaves him grasping at straws. Love is an emotion and an ambiguous concept that defies definition and understanding. There is no expert of love, though there are those, who proclaim their sagacity of the concept, but the concept itself is too wide and broad. It is a chameleon kaleidoscope that continually shifts and changes to a new psychedelic pattern. Jim also theorizes that he has issues writing this great love story, because he has transgressed on the sacred rule of Hemmingway: “a writer must stick to the story he knows best.” Since Jim is trying to write a love story without actually being in love himself, it is doomed to failure or stall.

However life is open to improvisation. Much like this novel, the lives of the characters are composed only by the succeeding seconds. Nothing is ever written in stone. As Jim decides to take a walk on the beach, he notices footprints in the sand. Rationally our narrator notes that they cannot be his because his would have already washed away. Mister Blue also shows curiosity in the tracks. As the two follow the tracks they come to the cave. It is in this cave that Jim the solitary narrator of this novel finds the ever elusive obsession of Marie K who he nicknames Marika. All from a name written in the flyleaf does this story dance in a slow ballet of hazy obsession.

Jim’s life is nothing extraordinary: summering at his depilated childhood home on, an uninhabited bay, on the Ile d’Orleans his life is quiet, and routine, only interrupted by the casual game of tennis with his brother, and the tending of the cats (like Mister Blue’s friend Vitamin) and the strays that invite themselves into the home. What is interesting in this novel is how the fiction that Jim decides to write mimics the writing style of the author. Rather than construct or force an artificial atmosphere both Poulin and Jim allow their characters to behave as if they were real people. Following not the logic of that the author creates, but rather following the logic of everyday life. The woman at the bar does not turn her head around because it is what will allow the narrative to progress, but because it is something that is in her character – something that would go unnoticed in real life. Much like scratching one’s head, waving a fly away or dreamily observing and staring at one’s surroundings.

If one looks at Jim as a character, he is a just a normal person. He admires Hemmingway (and was a Hemmingway scholar) but also finds enjoyment in Collette:

“Even though they were very different writers, I enjoyed reading Collette just as much as Hemmingway. Whenever I read her, I am amazed at how precisely she describes sounds, smells, colours, everything in nature.”

Poulin’s work uses understatements to their full potential. The entire work is an understatement. It is best described as a slow waltz in the blue sky. It is expansive and always feels never ending, and always rooted in the ordinary. Like the waltz it is slow and routine dance. Crossing and re-crossing the same old patterns. Much like rereading the work of the day before, seeing were the sentences have left off; and where they may head next. Feeding the cat, his daily chicken; or having that daily cup of coffee; the routine walk. Yet there is always room for some unexpected but always welcomed event. From the surprise visit of someone who is not Marika, to the frequent visiting’s of a damaged young lady.

As it progress what is a dream and what is reality becomes distinctly blurred. The musical language of the daily life becomes metaphysical. Especially in the abstract discussion of the soul, tinged with the melancholic defeat of a person who grows tired of failure:

“When you get right down to it, the only thing I’d always believed in was the soul. I was certain that I had a soul. We all did, even old Mr. Blue. While I was pacing the attic, I’d begun to elaborate the theory of the soul.

According to my theory, the soul was located not inside the body as we generally believed, but outside. It was bigger than the body and enveloped it and kept warm. It had a slight bluish cast that could sometimes be seen in the deck. It resembled a long nightshirt, light, transparent, and diaphanous. At the moment of death it departed the body and drifted in the air for a while, like a ghost, before it went to join the other souls in heaven.”

Of course Jim’s preoccupation with the soul starts to become a bit worrisome at points. I started to wonder if he was having a spiritual crisis of some sorts. Usually when people are having a rough time whether in life or having a crisis of some sorts (not reserved simply for mid-life) they usually turn (or return) to matters that are theoretical or ideal, as a way of finding a meaning or a greater sense of comfort in a way that there is something above them. Something larger. A reason that they suffer and laugh. A reward for the daily drudging and mundane transactions. In the case of Jim, the soul is the reason. That thin wispy blanket of some ethereal substance is the bigger picture. While some find consolation in god and theological concepts (which includes but is not limited to angels, heavenly spirits, the voice of god, Jesus Christ et cetera) some find a sense of peace in the rewarding of the righteous and the perdition of the unholy, while others find the consolation in other practices that are just as transcendent and beyond the norm of what is considered acumen.

His constant need to reassure himself on his philosophical deliberations, had lead me to the theory that at times, with his obsession over Marika that Jim was faced with a both a romantic and spiritual or theological crisis. Which would explains his constant need to reassure himself on his theory of the soul; as if he fears that it would fade away like the night sky and stars in the cities light pollution.

“For the soul, as I said earlier, isn’t inside but around us: it envelops us. It is pure white and transparent. When we receive it at birth, but then it soon takes on a colour that ranges from the blue of the horizon to the ultramarine, depending on the temperament of the person to whom it is given. Though invisible, it can be glimpsed, like a kind of aura, at night or under very special circumstances. As it is drawn toward the sky, it tugs the body upward, forcing it to stand erect; at night, it lets the body rest. Its main task is to protect the body, to contain its life and warmth; when it departs, the body becomes cold. Its destiny is to return to the sky where it will regain its whiteness, before it undertakes a new mission on earth.”

In all, this novel is wonderful. Criss-crossing the same old patterns of daily life with new and slight variations. It’s a warm and tender novel, written in a personable style. The musical flow of the novel is in the poetics of the everyday. The images of daily life. A cup of coffee, a cats soft footsteps, the smells of home cooking – these allow for the reader to become enveloped in the fictional hazy dream like world, that resonates in reality.

Here is something interesting that Jacques Poulin had to say in an interview:

“I do not like literary and maybe I do not like the literature itself same. Very few books I like. I only like short stories, written on a special tone. This tone is something very special; it is a very small niche. When I write, it is what niche I'm trying to achieve. In each book, I feel fail, then I start again.”

I do think though that the author has grasped something with “Mister Blue,” the way it is written, and the subject matter, and the forming of the story itself, has achieved that niche that the author works hard at achieving. I can’t recall ever quite reading anything like this before – at least not in an adult context or written for adults in mind (that may not be true.)

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Monday 26 November 2012

Herta Müller on Mo Yan’s Nobel

Hello Gentle Reader

Up until this point, I have been very ambivalent on the choice to award the Chinese author Mo Yan with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though it has always been leaning slightly toward disappointment. Upon reading and hearing that the Chinese State approved author had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, there were no butterflies in my stomach or a sense of “I must go and do some research on this author!” Quite the opposite – there was a lack of joy in the announcement and suspicion. My hopes of other authors like the South Korean Poet Ko Un or the Syrian Poet Adunis, or the Irish short story writer and novelist William Trevor or Canadian short story writer Alice Munro or Japans Haruki Murakami – instead however it ended up in a political author, whose lack of politics make him political. It doesn’t matter what anyone says if you are a Chinese author, you will have political ties in some form or another. Whether or not one actively makes their political beliefs known or keeps quiet, if you are Chinese author you have a certain obligation to either stand up to political tyranny or you have the obligation to be the kitty cat purring in the governments lap. Mo Yan has chosen the later. When such authors like Bei Dao, Liao Yiwu and fellow Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian have stood up to the political repression of the Communist Party of China, authors like Mo Yan have sat idly by.

Herta Müller a fellow Nobel Laureate in Literature has said that Mo Yan glorifies censorship, and has called Mo Yan win a “Catastrophe.”

Though Mo Yan has stated that he wishes for Liu Xiaobo Nobel Laureate in Peace 2010 to be released from prison – Herta Müller has stated that: “He should have said that four years ago, or at least two weeks before receiving the prize.” – Herta Müller further pointed out her objection of Mo Yan and his don’t speak attitude regarding politics when she mentions the Chines government’s view of Mo Yan: “The Chinese themselves say that Mo Yan is an official of the same rung as a (government) minister.”

In the end I am forced to agree with Herta Müller, because as of late, my opinions of whether or not Mo Yan is deserving of the Prize, has been influenced by a greater feeling of disappointment and adequate decision not to read the authors work because of the political stance or lack thereof and his coziness with the political regime.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Sunday 25 November 2012

The Golden Notebook

Hello Gentle Reader

In nineteen-sixty two Doris Lessing the then future Nobel Laureate in Literature of two-thousand and seven, had her first real breakthrough. Twelve years before hand she had already wrote her first book “The Grass is Singing.” Continuing in the nineteen-fifties Doris Lessing wrote the beginning of a series called the “Children of Violence,” or sometimes called the “Martha Quest,” series. Which tackled autobiographical themes and ended in the same way that “The Golden Notebook,” had ended; and started to move towards her next series and style “The Canopus in Argos: Archives series.”

“The Golden Notebook,” was a classic at the burgeoning feminist movement – which is why it is also expertly called a feminist classic. However Doris Lessing herself argues that the concept or idea of “The Golden Notebook,” being a feminist piece of work, is misguided. The work itself does deal with the battle of the sexes of men and women. During the sixties itself which was a time of beatnik experimentation and sexual liberation, as well as utopian ideas of man helping man and human beings living in harmony with one another. Of course this drug induced rock music, orgy of utopian ideas was futile, and came to pass without much of a notice. However the sixties went down in history for its pop culture references, Woodstock and its feminist movement; but not for the more progressive and utopian idea’s.

Doris Lessing however clinically writes about the time in different notebooks which tackles different themes and shows the inner workings of a woman. This is what is most important though. Doris Lessing’s breakthrough novel; shows the inner workings of a woman’s soul and also her mental breakdown. Her different facades; and her fragmented personality of being an individual. The political Anna; a mother but also a secret lover (she is a woman has needs); a writer and friend.

With this novel she frankly discusses sex, the bodily functions of a woman, what it means to be a mother, a woman with political convictions (and doubting those political convictions) as well as the creative process of writing. It tackles the concept of dreams. It uses psychoanalysis as a reference to the understanding the subconscious and the unconscious of the human being. The psychoanalyst part of the novel is very interesting and peculiar in many ways. For one it is a period piece. In the sixties authors were intrigued by the use of psychoanalysis. It is different than Virginia Woolf’s steam-of-consciousness style, where the thoughts of the characters were presented on the page; and therefore present a more subjective view point, than that of a first person narrator. Psychoanalysis as a literary technique was used more of an exploration of the inner self – as further attempt at truth-telling. Whereas the stream of consciousness style of such modernist authors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust; seek to leave an impression like the faint dent of a finger print in dust; the use of psychoanalysis in fiction such as “The Golden Notebook,” it is to provide further elements of truth and exploration of the individual subconsciousness of people. It is in this vain that authors take up the mantel of such people like Freud and Jung – and provide their theories to the understanding of the shifting blank inky space, in which subconsciousness lurks and slumbers.

The dreams that Anna reveals to her confessor Mrs. Marks dubbed “Mother Sugar,” recount Anna’s fears. These dreams are recounted as well as analyzed; though subjectively. They are argued about as well. Anna continually sees Mother Sugar as an enemy or a tyrant of the dream. Someone who harvests the mist or the cloudy haze of the dreams and takes out the magic. The person who strips the dreams down to their symbolic bare essentials. All of this is written about in the Blue Notebook. A personal diary composed of emotional strength. It is here in the Blue Notebook that one truly see’s the plurality of Anna Wulf’s nature tied together loosely by a thin string. Each concept or part of Anna is like a balloon; held down to the physical Anna by a string. That string is the Blue Notebook.

“Then why write it down at all? Do you realize the whole of the notebook, the blue one, is either newspaper writings, or bits like the blood and brains bits, all bracketed off, or crossed out; and then entries like buying tomatoes or tea.”

Tommy (a character – the son of Molly and the wealthy Richard) is right. The Blue Notebook is full of domestic chores; but also written about the societal breakdown. The fears of falling down and crashing on the hard pavement below; where the drops of blood and bits of brain roll off and sprout into tomatoes or tea herbs. But Anna is quick to hypocritically scratch or cross them out. She is quick to exile or block them off in brackets. Continually trying to deny the break down that is happening within her.

The Black Notebook is a discussion of Africa where Anna had lived once. It is interesting as well because both the character of Anna and the author Doris Lessing both share the same connection to Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It traces the time before and during World War II and the beginning traces of the communist idea’s that had slithered their way into the heads and minds of the bunch of wandering young people that Anna associated herself with. It is also the basis of the fictional debut novel of Anna; that was a great success. However this success leads her to a writer’s block in the then present. This part of the novel and the notebook discuss the racial tensions of Africa; and how the whites had become quite at home there, but treated the black people, the natives of the land as second class citizens. They were cooks and they were slaves; allowed to do the truly mind numbing jobs; as was expected of them. It is with the Boothby’s of this notebook that one begins to see how the racial tension is and how much racism was accepted back then. The rag tag group that Anna Wulf hangs around with, pride themselves on their goal to change the attitude towards the suffering black people and the restraining yokes that has been placed around their necks, and have subdued them into compliant house pets and servants. However their ideological musings and utopian ideas are nothing more than just that. Ideas of a better world that would remain as formless as clouds.

There is no denying that Doris Lessing was a communist at one point in her life. She has since distanced herself from communism and all ideologies now that she has grown older. Perhaps Ms. Lessing see’s the futility of organized ideologies. How they in the end only corrupt the utopian. Turning it to ash, much like the end of a cigarette when its bright red cherry has since begun to smolder. In the Red Notebook, Anna writes about the fall of the communist part in Britain. The realization of the crimes of Stalin and the scrambling attempts at finding a reason for them or a way to through glitter on it to try and change the perspective. In the end all attempts failed. In the end there was no denying the crimes. They are as much a fact of History just like other tyrants crimes. Some intellectuals fervently denied the crimes of Stalin; presenting him as more of one’s favourite uncle; rather than a paranoid old man. Previous Nobel Laureate (but declined the award) writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was a left leaning philosopher. There is no equal to him in the English speaking world, for his philosophical idea’s and concepts or his literary output and intellectual pursuits. Even in France his only adversary would be Voltaire. At his funeral in the eighties, Jean-Paul Sartre’s procession was followed by fifty thousand people all the way to Montparnasse cemetery where his and Simon de Beauvoir’s remains are held to this day. However, in the fifties Sartre turned to political action and his interest in Marx’s sociological and economic philosophies and idea’s took hold of the philosopher who had made such a contribution to the world of literature and philosophy. It is in this time that Sartre broke off with another French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, who would become a Nobel Laureate in Literature; over their views of Stalin and his totalitarian regime. Sartre famously stated about the Soviet forced labour camps:

“It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps,”

It is the apologists of Communism like Jean-Paul Sartre, which Doris Lessing and Anna Wulf both despise; and are in need of running away. Doris Lessing has since abandoned communism all together and now looks back at it with a satirical and critical eye. Though in “The Golden Notebook,” especially the Red Notebook, Anna Wulf both despises the party but also uses as it as a shield. When she discusses the movie rights with someone interested in the film production of her book, she finally breaks the news that she is a red. The American producer at first is betrayed then questioningly confused. Perplexed at how could someone be so friendly like Ms. Wulf had been and then became a reluctant red. Using the concept of communism as a weapon or a shield, something that shocks and pushes people away.

My least favourite part of this entire door stop of a novel was the Yellow Notebook. What a waste of time it felt to me. It was basically the revision of “The Golden Notebook,” or rather Anna’s mental state placed in another fictional form. Personally for me it was an attempt at meta-fiction that did not work as it was supposed to. This of course happens throughout the novel. There are moments where the novel strives in its success, and falters into failure. The Yellow Notebook is one such failure. The novel “Free Women,” was doing quite well at the beginning but it as well, began to fall into melodramatics as the Notebooks begin to make and take center stage; pushing the short stand-alone novel aside to the point where in the end the lack of characterization had ended in a failure.

When I had watched the documentary on the Nobel website, that documented Doris Lessing, she talked briefly about “The Golden Notebook,” and even in her introduction of the book, she recognizes its impact on young people – and women; but also how it has left its mark on history. Now she means this modestly because she didn’t really think that she was doing something with this book; but in the end she had grasped something, and had achieved documenting the sexual liberation; the feeling of utopian idea’s that could take flight from socialism. In the end however the books style got lost in its verbosity. Then it was quickly tied together in the “Golden Notebook,” which felt contrived; and towards the end the overstatement of the entire work and the discussions between Molly and Anna, became more sporadic. Tommy became more radical, and eventually the actions felt scatted and without cause.

It was also with that documentary that I was under the impression that “The Golden Notebook,” was something of a domestic piece of work. When the excerpt from the book was read by Doris Lessing, it made me feel that the book itself was going to be full of such scenes:

“And now the cooking for Michael. I unroll the veal that I remembered to batter out flat this morning; and I roll the pieces in the yellow, and the crumbs. I baked crumbs yesterday, and they still smell fresh and dry, in spite of the dampness in the air. I slice mushrooms into ream. I have a pan full of bone jelly in the ice-box, which I melt and season. And the extra apples I cooled when doing Janet’s, I scoop out the still warm crackling skin, and slice the pulp and mix it with thin vanilla cream, and beat it until it goes thick; and I pile the mixture back into the apple skins and set them to brown in the oven. All the kitchen is full of good cooking smells; and all at once I am happy; so happy that I can feel the warmth of it through my whole body. Then there is a cold feeling in my stomach, and I think: Being happy is a lie, it’s a habit of happiness from moments like these during the last four years. And the happiness vanishes, and I am desperately tired. With the tiredness comes guilt. I know all the forms and variations of this guilt so well that they even bore me.”

One cannot blame the Swedish Academy or the Nobel website for this. I certainly cannot blame Doris Lessing either; for the impression that I originally had of the novel. That being, which the novel was going to be full of domestic chores, and the beauty of mundane activities, rich with lyrical descriptions, and feminine insights. This of course was partly true. There were plenty of feminine insights:

“I was filled with an emotion one has, women have, about children’s a feeling of fierce triumph: That against all odds, against the weight of death, this human being exists, there, a miracle of breathing flesh.”

But if you were looking for a prim and proper domestic house wife or goddess, look elsewhere. Doris Lessing writes about even the unbeautiful aspects of being a woman. I remember the frank discussion of a period with this novel. As a man who has (and will never) experience such an activity, it is difficult to relate on a emphatic level. The novel discusses sex and the problems of being a woman and sex; and it is in these passages that the cool first bit of reception had hacked the book down to it being a castrating experience. However the novel has its tender moments. Moments where Doris Lessing gets into the space where the fiction becomes meditative, and flows naturally rather than being contrived and artificial, where the formal experimentation is put more at ease and worked on less – there’s a sense of confidence.

“There are half a dozen pots of creeper on the window sill, a greenish-grey wandering plant that I don’t know the name of. I take the six earthenware pots to the kitchen and submerge them, one after another, in a basin of water, watching the bubbles rise as the water sinks down and drives up the air. The leaves sparkle with water. The dark earth smells of damp growth.”

Ms. Lessing is at her best when she gives the senses a sensational tickling. A gentle tug and release; it brings to mind fishing on a lazy weekend summer day, just allowing the time to pass. The day just passes by; and fishing becomes a sedative experience. Which is what the pieces like the above are like and reminiscent of.

“The Golden Notebook,” is also interesting because of the change in directions Doris Lessing’s fiction was beginning to take. After “The Golden Notebook,” Was written, the next piece of fiction she wrote was “Briefing for a Descent into Hell,” in nineteen-seventy one. This is her first piece of work that Doris Lessing had written in the style of “inner space fiction,” it was the beginning of the following novels that would deal with space and science fiction, and societal break down; ecological disasters and the weapons as a society can use for the destruction of the world. “The Golden Notebook,” briefly tackles this theme as the, confides of reality begin to sleep away, and the mystification of dreams begin to take hold on reality. Like ivy that begins to spread throughout the garden, and choke out everything.

“I was sitting on the floor this afternoon, watching the sky darken, on inhabitant of a world where one can say, the quality of light means it must be evening, instead of: in exactly on how I must put on the vegetables, and I suddenly went back into a state of mind I’d forgotten, something from childhood. I used at night to sit up in bed and play what I called “the game.” First I created the room I sat in, object by object, “naming,” everything, bed, chair, curtains, till it was whole in my mind, then move out of the room, creating the house, then out of the house, slowly creating the street, then rise into the air, looking down on the London, at the enormous sprawling wastes of London, but holding at the same time the room and the house and the street in my mind, and then England, the shape of England in Britain, then the little group of islands lying against the continent, then slowly, slowly, I would create the world, continent by continent, ocean by ocean (but the point of “the game,” was to create the vastness while holding the bedroom, the house, the street in their littleness in my mind at the same time), until the point was reached where I moved out into space, and watched the world, a sunlit ball in the sky, turning and rolling beneath me. Then, having reached that point, with the stars, around me and time, a drop of water, swarming with life, or a green leaf. Sometimes I could reach what I wanted, a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness. Or I would concentrate on a single creature, a small coloured fish in a pool, or a single flower, or a moth, and try to create, to “name,” the being of the flower, the moth, the fish, slowly creating around it the forest or the sea – pool, or the space of blowing night air that filled my wings. And then, out, sudden from the smallness into space.”

There is no doubt the significance of the novel of “The Golden Notebook,” where it fits into reality of history, but also being a landmark of the later part of the twentieth century literature, its adoption by the feminist movement as their bible, their reason for the sexual liberation, the need to be free; the desire to have equality. Though Doris Lessing herself would disagree with this charge that the book has anything to do with feminism as Ms. Lessing herself does not consider herself a feminist nor does she consider the book a work of feminist literature. However it is a book that has left its mark, and continues to inspire and help others to do this day. It had a rough beginning, with its early reception and though at times it fails, its confidence, its awkwardness and its desire to communicate lead it to be a great piece of work of literature. Tedious however at times, it is still something that as a reader I can admire.

Irving Howe who in nineteen-sixty three commented on the book and his words truly grasp with his observation he understands what the book really did for a generation of woman – who were old enough or rather who understood it enough, to take action:

“Anna Wulf and her old friend Molly understand perfectly well that modern women . . . face crippling difficulties when they choose one or another role of freedom. But they do not fall back upon their charm, wit, or headaches; they take their beatings, they ask no quarter, they spin and bear it. They are tough-minded, generous and battered-descriptives one is temped to apply to the author herself, formerly close to the English Communist movement, a woman whose youth in southern Africa had shaken her into a sense of how brutal human beings can become . . . one feels about Miss Lessing that she works from so complex and copious a fund of experience that among women writers her English predecessors seem pale and her American contemporaries parochial.”

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

**I just wanted to apologize for the lack of blog posts these two weeks Gentle Reader, work has been crazy and there was lack of internet, the week before. Again sorry for the inconvience.**

Friday 9 November 2012

Philip Roth Has Announced his Retirement

Philip Roth Has Announced his Retirement

Hello Gentle Reader

In an unnoticed or little noticed French magazine, the literary giant of American letter’s (along with Cormac McCarthy) has announced his decision to retire. Now at the age of seventy nine, Philip Roth has exclaimed or rather thoroughly thought out decided to stop writing.

“Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life,” Mister Roth explained. After writing twenty seven novels, two collections of non-fiction and three collections of writing, it is no wonder that Philip Roth has decided to call it quits. He has written enough, and has finally decided to say that, in the absence of writing he may be able to actually able to live. Other authors have shared similar sentiments regarding writing and life, such as Alice Munro.

One can hope that Philip Roth does not feel that he has wasted his life or his time writing. In a colourful and varied career that has aged like fine wine, one can certainly say that Philip Roth has not wasted his time writing. He has achieved something, which perhaps very few authors in the coming generations will achieve. Success with literary merit and verbal articulate artistic achievements.

May Philip Roth enjoy his retirement.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Cloud Atlas (A Film Review)

Hello Gentle Reader

Six different storylines; six different characters; six different styles – all written in a complex narrative that takes place over six different time periods. It was a complex novel, which defied genre and convention. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and yet lost to Alan Hollinghurst’s novel “The Line of Beauty.” It mystified readers, and provoked thought. At times frustrating and challenging, other times, fast paced and entertaining. When I had first read this book, I was delighted at how the author had changed his voice, but also how he had changed the narrative structure of the book, to focus on the characters’ lives who like different colours on a string spun on their own axis but eclipsed and were eclipsed by one another. My first thoughts at hearing that this amazing novel was going to be turned into a film were of a bitter pessimist. How could any director any writer or producer, ever grasp the complexities of this novel. How could they be able to shift or present a complex narrative in the constraints in which a film is obliged to obey? Of course I thought the project was impossible and would never be able to truly grasp the meaning and the wonders of the book. Such judgement came too early.

The film was able to translate and transcribe (for the most part) quite a bit of the book into a film. They did not try to film a book into a film; but they stayed true to the book, in its own theme’s and characters and most importantly story. It is an ambitious project. Thirteen actors playing different roles, which are main and minor; some making cameos and appearances in each other. Allowing for a feeling of a very small world, where lives and identities transcend the confides of time, and are forever recycled in an endless cycle.

Such large names in the film business have their names attached to this film. Actors: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon. Directors: Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Wachowski Brothers) and the German born director Tom Tyker. With a budget of one hundred and two million dollars, this film is noted for being one of the most expensive independent films ever made. However it has polarized critics.

The film is fragmented, and allows for brief episodes and snippets of a certain part of one of the six different story lines, to be placed in an order, that would allow for just enough emotional engagement of the characters and a bit of a grasp of the understanding of the story lines before moving on or moving back in some cases. In many ways the film, in some ways it takes the form of a memory game. Remember the different face, and the name goes with it, remember their play in the plot, their role their act. It becomes quite the puzzle – much like the book. Only to come to an end, with some answers given, other questions left roaming.

There are many memorable quotes in this film. Many memorable moments. Like a metaphysical question it allows one to ask themselves where they fit in, in their own life but now also in the lives of others. How acts of simple charity but also how the acts of malice, all influence the lives of others. From cheating someone to being cheated oneself, the acts can have very deep repercussions.

The visuals of this film are stunning. They are a must see. The acting is phenomenal. Though there is not a lot of emotional depth that can be grasped in this film from the characters. The fleeting moments that one can grasp the characters, are taken away just as fast as they are given. However besides its faults, that do come here and there – the film still a wonderful pleasure of the eyes, and the story resonates. Some may find it confusing, without the book as a rough map through this territory; it is till manageable. Though the acting of Tom Hanks in the story of Zachary in “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After,” maybe difficult to understand because the accents are thick (really thick like in the novel) and when spoken they are much harder to understand. I still would go see this film a second time and a third time and a fourth time if possible; and when it comes out on to DVD I will again buy it and watch it, continually. For the first time, in a long time to if ever; I feel that the book and the film are on par on their own merits. Not a lot was changed, and what was changed was done so for cinematic reasons. In the end however, it turned out to be quite a good show. Usually the best films are done by the film directors and their own stories and their own ideas. Originality – even if it is at times repeating something else, still has more life and blood in it, rather than an adaption – at least in most cases; and sometimes there are surprising revelations.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Thursday 8 November 2012

The Hour of the Star

Hello Gentle Reader

Other titles for Clarice Lispector’s last novel, to be published while she was still alive, are:

“It’s All My Fault,”
“Let Her Deal with It,”
“The Right to Scream,”
“As For the Future,”
“Singing the Blues,”
“She Doesn’t Know How to Scream,”
“A Sense of Loss,”
“Whistling in the Dark Wind,”
“I Can’t Do Anything,”
“Accounting of the Preceding Facts,”
“Cheap Tearjerker,”
“Discreet Exit through the Back Door,”

(All thirteen titles appear throughout this short pique novella.)

Clarice Lispector is an interesting character, person and author; a Ukrainian by birth and a Brazilian by upbringing. Clarice Lispector was born in the Ukraine and as an infant immigrated with her family to Brazil. If one were to look at any one of her pictures they will see the exotic upbringing of the temperate country of Brazil. Her face had the appearance of a cat cautiously watching every step a person makes. Every movement observed, and gesture scrutinized. She had high cheekbones that amplified her wide eyes that could be compared to that of a deer, but took on the appearance of a cat because of her high arching eyebrows, gave her more a predatory beauty than the homely appearance of subservient prey. With lips small and properly proportioned to her pointed chin, she had the appearance of an eastern European woman, but there was no denying her Brazilian adopted country. Even Gregory Rabassa an American translator had remarked on her stunning beauty and her unique writing style:

“Flabbergasted to meet that rare person [Lispector] who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

Her early life was marked by economic difficulties and personal tragedies. When her family first arrived from Europe they had lived in the banal and rural land of Northeast Brazil and lived in the city Maceió in the Coastal sate of Alagoas. Her mother’s health deteriorated and the family moved to another city Recife. The Lispector family continued to suffer economically and Clarice’s mother finally died aged forty two. From there Clarice went to school, and gained admission to Ginásio Pernambucano the then most prestigious secondary school in the State of Pernambuco. In the year nineteen-thirty five the Lispector’s once again uprooted themselves and moved to Rio de Janeiro. It is there that the family finally settled into Tijuca famous for the Tijuca Forest the largest urban forest in the world. In nineteen-thirty seven the soon to be famous author and the Giantess of Brazilian letters entered the Law School of the University of Brazil. It was in this year of nineteen-forty that her beloved father died, after a gall-bladder surgical procedure. It was in law school that Clarice Lispector decided to peruse or to at least continue her literary endeavours – or at least to satisfy that itching need to write. She began work as a journalist, for the official government press service; and then she transferred to the important newspaper “A Noite.” In this time of her life, Clarice met a younger breed of Brazilian writers. She would eventually overshadow them all. One of them was Lúcio Cardoso, a prolific writer, and who Clarice Lispector who had a romantic interest in. Cardoso however was a homosexual, and her romantic inquiries, were forced to search elsewhere.

It is then at law school that she met Maury Gurgel Valente who entered the Brazilian Foreign Service, and from there and for the next few years of her life, Clarice would be both a writer, and a diplomat’s wife. Though she grew increasing bored and increasingly dreaded being a diplomats wife and finally in nineteen-fifty nine, she left her husband and returned to Brazil.

“The Hour of the Star,” is my first glimpse and taste of Clarice Lispector. From my understanding the author had no real formal training at writing. No creative writing classes. No writing seminars. Even from the introduction by Colm Tóibín “A Passion for the Void,” that one is informed that she didn’t even read others to educate herself on writing. Colm Tóibín makes it quite clear where Clarice Lispector’s true and genuine genius for writing and literature as a whole came from an almost primitive source; by quoting Elizabeth Bishop (who had translated some of the stories by Clarice Lispector such as “The Smallest Woman in the World,”) Colm Tóibín remarks on the primitive power that Bishop had noticed early on, but also the basic knowledge of art and writing itself. It becomes clear after reading through the introduction, that Clarice Lispector was unreliable, complicated, and fleeting. An ethereal ghost who could cast an opalescent shadow. Someone who was more then met the eye. With a description of the author, it brings to mind this almost mystical being. Though she would most likely be reluctant to accept this or outright refuse such a carbon copy concept of herself. For she was an evanescent being, fading in and out. Always transient and temporal, the author herself would not be described as something physical or dealing with the physical world. Much like her novels and pieces of work, the description of the author come to mind of someone far more interested in the interior life and the emotional landscape.

“The Hour of the Star,” is noted specifically as not being autobiographical. In many ways, it can be taken as a meditation on mortality, and the inevitable curtain call, that all of us face as mortal beings. This short novella is the last novella that Clarice would have published during her lifetime. It is a novella about the intolerable beauty of the most unbearable banal ugliness. A nameless innocence back dropped against an anonymous misery. The novella is written in an interesting way. With a modernistic bent, that allowed for the character and narrator Rodrigo S.M. to consciously refer to the novella as a work of fiction to the reader. This is also something rather interesting, in the novella itself. It’s a modernist piece of work, but it also deals with poverty and the marginality of society. Truly it is something interesting, in itself. How the high art, almost secluded modernist world comes to meet the difficult and rough life of the poverty and outer edged inhabitants of Brazil.

This novella deals with Macabéa a poor typist, and one of life’s unfortunates. She is someone who has caught the eyes of the narrator, and haunted him to the point where he feels he must capture the character herself. Writing about her insignificant life. The reason for Rodrigo S.M. to write about Macabéa is because of her inwardly freedom. Despite the poor circumstances, the wretchedness of her life, she is free. Free from her marginalized life. Unconcerned with her poverty. Almost childlike in every whimsical fibre of her body; she is in short a strange character. As the narrator states with great conviction of his own thoughts of her own inferiority:

“I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich. But the person I’m going to talk about scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her.”

Yet our delirious and obsessive narrator cannot help but notice that even though Macabéa is the contempt of everyone else, she is not hindered or hurt by this prospect. She is quite like a white butterfly. Fluttering about air headed, an unconcerned with others problems. She has few and small pleasures, like drinking coke-cola, painting her toe nails, and looking in the mirror and imagining herself as Marilyn Monroe. This is however the charm of Macabéa, as a transient and almost formless character. She could be anyone on the street, herself. Just a compliant face, that happens to be there. This in my theory is what drives Rodrigo S.M. into such an obsession. Though the novella was written in a sombre manner, fragmented and full of wonderings and meanderings and is not considered by any means a traditional novel, it is safe to say in theory that the novella is testament, to the undying will of the human spirit or at least of the optimism of the soul. Macabéa is poor and disenfranchised, yet does not understand how unhappy this should make her. Our narrator and observer as well as casual conversation partner Rodrigo S.M is bleak and urbane character, lacking any real human spirit and is empty and hollow; left only as an observer. Together though one can certainly see the anonymous misery of both their lives. There despair’s are compared and contrasted, and together they move like a parallel chorus of a song, remaining the same in their interval.

“As for the girl, she exists in an impersonal limbo, untouched by what is worst or best. She merely exists, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Why should there be anything more? Her existence is sparse.”

And this existence that survived on the simple gestures of inhaling and exhaling was furtherer concreted in her understanding of reality:

“She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn’t know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides the word reality meant nothing to her.”

This is what makes Macabéa childlike in her apathy. Her life was not concerned with reality, she was not concerned with reality – she was more concerned with the obscurity of the day-to-to-day life. This obscurity is where Rodrigo takes us as a read. In his own words: “[…] obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature.” This is what makes this novella grand though is that it does not depict the life of either the narrator or his subject Macabéa – at least not traditionally. It’s more concerned with the capricious nature of life as a whole. It’s a grand mystery and obscure. Even with its sombre eccentrics of the author Clarice Lispector it is full of glimmering and reluctant optimism even if it is coated in a mournful tone. But also painfully aware of the void of life itself, and with it she leaves behind a philosophical musing in the first paragraph of this novella:

“All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.”

And one understands the world as forever progressing and changing. Never truly existing because it never truly began or agreed to begin; it is than that one understands that it is not only Macabéa who is a “music box that was slightly out of tune,” but the whole world is made up of a cacophonous chorus of yeses and lives slightly out of tune. This is the beauty and mystery of life. It does not shun one reality or truth though – tragedies and horrible aspects of life happen to all of us; and everyone else to varying degrees is indifferent to these tragedies; because in the end, the tragedy happens only to us. The tragedy can only affect the individual on the most personal level. The tragedy has no sense of morality or immorality – it is amoral and unappreciated but also careless and heedless to the suffering it causes. It is this unbiased cruelty that allows for justice in a chaotic form. Equality in suffering.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Thursday 1 November 2012


Hello Gentle Reader

A previous blog post was a discussion of walking as both an exercise and a tool for authors and writers to relax and free their mind. A physical meditation of exercise that allowed them to enter their inner world. However what was failed to mentioned was that two of this year’s Booker Prize Long listed authors, are about walking. “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by Rachel Joyce, as well as “The Lighthouse,” by Alison Moore. Both these novels deal with journeys. One recounts the physical journey of a man. Who decides to put on his shoes, and hand deliver a letter himself to a friend. The other is about a man now separated who travels to Germany for a walking holiday, and whose life and choices come back to haunt him. “Danube,” by the Italian author Claudio Magris is at once a travelogue but also a creative piece of non-fiction. It is a piece of literature that recounts history of Eastern Europe, where the Danube runs. Familiar characters pop up throughout. E.M. Cioran, Elias Canetti, Franz Kafka, even Baudelaire, Herta Müller, and other dreadful characters like Ceaușescu whose megalomania is placed on display with such open disgust and contempt. Tito and Stalin are also mentioned. For this piece of work takes place back in the eighties when the author himself had traversed the Danube, and when still most of Eastern Europe was nothing more than a group of satellite states that had all been consumed with such delight by Soviet Communism, like a house wife eating bon-bon’s.

Part philosophical discussion, historical account, journey and travelogue Claudio Magris has traced the Danube from its disputed source, to its final end. His journey at times appears disoriented and disorganized. Yet each place visited is brought to life by his eloquent prose. Magris is not a sloppy writer, by any means. Each word is chosen with surgical precision. Each area, village, town, or city is shown through the many facades of history. Like an optometrist changes the lens for a patient to find the perfect prescription for glasses – Magris switches the lenses of the present and the past to show how both collide, and how each country and each culture is so different, each one speaks a different dialect, each one even may even have certain prejudices against another, but each one is connected by the simple fact that the Danube runs through them.

Johann Strauss II was an Austrian composer, who wrote a composition called “An der schönen blauen Donau,” which translates into English as “The Blue Danube.” It was composed in eighteen-sixty six, and had been originally performed on the fifteenth of February of eighteen-sixty seven. It is one of the most consistently played classical songs. However at its initial performance and life time it was only a mild success. The first bit of this waltz in its choral version are as follows:

“Danube so blue,
so bright and blue,
through vale and field
you flow so calm,
our Vienna greets you,
your silver stream
through all the lands
you merry the heart
with your beautiful shores.”

With these Viennese sediments it has become a unofficial national anthem of Austria, rivaling the official national anthem “Land of Mountains, Land of Rivers.” However in classic Austrian tradition which has been the love/hate homeland of many authors including but not limited to Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek – Thomas Bernhard had even called Austria “a brutal and stupid nation … a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe.” – which allows one to see no surprise that the national anthem is not above a parody, where the first lines of the National Anthem of Austria is:

“Land of mountains, land by the stream,
Land of fields, land of cathedrals,
Land of hammers, with a promising future,
Home to great daughters and sons,
A nation highly blessed with beauty,
Much-praised Austria,
Much-praised Austria!”

Where the parody mocks these lines as follows:

“Land of the peas, land of the beans,
Land of the four zones of occupation,
we sell you on the black market,
Much beloved Austria!
And up there over the Hermannskogel
gladly the federal bird flutters.”

Germany and Austria is the first stop. The first opening is about the disputed origins of the river. Donaueschingen and Furtwangen are to villages/towns, which battle over the right to say that the Danube starts at their respective towns. From this dispute one can see the foreshadowing of the troubled countries to follow. Each one melancholic. From shifting countries of shifting hands. To the backwaters, of Europe where discrimination from Western Europe is abound. These following countries are places that one likes to toss ignorance, and jokes. A boiling cauldron of oppressed people, shadows of communism and now shaky democracies. Some devote believers in democracy. Others disillusioned with it as a concept, and feel or see no change in the shift of power. The rich now former Soviet supporters, have become the capitalistic pigs that they preached against for so long.

In this book about the Danube, Claudio Magris has read everything. He has met everyone. Recorded their personal tragedies, and moments of fleeting happiness. Grasped their stories and has told them here. No one is above his curiosity. Nothing is below his wonder at the world. From cuckoo clocks, and the clock museum to Heidegger to the Josef Mengele the infamous Nazi doctor known as “The Angel of Death,” to a prostitute who mourns her still born child. All of them are curiosities and oddities. Each one a small particle in the world of mitteleuropa.

History is made up of some interesting characters. Notable villains that not anyone is going to take credit for. Linz the hometown of Adolf Hitler the most recognizable moustache wearer and dictator of history is located in Austria. It is here that Adolf Hitler, who considered Linz his hometown, planned numerous architectural plans and schemes. Hitler had planned that it would become the cultural center of the Reich. In the end the only one to have seen and made competition was the Nibelungen Brücke. However Linz is also notorious for housing Adolf Eichmann in his youth. But it also was a place of Ludwig Wittgenstein as well.

Günzburg is home to another infamous villain of history who never paid for his crimes. A man who strung eyeballs like pearls, and hung them on his bedroom wall. Though his collection went beyond simply collecting eyes. As a medical physician he certainly must have been intrigued by the human body and all medical oddities. He called gall stones and dwarf corpses. He was known for a fascination of injecting chemicals and dyes into Jewish children brown eyes in order to try and change them blue, in order to make them more ‘Nordic.’ Though there is no doubt that Mengele throughout his ghastly surgical operations were not serious medical practices. They were sadistic torture for the sheer enjoyment of himself, and also for another fact – the exercising of power. Mengele himself never went to trial. He escaped persecution and had evaded authorities. He eventually died a pathetic death befitting the angel of death. He died while going out for a swim at sea, and suffered a stroke, drowning in the sea, and being pulled a shore.

Other characters that are unfamiliar to English readers will also appear. Adalbert Stifter a very popular German writer, though utterly allusive and unknown to English readers. He himself had lost his daughter to suicide. She had drowned in the Danube. In eighteen-sixty eight he had slashed wrists, by the same river. His funeral was the conducted by Anton Bruckner, who was the Cathedral Organist of Linz. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek make appearances, as both their deaths changed history. Franz Ferdinand was a man who had an almost compulsive desire to hunt. Two thousand seven hundred and sixty three seagulls in a single day. If that is not impressive or horrifying enough he killed six thousand stags during his entire lifetime. While his wife was on the other hand was doing her best to fend off the commercial advances of a pastry baker Oskar Pischinger who wanted her to endorse the newly invented torte.

It is also in Austria that at a cemetery that the country who wishes to control everything in some way or another – or at least place some order on the chaos of the world, that a sniper is hired to kill rabbits in a cemetery for disturbing the peace of the graves and the slumber of the dead. Only in Austria can such an occupation exist, where one is hired to place order on a place of peaceful quiet mourning and celebration of death, and where death lingers on the edges and corners.

Kafka makes a famous appearance – and what would Central Europe be without the darkly comic and absurd writer who understood the human condition so well? Claudio Magris takes a trip to Kierling were Kafka died, and meets the old man who now takes care of the grounds.

As the book continues we learn about minor poets – unknown authors, common residents and extraordinary but not famous people. Magris discusses the Ottoman Empire’s rule over parts of the Central Europe. The yoke, in which Magris describes has been released for so long, that once its rule was over thrown, and the countries had the first taste of freedom, and the sweetness of their own identity not a smaller identity in a larger whole, they began systemically giving names that fit their own country to those that had Ottoman or Turkish names. It is in Bulgaria that one learns of the tragicomic accident of the Bulgaria’s first modern poet Petko Slaveykov falling into the water, and losing his manuscripts.

There is a Romanian saying in this book “who has ever seen a green horse or an intelligent Serb?” This saying best sums up Grandma Anka. She is by one of the most intriguing characters of this book, and is my favourite part of this book as well. She crass, but not necessarily rude. Abrasive, yes – and there is just a helping dose of ironic hypocrisy. Such as her views on Serbians and she herself having quite the pride in her own lineage of Serbian ancestry that goes back through time. One cannot say she is anti-Semitic. Though many would, in today’s politically correct and sterile environment. Where once people were afraid to say something offensive or confrontational out of fear of being sent to a Serbian labour camp or gulag, now people are afraid to form an opinion or reasonable argument out of fear of offending a minority or someone. Grandma Anka stands in shaky ground, at times. But she stands nonetheless as a Eastern European, as a hard woman who has had four marriages, and has lived under Soviet rule. She is also a stance defender for Freedom of Speech, and of course the freedom of the individual. Regardless of feelings or offending or people demanding an apology, she is the person who with ironic and sarcastic words shows the diversity of the real world, and of Central Europe.

Claudio Magirs prose is lush. It is wonderful. It is poetic, and sensual. He is an amazing story teller. The ability to evoke each town and each individual with such atmosphere is a gift of his. This book does not become tiresome, it becomes increasingly informative. On a grand scale, it took almost twenty years to write, and with those years Magris has polished and refined the work. From conception to completion this book must have been quite the task. To read it was a joyous pleasure. An enlightening and informative experience. What is admirable about Claudio Magris is he knows human limitations. He does not bother to waste time, on long winding sentences or long winding chapters that’ll continue over a hundred pages. He cuts the chapters short, and places them in edible and well prepared pieces. In larger sections. Each chapter is titled, allowing one to understand exactly what the essay is going to entail, usually. This allows for a great sense of movement within the book. One does not feel tired or bored with it, because there is a new story just around the corner. A new town. A new individual. A new piece of history. Be it a battle. Be it an execution. Be it a wedding or a funeral. Be it a museum dedicated to clocks. Claudio Magris pays equal amount of attention to the details as he would to any other subject in this book.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary