The Birdcage Archives

Monday, 22 February 2016

Doleful to Dreadful

Hello Gentle Reader

Always in the late winter, when the snow retreats, and the mud seeps; do we see the blight of autumn’s fires, now charred ashen remnants. The grass is brown or beige depending on light and perception. Doleful, as one co-worker called it; which immediately brought to mind the images of a doe: skittish, flappable, and ever so weak and helpless on the food chain. The transition from winter to spring is always dreadful more than doleful.

Whenever the world loses a writer of substantial literary merit, it’s a tragic loss. Two-thousand and twelve, saw two great writers depart from the earthly realm: The Polish Nobel Laureate Wislwa Szymborska Mozart of Poetry, and the Italian writer, Antonio Tabucchi, heir of the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, and student of the Portuguese mystical poet Fernando Pessoa. 

Now in two-thousand and sixteen, still fresh in our mind, the world has lost two other writers: Umberto Eco, and Harper Lee.

Umberto Eco, preferred to think of himself as an intellectual rather than a writer. Many other writes, have also included such thoughts when discussing their own work. Such as fellow Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi considering himself a professor (teacher) and scholar before he was a writer, or Claude Simon (Nobel Laureate 1985) referred to grape farming as his occupation before writing, Franz Kafka was an insurance clerk before a writer; and the list goes on. But Umberto Eco was an intellectual before he took pen to paper. With regards to Umberto Eco’s intellectual pursuits, semiotics was his greatest philosophical interest; often penning numerous essays in regards to the study of signs and symbols, and the meaning that they create. Though for Eco it was his narrative work that often found him fame, starting with his nineteen-eighty novels: “The Name of the Rose.” “The Name of the Rose,” is a medieval detective novel set in an Italian abbey with a Brother (monk) investigating suspicious deaths within it. After witch Eco had published numerous other novels, which would solidify himself as a giant of international literature, and an Italian master of prose. Umberto Eco, was a continual contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but may have been overlooked to so speculation, because of his grander presence on the world literary stage. Now at the age of eighty-four, Umberto Eco has passed away from complications with cancer. May you rest in peace Umberto Eco, rest in peace.

Harper Lee was one of America’s literary darlings. Her most famous novel “Too Kill a Mockingbird,” was met with controversy at first, being banned by some schools and school boards, for its depiction of racism; and yet Harper Lee herself had created one of the greatest fictional heroes of all time: Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a accused black man of raping a young white girl. The novel published in the nineteen-sixties was a huge success and controversial one. It dealt with the South’s racial tensions and the racial divide of America at the time (which still persists to this day, by the news reports). With publishing “Too Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee created a folk legal hero in Atticus Finch, with legal journals reviewing Atticus Finch and the novel more, then literary magazines. Yet in two-thousand and fifteen, Harper Lee would release her second and last novel: “Go Set a Watchman,” which would destroy Atticus Finch’s character, with revelations of his own racist past, and inclinations. “Go Set a Watchman,” would be met with controversy, and many wondering if the newly released novel had spoiled Harper Lee’s literary legacy. It’s a damper comment on her recent death, at the age of eighty-nine. “Too Kill a Mockingbird,” would most likely remain her masterpiece, and her tour de force, of her dual literary output. With a Pulitzer and a novel, about the Southern racial tensions, Harper Lee solidifies herself as one of America’s greatest writers of the last twentieth century; but also a silent giantess of literature, with a very small literary output, and some would consider it a one hit wonder.

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, 11 February 2016

Tristano Dies: A Life

Hello Gentle Reader

Antonio Tabucchi was one of the greatest writers in contemporary Italy, before his death (prematurely as all death is premature in some form or another), back in two-thousand and twelve, after a long battle with cancer. Yet he left behind a great deal of books, which have been published, and are being translated, into other languages. His work is true literary magic in many ways. Tabucchi was a serious writer, who wrote about losers. Be it they’ve lost to the political climate of the time; lost a lover; lost their life; lost an opportunity; in the end they’ve lost something. Though, as it has been said before: “loosing builds character,” and in Tabucchi’s world, loosing also brings doubts. His characters often carry doubts with them. Doubtful characters, in Tabucchi’s perspectives often had is great for contradictions. Characters with contradictions often, carried more interesting stories; and in Tabucchi’s case, he was right. One such example is Pereira, the old and obese journalist from: “Pereira Maintains,” or “Pereira Declares.” Pereira in the beginning of the novel is simply put, a journalist, in charge of the cultural section of a newspaper. His love is for literature; a pastime or a lifelong passion, in which consumes and interests him. Yet because of this, Pereira remains uninvolved with the politics of the fascist regime that surround him. Until, he reads an essay by a young man discussing death. Pereira is moved by the essay, and writes to the young essayist, and employee’s him to write “advanced obituaries,” about great writers who are in their advanced age, and who will most certainly die, at a moment’s notice. The young man (Monteiro Rossi) agrees; but what follows suite, are politically charged essays with explicit left leaning political ideas being advertised, and with the current regime, it is considered politically undermining, and inappropriate for publication. Yet slowly with his interest growing for the young man, Pereira begins to find himself, being stirred from his own stupor, both physically and politically. Throughout the novel, Pereira often admonishes the young revolutionary for his politically brazen statements and thoughts, and finds himself, expressing a certain bit of fear for his own career and livelihood, because of his association with the young man, and his desire to write politically charged articles. Despite this though, Pereira begins to show a curious interest in the subterfuge being utilized by the young man and his cohorts, to undermine the ruling political regime and its ideology. At first Pereira is an apolitical individual, a man among the mass who accepts the current political atmosphere and situation, as the current reality; then he takes on a admonished role, quick to attempt reason with Monteiro; and eventually Pereira becomes tantalized by the life of Monteiro, and after the political awakening, Pereira declares his own political awakening, and has completed an entire transformation, and awakened from his own political stupor.

Despite this, Antonio Tabucchi was not a politically motivated writer. When “Pereira Maintains,” or “Pereira Declares,” was first published, it was picked up by the masses, as an encouraging read, and as a book of protest – especially against Silvio Berlusconi. After the novels political and publication success had taken place, there was great speculation that the writer would run for election to the senate. Tabucchi however declined; and has stated that his love has always been literature, and for literature to succeed there needs to be a mixture, of dreams, desire and fantasy; and his professional calling has always been a university professor, and he had no interest in leaving either of those pursuits behind in favour of one that was political. Despite not being a political author, Tabucchi was a writer who openly admitted that everyone should keep a sharp eye on politics.

When politics do come up for Tabucchi, it often has questions relating to the philosophical, the ontological or the existential, and often in a historical context, of some sort or another. It is not a political thriller, or a discussion of communism being ideologically purer then fascism; or fascism far more sustainable then communism. Rather for Tabucchi, it is the shaking of the political or ideological yoke, and undermining oppression. The oppression of such: dreams, desires, and fantasies, which make literature a possibility. Though, when serious conversations do appear, concerning political matters, they are often driven by philosophical questions, rather than politically engaged criticism or vitriol; such is the case with the short story “Clouds,” from “Time Ages in a Hurry,” where a young girl and a middle aged man, discuss the futility and the necessity of war. Such is Tabucchi’s magic, being engaged with contemporary concerns, but not being overtly politically engaged that one is patronized by it.

“Tristano Dies: A Life,” is a perfect companion book to “Time Ages in a Hurry.” The character of this novel, Tristano is a man of a colourful history. We are introduced to Tristano who was a resistance fighter in Greece, who shoots a Nazi-German soldier down in the middle of the street, after the solider attacks the people of a Greek village. From there enters one of the two women of Tristano’s life: Daphne; who hides Tristano away from the occupying forces, and until Tristano can safely get away into the hills. There in the hills, Tristano encounters another woman, who would haunt his life, from his receding memory, an American woman, who is supporting the resistance, and goes by the name Marilyn; though Tristano re-christens her as: “Rosamunde,” or “Guagliona.” Both women appear in Tristano’s monologue, but neither taken any more shape than any of his other dream-like memories, being recounted to the writer who has been called to his bedside, to listen to his recount of a life, on one sultry August. In these dog days of August, Tristano begins to recount his life, but his memory is clouded by both the vulture hovering death, and the morphine he takes to help manage the pain of his gangrene, which is devouring his leg.

The writer called to Tristano’s bedside, has a difficult task ahead of him. The writer is acquainted with Tristano already, having written a small prize winning book about the war hero, but with the request, to sit at the veterans side, and to listen to him recount his life, the writer, soon finds he needs to skim the fat of both imagination, dream, and drug to get the broth and stock of the story, without it being completely adulterated by other imposing forces. Yet, Tristano’s monologue and recount of the events of his life are not always straightforward. They are filled with tangents, thoughts, and questions of the past.  In memory, time is a force that does not move linearly or without logical principals. In memory, and in the case of Tristano’s concept of time, it moves forwards, backwards, without any reasoning behind it. This along with his often drug induced awakenings, would constitute him as a rather unreliable narrator. Still the journey with Tristano and the many versions of himself, and the stream-of-consciousness prose, in which is utilized creates an interesting and unique read.

“Tristano Dies: A Life,” has often been called one of Antonio Tabucchi’s masterpieces. It’s understandable, to see why it is referred to one of his major novels. It deals with the recurring themes of life, death, devotion, love and war. All mixed with Tabucchi’s keen style of always being vague in the middle, and giving the details around the edges. “Tristano Dies: A Life,” however is not an easy read. The style of the book, moves quickly through time, and without any linear direction; when the prose at the sudden shift in temporal perspective, do match up on a singular symphonic note, the majesty of Antonio Tabucchi’s talent become paramount and shine through. Other times though, the prose of “Tristano Dies: A Life,” came move in a direction, that becomes slightly off-putting; the use of extended letters or the attempt of language (both author and translator I presume), trying to use words to mimic the nonsensical sounds we make. But at its heights its witty, it’s thought provoking, and empathetic. I can imagine Frau smoking cigar in the garden, beneath a tree; or being spiteful and speaking German, despite the fact that her Italian is impeccable; and her tenderness when she reads a poem to Tristano every Sunday, just as if they were children again.

The novel itself, is not a book about death, or morbid sentiments or mortuary guilty pleasures. It is true that Tristano is dying; hence the title: “Tristano: Dies,” but it luckily enough has the subtext: “A Life,” to go along with it. “Tristano Dies: A Life,” is far more concerned with the life of Tristano, depicted throughout the novel in one long monologue; and death is broached and discussed as Tristano faces his own mortality. He offers a discussion on the parting of Elephants when they die:

“Speaking of elephants, of all the creatures of this world and all their funeral rites, I’ve always admired the elephants’ the most, they have this strange way of dying—you know about it? When an elephant feels his time has come he leaves the herd, but not alone, he chooses a companion, and they leave together. They start out across the savannah, often at a trot, depending on how urgent the dying elephant is feeling…and they wander and wander, sometimes kilometers and kilometers, until the dying elephant chooses his place to die, and he goes round and round again, tracing a circle, because he knows it’s time to die, he’s being drawn into death but needs to understand this space, as though he has an appointment, as though he wants to look outside himself, look death in the eye, and tell her, good morning madam death, here I am…of course it’s an imaginary circle, but it helps to “geography” death, if you will…and he’s the only one who can enter this circle, for death’s a private act, extremely private, so no one else can enter except the one who’s dying, and at this point he tells his companion he can leave, goodbye, thanks so much, and the other returns to the herd…”

All readers are invited to trot along with Tristano, in this novel.

Archipelago Books, outdoes itself again with another masterful translation, and another book by the late Antonio Tabucchi as well! “Tristano Dies: A Life,” took a while to read, it’s a dense novel, but a pleasurable read, and one must face the facts, the more forward the pages flip the greater the possibility that our time with Tristano is coming to an end; and so it’s best to take it slowly, and enjoy the journey and the route forward, with Tristano and the writer, and admire the prose of Antonio Tabucchi. The work is both empathetic, and humorous; cantankerous and thoughtful; philosophical and critical. Another rewarding book, from Antonio Tabucchi, and Archipelago Books.

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

P.S. Gentle Reader, because of considerable more energy being pushed towards, education and getting my educational requirements done and pushed through, I have been focusing more on those projects, which has taken time away from reading. Later this week I will also be leaving for a few days out of town, on a family matter, and will not be back until later next week, and will not have anything posted. I am hoping to get “Missing Persons,” wrapped up by Patrick Modiano, in this time frame. If not when I return I will hope to post some blogs about interesting literary news, that may have happened in my absence. Thank-you Gentle Reader for your readership, your understanding, and your continual kind support. ––– M. Mary 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Remembering Wisława Szymborska

Hello Gentle Reader

While watching Downton Abbey last night, I struck by the peculiar thought – I have my own Gladys Denker at my own work! Yes a Denker; the cunning, astute, and even a bit shrewd creature. Though perhaps referring to this co-worker as a Denker is a bigger compliment then it is a genuine realization or even insulting. Denker is not a character of many admirable traits or qualities. She manipulates Andrew Parker into spending his money, so she can drink at “The Velvet Violin,” at his expense; though thankfully the equally cunning and charming (if albeit sarcastic manner) Thomas Barrow rescues Andrew from another fateful night of Denker drinking on his penny. Yes, that does sound similar to a co-worker of mine; though Denker (as her name suggests – is a thinker) where my co-worker is nothing more than a window dresser of her work, and sloppy on who she steps on to achieve something substance via her perception. If only my work had a Violet Crawley and a Spratt, perhaps this would all be more entertaining; but for now it’s not.

Wisława Szymborska has also immortalized this individual, in one of her poems: “Old Folks Home,” which displays the poets grace, humour, irony, and often keen sense of the human condition.

“Old Folks’ Home,”
                         By – Wisława Szymborska

Here comes Her Highness—well you know who I mean,
our Helen the snooty—now who made her queen!
With her lipstick and wig on, as we could care,
like her three sons in Heaven, can see her from there!

“I wouldn’t be here if they’d lived through the war.
I’d spend winter with one son, summer with another.”
What makes her so sure?
I’d be dead too now, with her for a mother.

And she keeps on asking (“I don’t mean to pry”)
why from your sons and daughters there’s never a word
even though they weren’t killed. “If my boys were alive,
I’d spend all my holidays home with the third.”

Right, and in his gold carriage he’d come get her,
drawn by a swan or a lily-white dove,
to show all of us that he’ll never forget her
and how much he owes to her motherly love.

Even Jane herself, the nurse, can’t help but grin
when our Helen starts singing this old song again—
even though Jane’s job is commiseration
Monday through Friday with two weeks’ vacation.

I’ve never been much of a individual for poetry; an obscure and oblique literary form as far as I was concerned for many years. The structure of lines made no sense at all; and though at times its use of language was pertinent and often was capable of metaphorically giving voice to emotional thoughts and ideas, it was at the end of day, still a form that existed beyond my own comprehension. Reading an Elizabethan sonnet or an Italian sonnet, was equivalent to torture. Poetry it seemed had been reserved for poets, and other poets – cryptic creatures, that corresponded via these odd landscapes captured in words, and emotional revelations.

Enter Wisława Szymborska; specifically her poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” The poem itself tackled the theme of death, but domesticated it, and was written via the perspective of a cat, who views its absent owner as negligent and neglectful in their care and duty of it. The poem makes light of a dark theme, but also discusses the concept of death, with a fresh perspective, and gentle way. The poem itself, from my understanding is learned by school children and recited often by them.

Wisława Szymborska was a quiet and modest giant of poetry and literature. She wrote it is estimated only three-hundred and fifty poems, and yet still achieved the Nobel Prize for Literature in nineteen ninety-six. However the Nobel was often referred to as the “Nobel Disaster,” (or the "Stockholm Tragedy) as with its announcement, the quiet poet, was soon sprung into a limelight that brought unwanted attention. Request for interviews, call of congenial congratulations poured in, and the telephone never ceased ringing. Then of course there was the incident at Stockholm itself. Being the year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Szymborska was put up in one of the most luxurious suites in the hotel; and as the story goes, she was a kind woman who lived a modest and simple life, in Krakow, in an apartment, which had been christened “The Drawer,” by close and dear friends; in the suite of this hotel however, Szymborska found herself sleeping in the bath tub, because she could not figure out how to work the light switches. During her time in Stockholm she delivered one of the shortest acceptance speeches, which was filled her humour and gracious gratitude to the Swedish Academy. The affair would soon end, but for Szymborska, her life had been changed from that point on.

The Nobel shockwave continued to ripple through her life, and she soon hired a secretary to assist with the management of her affairs. His first job: stop the phone from ringing; though the position was planned as temporary, her assistant Michał Rusinek, and the poet had become close friends, but professional nonetheless.

Szymborska was profound, accessible, humorous all wrapped up in her earthly poetry with a penchant for understatement. She was a quiet giant of literature, who passed away on February 1st, 2012, was dearly mourned and missed by not only the Polish public but by those who had come into contact with the poet. Her love of kitschy objects befits her personality; her misplacement of her Nobel medal in her drawer of an apartment; her love of creating her own postcards showcasing her humour – they each describe Szymborska, the modest, shy, quiet giant of poetry who has reshaped poetry as not a literary form locked away in the ivory tower, but a lively, earthly conversation about all the aspects of what it means to be human.

Rest In Peace Szymborska. To this day, your poetry is a bed time reading for me. When I have a bad day, I turn to you. When I require a thought to mull, I read you. When I need comforting, I long for you. Because of you, I have learned to have a greater appreciation for drawers, and their capacity to hold, treasure, and keep; and for that I smile for you.

Life is sometimes bearable My Dear Szymborska, and at times only with you.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

P.S. Now if only I could get my hands on the two documentaries of Szymborska herself. But for now her books certainly do.