The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 29 May 2022

– IV –

Open doors are not the same as open books. Open doors are revolving doors. A whirlwind of people in and out. In this context, the word share, is a lot like care, in that it is equally detestable. My childhood home was equipped with an open door, complete with policy. I grew up with a home where all were welcome (some limitations and exemptions were applied) at the table, and if necessary, spend the night or stay. This meant my room was forfeited and the word ‘sharing’ became an act of virtue. It was a display of generosity. Which inevitably lead to an obsession for a singular space. An insular domain that is both exclusive and private. Something that is mine with all the selfishness such a thought conjures. Inevitably any place and solitary space which has come into my own possession is sanctified. Complete with a closed door and equipped with a lock for good measure.

Friday 27 May 2022

Geetanjali Shree Wins the International Booker Prize, 2022

Hello Gentle,
Geetanjali Shree has won this year’s International Booker Prize for her critically acclaimed monumental novel: “Tomb of Sand.” Geetanjali Shree becomes the fourth women to win the award since its revised inception in 2016, while this award marks the first time a novel written in Hindi to receive the award.
Previous winners include (from 2016 on)

2016 – Han Kang – “The Vegetarian,”
2017 – David Grossman – “A Horse Walks into a Bar,”
2018 – Olga Tokarczuk – “Flights,”
2019 – Jokha Alharthi – “Celestial Bodies,”
2020 – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – “Discomfort of Evening,”
2021 – David Diop – “At Night All Blood is Black,”

“Tomb of Sand,” was described by the judges as being an extraordinary novel that was a pleasure to read in part due to its humour. Frank Wynne, chair of judges for this year’s award, went to so far as to call the book: “Enormously engaging and charming and funny and light, despite the various subjects it’s dealing with . . . a perfectly decent beach read for absolutely everyone.”
“Tomb of Sand,” is a mammoth novel that recalls an 80-year-old woman, who slips into a deep depression when her husband dies, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. She travels to Pakistan to confront the traumas she endured as a adolescent during Partition, and re-evaluates the multifaceted complexities and perspectives of her identity of being a mother, a daughter, a woman, and a feminist herself. Where these themes would be considered severe and must be treated with the airs of sacrilege of seriousness, Geetanjali Shree imbued the narrative with graceful humour, charm, and a lush exuberance of wordplay with the original Hindi, which must have been difficult to translate, in order to provide an authenticate inclination of the original cadence. “Tomb of Sand,” has been hallmarked as a revolutionary novel, one which protests the needless borders, boundaries, and alienating attitudes that are facilitated by geographical disputes, political ideology, social status and rank, religious convictions, or on the basis of gender.
This year’s longlist was considered particularly strong with many great writers also shortlisted for the award, which included Olga Tokarczuk and Jon Fosse, with powerful and engaging new voices who are beginning to secure their own foothold in translation. At the start of the award, however, “Tomb of Sand,” was considered one of novels to watch and an immediate contender once it was originally longlisted.
Despite being described as a slow-burning novel initially, once momentum is picked up, “Tomb of Sand,” becomes a dazzling and engaging novel, full of humour and humanistic visions.
Congratulations to Geetanjali Shree, and to Daisy Rockwell (Translator), whose ability to gracefully capture, transition, and translate the novel into another language must have been a challenge, but well worth the effort.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

Thursday 19 May 2022

The Wild Life of the Fox

Hello Gentle Reader,

As a genre I’ve never given much thought to nature writing. It never even registered on my reading radar. Nature writing was the equivalent to travel writing, as far as my initial conceptions went. Leisurely works of wholesome qualities, which are adequately commissioned, though I always doubted that their consumption was widespread. To me, nature writing inhabited a dual sphere. On the one, it stemmed from leisure and even to an extent good fortune and luxury, whereby the writer could continually ramble on about the brambles in their garden, the ancient trees, the annuals, the perennials, the pesky animals complete with human character. Then there is the other facet, a piece of non-fiction work whose singular concern is to report the egregious error and terrifying damages plaguing the environment, whereby human beings are the plague rats; yet its message is lost in the technicalities of science, bone dry logic, and inconvenient facts. Yet over the years, I heard of a book “Meadowland,” whose full title is: “Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field,” written by an English farmer and lifestyle columnist, who heralds from the West Midlands, which in itself sounds quintessentially English in itself; complete with winding lanes, tranquil and censored meadows, babbling brooks, green hills, grey and dour skies, with rock fences slithering and snaking through hills and fields in equal measures. In all: the kind of pastoral land one expects every from of fantasy fiction to take on, one that is both ancient and cultivated. Anything else will just not do.

When envisioning the English countryside, stereotypically, we imagine it as it has often been presented: manicured, tamed, cultivated, colonized, orderly. There’s the English gardens, all neat and tidy. Roses in regalia; lilies trumpeting; fragrant herbs; conspicuous and unsightly weeds like dandelions plucked and pruned; hedges trimmed, tamed, shaped and formed; cobblestone paved garden paths; manicured lawns of a verdant and vibrant green. In essence all of natures beauty curated for adoration and enjoyment, without the bite, the danger, the wild. After generations and centuries of farming, complete with cultivation and animal husbandry, there is no doubt that England would eventually slowly transform into its muted and almost ‘unwild,’ landscape we imagine it as today. The pockets of forest, are more fit to imagine the homes of the characters of Beatrix Potter’s tales or the quaint tranquil pastoral life of the anthromorphic characters of “The Wind in the Willows.” Now and then though we may glimpse a darkened and uncomfortable reproach. Something forbidden, haunted, and ancient. The woods of some gothic and weary estate that perhaps the Brontë’s had conjured and placed on a fetid heath or windswept moorland.

Through centuries of agriculture, cultivation, deforestation, and civilization, the wilds of England, Scotland and Wales, have been either altered or lost. Gone are the legendary wolves of Great Britain, as well as the bears and lynx. The animal kingdom is ruled by the competing apex predators, on the ground is the badger and fox, in the rivers the otter, while the skies are shared by the eagle in the day and the owl as night falls. The fox as the apex remains a curious figure. Rather than sheer power and killer instinct, such as its cultural related wolf, whose nobility is crowned in its ideal sense of superiority, its moon directed prayers and praise, echoing through the shadows of the night. Its pack orientated understanding, and its ability to take down large wild game. The wolf occupied a state of noble and chivalrous understanding within human culture, both as a haunting and mournful nocturnal foe, but also noble warrior, a symbol of pride courage and northern resilience and survival. Culturally speaking, the wolf never relied on tricks or deception or cunning to get what it wanted. It takes by force. An otherwise chivalrous force, one with a sense of dignity and straightforward virtue.

Whereas on the contrary, the fox must use less then appealing methods to obtain its goals. Throughout cultural depictions and further enforced with literary adaptions, the fox is portrayed as maliciously intelligent, mischievously clever, and malevolently capable of obtaining its rewards by preying on the gullibility of others. In the famous fables, Reynard the Red Fox, bests all the other beasts with his own wits. He does not have the respect of the lion; the brutish strength of the bear; the nobility of the wolf (Isengrim); the onery resolve of the donkey; yet Reynard has intelligence, and this aptitude for manipulation, deception, and cunning logic in order to thwart the foolhardy plans of the other animals, whose ideals and virtues, however noble, chivalrous, valiant, loyal, and principled, are secondary and pedestrian, unsuitable for the harsh realities of life, and inevitably not realistic ideals. Reynard as fictional character becomes the necessary antihero of the common man, satirizing the smug and out of touch lion as monarch; the gluttonous landlords in the bear; the violent and fascist knights in the wolf; the blind, devote, and cantankerously stubborn clergy who demand tithes in their denominational taxation, as the donkey. Reynard in turn, becomes that antiestablishment folk hero.

In “The Wild Life of the Fox,” John Lewis-Stempel, provides a brief overview of Reynard as the fabled folk hero. The fable is more a literary reference, to how human society and civilization has come to admire, respect, and in turn detest the fox; but whose brilliant red coat has come to inhabit a cherished and well-earned space in popular imagination. In turn, John Lewis-Stempel mentions the rivalry between Mr. Tod and Tommy Brock, in Beatrix Potter’s tale “The Tale of Mr. Tod.” The rivalry exhibited between Mr. Tod (a fox) and Tommy Brock (a badger) is evident, when the later invades the home of the former stashing away rabbit kittens to be eaten later. Their mutual distaste provides enough distraction for both Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny to reclaim the young bunnies and return to safety. “The Tale of Mr. Tod,” was an interesting departure for Beatrix Potter and a marvelous swansong, as it allowed Potter to resign herself to write a tale with two disagreeable parties at the heart of the tale. After so many tales with warm hearts, soft edges, and agreeable perspectives, came a tale riddled with subtle and underlying danger presented in the case of Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

For John Lewis-Stempel the fox is the undisputed heir and ruler of the English countryside or as Lewis-Stempel put it:

“our most ancient landowner.”

Yet the relationship with the fox is riddled with complications. For farmers it’s a nuisance. A killer of livestock, who is not easily prevented or barricaded out. As if with almost mythological admiration, John Lewis-Stempel recounts the stories of others along with his own encounters with the apex predator, whose ingenuity and frightening aptitude for intelligent thought has thwarted farmers attempts to keep the fox out of the hen house both proverbial and literal, such as the case with his own red menace’s ability to deduce how to disarm an electric fence. While others have recounted seeing foxes taunt dogs as they stroll with measured and precise steps on hay bales, while the dogs bark with their usual war cries. While another recounts how the fox has been observed rolling in the mud to disguise its scent and avoid the dogs on the chase and hunt.

Fox hunting is an expected topic to be touched on in this short book, and John Lewis-Stempel tackles the subject with a sense of naturalist respect and grace, coupled with an understanding for tradition and ritual. The now banned hunt in the United Kingdom, has been a point of contention for many years—both leading up to its prohibition and long since after. Opponents of the fox hunt view it as a senseless and cruel game parading itself as a gentlemen’s sport. Supporters in turn called it a necessary and woven tradition of rural English life and operates as a form of conservation and pest control. Regardless, the hunt fell out of style and tolerance by the people. It was viewed as an archaic and barbaric tradition, a symbol of an otherwise bygone era. John Lewis-Stempel who kindly aligns himself in line with the fox hunting, does point out to the uniquely English tradition rich with historical nuance, rural aesthetics, and eventually evolving into a societal affair that transcended the social and class barriers all at the call of the hunter, the bark of the dogs, the thunder of hooves, the trumpeting of the horn, as chase gives way for the red phantom skirting through the fields, meadows, and thicket of trees that is the quintessential English countryside. John Lewis-Stempel points out that more foxes are killed on average by cars then they were by the hunts.

“The Wild Life of the Fox,” was an enjoyable introduction into the world of John Lewis-Stempel’s nature writing. Currently there three other books him resting on my bookshelf to be read. “The Wild Life of the Fox,” in turn proved itself to be fair and measured introduction the realm of nature writing. Not bone dry but not covered in the sinewy slime of the biologically graphic. It was a panoramic purview that engulfed both historical, cultural, biological, literary, and personal anecdote to cover a singular animal, who has been the point of admiration and contemplation with human society for centuries. All in all, a quick read which proved to be enjoyable company on otherwise routine and mundane bus rides. As for the fox it remains a perennial fascination to our collective imagination, being the perennial illusionist, trickster, satirist and antihero. The fox inhabits the space of in between. Though canine in appearance it is feline in every way possible. Though renowned for its sly, deceptive, and manipulative nature with a sense of smug intelligence, it is unapologetically beautiful and flashy in its display of vibrancy. Long live the fox as the English apex predator. One can’t help but think itself a suitable occupant of the role, maintaining a sense of tamed wild regality, relying on its wits over brute force and wild instincts.

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

M. Mary

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Glück v Dylan

Hello Gentle Reader,

There have only been two American (in the geographical sense of the term) poets to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan (2016) and Louise Glück (2020). I would like to add with all the contestation and petulance this will invoke: the term poet is significantly cheapened as a term of professional literary quality, when used in the same sentence (or in any way to define, describe, or designate) as Bob Dylan.

The debate continues to rage regarding Dylan’s Nobel acknowledgement. Supporters of course retain their position that Dylan is an accomplished lyricist-cum-musician, invoking through his musical compositions and lyricism a certain melancholy of the mid-twentieth century; a desolation sense within the being; the image and spokesperson of the vagabond folklore lyricist from the Midwest, who hitchhiking through life provides social commentary and contemplates human destiny. Bob Dylan was a revolutionary voice in music in his prime. He became the voice of the generation, who preceded Woodstock, but in turn revolutionized and redefined how popular music and rock’n’roll were to be evaluated as serious musical genres, not just trivial entertainment for mass production. Yet to continue to misappropriate the literary to the obliviously poetically deaf, and further harken the claim that Dylan is more poet than musician, proponents reference the fact that his name change (née Zimmerman) to Dylan, comes from the poet Dylan Thomas. Though the change is less literary or homage to the Welsh poet, but more a marketing scheme, whereby the musician employees the unique spelling of the name and therefore adoptable poetic pedigree for image purposes and maintaining a sense of independence and unique identifying sense of character. Dylan talks with a sense of homage and desire to encapsulate and enshrine the image, the sense, the character, and the spirit of America. His songs are meant to be the soundtrack of the mid-20th Century American Life, the fall of manufacturing, the blue-collar world, the desperation and desolation of the youth, with all their aimlessness and wandering with eyes set to the sky and dreams drifting amongst the stars. His bluesy songs attempted to provide narrative, with a jazzy twang, and a folk hero aesthetic that was all American. Bob Dylan’s work tilled the earth and became the cornerstone for the production of other such musicians and singers, who channeled the uniquely road trip youthful despondency that Americans have such nostalgic encouragement towards. Bob Dylan’s placement on the pillar of folk hero, is done partially by his own creation and ability to brand himself as such, complete with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. His youthful visage portrayed a serious melancholic romanticism to it, a sense of brooding contemplation, there was no glimpse of any carefree enjoyment which is expected to be inherited in youth. And so, Bob Dylan was to become the teenage messiah of the mid-20th Century, the more forlorn folk hero who chronicled the hardships of the post-Boom era, and like some minstrel or bard played out his travels and his stories with guitar and harmonica. Or perhaps it was someone else’s stories and travels.

There is no doubt Bob Dylan was a pioneer of folk music. The man who first introduced pretentiousness to popular music. Yet, it is grossly over assessed in qualities. Bob Dylan is a perfect example of an individual who has been mistakenly taken out of their lane both by their choosing and by critical/academic encouragement and has then been impersonating and parading themselves on false pretenses. You’d almost think they are genuine if it weren’t for their arrogant self-delusion. Bob Dylan being paraded as a poet is one such instance. I’m sure the singer and musician has many talents and qualities, but his literary powers are severely lacking in scope. In deciding to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy insisted that Bob Dylan could and should be read, but as David Free from The Sydney Morning Herald points out: this may not be advisable. For all his talents in belting out a tune, strumming a guitar, or squealing on a harmonica, Bob Dylan is not an accomplished lyricist but rather a scrawler and half-assed scribbler, whose piss poor writing can be veiled by musical instruments and contorted in song. David Free in his article, points out numerous songs and lines which have no lyrical or poetic quality. Stanzas and lines twist and invert themselves in order to create some sense of rhyming quality. Though a pioneer of folk music expanding its claim into the public realm of listening pleasure, Dylan’s lyrical compositions were underwhelming, contorted, half-baked, and frequently slapped together. If a poet is to be credited with any sense of poetic achievement, then he is a poetic hack, a poet of insulation, a purveyor of spackle, the whisperer of echoing hollow nothingness. Bob Dylan ultimately lacked and lacks the ability of serious poetic achievement and linguistic respect to compose and craft any such form to be considered equivalent to poetry. Dylan lacks the craftsmanship and wordsmithing capabilities to be called a poet. However, in the realm of public imagination, he is propped up on the delusional understanding that he is a poet with all the false pretenses this musters. Yet, the continual demand and need to elevate Dylan from his natural position as a musician to a poet, carries the airs of egregious appeasement to suffice an over inflated ego that has been crafted by Bob Dylan and then taken on more legendary gluttony, with the advent of academic assessments overvaluing Dylan as a poet.

In awarding Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy attempted to appear approachable, or present an image that as an institution it is ‘with the times,’ and just as daring in its decisions. In essence it revolted against the claims and accusation that it is somehow, some old stuffy white person institution, covered in a cellophane of dust and left to rot on the shelf of irrelevance. The Dylan affair soon turned into a fiasco. It remains a divisive award and will most likely be reviewed in historical hindsight as controversial and meritless; a besmirched blight that should have been avoided; but much like the Dario Fo affair, it was a joke taken too far and apparently too seriously. Therefore, it can be theorized that four years later, when awarding Louise Glück the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy was attempting to provide retribution and reconcile its earlier error. Louise Glück’s award was in essence a redemptive award.

The Swedish Academy’s rationale for awarding Bob Dylan referenced the great American song tradition, as if completely ignoring the American Poetry tradition, which blossomed and grew with exclusive independence after the original colonies severed ties from Great Britain. From there a new identity had emerged, one wholly American came to be formed. It was both radical, new, observant and completely fascinated with its own new idea of freedom, which led to a breed of writer that encompassed the American spirit in turn, with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, James Whitcomb and Riley, and Edgar Allen Poe, encapsulating the sense of American thought, one which was independent and secular from the original colonizer’s identity. From there, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson secured the sense of American poetic tradition. Whitman with his long and democratic lines that pushed forward with free verse; while Dickinson was singular in vision and scope, concise, and concentrated hymnal like verse. These two poets became the modernist sun and moon, and from their orbits the path of stars was formed for all other poets to waltz down in a spirit and tradition that was American in scope and heritage, free from the shadow of English (as in British) formalism and literary influence. The idioms crafted by Whitman and Dickinson cannot be overlooked or ignored. Whitman’s free verse and carefree metric facilitated a new sense of emotive expressions; while Dickinson’s gnomic rhymes were terse, obscure and provided ironic expression to existence. From there came the quintessential American poet, Robert Frost. Frost remains a commanding figure in American letters, he is the stamp and seal of approval. The yard stick and metric employed to measure the feats of great American poetry. Frost was strictly lyrical, formal, and terser in style, but provided a ‘vurry Amur’k’n,’ (to quote Erza Pound) perspective when crafting poetry. Nature and the American landscape being favoured subjects of his work. To forcefully wedge, Bob Dylan into this pantheon of poets cheapens their achievement and sullies their reputations by association—like a turkey attempting to soar among the eagles—which is perhaps why the Swedish Academy referenced song tradition over poetry tradition; as one can doubt Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman would be completely enthused with Dylan’s company; though the Beat Generation, especially Ginsberg would find his induction amusing. If anything, Bob Dylan much like Robert Frost encapsulates, promotes, and exhales the very ‘Amur’k’n,’ sense of self. His music is coloured blue and grooves with a jazzy twang, with country melancholy and the folk singer’s ballad. This, regardless of position or perspectives, does not make Dylan a poet. He’s a singer; and his Nobel acknowledgement was a slap in the face to actual great American poets both past and present, including Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Sharon Olds.

When Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the atmosphere was muted, though critics were quick to praise Louise Glück as perhaps one of the finest lyrical poets at work in American Literature. Personally, I initially found the award a nuisance and annoyance. Yet another American it seemed; yet another English language writer; and I had initially thought: yet another fuck up. I would not be described myself as an early supporter of Louise Glück or her award, though I could at least stomach in essence that she was at least a poet, an actual writer. After a year and half, I would say I finally began to warm up to Glück, she was more interesting poet then I had first discerned or even gave any credit too. She’s singularly her own. Unequivocally and unapologetically independent from any poetic tradition, school, or thought. There were and have been misappropriated attempts at classifying Louise Glück as a Confessional Poet in the vein of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, but they ultimately were rendered insufficient comparisons, as Glück remained more universal and earthlier palpable, not consumed in self-absorption performing fiery strip teases on the stage of histrionics while perspiring second-hand emotion.

In awarding Louise Glück the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy in turn acknowledged a rich and independent literary tradition. Afterall, Glück’s apprenticeship came from her discovery and appreciation of Emily Dickinson, as referenced in her Nobel Lecture. Yet, unlike her predecessors, Glück’s poetry collections carry a sense of ‘unity,’ or whole completeness within them. Each collection of poetry contains within its small space its own solar system. Unlike other poets who string together poems as they write them and then collect them into a publishable volume; Louise Glück’s poetry in contrast maintains a sense of completeness or singular relationship, as each poem orbit’s perennial themes, but shifts through perspective, voices, motifs, and character, to comment on perennial and universal themes. In each collection, Glück performs a austere autopsy on her themes, dissecting marriages and family relationships with surgical mastery and unbiased eye. It is on these initial grounds that Louise Glück was initially indentured to the Confessional School of poetry. Yet, as Glück's career continued the initial comparison was inevitably lost, as Glück’s work took on more mythic and metaphorical imagery and narrative.

This narrative format can be beautifully witnessed in her Pulitzer Prize winning collection: “The Wild Iris,” whereby the entire world is framed within the confines of a garden, which in turn becomes the stage and setting where the external in the botanic (the flowers), the personal in the mortal (the gardener), and the divine in the omnipresent (God), converge within the garden and comment on the impermanence of existence, the shock and gratitude of life, the passage of time, the evolution of being, the responsibilities and relationship between creator and creation, and the circular nature of life and death as it follows the soundtrack of the seasons. One could propose the argument that is in “Ararat,” and “The Wild Iris,” is when Glück had finally found her foothold as a poet and her fermented and matured voice had reached the quality that has now become expected of her; though this germination and development is clearly seen in: “The Triumph of Achilles,” with its genesis taking place in the collection: “Descending Figure.” Curtailing back to “The Wild Iris,” though, it is here one can see Louise Glück entering the realm of the legendary Emily Dickinson, who in turn was famous for her gardening. The Dickinson family garden was renowned and was frequent place setting in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. A home to bees and birds, which became the landscape in which the soul transformed and soars into the celestial. The garden and its chorus in: “The Wild Iris,” engage in a personal dialogue through a fractured and segmented voices, each one commenting on the realms of life and the business of living, which is both arduous and miraculous. Glück as the austere poet becomes increasingly earthbound palpable and content with first-person discourse (as I am sure most poets are), yet rather then occupy the proscenia and engage in a longwinded self-absorbed treatise of thyself, Glück throws her voice to the flowers, to the divine, to the mythic, ensuring in this mosaic of voices—that despite echoing her own thoughts—provide the illusion of agency (or at least veiling the identity of the speaker), which provides a sense of privacy and urgent intimacy. It is in these spaces that the Swedish Academy was correct in their citation of Louise Glück:

“for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Yet it is in “The Wild Iris,” that one finds acknowledgement of the poetic school concerning Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, there’s an Old Testament presbyterian tone, an attention to lyrical detail and compression, while being completely free and democratic in verse, and employing in equal measure a wry sarcasm as an ironic tonic to ward of such silly notions of romanticism (or dare be compared to the idyllic idleness of such inert idiocy with all its pastoral pretentious poise and pompous perspectives), all the while refuting the poetic conventions, schools, constricts, and syllabic demands and stanza corsets.

In this, Louise Glück is a true poet, who should be recognized in the American Pantheon of Poetry, which she has unabashedly paid respect and homage to her in own verse. Glück’s perspectives remain personal, private, and intimate in nature, but tack on a wide berth and breath that it becomes universally appealing and empathetically approachable. Her collections of poetry are solar systems through and through, maintain a measured and level and unified approach to the topic at hand. As a poet, Louise Glück is more akin to Saturn than any other celestial body. A wielder of the scythe and understanding of time, solitude, and silence; a reckoner of change, revelator of destruction, and reaper of renewal. One would be hard pressed to call Louise Glück a stagnant or one trick poet. Perhaps not as regal as others, she remains a personal understanding that is reticent and straightforward, a firm fixture in the poetic universe, not some passerby and imposter like Bob Dylan, whose homages, and tributes to any and all poets, are half-assessed, half-hearted, and completely conducted for marketing strategy of having such depth and intellectual proclivities. In this it is clear, when awarding Louise Glück the Nobel Prize for Literature four years after the Bob Dylan fiasco, the Swedish Academy was engaged in a redemptive and reconciliatory endeavor, but they had certainly found the most perfect poet in which to ask for forgiveness, whereby in the frosted winter barren fortified garden of December, Glück (perhaps unknowingly) absolved the Swedish Academy of their own previous misstep.

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

M. Mary

For Further Reading –

David Free – The Sydney Morning Herald – Bob Dylan, a great poet? A great delusion more like it

Thursday 5 May 2022

Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews

Hello Gentle Reader, 

Mavis Gallant is that lone wolf or dark horse of Canadian literature. Born to an anglophone family in Montreal, Gallant’s childhood would best be described as unhappy. Her father was a stunted and unachieved artist cum furniture salesman. While her mother was the kind of woman who should not have children, a cold detached social climber, who had no maternal virtue or instinct, and often saw fit to forfeit charge of young Mavis to others. Including boarding schools or guardians. Her father died relatively young from kidney disease and her mother as aforementioned left Gallant to her own devices at boarding schools in the charge of others, which imbued the young Mavis with a sense of self-reliance and independence at an early age; two traits which would come in hand as she pursued a life of the literary and journalistic. A young Gallant who recently moved back to Montreal used quick wits to talk herself into jobs in which she had no formal education or training for. She started working for the Canadian National Film Board as Administrative Support, a job the ambitious Gallant loathed, in part by the tedium of the work itself, but also due to the film boards director’s disdain for women in the workforce, complaining that if there wasn’t a war, none of them would be there. Thankfully the stint was short, and Gallant moved on to work for the Montreal Standard a now defunct English language newspaper. During this time, she would send her work to The New Yorker for review, though initially rejected, she found encouragement from then groundbreaking and legendary editor, William Shawn, whose encouragement had often produced the fruitful tutelage of many successful writer’s careers over the years. 

Mavis Gallant is often introduced as a writer ‘your,’ parents would rather you didn’t know about. Not because her work or subject matter were riddled in smut, vulgarity, or crude happenings, but rather then interesting facts regarding her professional writing career. Mavis Gallant left a stable, respectable, and decent job as a journalist with the former Montreal Standard at the age of 28 and decided to pursue a career and life of as a freelance writer. Furthermore, Gallant left Montreal, Quebec and Canada behind, traveling to Europe where she roamed the continent, writing and sending her work to The New Yorker, which happily published her stories, but an ill-advised and greedy agent (Jacques Chambrun) embezzled the money, hiding the fact that The New Yorker was publishing her fiction and ensuring that the vagabond Gallant’s whereabouts were never found by the magazine. By happenstance and chance, Gallant stumbled across the magazine and saw one of her stories published and with what little money she had left rang the office to inquire. It was then the fraudulent dealings of Chambrun (also known as ‘The Agent,’) were uncovered, and they extended beyond Gallant, and included many high profile writers such as: W. Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, and H.G. Wells, as his most high-profile victims. From there, however, the relationship between Mavis Gallant and The New Yorker was sealed, Gallant became a seasoned then staple and finally veteran contributor to the magazine. Her short stories paved the way for Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and have become something of a hallmark of the good old New Yorker, one which enjoyed the company and contributions of other such illuminating alumni: Jamaica Kincaid, James Merrill, Pauline Kael, James Wood, Dorothy Parker, and James Baldwin. 

In all of that there is always the sense of the ‘Old World,’ in Mavis Gallant. In her fiction her characters are imbued with the manners, niceties, social graces, and prejudices of an otherwise bygone era. Her characters are displaced aristocrats, pauper artists, bohemians, desolate girls left in a boarding school, ordinary tax agents, insipid bureaucrats, observant, and clever children – the list of colourful characters of Mavis Gallant are endless. As a writer, Gallant remained sophisticated and her themes were always cosmopolitan and worldly, which separated her and segregated her from Margaret Atwood, the political and socially conscious writer and lecturer, and Alice Munro as a realist portraitist in miniature. The sense of displacement and lack of sense of home, in Gallant’s work may stem from her own rootlessness and displacement. Throughout her life, Mavis Gallant was either moved or shipped away. Transplanted then transported once again. Her fictional characters in turn reflect a state of continued transit, upheaval, displacement, and wanderlust. Gallant, however, did finally make a home for herself in Paris in the 1950’s, which after the war (or so they say) was an affordable city, one touched with the corrosive understanding of what had taken place during the interwar years. There were demands for justice of the Vichy government and talks of collaborators with the occupying Nazi’s. All this seedy dirty business, however, is more aptly explored in the works of Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, who excavates the collective obfuscation of the past as it relates to the personal trauma and the institution of collective amnesia. Gallant, in turn, however, found a home. She resided in Paris for the remainder of her adult life, but remained a conscientious Canadian, never abandoning her passport or taking French citizenship, but also remaining distant from the expansive country that was her homeland. 

Though Mavis Gallant is renowned and remembered for her short stories and novels, “Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews,” hankers back to her days as a journalist with the Montreal Standard. The first section of this anthology of non-fiction work is devoted exclusively to the May 68 student protests that shut down the entire city of Paris and shook the French nation. In it Mavis patrols the streets in discord, observing the civil disobedience that had taken place within the city. Throughout these two pieces (specifically commissioned for The New Yorker) Mavis Gallant showcases sympathy for the students at protest and war with the social conservatives, traditions, elitism, capitalism, American imperialism, and rampant consumerism, not to mention the Gaullist attitudes of the post-War French society. Through discord, disobedience, and general destruction, the students and their sympathizers shut down French society. Remaining cautiously objective, Mavis Gallant immerses herself into the youthful idealistic world which has come to shut down the country. There’s tender admiration in her approval of their protest, as she observes their spitfire firebrand demands for change—for revolution. She finds de Gaulle a absent and sad figure. Cowardly even. Hiding and silent, then resolute and steely affirmative the next. The students demands and their political ambitions failed, but as consolation the winds of social change rollicked through the country thereon after. 

There was something palpable about the way Mavis Gallant wrote about the events of May 68. She walks the streets, which she remarks look war torn. She sees the students as they are: unorganized, idealistic, and full of life, and she sees where they vent their opposition too as old, crumbling, and archaic institutions of impressive longevity, but insular and elitist that is a wonder that the events of 68 took so long to transpire. Spring certainly is a month of change. Beyond that, Gallant can provide a grasp of the common people, the bystanders who are involuntarily struck by the measures taking place around them. They are baffled, scared, uneasy, and inconvenienced. The government failed them in those moments, through its own inaction and gross incompetence to quell and negotiate with the students and the sympathetic workers; and yet, somehow, de Gaulle’s party came out on top again, with an even more fevered mandate by the populace then before, yet the public had their fil of de Gaulle himself. He was to authoritarian, to conservative, to self-centered, to old. The damage had been done. An unpopular politician is but a blight or blemish. A malicious tumor that must be amputated from the party unless the cariogenic rule of association be applied to them as well. best to leave a drowning man to his fate when the party can be saved. Unfortunately, the only criticism I can leverage against Mavis Gallant’s take on the events of 68, are her liberal and casual employment of French slogans, sayings, and dialogue into her work. there are no footnotes of translations and monolingual readers may have a disconcerting time trying to understand what is being said. translations should have presented or provided, regardless. Reportage is the facts and the figures, and though Gallant encompasses more then just the dry sensibilities of the events and provides a human narrative, readers may still wish to understand what exactly is being said on the streets to her. Gallant’s reportage of the events of May 68 takes up a great deal of the anthology, while her other essays and reviews remain equally as interesting, they come together as more then filler pieces, collected not on any thematic basis or concern, and often lack unified or harmonized thought beyond the fact that they showcase Gallant’s ability maintain her reportage heritage as a journalist. 

Gallant’s portrait of the French writer and theatre critic Paul Léautaud was a gem within the anthology. Gallant provided a thoroughly amusing and engaging portrait of what one might call the stereotypical French intellectual or writer, complete with absurdist misanthropy, caustic wit, and unfortunate circumstance of being a career pauper, as if it has become a tradition in the Baudelaire sense. In Mavis Gallant own words in regard to Léautaud’s impoverished state: 

 “He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure [. . .].” 

Mavis Gallant is one of those writers who you think should be better known then is. She’s fallen to the back of the shelf or is pulled down during post-secondary school academic studies, where droll professors’ drone on and on about simplicity as form. Gallant of course, is the rarest exception to the rule. Her stories and sentences are refined and polished whereby the encapsulated a world in transition. One can only imagine Mavis leaving her apartment at 14 rue Jean Ferrandi, Paris 6, and heading off to Café Le Dôme for a bite to eat, a drink, and of course to work. It was said, Mavis Gallant often lived places which lacked adequate heating which made work difficult, but the cafés became a welcome refuge, both the threshold into the world, and a safe distance from it, to observe, compile and write at. “Paris Notebooks: Essays & Reviews,” is a treat of a book, but its also a slow burn. It should be consumed moderately and within varying breaks, if only to enjoy each piece’s unique perspective, understanding, and commentary. There have been discussions over the past 9 (plus) years of the possibility of publishing and releasing Gallant’s diaries. They were originally set to be published in 2013-2014 but have so far been unreleased and no further detail has been released regarding the state of their publication. Despite circling obscurity, Mavis Gallant is remains one of the quiet giants and remarkable writers of the 20th Century, her commentary on the human condition and ability to encapsulate the cosmopolitan exaptation and displacement of the modern individual should not be overlooked or ignored, as Gallant is also a master of the short story.

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

M. Mary