January 1, 2013 § 4 Comments
I promise to make you more alive than you’ve ever been.
For the first time you’ll see your pores opening
like the gills of a fish and you’ll hear
the noise of blood in galleries
and feel light gliding on your corneas
like the dragging of a dress across the floor.
For the first time, you’ll note gravity’s prick
like a thorn in your heal,
and your shoulder blades will hurt from the imperative of wings.
I promise to make you so alive that
the fall of dust on furniture will deafen you,
and you’ll feel your eyebrows like two wounds forming
and your memories will seem to begin
with the creation of the world.
by Nina Cassian.
December 3, 2012 § 3 Comments
I return often to The Man in Bogotá, a short story by Amy Hempel whose name, I suddenly realize, contains all the letters needed to write the words: May Help Me.
She has and she does.
I am not standing on a ledge, but I have had misgivings about a part-time job I have taken to help pay the bills and have some financial freedom. A woman needs money if she is to write, said Woolf, and time has only made this more true.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky and grateful to have any job in this economy but it is the exact opposite of anywhere I ever thought I would be. It’s not that I even dislike the work; in fact, there is something meditative about its dull repetitiveness. And I have a swivel chair, and a potted plant, the staff are friendly, and it is warm and dry. But there is no future in it that I can see. It is a means to an end and nothing more, and that’s okay too, but a part of my brain is trying to make meaning from it, beyond its practicalities.
It’s in my nature to worry and wonder. I am used to, and accept, this part of myself by now. Simply put, I am curious, expectant, and unsure about what role this new and unplanned experience is going to play in my life beyond a paycheck. And, as at other moments in the past, I’m looking for comfort and reassurance in a story, and asking myself the same question that occurred to the man in Bogotá….
“The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
“I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
“I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
“Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
“When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
“Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.”
October 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
A periodic news and reading roundup
(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).
I’m spending less and less time procrastinating, so my ragtag and sundries are fewer and more far between. In part, this may be due to my mind’s sneaky circumventions around the definition of procrastination – a lot can be legitimized in the name of ‘research’ and enlightenment.
Some things are not evasions though, if through no other reason that they cannot be avoided: one has to eat, one admits.
I actually adore cooking, it’s not a chore, and I probably spend more time cooking, baking, eating and nibbling than anything else I do in a day or a week.
I also like to read about it and love that there are so many literature-inspired cooks out there. It’s unlikely I’ll ever make a Harry Potter Gillywater but I dig that there are folks out there who do.
This week the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Mo Yan who is best known for this novel Red Sorghum. In ‘A Couscous of World Literature‘ The New Yorker ponders the myriad carbohydrate-inspired fictions such as The Catcher in the Rye, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Tortilla Flat, Men of Maize, and a Condoleeza Rice biography!
The New England Journal of Medicine, god bless them, examines correlations between Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function and Nobel Laureates. I fucking love Science!
Which is why I subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated from America’s Test Kitchen. I love their rigorous, scientific approach to cooking but I mostly love their beautiful magazine and its muted, old-fashioned foodie illustrations.
It therefore surprises me that I only yesterday heard about McSweeneys food, art and literature quarterly Lucky Peach. I guess I was out of the country last year when it really took off. It’s on my Birthday Christmas Wish-List that nobody knows about because wish-lists are presumptuous and vaguely shameful and therefore I always get soap and candles and hats I’d never wear.
Santa, if you read my blog, I also think I’ve been good enough this year to deserve Penguin’s Great Food Series. Think about it. Love, Deborah.
September 27, 2012 § 6 Comments
I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!
The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.
I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:
“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)
“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)
Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!
Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.
This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.
I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.
And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.
September 20, 2012 § 8 Comments
A periodic news and reading round-up
(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).
I haven’t been procrastinating so much as stealing short snatches of screen-time while my parents were in town. Not easy in a one-room loft where nothing much is secret or sacred. They must worry why I was in the bathroom so much…
But moving on!
They are homeward bound and I could settle down into a Long Read in peace, but I’ve somewhat developed a taste for these brief bursts of story and pleasure.
Like Staccato Microfiction – who are taking a break right now but will perhaps return if we all clap our hands loud enough. Don’t die faerie-sized wonder-fiction!
Also, I have just discovered these amazing things called “podcasts”. Have you heard of them? Marvelous inventions. Call me Ishmael. Call me Luddite!
Of course, I was aware of them silly, I just never remembered to listen to them till a very jetlagged Ma n Pa were snoring away in my little loft and I had a yen for a good yarn but didn’t want to turn on the lights or make too much noise. Thusly, I finally got around to listening to all those New Yorker Fiction Podcasts on my ipod, and thank goodness I did because I discovered the wonderful Bruno Schulz whose strange and enchanting story, “Father’s Last Escape”, is read and discussed by Nicole Krauss. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found this writer, late to the party though I may be…
Speaking of stories ‘on tape’. Speaking of Ishmael. Moby Dick is being broadcast online, in a short, manageable chapter-a-day format, so I may finally get around to conquering the behemoth!
Short-lived, but so satisfying.
Leaving me plenty of time to fill with more procrastination so if you know of any little gems, do send them my way; there’s plenty more space in my brain for small!
July 30, 2012 § 75 Comments
I only remember the names: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends.
When I heard today that Maeve Binchy had died, I was instantly a girl again, pilfering her books from my mother’s bedside table: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends. So immediate and familiar, those names. But, fifteen or more years later, when I looked those titles up, I recognized very little about their plots or characters, the details and particulars – only hazy images and fragments: I may not have read them at all for all I could truly recall about them.
I feel like I’ve read Tara Road but I cannot say for sure. Perhaps my girlish ear just liked the alliteration in the title Light A Penny Candle, but did I ever read it? All I know is those names are so familiar to me, that at some point in my young years I internalized them as something meaningful that now conveys a combination of ‘home’ and ‘Ireland’ and ‘adolescence’ and ‘being a girl’ and ‘being a girl on the cusp of something’.
Somebody on Twitter said: “RIP Maeve Binchy, a lady who wrote about girls with big dreams, for girls with big dreams.” If I can’t remember the particulars of plot and story, I do know that this must be what hooked and impressed me at the time. Girls and big dreams. If I were to say, honestly, who my ‘influences’ were as a young girl who dreamed of writing, I’d have to include Maeve Binchy. At twelve or thirteen, she was all I knew of grownup books and I remember reading and thinking: I want to do this some day.
But, would I answer honestly? If I were ever asked.
That was at twelve or thirteen. I see myself now at thirty-one and wonder at the literature snob I’ve since become. It wasn’t too long ago that I laughed with my mam on the phone about Binchy and books, and the books we used to read. I grew up to get a degree in English and a Masters in Women and Gender Studies. Since I was twelve, I’ve read Beckett and Joyce and Woolf, Judith Butler, Derrida, Foucault and Cixous. My mother’s reading tastes have evolved and broadened too. We’ve outgrown Anita Shreve and Marian Keyes. We read Toni Morrison now, and Susan Sontag and Mavis Gallant. We would never read Maeve Binchy now, I said not long ago.
But that was not so long ago. When I didn’t know how sad I’d be to hear that Binchy was gone, when I didn’t know that I would feel as though something real and important has been lost. But what, besides Binchy, has been lost?
I wonder am I as happy a reader as I was as a girl with my nose in a world of rural romances and small town affairs and intrigues? I read many beautiful, complex, enigmatic sentences these days: sentences that require contemplation and reexamining and, sometimes, futile deciphering. I’m a better reader, a satisfied and challenged reader. And, not to be mistaken, I am a happy reader still. But when was the last time I lay on my belly on my bed, swinging my legs in the air and wondering, giddy, what would happen next or whispering come onnnn, just kiss will ye?
I recently gave Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder just two stars on Goodreads. In terms of language and technique and impressive sentences, I couldn’t honestly say that I thought all that much of it. It wasn’t as philosophical or raise the complex ethical questions I wanted it to. I hated the ending! I didn’t feel enriched or better for it. In some ways, it was a waste of my time. But I did, as they say, devour it. I read it in a couple of idle afternoons whereas it’s taking me a long time to read Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle which I love and think is excellent. I am savoring it and dwelling on it and absolutely enjoying it, but I just had to know, right away right away, what happened in that jungle in the Amazon!
Ideally, a novel would encompass both things. Beloved did that for me and Cloud Atlas and Geek Love. But something has been lost along the years.
I will never be that gangly, spotty girl who read so indiscriminately, who read whatever she could get her skinny fingers on and cared not a whit if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or challenging or innovative. She just wanted words and stories, any words and stories. She didn’t distinguish between literature and ‘fluff’. There was no such expression as Chick Lit in 1994. My eyebrow didn’t arch at things that were popular, and romantic and provincial, that dealt with sadness or difficulty in a way that never got too dark or heavy – were always, somehow, light.
Yes. My eyebrow didn’t arch. I rested my chin on my hands. I lay on my belly on my small single-bed. I swung my legs in the air. I was young and dreamy and absorbed and away. I loved Maeve Binchy. I read everything of hers my mother owned – Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends – and some of them I know I read more times than one. I thought she was brilliant, that I’d never read anything like her. And, I hadn’t.
Jeux Olympiques! A round-up of the literary world’s participation in that… thing that everyone’s excited about.
July 27, 2012 § 24 Comments
The mister is outraged. We live in a TV-less abode and our basic internet package doesn’t cover live Olympic streaming through NBC.
I’m only aware there’s a problem when a rather loud “NO. I would NOT” startles me from my book. He would not like to pay an extra seventy dollars on top of our existing sixty-something dollars for an upgrade.
But he would very much like to see the games, poor dear, especially those esoteric sports like fencing and trampoline, though he does draw the line with dressage which, in case you don’t know, are freaking dancing horses.
(On another weird note, I admit I’m quite intrigued by this now-discontinued Club Swinging event thingy. It gives me a touch of déjà vu; though in my memory I’m wielding wine bottles and am barefoot on the streets of Dublin…)
The point is: he’s in a huff and I’m in my book and can’t quite relate, though I do feel for him. I just don’t care about it all that much myself.
But I’m trying.
In an attempt to make an effort and engage with the Games in a way that makes sense to me, I googled something like ‘the Olympics in Literature’ and came up with all sorts of fascinating goodies. I was thinking something along the lines of a good book or a poem that features the Games in some way. Little did I know that Literature itself performed in the Olympics: in the early modern Olympic Games, from 1912 to 1952, medals were awarded in the Arts for works inspired by Sport.
Apart from these know-it-sporty-alls:
The Village Voice takes it all the way back to 440BC and “a struggling, celebrity-hungry, young prose stylist named Herodotus” who decides to debut his work at the Olympic Games:
“According to the admiring author Lucian, when the festival had begun—it usually attracted some 40,000 spectators to the remote sanctuary of Olympia—Herodotus waited for a decent crowd to gather in the cavernous Temple of Zeus, then proceeded to recite his golden prose. The audience was utterly transfixed; word raced around the Olympic venue that a hot young author was on the scene. Not only did hundreds of Greek celebrities vie to hear Herodotus read in the five days of the sports festival, but they carried his name after the games to the far corners of the ancient world. “By this time he was much better known than the Olympic victors themselves,” notes Lucian enviously—which is saying quite a lot, since athletic champions were revered as virtual demigods by the Greeks, a cross between NFL players and rock stars.”
Also chiming in, The New York Times waxes sporty poetry and unearths this 1924 Paris games gold-medal-winner “Jeux Olympiques”:
(“The runners bend, tense flowers, . . . / A shot: A violent word! / And suddenly / Necks extended, forward / like stalks / faces like pale snatched / apples, / teeth and jaws rushing into / space.”)
All wonderful places to start from if you’re ever planning on taking a class at East Tennessee State University on the Olympic Games and Literature. Course objectives include recognizing how and why authors use the Olympics to express viewpoints about the human condition, and analyzing gifted writers who use the Olympics as a metaphor.
I’m not convinced, though. And I’m not alone. Shakespeare couldn’t stand all that sporty stuff. I wonder what he’d make of being a part of tonight’s opening ceremony in London? Not much, says this Guardian book blog.
In the old Bard’s words:
“‘I am not gamesome. I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Antony. Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires. I’ll leave you.’”
May 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
The trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby was previewed today and initial reactions are ambivalent to say the least. Lots of “Hmmmms…” circulating the interwebs right now. Of course, this is always the case when a much-loved novel is adapted into film but is The Great Gatsby forever destined to elude the silver screen and disappoint its viewers?
When I was in India this year I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival and looked in on ‘Adaptations’ – a panel of writers and playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver, discussing the process and merits of translating words on a page into sounds and moving images. Interestingly, the subject of Gatsby came up and Stoppard was unequivocal: The Great Gatsby is “unfilmable” he declared and offered no space for disagreement. The audience burst into a spontaneous and long applause of approval so I guess there’s consensus out there. But why?
The Huffington Post listed 15 Great Books Never Coming to a Theater Near You: Finnegans Wake and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves were among them but no mention of Gatsby. Of course, Luhrmann’s film brings the novel’s adaptations to a total of seven so this is a moot point but should it be included on the list?
Surely, cinema is a perfect medium to capture the heady atmosphere and opulence of the day? The music, the glamour, the balmy summer. Tragedy, intrigue and heartache are the industry’s bread and butter; there is little in the plot or content of the novel to prevent a compelling adaptation, and its preoccupation with social climbing (networking?) and the end of the American dream would appear to be timely themes. The Great Gatsby has a lot of relevance for modern America.
But a novel is more than its plot and preoccupations, more than its themes. Writing is form and construct and Fitzgerald’s work is a masterful example of this, particularly his use of perspective and narrative structure.
It’s interesting that my main reaction to the trailer concerned the casting of Tobey Maguire in the role of Nick Carraway (quite perfect I think). For the title The Great Gatsby is a ruse. This is Nick Carraway’s novel. Every word written about the great Gatsby is circumscribed by the eyes of Mr Carraway, a limited and often unreliable narrator. “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues,” he says, “and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” There is an abundance of literature on the problematics of Nick as the narrator of this story and the author of Gatsby’s life and it will be interesting to see how this new film version deals with perspective.
Luhrmann loved the 1974 version starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Redford was the coolest thing in the world, he’s said, but the film didn’t really tell him “who Gatsby was.” Many people feel that way but it may well be that Luhrmann’s version will be no closer to showing us who Gatsby really is either.
For there is no Gatsby. Gatsby is an illusion, a simulacrum. He is completely obscured by conjecture and gossip and Nick’s version of him is no more authoritative than any other. Gatsby is a creation – his own and others – and that is Fitzgerald’s point. Nobody knows who Gatsby is or was and this is the brilliance of the novel. The imaginative act inherent in reading includes us in the crowd of tattlers and postulators: for every person who reads the novel, another unique aspect of Gatsby is born.
This is permissible in the novel – it is, in fact, what makes the novel so enthralling and enduring – but cinema requires that Gatsby be rendered in a single form. There are aspects of the novel that cinema can expand and bring to more sensual life but it cannot circumvent this reduction of ‘Gatsby’ into the body of an actor (a man playing a role, curiously). This is why Gatsby is unfilmable, I think. He is a million contradictory things and he is nothing at all. He doesn’t exist.