The Exiles’ Gallery – Elise Partridge

Partridge CoverThe Exiles’ Gallery

Elise Partridge

House of Anansi Press

128 pages

I had not heard of Elise Partridge until after she died, in January of this year, at the age of 56. This, her third book of poetry, was published three months later. I don’t know what difference it would have made to anything if I’d known of her during her lifetime, because I can still read her first two books (and I will), but I wish that I had. I’d have liked to have met her, too, although the instinct for the kind of work Partridge did is not something you can see when you hear a writer read, or shake her hand, or even look into her eyes. The insights and wordsmithery that distinguish her poetry are of a kind that is hammered out during the revision process: at the writer’s place of work (even when there is “Not a board true, for the true,” as she says about one cast-off piece of furniture in a poem called “The Late Writer’s Desk”).

The Exiles’ Gallery covers a lot of territory, in geography and time, but also in poetic style. Partridge’s poems are so finely fashioned but seem so simple and straightforward that it’s not until the second reading that you think, “Hey, there’s an almost-rhyme in the first and last line here”…

There’s one tied to a fence

by a rancher yearning for shade.

Lashed to a mall’s arch

two shift dolorous

haunches, chained elephants. (from “If Clouds Had Strings”)

then, “Oh! This structure is repeated in the next stanza”… and then you start to examine the poems more closely, wondering what else there is to find, and then – after finding form, or not – you read again for new meaning, your admiration increasing as you attempt to plumb the depths and as awareness dawns that there are likely depths you’ll never see.

Among the deeply satisfying poems in this book, I was much taken (as was Robert Pinsky, who wrote the Foreword) with “Parish Dance” where the narrator, like the the Rover on the moon, has advanced beyond her current company and set her sights on more distant and interesting frontiers. “From A Niece” nicely sets up readers’ expectations about uncles – often forged in stories and poems we’ve read by other women (see for example, “Afternoon Visit,” from my own collection, Cool) – and then blows them to smithereens. There are other kinds of wonderful surprises in these poems, which cover a range of topics – there are poems about words and language and even letters of the alphabet, poems about art, poems about love and loss (and love in loss), and poems about people living on the street. There is even a poem, “Citydwellers,” that is ostensibly about pigeons – although of course it is also about much more. It begins, “The pigeons are trilling – buttery contralto notes – ” How perfect is that description?

The author’s impending death is real in this work, but does not overwhelm or even, often, intrude. In one of its compact masterpieces, “Last Days” – about a young friend of the poet’s who is determined to give birth to her child before the cancer she is fighting takes her, Partridge shows an almost incomprehensible ability to step away from her own emotional attachment to her friend’s situation, and from her own life-threatening battle, to portray the heroic, furious tenacity of the younger woman – her need to hold on long enough to be able to let go – without pity, sentimentality, or even a note of fear. Time was running out for Partridge as it was for the young woman, but Partridge too seems to have insisted on taking the time she needed – in her case, to get the details right. And to get all the poems right. It is that kind of care, along with her brilliance, that will ensure that her poems – like her friend’s young daughter – will live and thrive in the absence of the one who made them.

Which does not mean that she will not be missed: by those who knew her for who she was, I’m sure, and by all of us for what she might have given us if she had had more time.

For Whom Do the Poets Write, If Not for Me?

GurielCoverThe Pigheaded Soul

Essays and Reviews on Poetry & Culture

Jason Guriel

Porcupine’s Quill

264 pages

I admired the cover of a newly released book on Facebook, and to my surprise I received a copy in the mail from the publisher – no charge, no strings attached.

When the book arrived, I found myself as intrigued by the first few pages of the work as I had been by the cover. This created a dilemma for me. I like to write about books that intrigue me: doing so allows me to engage in conversation about the book – with myself, with other readers and, theoretically, with the author. I read books differently when I know I’m going to write about them – pausing to make notes, to reread paragraphs, to check external references. I wanted to read this book this way, and then to write about it on this blog, but I wondered if I dared.

This was the source of my dilemma: The Pigheaded Soul is a book about poetry – a field in which I have no credentials, aside from my deep and long-standing admiration for well-crafted products of the art form. To make matters worse, this is not a book of poetry (I have dared to write reviews of those before), but a collection of essays about poetry – written by someone who is clearly a well known and knowledgeable poetry critic.

In this country, you are stepping into dangerous territory when you choose to review a book of essays about poetry and culture: it’s bad enough if you are a poet or a poetry critic. How much worse for an outsider? My main blog may be called The Militant Writer, but I’ve got nothing on the more pugnacious members of the poetry cabals: those guys are out for blood, and they (well, at least the more talented writers among them) know how to forge the instruments to draw it. For many years I have watched (some, not all, of) Canada’s poetry elite aim sharply crafted instruments at one another’s throats, and felt the ground shudder from their outrage. They have crazed the literary landscape with their factions. What kind of fool would dare to enter there?

My disinclination to enter the fray had two very different elements. On the one hand, I was fearful that if I agreed or disagreed with a position the book’s author had taken, I might myself become the object of the venom (or, worse, derision) of some poetry camp or other. On the other hand, I was afraid that due to my lack of credentials, no self-respecting poet would even deign to read what I had written, much less take up arms against me: all this work would be ignored. But up through the middle of my indecision came an old friend, rebelliousness: an emotion that has always spurred me into action, even when action was neither wise nor worth the effort.

After all, I asked myself, for whom are all these poets (and hence their critics) writing? Are they writing only for one another? Specifically, are they writing only for others who work in their own immediate poetic milieu (other academic poets, in the main)? Are they not also writing for readers of poetry – for poetry enthusiasts? For people such as me? Why shouldn’t a mere reader, a mere aficionado of good writing, not step into the rarefied world of critiquing poetry – and even of critiquing poetry critics, for that matter?

And so, having judged its cover with no real background in design or art, I now gave myself permission to judge the book despite my lack of background in poetry criticism. If nothing else, I reasoned, what better approach to take to reviewing a book called The Pigheaded Soul than one that was spurred by rebellion?

First Steps

Jason Guriel, a writer of whom I confess never to have heard until his book landed in my mailbox, is impressively qualified for the work at hand. He has published three books of poetry with respected presses (Exile Editions and Véhicule Press), and his writing has appeared in such noted publications as Slate, Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, and The New Criterion. He even won the Editors Prize for Book Reviewing from Poetry in 2009. Someone like this, I decided, was going to be able to teach me a whole lot about poetry.

I was prepared to find that so highly experienced a poet and critic would be talking entirely about poets I didn’t know and poetry issues I had not previously considered. This he often did, but it was with both surprise and relief that I discovered that he also seemed to respect a few poets I’d already found all by myself, and read deeply just because I wanted to, including Weldon Kees, August Kleinzahler, and Elizabeth Bishop. This made me feel more comfortable in the rarefied atmosphere into which I had ventured, and I pressed on with growing courage.

Literary Criticism

It’s not that I come to the world of literary criticism utterly devoid of experience – or prejudice. I have read widely and written many reviews of books, mostly of works of fiction, for newspapers, magazines and journals as well as for my own diversion. Over the past 40 years, I have developed my own principles regarding what constitutes good writing, irrespective of the genre and independent of any particular school of literary thought (either actual or theoretical). They apply not only to everything I read, but to everything I write.

I have long believed that as literary critics and reviewers, we should apply the principles of good writing that we have adopted for ourselves as standards for the books we are reviewing, and be more honest than we typically are. If the emperor (or his would-be successor) is wearing no clothes, we should either look away and say nothing, or – if we are going to speak to the matter at all – we should have the courage in our own convictions to point out that the nobleperson’s dressingperson appears to have decamped.

Guriel concurs. In fact, he says, it has been his willingness to speak his mind that has led to his being invited to write most of the essays in this book, and thus to create the book itself. “In the generally dull world of poetry criticism,” he says, “a remotely sharp judgement will tend to perk the ears of editors who like a little edge, even if some readers elect to call the noise they hear a ‘hatchet job’.”

He names as his mentors the critics who have dared to speak the truth, “seemingly failing again and again to consider the impact their sharp sentences might have on their own careers.” In fact, the perils of writing honest reviews in a small literary community are among the reasons I now choose to maintain this blog rather than writing reviews for pay as I used to do: now, when I have nothing positive to say, at least in public I can choose to say nothing at all.

“Good” Writing

As far as the nature of good writing, I found Guriel uttering rubrics that correspond exactly with my own thinking. In this area, he shows himself to be both inclusive and rigorous.

“The poem,” he says in the essay titled “New-Fangled, Old-Fangled,” “—whether fixed or free, lyric or language, traditional or experimental, name the deadlock – assures the reader that there’s a sound reason for most if not all of its words. Even if it has been channelled by meditation or hallucinogens or randomizing computer programs, the poem will somehow account for the quality of the meditation or give some assurance that the hallucinogens have been well spent or the lines of code well programmed.” I make this same demand not only of poetry, but of prose (both others’ and my own).

In a later essay, Guriel underscores this point with a quote from The Paris Review by Truman Capote: “Call it precious and go to hell […] but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs toward the end – or a mistaken paragraphing, even punctuation.”

I completely agree with that as well.

I am therefore firmly in his corner when Guriel demands not only talent but signs of diligence in the poetry he favours. He seems intrigued by such questions as “What is a good poem?” and “What is a good poet?” and the answers he proposes often have to do with the way the poet has connected the language – the words themselves – with the purpose of the work. While defending their choices of subject matter (“small objects as good or better than righteous causes”), he challenges poets to keep those subjects firmly in mind as they choose their words, and as they construct the frames on which to place them.

Again and again Guriel opens a poem to show the reader its construction, increasing my admiration not only for Guriel, and (if the poem proves solid) for the poet who made the poem, but also for the discipline (!) of poetry as a whole. Talking about a George Johnston poem, for example, he says, “’War on the Periphery’ is neither pro- nor anti-war, and the tension between the singsong form and the grim, matter-of-fact subject matter stays nice and taut to the very end, like a hangman’s rope.” When I re-read the poem after that commentary – poetic in itself – I am not only enlightened, but delighted to have been shown how to see in a new way.

In the poets and poems he discusses, Guriel demonstrates his openness to both new and more traditional approaches to the writing of poetry, suggesting that the determination of writing excellence must be grounded in the reader’s exploration of the work itself, and is never the sole dominion of any one form or style. He delights in finding in a wide range of types of poetry a precise and perfectly felicitous word or turn of phrase. He is eloquent in his praise of a well-placed line break or a keen metaphor, as here in an essay about the poetry of Ann Carson: “Later, same poem, a ‘videotape jerks to a halt / like a glass slide under a drop of blood’,” a simile Guriel describes as “an incredibly specific sort of analog motion, recorded with the precision of an unblinking aperture.”

The Critic as Teacher

The Pigheaded Soul fulfilled my initial hope that it would introduce me to some poets I hadn’t known before, whose work I could now explore – three examples being Daryl Hine, Greg Ormsby and Kay Ryan. (I have probably just demonstrated the depths of my ignorance of the poetry canon to any informed readers who happen to have read this far. You were warned.) But his praise for the writers he enjoys is explained so specifically and well that it serves as a primer for readers who are eager to know more about how poets do their work.

For example, after describing Hine as “a virtuoso,” Guriel shows us why he has given him that designation. Here, he is talking about a poem called “Don Juan in Amsterdam”:

Hine cuts the near-naïve rhyme of ‘known in/born in’ with the off-rhymes ‘sea’/’say’ and even better ‘crossed’/’creased’, the stanza maturing and souring as it slumps, via the assonance of ‘stained and stale’ toward its exquisitely musty final image. ‘Love-disordered linen’ easily tops my Desert Island list for Best Image of Polluted Canal Water Ever (or Best Image of Soiled Post-Coital Bed Sheets Ever).

(Did I mention that Guriel is also funny? Sometimes he uses this gift for evil – as in an occasionally unkind but very amusing essay he wrote for Maisonneuve about the Griffin Poetry Prize presentations.)

Guriel also offers the less-initiated reader guidance in regard to poetic form, as in a review of a book by George Murray when he says, “A good sonnet usually depends on the strengths of its metaphors, a good metaphor, on a connection between tenor and vehicle that’s surprising (we didn’t anticipate it), but also logical (we could’ve anticipated it —if we’d had the poet’s vision).” Guriel’s exploration, with specific examples, of Murray’s poetic facility in this particular essay is, itself, worth the cover price of the book.

For me, however, the outstanding example in The Pigheaded Soul of Guriel’s beneficence as teacher is a two-page essay called “Travel Writing” in which he unpacks (I hate that word, but it seems less loaded than “deconstructs” in the context of poetry criticism) a single poem by Elise Partridge, “Vuillard Interior.” The essay left me breathless with admiration – at Partridge’s vast poetic talent, and at Guriel’s ability to see, and to brilliantly explain.

One of the intriguing questions with which The Pigheaded Soul has left me, one which I had not really thought about before but will mull as I read poetry in future, is the difference between poems that are created solely to become part of a themed or “concept” book, and poems that stand alone, are self-contained – each one constituting what Guriel describes as “A poem, not just poetry.”

The Critic as Human

Jason Guriel as a critic is not without his flaws. Like others of his kind (the sort to whom I referred long, long ago – i.e., in the opening section of this piece), it seems he cannot resist the urge to sink a knife or two into those whose work he disparages, even when it does not seem necessary or relevant to the subject at hand even to mention them. In his case, many of his victims are those considered icons by half of Canada’s reading public: Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, bpNichol. He says, and I agree with this on the basis of my extensive experience in the field of fiction-reading, -writing and -critiquing, “Surely we’ve reached a moment when critics who happen to possess a Canadian passport shouldn’t need to feel compelled to gin up more interest in the national poetry than they want to.” Nor am I defending the widespread public worship of these particular poets. Still, Guriel’s targets often seem – at least to me – a little easy: his parries intended at least in part to attract attention. His droll lacerations may produce in the reader a guilty thrill of schadenfreude, but I found myself wondering what other purpose they might serve.

(This is not to say that Guriel is not as eloquent and instructive when he is being negative as he is in his more laudatory moments. In “Godno,” a review of Yesno by Dennis Lee, he says, “… the overstated gap between a word and its meaning may be theoretically valid, but a good poet renders the gap irrelevant,” continuing the thought a few paragraphs later thus: “A reader [at least one not working on a dissertation or working to prop up a ‘beloved’ reputation] is under no obligation to engage with a poem, especially if that poem seems to be standing at a distance from its words, indifferent, paring its fingernails.” )

On the flip side of the same predilection, Guriel drops the names of poets he admires even when the context does not necessarily require that they be present: Robyn Sarah and Christian Wiman are clearly two of his favourites.

. . .  and culture

The “and culture” part of the subtitle of The Pigheaded Soul includes two interesting essays on poetry in prose (and the varying success of fiction-writers in creating believable poet characters), and a few that relate to Guriel’s obvious love of offbeat music, including a wonderful piece on Alex Chilton. Here Guriel guides me in an utterly unexpected direction as I find myself not only downloading “Like Flies on Sherbet” for myself and listening to it again and again, but also resolving to share the essay (“A Big Star Implodes”) and perhaps the music with my offbeat-music-loving sons.

.

I’m sure that there are many who will say that the works that Jason Guriel discusses in this book are limited in range, unrepresentative of this or that perspective. I leave that for the poets and poetry critics to sort out. I am not proposing The Pigheaded Soul as the definitive assembly of words about contemporary poetry by any means, but I am declaring myself more than satisfied with this book as my own introduction to the genre.

As for my first (and possibly final) venture into critiquing the critiquers of the poets, there are those who will suggest, no doubt, that too much of this essay has been about me, and my responses to the book, rather than about the book itself and its author. They will also want to point out that no matter how ad-nauseum-atingly endlessly I acknowledge it, my lack of a broad perspective on the poetry firmament precludes their according any real gravitas to my views. To which I respond again: I am a reader. How many of us are there out here who are not poets, but nonetheless read poetry? Probably very few. But I’m sure I’m not the only one. What we think about what the poets and their critics do may not seem to matter, but it should.

Who by Fire — Mary L. Tabor

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 12.19.31 PMWho by Fire

Mary L. Tabor

Outer Banks Publishing Group

276 pages

Who by Fire by Mary L. Tabor is an unusual work of fiction. The language is lyrical, reflective, meandering: its images laced with symbolism. Rather than follow a traditional dramatic arc, Robert – the narrator – drops memories like stones into still pools, and then observes the wave rings as they expand and collide, creating new patterns that lead to new collisions. In engineering physics, such collisions are described as “wave interference” – apt, considering the subject matter of Tabor’s novel.

Robert has recently lost his wife Lena to breast cancer. During her final illness he recognized that Isaac, an anthropologist and a colleague of Lena’s, was also her lover. As Robert attempts to review his life with Lena in the light of this new knowledge, he embarks on a vivid reimagining of her final months, and then of the years that preceded it. Slowly he begins to understand that he lost Lena long before she died.

In looking at Lena’s world from her perspective (for the first time, we suspect), and simultaneously examining the nature of “heroism” – a concept with which he has grown obsessed – Robert also gains a toe-hold on some of his own emotional flaws and their roots. He is not an easy man to like: he has withheld love from Lena at crucial moments in their marriage. He has deliberately and cruelly withheld touch. But he has also, we see, been too hard on himself at times: forces have been at work in Lena that were beyond his knowledge or capacity to change. And now there is nothing he can do but imagine Lena’s actual life, drop bits of what-might-have-happened into the landscape of what he knows, contemplate the repercussions, and try to find some meanings.

That landscape, the pond’s smooth surface, consists of the lives that Lena and Robert – and Isaac and Evan –- have led: they are well educated, well-to-do people in middle age whose days and nights are rich in music, art, gardening, entertaining, absorbing careers, expensive holidays. But for all their culture and education, Lena and Robert have been incapable of meaningful communication, and that has created a pain that has proven too wide to span.

I became aware of the work of Mary L. Tabor on WattPad where, as I was posting my own writing, I was also gradually sifting out the work of others on the site in an attempt to separate the serious writers from those who were dabbling. I was intrigued by a couple of pieces Tabor had posted there. Her work stood out from the rest, and this – her first novel but third published book – well represents the unique perspective and distinctive voice that attracted my attention.

(Note to blog followers: I realize that this book has the same title as one I reviewed last month, by Fred Stenson. This intrigued me, as one of my novels, The Woman Upstairs, has the same title as Claire Messud’s new novel. I am not however attempting to start a trend that will have you looking at my book review blog like a game of Concentration, attempting to find matching pairs. 🙂 )


Sodom and Gomorrah (Vol. IV of In Search of Lost Time) – Marcel Proust

S&GSodom and Gomorrah

Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time

Marcel Proust

Translation: C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin

Revised by D. J. Enright

Random House

747 pages

According to reliable sources who have more time for counting such things than I do, the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust contain about 1.2 million words and (in the version I am reading) around 4,200 pages, and introduce as many as 2,000 characters. I started reading Proust’s mammoth novel about the same time as I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was then in my forties, a time that for me included contemplating mountains and deciding that if I wanted to ascend them, I’d better get moving. I never did run a full 26.2 miles (although I did complete a half-marathon once), but I’ve just finished Volume IV of Proust’s novel, so on that resolution, I’m still going strong.

In fact, even though I’m reading it at the rate of about one volume per half decade, I am liking ISOLT better all the time. And to my amazement, Proust actually ended the volume I’ve just completed (Sodom and Gomorrah) with what I can only describe as a “Proustian cliff-hanger,” so I am itching to get on to Volume V (The Prisoner). I may actually pick it up in two years or so, rather than waiting five. (Fortunately, each volume includes synopses of each chapter, so that even if it has been four years and 300 pages since I last encountered Mme. Swann, I can easily go back and figure out who she is.)

One of Proust’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to describe the minutiae of his unnamed narrator’s daily life (a thinly veiled version of his own, which took place between 1871 and 1922) in a way that sustains the attention of the reader. However, his confidence that his words will draw us in and hold us frequently verges on the audacious. How many other writers would dare to devote 150 pages to the details of a single dinner party? (Thankfully, very few.)

It’s not as though the daily lives of Proust’s narrator, his family, friends, and acquaintances hold any real dramatic interest: in fact, almost nothing ever happens in ISOLT. In Sodom and Gomorrah, which opens in Paris and concludes later in the same summer at the northern seaside resort of Balbec (modeled after Cabourg), the major characters tend to rise from their beds near noon, have lunch, go visiting or walking or on other afternoon excursions, change and dress for dinner, and then eat, drink, talk, and occasionally fondle one another in the dark.

One of the reasons why the narrator’s recounting of events does not benumb us is that, in spite of the number of pages allocated to dinner parties and other social situations, they contain very little detail about what food was served, what the guests were wearing, or other superficialities. Instead Proust uses his narrator’s recollections of these events as springboards for contemplations of such matters as relationships among social strata, the role of “fashion” in appreciation of the arts, transportation, politics, and various manifestations of sexual preference (a primary focus of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the title of the volume suggests).

Europe was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century, and by observing and reflecting on these changes and on how deeply they altered the world as it had been for decades and even centuries, Proust creates not only a rich and detailed study of the role in our lives of what he terms “involuntary memory,” but also a fascinating record of early 20th century France.

Social Structure

One area of vast upheaval during the early adulthoods of both Proust and his narrator involved the blurring of lines that had previously separated the nobility from the middle and working classes. Now, it was possible for Morel, the son of a servant, to sit at the dinner table of a woman like Mme. Verdurin — a career hostess with a keen awareness of the lineage and social standing of everyone with whom she associated.

Morel’s musical talent was his entree to Mme. Verdurin’s “little clan,” but the fact that he arrived on the arm of a person of royal lineage, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, didn’t hurt. “Being introduced” still mattered, and awareness of social hierarchy was still very much alive. The focus of much of the attention of Mme. Verdurin’s social group was on who was visiting whom, who was not, and why. (I was amused as I was reading Sodom and Gomorrah to note the similarities between it and another much more current book I have been dipping into for fun, The Social Climber’s Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile, by Dirk Wittenborn and Jazz Johnson.) In these circles, whether invitations happened to be accepted or declined was fraught with implications and meaning that related not only to absolute and relative social status (e.g., the capacity of a certain guest to open new doors for the host), through tastes in art and music and political positions (particularly vis á vis the Dreyfus affair, which was much in the news at the turn of the last century), to previous slights among guests and hosts.

Proust, whose own background could be considered middle class — his father was a pathologist, his mother also very intelligent and well read – is wickedly pointed and very funny in his descriptions of the airs and nastiness of his socially conscious characters. They seem oblivious to their silly obsessions: the little group listens patiently and even raptly as de Charlus describes his lineage in minute detail, but when another guest — Brichot — devotes equal time to the etymology of place names, they mock his endless, tiresome recitations.

Homosexuality

Sodom and Gomorrah focuses on two main characters aside from the narrator – de Charlus and Albertine Simonet – and it is through them that Proust explores his primary theme.

De Charlus is a wealthy, pompous widower of noble lineage who does not realize that the entire little universe that surrounds him is aware that he is “an invert” (as Proust labels it). The narrator becomes aware of the Baron’s inclination early on, when he overhears de Charlus and a gardener, Jupien, getting it on early one afternoon.

De Charlus is circumspect when he is accompanied by one of his young enamoratos or when the subject of homosexuality comes up in conversation, but in general he is so certain that no one would ever suspect him of being a “sodomite” that he feels quite comfortable prancing, mincing and giggling about whenever the spirit takes him. On one occasion he seems blissfully willing to go along with an invitation from Mme. Verdurin that he and Morel, the young violinist who has recently won his heart, should stay at her home – in adjoining rooms that are so well padded that no one anywhere else in the house will hear them rehearsing their musical presentations.

It is believed that Proust himself was homosexual (although — at least so far as I have read at this point — his narrator was not) and he is clearly sympathetic. His many long and detailed reflections include such topics as how “inverts” behave toward those to whom they are attracted vs toward those whom they love (comparing and contrasting their behaviour with that of heterosexuals in similar situations), and analyzing how they behave toward those they think know of their inclinations and those who they believe do not.

In contrast to the sympathy the narrator exhibits for the male homosexuals he knows is his disgust about the lesbian tendencies he perceives in a few of the women of his acquaintance, recoiling in horror at the very thought of women physically loving one another. Part of the reason for this dismay is certainly the narrator’s jealousy of Albertine (“but here the rival was not of the same kind as myself, had different weapons; I could not compete on the same ground, give Albertine the same pleasures, nor indeed conceive of them exactly.” p. 338). Nonetheless, his lack of tolerance for those of “sapphist” tendencies is all the more remarkable because of the aplomb with which he discusses the disposition of males who are physically drawn to one another — which surely must have been an outlier’s attitude in the society in which Proust lived.

Jealousy

The narrator of ISOLT through to the end of Volume IV is in poor health and is often irritatingly absorbed with his own fragility. His pouty need to be cosseted and cared for extends from his grandmother, his mother, and his maid to the young women with whom he becomes involved: his possessiveness towards the latter group borders on the pathological. There seems to be as much hatred as there is affection in the way he feels about Albertine, whose time and attention he consumes without consideration for anyone but himself, and who goes out of her way to accommodate him for no reason I can imagine.

On one occasion, his friend Bloch asks the narrator as a favour to get off the train which is waiting in a station to pay his respects to Bloch’s father, who is nearby. Albertine is with him in the train car, and the narrator is desperately afraid that she will begin to flirt with Robert de Saint-Loup, a rival, if he lets her out of his sight. Although he would have plenty of time to pay the visit, he puts his entire relationship with Bloch, a friend since childhood, into a permanent state of decline when he not only refuses to get off the train, but to provide an explanation (p. 682-4). Later, when after a protracted period of reflection he decides that he does not love Albertine and that he will break the relationship off with her immediately, all it takes is a suspicion that she has been drawn to someone else to bring him flying back in a possessive rage, demanding she stay with him day and night forever.

Immersion in An Era

Recently I have felt immersed in late-19th and early-20th century Europe. I started reading Sodom and Gomorrah just a few months after I finished The Hare with Amber Eyes – a nonfiction account of the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family (which appears under a pseudonym in Proust’s novel).  I have also been reading Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, as well as a biography of the British designer and writer William Morris.

Having, along with Stephen Fry, mulled over Richard Wagner’s antisemitism while watching the film Wagner and Me, attempting with mixed success to frame it in the context of the time in which he lived, I was intrigued to read on p. 384 of Sodom and Gomorrah that I was reading about that very time: Mme. Verdurin “trembled at the thought of seeing [certain] provincials, ignorant of the Ring and the Meistersinger, introduced into [the midst of her little group], people who would be unable to pay their part in the concert of general conversation and were capable of ruining one of those famous Wednesdays, masterpieces as incomparably fragile as those Venetian glasses which one false note is enough to shatter.”

And while reports began to surface about the Charlie Hebdo massacres and their aftermaths, revealing the limits of free speech and the extent of antisemitism and anti-Islamism in France, I happened upon the following passage in Sodom and Gomorrah: “For Dreyfusism was triumphant politically but not socially. Labori, Reinach, Piquart, Zola were still, to people in society, more or less traitors, who could only keep them estranged from the little nucleus” (p. 384).

Some things, I’m very sad to see, may never change.

Proust’s Narrator

The unnamed Narrator of Proust’s novel is not only aware of the flaws of those he sees around him, and aware of the ways in which society is changing in the large picture, he is also self aware. While this self-awareness brings on irritation on the part of the reader as well as the narrator as he describes his own flaws,  it also inspires some of the novel’s finest passages. One afternoon he is riding on horseback along the cliffs beside the sea, bemoaning the habits he’s got into at Balbec that are holding him back from so much real and imagined work and pleasure. He says

Suddenly my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demigod. I wept — for I had been ready to weep the moment I realized that the sound came from above my head, at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time was an aero plane. Then, just as when in a newspaper that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears. Meanwhile the airman seemed to be uncertain of his course; I felt that there lay open before him — before me, had not habit made me a prisoner — all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as though returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky. (p. 582)

Admonished to “write what you know,” most writers have no idea how to make that material of interest to other people. Proust did. As in the 150-page-dinner party, nothing much ever happens, but thanks to the author’s keen eye, his humour, and his intellect, the reader is mesmerized. Reading ISOLT is sort of like getting into a carriage that is drawn slowly around the countryside. We can see the detail – the unfurling of the flowers and the ocean views from the gardens of the villas –  and we get to know the peccadilloes of the people who inhabit the landscape so well that they would become intolerable if we had to live with them any longer than we do. But just in the nick of time, we move on.

The importance of memory is one of the major themes of the entire seven-volume work, and the novel itself serves as a chronicle of much that might otherwise have been forgotten. It is a pleasure to be reading it as the events that make up my own life unfold and gradually retreat into the past. Proust reminds us to pay attention.

Água Viva – Clarice Lispector

LispectorÁgua Viva

Clarice Lispector

Translated by Stefan Tobler

88 pages

New Directions Books

Although Água Viva is officially classified as fiction, it is likely to appeal more to those with a taste for poetry than to those who prefer the more familiar manifestations of prose. Água Viva lacks narrative structure: in fact, one reviewer described it as “non-narrative fiction” — whatever that means. For the most part the author betrays even her own basic construct, which is that this work has been written by an unnamed narrator — a painter who is exploring the artistic possibilities of the writing medium for the first time — to a lover from whom she has been temporarily and unwillingly parted.

Despite the wrench she claims to feel at his departure, the “other” to whom the writing is ostensibly addressed is not important to this work. For most of Água Viva, the narrator seems to be speaking only to herself, and when she does speak of the one who is away, it is not to provide us with any information about that person or his relationship to her, nor even to engage with him in any concrete way, but only to more fully explore the meanderings of her own thought processes. I often found myself thinking that the work would have succeeded equally well as an interior dialogue. The narrator seems to agree: late in the book, she says, “We will meet this afternoon. And I won’t even talk to you about this that I’m writing and which contains what I am and which I give you as a present though you won’t read it. You will never read what I’m writing. And when I note down my secret of being—I shall throw it away as if into the sea.”

But when read as a series of meditations, or linked poems, rather than than as any kind of coherent conversation, Água Viva is frequently stunning, often lovely and nearly always stimulating. (Like most internal dialogues, it is also occasionally boring.) It contains meditations on many subjects, among them flowers, music, days of the week, God, sleep and mirrors (“a tiny piece of the mirror is always the whole mirror”). It is a meditation on writing (“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word — between the lines — takes the bait, something has been written”).

But primarily it is a meditation on time. Lispector’s narrator says, “I want to grab hold of the is of the thing…. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now.” And then, “Is my theme the instant? the theme of my life.” Observations and ruminations such as these cause the reader to stop, sometimes with a sharp intake of breath, to admire and re-read. Lispector is intelligent, insightful, and a brilliant wordsmith. (“Then I live the blue daybreak that comes with its bulge full of little birds.”) She is a poet.

Clarice Lispector, who wrote in Portuguese and has been been by turns acclaimed as one of the most important Jewish writers and one of the most important Brazilian writers, can be frighteningly dark. Some passages are so infused with nightmarish imagery that they seem suited to musical treatment by Diamonda Galás:

The liturgy of the dissonant swarms of the insects that emerge from the foggy and pestilential swamps. Insects, frogs, lice, flies, fleas and bedbugs – all born of the corrupted diseased germination of larvae. And my hunger is fed by these putrefying beings in decomposition.

Lispector was born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920. Her family fled soon after to Brazil to escape the atrocities to which Jews in Ukraine were subjected following the first world war. Her mother, paralyzed, had been raped in the pogroms, and died when Clarice was nine.

Given the appalling events that marked her early life, the miracle of this book is not its darkness, but its joy. The work opens with hallelujahs and concludes with the narrator’s determined resolution to be joyful (“Because it’s too cruel to know that life is just one time and that we have no guarantee outside our faith in shadows – because it’s too cruel, so I respond with the purity of an untamable happiness”).

The narrative curve of Água Viva not is not described by plot, but by emotion. It begins on a peak, with the kind of elation that can sometimes be torn from parting, then wends its way down and around the inside of a self through the darkness, chaos, and questions that one can experience only in solitude, to emerge with the narrator’s hard-won but powerful decision to live, to love and – most of all – to be happy.

“I am ferociously alive – and I lick my snout like a tiger who has just devoured a deer.”

In Lispector’s prose, as in good poetry, those readers who are willing to work for it will find elation, despair, kindred-spirit-hood – and maybe even anthems.

Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

 

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy himself — and threaten the health of the farm animals, and therefore the Ryders’ livelihood. Intensifying the devastation, Billy’s father’s decision to stay on his land and fight the gas company gradually pulls the family apart, and drives a wedge between the Ryders and other families in the community – almost all of whom who have  benefitted economically from the presence of the gas plant.

It is an ironic side effect of the family’s deterioration that as an adult, Bill ends up working as manager of an oilsands upgrader in northern Alberta. Now close to retirement, his choice of a career in the petroleum industry seems to have betrayed everything his father stood for — or failed to stand for. Bill’s life has been marked by a self-torment that has manifested itself in a gambling addiction and an apparently endless cycle of bad decisions. And then, at last, a crisis at the upgrader forces him not only to confront his past, but also to face himself.

Stenson is the highly regarded author of the acclaimed historical novels The Trade and Lightning, as well as of five other works of fiction and seven of nonfiction. In this new novel, he brings his enviable writing talents — which include the ability to create memorable, flawed and sympathetic characters, and an uncanny facility for evoking in a few words not only the landscape of the province of Alberta (no matter what the season or terrain) but also his deep affection for it — to bear on issues that face us all. We are the Ryders, growing sicker by the day from our over-reliance on gas and oil, but we are also the community that shuns the Ryders: our economic well being, too, depends on the continuing exploitation of our fossil fuels.

Like the unknown Jewish poet who long ago presented so many possible scenarios in response to the question of “Who will live and who will die?” —

Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst? ….

– we realize that any outcomes to this conflict over oil and gas will not be straightforward, or painlessly accomplished. And in the meantime our hostility and indecision are not only ravaging the Earth, they are also eroding our humanity.

The Round House - Louise Erdrich

ErdrichThe Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

Paperback, 321 pages, 2013

As happens with many coming-of-age novels, as we read The Round House we are lulled by the maturity of the language into thinking that the book is about the adult characters. And yet as the story unfolds we are inevitably drawn into the realization that the novel is, and must be, about the young narrator, about the effects on him or her of the milieu and the events that are being revealed to us, and about how those circumstances have forever altered his or her view of the world.

In this case, the narrator is Joe, a bright and perceptive 13-year-old boy whose mother Geraldine has been brutally attacked as the novel opens — an event that causes Joe’s hitherto safe and comprehensible world to collapse, pulling apart its seemingly secure framework one piece at a time. We see the struggles of Joe’s father –sense his dignity, pain, intelligence and bewilderment — and of Joe himself, and of other members of their closely knit community, as they try to help Geraldine rebuild her life in the aftermath of this horrific event. We recognize the silent agony of Geraldine herself: she will not name the perpetrator of the crime, or share the details; for a long time, it seems that she has decided not to mend, but simply to die.

But the novel isn’t about Geraldine; it is about the effect of his mother’s pain on Joe, and his growing awareness of the inability of the adults to help her ease it.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, is about justice and injustice, focusing specifically on the hopelessly tangled set of laws that emerged when the Europeans began to decide what property in North America was going to belong to whom – and, in fact, to decide what the word “property” itself would mean in that context. In so doing, they erased the rights and livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, of which Louise Erdrich is one. In this novel, she has brought to life a community of diverse and intriguing characters who help her build a powerful message and increase our awareness of the history, plight and deep spirituality of her people.

Joe and his friends are wonderful incarnations of the restless balance between angst and silliness, maturity and childishness, that coexist in the minds and bodies of young teenagers everywhere. Joe’s grandpa, Mooshum, is an Ojibwe elder with chutzpah, knowledge, and the links to the past that Joe needs to understand before he can begin to fully realize the extent of the legal no-mans-land in which he and his people have come to live, and the losses they have suffered to get there. Joe’s father, a lawyer and tribal judge, who interprets the laws for Joe (and us), is a proud man who still believes that, given time, the white man’s statutes can be whittled away, eroded and rebuilt until justice for his people at last emerges. Joe does not have that kind of patience: he wants revenge, and he wants it now.

As did several others in the Goodreads group that suggested this book to me (The Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club: thank you!), I found several essential plot points in The Round House disappointingly convenient, given the scope, depth, and achievements of the novel as a whole.  But Erdrich’s language is so strong, so lovely and precise (“Linda Wishkob was magnetically ugly”) and her characters so compelling that we are drawn forward despite the infelicities of the plot. We want to keep reading and reading, to stay inside this compelling world.

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

SkinLane

Neil Bartlett

Serpent’s Tail

Paperback, 344 pages, 2007

A Psychological Drama Unfolds into a Mystery

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett. A few months ago, I was flipping through a book I had purchased about ten years ago that I hadn’t liked very much, thinking of taking it in for recycling, and I found a scrap of paper stuck between its pages that I had obviously used as a bookmark. It contained, in my handwriting, the words

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

 

That was all.

I tried to throw this piece of paper into the garbage, but it wouldn’t go there—at least not right away. I could not get the idea out of my head that if I didn’t read that book, I might miss out on the most fantastic novel I had ever had the opportunity to read. So after fiddling with the corner of the little note off and on for a week or so, I ordered Skin Lane from AbeBooks. Then I threw the scrap of paper out.

The book arrived.

I devoured it.

*

Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends–his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.

It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at… what? That is the question he must ultimately answer – although for a long time it seems he doesn’t even know there is a question, and that he doesn’t really care.  But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.

Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too – as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.

Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can’t remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F’s nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.’s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?

Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead – where in a whole “Hidden World” of London, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.

Bartlett’s clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created—just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.

*

I am grateful to my self for leaving myself a note all those years ago, and to my present self for trusting that I knew what I was talking about back then. I am also grateful to whomever it was that recommended the book and made me write its title down on a piece of paper—I’ll never remember who it was. As Bartlett himself might say in the voice of Skin Lane’s narrator: maybe it was you.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

1Q84

Haruki Murakami

Translation: Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel

Alfred K. Knopf

Hardcover, 925 pages

Moons and Recollections: A Novel to be Savoured

*

“The wind rushed between the branches of the zelkova tree, making a piercing howl, like the coldhearted breath leaking out between the teeth of a person who has lost all hope.” (p. 750, 1Q84)

*

Out of the (metaphorical) corner of my eye as I was reading 1Q84, I was noticing that Haruki Murakami’s new novel was not getting universally positive reviews. I didn’t read the reviews, and I won’t until I finish writing this, but as I moved from page 300 to 400 to 500 I wondered if maybe it was the sheer length that was turning other reviewers off a bit – perhaps along with Murakami’s tendency to describe apparently plot-irrelevant incidents in a cool and detached but very detailed manner, such as how exactly a character prepares his meals from the washing of the vegetables to the stir-frying of the shrimp. I’ve noticed since I first encountered Murakami’s writing in  Norwegian Wood that he has a thing for describing food preparation, and in 1Q84 there are also drawn-out descriptions of traffic jams, apartment buildings, rooms in extended-care facilities, train rides, and interior monologues … especially interior monologues: “Should I do this?” “I wonder what would happen if I did that?” “Maybe that other character is thinking such and such.” That kind of thing.

In this 21st-century world of ours, where most experiences that we tune into have been created with our increasingly short attention spans in mind, it can be difficult to read a novel that is 925 pages long, in which most of the activity is about as dramatic as one’s own daily life (an illusion, but it seems that way). We are being trained by digital media to consume events quickly quickly quickly, so we can get on to the next. Murakami does not let us do that. He starts off slowly, and he continues slowly. We want to say, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” But Murakami does not, and gradually, gradually we slow down too.

We are drawn in to the mysterious world he has created, where there are two moons, and a beautiful young best-selling author who seems to come from another world – not our world, not even Murakami’s fictional world, but another one. Gradually the two main characters, whom we thought we might not even like that much for the first two hundred pages or so (although we could not stop watching them anyway, to see what would happen to them next) begin to draw us in, to appeal to us. We feel increasingly affectionate towards them and want them to overcome their (serious and even potentially fatal) problems. We want them to be happy.

The plot is straightforward enough: Tengo and Aomame, both rendered social outcasts as children by the peculiarities of their parents, met and connected on a very deep psychic level in elementary school but were separated soon after. They never forgot one another. Now, at the age of thirty, the two of them end up – for very different reasons that may or may not be connected by an omniscient or non-omniscient overseer – in a parallel universe in which they (still both in their own ways social misfits) seem to have been given one final opportunity to reconnect.

The parallel universe is the one where the young writer comes from. Her real name is Eriko Fukada, but she is known as Fuka-Eri. She is just 17 and she has written what appears to be a fantastic tale called Air Chrysalis, which has been submitted to a well-regarded literary competition. There, Komatsu, the respected editor who supervises the competition, recognizes Air Chrysalis for its compelling and utterly unique voice and narrative, but knows it needs rewriting.

“The overall plot is a fantasy,” he says, accurately describing the writing of the author who invented him as well as Fuka-Eri’s, “but the detail is incredibly real.”

Komatusu asks Tengo, one of the readers for the competition – he is now a math teacher and an aspiring novelist – to improve the writing of the novel so that it will win and, making a decision the ethics of which will bedevil him for months to come, Tengo agrees. He meets with Fuka-Eri who also agrees to the scheme, but almost lackadaisically, as though she doesn’t really care.

Aomame has a different set of ethical questions to wrestle with. She is a highly tuned, self-trained, physically fit killer-for-hire. Not only does she commit her murders without leaving a single trace that the victims died of anything but natural causes, she only kills people who have been vetted and judged to be deserving of their fates by “The Dowager” – a wealthy, careful woman with a judicial agenda that is based on her own daughter’s abuse and death. Aomame’s victims have committed heinous crimes who, without Aomame’s intervention, would never have been brought to justice. But Aomame’s latest assignment in the bizarre two-moon world causes her even more difficult questions than the ones Tengo needs to face.

As the novel gradually unfolds, the question arises as to how much of Air Chrysalis is true, and how much of it is fiction. For a long time, the chapters alternate between Tengo and Aomame, and we recognize that there is a connection between the two, and that their experiences in the world they’ve unintentionally entered are bringing them closer together. But how? Where did the young author come from, and why is she so emotionless and uncommunicative, almost robotic? Was it some traumatic incident in her childhood? Did she even have a childhood? And who is the mysterious but obviously very powerful, even super-human, latest target of Aomame’s deadly talents? Could he have come from the world Fuka-Eri has “invented”?

At the centre of the novel (as if within a chrysalis) there comes the novel within the novel, Air Chrysalis itself, and when we come upon it, it is like a mysterious hard evil Norse myth in the midst of all that detailed, almost dispassionate prose: bright and black and shining and primitive—and scary as hell. The eyes of a dead goat glitter in the moonlight and small creatures march in a line out of its mouth to begin their dark work. Adding to the ominous impact of the story is our growing suspicion that every word of it is true – including the parts that Tengo added. That changes everything. Echoes begin to bounce off the apparent realities in the two-mooned world in which Tengo and Aomame have found themselves, threatening to prevent their ever reconnecting.

Murakami’s writing is only simple on the surface. His sentences and paragraphs twist and turn with apparent ease and before you know it, deliver judgment as accurately and chillingly as a weapon filed to a sharp point by Aomame. Like this:

“Unease and expectation and fear scattered to the farthest corners of the spacious classroom, and hid themselves in the room’s many objects like cowardly little animals.”

Or this:

“The clouds continued to scud off toward the south. No matter how many were blown away, others appeared to take their place. There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, grey uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.”

Reading him is a process and experience. You immerse yourself. You give him the freedom to tell you details you don’t think you really want to know – details so apparently irrelevant you wonder why he didn’t edit them out  – but gradually you realize he is not being self-indulgent. He is building an entire world, and it has you in its grip.

The worlds he creates are as familiar as they are strange. When I read Murakami, I am usually aware of cultural differences between Japan and Canada, but this time I also noticed many similarities: how our health-care systems operate, the climate, the procedures required for doing things like renting an apartment or transferring funds from a deceased parent to the hands of the surviving child. An apartment in which Ushikawa, one of the novel’s least appealing characters, hides out for a while, as he too attempts to puzzle through the stories of Tengo, Aomame and Fuka-Eri, could quite easily be found anywhere near where I live right now:

The dark corridor inside had that special odor you find in older apartment buildings. It is a peculiar mix of smells – of unrepaired leaks, old sheets washed in cheap detergent, stale tempura oil, a dried-up poinsettia, cat urine from the weed-filled front yard. Live there long enough and you would probably  get used to the smell. But no matter how used to it you got, the fact remained that this was not a heartwarming odor.

Those who hunt through literature for themes, leitmotifs and symbolism will have a field day with this novel. Decades of field days, in fact. One of my favourite recurring images is the extended metaphor of passages, closed and open: stairways, comas, the town of cats, the mouth of the dead goat, vaginas, the chrysalis. If I were to write a review that did any actual justice to this novel, I would need to write at length about this and many other issues that the novel is obsessed with:

  • religion (a major theme in this novel — cults, witnesses, gods, acolytes: there’s even an immaculate conception)
  • recollections – individual and collective memories – their validity, their power
  • music — Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a recurring piece, but Murakami loves music and the characters are also treated to a wide range of other, mainly Western music, particularly jazz
  • justice – Is Aomame’s vigilante justice right or wrong? Are Tengo’s contributions to Fuka-Eri’s novel justifiable, given the result?
  • truth and apparent truth – “Learning the truth would just hurt you. And once  you do learn the truth, you end up having to take on a certain responsibility for it,” Ushikawa tells Tengo

The novel is set in the year 1984 – deliberately, it is clear, for the echoes of Orwell’s novel by that title. However, it is also a handy year in which to have set this story, because easy solutions to the mysteries that each of the characters is attempting to resolve – right down to the most basic, which is Tengo’s and Aomame’s search for one another – cannot be addressed with DNA testing, cell phone calls, police surveillance or internet connections. Even photos must be taken on film and printed.

There are so many memories from this novel that will last as long as my own memory lasts (I hope. I don’t have time to read it again. Although I’d like to. Right now, in fact. Maybe I will) – the comatose father, the train rides, the house in the mountains where Fuka-Eri lives with her foster father, the television fee collector, the town of cats. I feel as though I’ve been there, but have become disoriented on the journey – I don’t understand exactly where I’ve been, and I know that it was fantasy, but the detail made it real.  That is Murakami’s power.

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation,” Tengo’s father tells him. Not everything in 1Q84 can be explained, and it doesn’t need to be.

Part mystery, part fantasy, part romance, part allegory, part everything and anything, IQ84 is in sum a literary tour de force that will have readers and critics talking for a long, long time.

Last Man In Tower – Aravind Adiga

Last Man in Tower

Aravind Adiga

Knopf

Kindle Edition (400 pages in hardcover)

Putting A Price on “Home”

When I was looking for a novel to read on the long plane ride to India for my first visit there last month, a friend recommended Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s second novel. It was a fine suggestion: I am a long-time fan of Indian writing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go to India, and I had enjoyed The White Tiger ― Adiga’s first novel, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. As it turned out, I didn’t start reading Last Man in Tower until after I arrived in Delhi and set out on my overland trip to Mumbai, where the novel is set. In fact, most of the plot is set in the slums that border Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, so I felt I could look right down on “the tower” as I flew out of India’s largest city en route to Goa at the end of my Mumbai visit.

Last Man in Tower is the story of the residents of a 50-year-old apartment building, Tower A of the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society — a six-story building that has for many years been an island of respectability amid the slums that surround the domestic terminal of Mumbai’s airport. Now that the land around the airport is becoming more desirable, businessman Dharman Shah wants to purchase Towers A and B of Vishram Society, tear them down, and build a shiny new structure in the image of those he’s seen in Shanghai ­­– a city he admires so much that he is going to name his new complex after it.

In addition to his desire to make money and expand his empire, Shah wants to challenge the supremacy of another Mumbai construction magnate, J.J. Chacko of the Ultimex Group, who has just offered a ridiculously high amount (81 lakh [8.1 million] rupees) for a single slum property -apparently just to attract attention. Shah is so intent on the role the Vishram project can play in this pissing contest with Chacko that he is willing to risk his life for it, ignoring the advice of his physician who tells him that his lungs are so bad that if he doesn’t leave Mumbai, the pollution is going to kill him.

Vishram Society Tower A is occupied by about fifteen middle-class families, most of them parents with children still at home, working in such fields as hardware, finance, real-estate and social work. They come from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds: their ability to live in relative harmony despite their differences is a quality I learned even during my short visit to be one of the many admirable characteristics of the Indian people.

The most respected resident in Tower A is the retired teacher Yogesh A. Murthi, “Masterji,” 61, whose apartment is filled with memories of his recently deceased wife and his beloved daughter, who died in a train accident several years before. His son – impatient, ungrateful – and daughter-in-law, Sonal (a “hyena” to him, Murthi says) live closer to downtown, with his grandson, whom he loves, and Sonal’s father, who suffers from dementia and for whom Sonal must care. Masterji takes a few of the edges off his empty days by teaching “top-up” science to the children of Tower A and eating his meals with the Pintos, but now that he is retired and alone, it is a struggle every day to avoid caving in to the siren calls of gravity and indolence.

Tower A is affordable, and it is home, but the residents long ago resigned themselves to the fact that it is less than a perfect place to live: the elevator rarely works, there is running water only for two hours in the morning and ninety minutes in the evening, the building needs many repairs that are never going to get done, the guard drinks, the secretary is lazy, and day and night low-flying planes shake Vishram to its core.

Shah and his henchman, Shanmugham, believe that it is going to be a simple matter to buy out the owners of the Vishram Society – in fact, Shanmugham is distressed at the price that Mr. Shah is offering: he is certain that the residents would take much less. The residents of Tower B﹣most of whom have lived there for less time than the denizens of Tower A ﹣ quickly agree to Shah’s offer, celebrate their good fortune together, and then head off to their new, more affluent lives. The fact that Mr. Shah pays the Tower B owners the second, “move-out-on-time” installment of the agreed-upon sale price early is not missed by the owners of Tower A. But all of the residents of the tower must agree before the deal can go through, and a few of those in Tower A have issues to deal with before they can come to a final decision.

The novel concerns the process of bargaining that will ultimately see Mr. Shah win or lose his prize and the glory he believes will accompany it. Several Tower A residents move quickly to support the sale of the building, most notably Mrs. Puri, who without this windfall faces a lifetime of cleaning up after and caring for her 18-year-old son who has Down Syndrome and is frequently incontinent.  Others take longer to persuade.

Masterji heads the resistance movement − at first primarily in defence of the Pintos: Mrs. Pinto, the oldest woman in the building, is nearly blind and fears she will not be able to find her way around a new apartment. But as time goes on, his wish not to lose his last contact with his wife and daughter, his indignation at reprehensible tactics of those who are trying to secure unanimity – including his son and Sonal, who urge him to sell—his sense of self respect and his respect for history and ethics, all begin to influence his decision. Gradually the community begins to disintegrate as neighbours turn on neighbours, form factions, and work against one another behind the scenes. One by one they turn on the man they have always held in the highest respect.

Last Man in Tower has power and many strengths. As he did in The White Tiger, Adiga has created believable characters with human problems that are exacerbated by their circumstances. He has a keen ability to portray India’s complex cultural relationships so that those of us who do not live there can relate totally to the issues at hand. The story is funny and moving by turns, and it is grounded in its setting, which gives it an external validity that is both pleasing and interesting to non-Indian readers.

In addition to being a storyteller, Adiga is a fine writer. Some of his insights made me stop and reread them several times simply to enjoy them over and over again. Here’s an example of his keen eye:

A cow had been tied up by the side of the fried-snacks store, a healthy animal with a black comet mark on its forehead. It had just been milked and a bare-chested man in a dhoti was taking away a mildewed bucket, inside which fresh milk looked like radioactive liquid. Squatting by the cow a woman in a saffron sari was squeezing gruel into balls. Next to her two children were being bathed by another woman. Half a village crammed into a crack in the pavement.

I was not particularly keen about the ending of Last Man in Tower. It seemed to me as though the author had been unable to wrap things up and had just gone on and on until the characters came to some kind realization about what had happened﹣almost stumbling on awareness rather than drawing any direct line to it from their experiences. But I have been thinking about endings a lot lately, of films I’ve seen and novels I have read. I’ve been thinking about how life doesn’t come to any neat conclusions either. Maybe if a book or movie is interesting and fulfilling, the ending doesn’t need to be as tidy as I’d like. Like my trip through India, the experience of Last Man in Tower will ultimately have more effect on my view of the world than will the fact that I made it to the end.

%d bloggers like this: