Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bound Together

After finishing the Aeneid (and pronouncing it wrongly in front of friends and co-workers for days and, come to think of it, still forgetting how to pronounce it without embarrassment), I got on a short-lived Greek kick. This also comes from watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and thinking about the Aegean. Because this followed swiftly my Scandinavian kick, I thought the perfect way to tie my brief obsessions together would be to read Nobel Laureate Par Lagerkvist's Sibyl.

The Aeneid took days to read, and though one never really wants to embark on epic poetry, it gets you in the end. But the Sibyl was instantly engaging, written in a style both beautiful and elementary. I was so moved by this novella that the night I finished it, I forced my roommate, Kristin, to listen to the whole story as paraphrased by me. I was nearly in tears by the end.

A traveler, a foreigner, comes upon a small, crude house on a mountain slope and sits down to tell his tale to the old woman who lives there with her imbecilic son. Due to his experience in his country observing a crucifixion procession, the traveler has been cursed (I don't want to spoil the story for you, but it's surprising and unsettling). He has come to the old woman to tell him his destiny as she (once an oracle herself) is the only one who can help him. After hearing his story, the old woman tells her own. As a young country girl she received the sacred call, having been selected by the priests for her simplicity and purity and called by the god (Apollo, presumably, though he is never named except through a reference to his symbol, the laurel.)

She falls in a way that is unsurprising, and though one may predict her path, Lagerkvist's language and the characters' constant questioning carry the narrative through. As the oracle, the woman felt embraced by the god in her moments of ecstatic trance, but when she was not possessed, she felt empty, longing for intimacy and peace. Instead she is a vacuum and cannot sense his will. Through the birth of her son, she becomes a reborn Leda, a heathen Mary. The oracle's wrestling with her identity as the mouthpiece of a god, with her life as the bride of the divine, forms the bread and meat of the book. Her story and her voice are dominant, and the traveler's tale is merely a prelude.

Both the foreign traveler and the ex-priestess share the commonality of having their destinies conjoined with the will of god (never named, a god who can become Hellenic or Judaic depending on the context) and they understand the un-understandable void of the divine mystery, what it means to be both inscrutably cursed and blessed by the deity. This story is mythic, with themes both folk-tale and Old Testament. The familiar language of the Bible is spoken through the pagan oracle, and this suggests that perhaps the author affirms that the need to respond to the divine call is one that all humans share, and that this binds both the Palestinian traveler and the ancient Greek woman to a life of more searching, more doubting, and more revelation.

The book culminates in a stream of words from the old sibyl, beginning as a pseudo Magnificat, as she comforts her fellow unfortunate. "What would my life have been without him? If I had never been filled with him, with his spirit? If I had never felt the bliss that poured from him, the anguish and pain that is his also, and the wonder of being annihilated in his blazing arms, of being altogether his? Of feeling his rapture, his boundless bliss, and sharing god's infinite happiness in being alive? What would I have been without that? If I had never experienced anything other than myself?
"Yet I cannot forget all the evil he has done me, and the horror. How he took possession of my whole life and took from me almost every earthly joy. How he opened his abysses to me, his evil depths. I don't forget that and I don't forgive! But sitting here, old and alone, it is you, my god, that I think of. For it is you who have been my life, you who consume and who burn all things like fire. You who leave nothing in your wake. My life is what I have lived in you. The cruel, rich, bitter life you have given me. May you be cursed and blessed!"

The honesty and lyrical intensity of this tirade against heaven reminds me of Job. Read it. It's complex, but brief. I hope I didn't give everything away.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Am undertaking bigger project than I thought: have taken down books (once shelved alphabetically by author) to shelve them chronologically. This scheme rather fails as I am required to look at every book for publication info. Will turn me into Chronological Fiction Genius One Day?

I declare

There cannot be anything better than walking down a bustling street in the sun, impulsively wandering into bookshops with dear friends.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ode on the Purchase of Elizabeth Von Arnim's Enchanted April

I heart you
I buy you
Too Much.

* NYRB = New York Review of Books selection; usually out-of-print classics brought back into print. The whole line of books are produced with uniform (though variegated) design and multicolored spines. Google them. They are very pretty. Very collectible. Munchable.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Weekly Acquisitions

Last week was a very good book week (though not so good for personal finances). I scraped enough for Celine Curiol's Voice Over and Greene's End of the Affair from work, and then last Wednesday en route to Discovery Park with friends popped into the U Book Store and found used copies of the Fagles translation of the Aeneid (beautiful Penguin Deluxe Edition with the flaps) and a Persephone copy of Dorothy Whipple's Someone At a Distance. Am presently embarked on reading the Aeniad, and though it was a little work getting into, am now wholly enjoying it (and seriously contemplating starting or joining a Classics Club).

I read Voice Over in March and loved it. A debut novel translated from the French by Sam Richard about a lonely, nameless woman who is an announcer for the metro at the Gare du Nord in Paris, hopelessly in love with a man in love with another woman, and drifting through the city. She allows herself to be buffeted by the choices of others, and deceived and shamed by her own hopes and desires. She acts as an example of what critic James Wood calls Flaubert's "flaneur," a human camera that "walks the streets with no great urgencies, seeing, looking, reflecting." It is a sad, lyrical novel; a portrait of present day Paris: a city of lonely, ordinary people, doomed relationships, and still, infinite possibility. At the conclusion of the novel, one wonders if the woman walks the path to madness, or to liberation?

Voice Over was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (though, to my chagrin, not winning) - I hope the nomination pushes it into a place of greater visibility.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Summer Preview

Driving down Westlake Avenue on the way to Lower Queen Anne on Sunday morning, I was stopped at a traffic light and saw a white butterfly weave its way over the car windshields and flutter away. I remembered the part in Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll when Snork and Moomintroll spot the first butterfly of spring:

“(As everyone knows, if the first butterfly you see is yellow the summer will be a happy one. If it is white then you will just have a quiet summer. Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about – they are much too sad.)”

Moomintroll and Snork saw a golden butterfly, which is the best kind of all. But, fortunately or unfortunately, this summer looks like it will be a quiet one.

Note: For those unfamiliar with the Moomin series, I highly encourage you to read them. First published in 1945 in Swedish, the series concerns a raggle-taggle bohemian bunch of forest creatures from Jansson’s imagination living in an idyllic place called Moominvalley. Central are the Moomins (moomintrolls resemble hippopotamuses in Jansson’s drawings and are “smooth and like sunshine”) – Moominpappa, Moominmamma and Moomintroll – and a whole host of guests and friends including but not limited to a Hemulen, Snufkin, Snork, the Snork Maiden (Moomintroll’s beloved), Little My, a Mymble, a Fillyjonk etc. The Moomintroll books are classics of Scandinavian literature and have been loved worldwide (especially by the Japanese).

There are nine books in the series and I am haunting the Seattle area to track them all down – I think I still need four. The Moomin books are well written, intelligent, and with countless whimsical adventures and endeavors, endlessly charming. Whether reading about Moominpappa’s constant work on his Memoirs (from his “wilder” days) or reading about how Mymble’s like brushing their hair or Hemulens have a natural propensity for melancholy, I have been entranced.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Now that spring is here

Since it’s spring, and it’s been raining so much the flowers outside our window have been flattened and are drowning, I thought I would submit an e.e. cummings poem (the poet of Spring for me) in order to celebrate spring surprises and puddles:



in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

And eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and



balloonMan whistles

Friday, May 1, 2009

Magical Byatt

I have been a fan of Byatt since I read Possession last year. I have her quartet on my shelves but haven’t attempted anything other than the pairing of novellas Angels & Insects (which I liked, but not nearly so much as Possession). I am hesitant to claim that The Children’s Book (to be published by Knopf in October 2009) will be as popular and award-winning as Possession was, but there’s no doubt that Byatt is making use of her most witching powers as author.

An extensive tale that stretches from 1895 to World War I, covering the end of the Victorian era, through the Edwardian to the fall of the Golden Age in the trenches, the story hinges around the Wellwoods, an English family with Fabian and socialist leanings. Olive, the mother of a large brood, is the author of children’s books and fairy tales and is writing a fairy story for each of her children as an ongoing project (hence the book’s title).

The book begins with two boys (one is Olive’s son) discovering a third boy, Philip, living in the South Kensington museum. Philip, in a nod to fairy story conventions, is welcomed into the Wellwoods’ world, allowed a hand up and thus given the key to unlocking his creative potential. While he is observing the Wellwood clan (parents, children, maiden aunt, cousins, old and new lovers, friends, fellow intellectuals and socialists) at work and at play, we step into his shoes and long to be invited into the heart of the family.

But Todesfright, the magical home nestled in the bosom of the forest, is not to remain impermeable. Time marches on: rulers die and are replaced, wars begin, end, and begin again. Old lovers are exchanged for new; radical ideology has its consequences. The children age, they develop, and we know that the shadow of World War I is lurking grimly in the future.

Tom, the golden boy whom Olive cannot help but love most, is traumatized and disappears within himself. Analytic Dorothy wants to become a Doctor, the younger children fight to be visible rather than just one of the “young ones.” The boys are required to be educated and excel; the girls assert themselves and go study, apply themselves to a craft, travel, make babies. Byatt shows a knack for developing each child and character as separate from the other; even if the character does not have much stage-time, their very real shadows, fears, and accomplishments are whispered through the grapevine.

Both Possession and the Children’s Book are similar in subject matter: literature, art, Victoriana (Byatt’s forte). But while Possession is set in the present looking back to the nineteenth century, in the new novel the narrative ages with the Empire. Where Possession is filled with lyric poetry and Breton myths, the Children’s Book is much more Germanic in both tone, legendy and emphasis. In Possession, poetic manuscripts and diary entries were revealed to the reader. In the Children’s Book, the reader is allowed to read the fairy stories Olive is writing for each of her children.

Byatt is skilled at introducing historical figures along with her very believable characters: a chance encounter with Wilde, words exchanged with Rodin in Paris, or an off-hand discussion of J.M. Barrie fits naturally with the narrative. Her cameos are not forced, nor emphasized. They appear, are recognized, and bow out.

Unfortunately, the long chunks of expositional writing that Byatt indulges in cause the story to catch and drag while we are overwhelmed by the rushing information of the age: the museums, the displays, the wars and generals, the politicians and suffragettes. The mode switches from story to fact, from drama to research. While not unthankful for the meticulous research, or for the asides which set the stage, I wish it had not been so starkly written, so clearly shifting gears.

A tale of fairy stories, eerie puppetry, pottery, free love, socialism, women’s rights, homosexuality, birth, death, war – there is very little that this epic tale does not include. I sunk into it, and it was very difficult to be pulled back out of the trance. It was just dense. I will be interested to see what sort of acclaim Byatt receives when this book is published in America (I believe it is already out in Britain). She is touring the U.S. later this year, and her closest stop to me is Portland, so I might take the train…