Sunday, November 29, 2009

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. Drawn by the memory of happy summers, disparate characters arrive at the Moomin family home to find companionship and comfort this November. But the Moomins are nowhere to be found, and their house resounds with the emptiness and loss of that warm, congenial family. Instead of what each ailing character hoped to find, the Moomins, they find each other:

Shy Toft, the anxious and obsessive-compulsive Fillyjonk, depressed Hemeulen whose greatest joy is to order and organize people, Snufkin the vagrant, Grandpa-Grumble (whose name says it all), and the tiny and scornful Mymble.

Their oddities – Toft’s reclusiveness, Fillyjonk’s relentless cleaning and fretting – rub up against each other, and each wishes for sole possession of the house and its memories. Instead, the new housemates learn what it is like to live in a community with those you wouldn’t choose to live with, how to be kind, how to fight, how to concede. On the back of the back of the book, a review sums it up: “Although none of the six is a sociable creature, they more or less put up with each other, and, perhaps recalling the warmth of the family, they eventually learn how pleasant communal life can be.”

The novel is not didactic. Jansson’s writing is, as always, careful and fluid. I never know what the characters will think, do, or say next.

We are now about to enter into the season of Advent, the time of preparation, of hope despite the darkness, of the struggle for warmth despite the cold. I hope you keep warm.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tribute to the Past

As I may have mentioned before, we read very little in high school: one novel a year, one play, four poems and a few short stories. I’ve blamed my slow literary education on this very weak introduction, but as I’ve begun to remember the quality of the short stories we read, I’ve realized they aren’t bad - one by Italo Calvino, another by Roald Dahl. I am beginning to think my head was submerged in something all through high school.

We read Lord of the Flies in Matric, senior year. I remember that. Ralph standing on his head. Jack. Piggy. The Conch. The dead parachutist stuck in the tree tops, his parachute eerily billowing around him. Junior year we read a book by South African writer Richard Rive called ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six. By the end of the term, after our essays and multiple choice tests, we were all heartily sick of Buckingham Palace, but recently I’ve been feeling nostalgic and hoping to get a hold of a copy. It’s out of print (of course) and I can’t imagine what Seattle bookstore would carry a copy of a book about a now non-existent slum community in Cape Town in the sixties. I’ve looked all at the local bookstores and on the internet and have come up with nothing. I forgot about it.

Last week, after drinking coffee at Allegro’s, and coming around the corner where Magus Books is (lured in by the Greek Harry Potter in the window), I found it on the shelf. $5 for the exact same edition I had read in high school, published in South Africa with educational notes! It is now in my room.

District Six was a once vital neighborhood at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town: a place where Jews, Muslims, Indians, those of mixed race and unknown origin and low incomes lived side by side. Children played in the streets in front of brightly colored houses, neighborhoods consisted entirely of old friends, dominoes partners, churches, mosques, markets, artisans. In 1966, the apartheid government declared District Six a white-only zone and all current residents were to be evicted. Families and friends were split up in the evacuation; communities that had been constructed over decades were split. The District was razed, intending to be sold to whites to make use of the prime property. It still stands empty today. This has long since been a sacred site to those seeking to understand the devastation of apartheid upon communities. It is a barren place consecrated to memory and to the spirit of a hope that imagined a different world could be created.

The author, Richard Rive, was a scholar and an author of international repute, stabbed to death in his home by a burglar in 1989. It is a cruel and ironic testament to the violent reality of South Africa today. Rive had fought against apartheid, and was murdered, not because of his outspoken political stance, but because of a robbery.

I don’t know if the story meant much to me when I read the novel at seventeen. It seemed hypothetical and removed. Picking it up last week, I was immediately won over by its breezy joie de vivre:

“When I was a boy and chirruping ten, a decade after the end of the Second World War, when I was Tarzan and Batman and could sing ‘Rainbow on the River’ like Bobby Breen – in those red-white-and-blue days I remember especially the weekends, which began with the bustle of Friday evenings when the women came home early from the factories and the man came home late although they had been paid off early…Saturday mornings Tennant Street, Hanover Street and Castle Bridge heaved and bustled with housewives, peddlers, skollies, urchins, pimps and everybody else…And the apricot warmth of a summer Sunday morning when almost everyone slept late…And I still clearly remember the characters and the incidents.”

It is an episodic novel, a collection of those characters and incidents, people like Zoot September and his happy gang of Jungle Boys; Mary and her girls at the local house of ill-repute, the Casbah; Katzen, the local Jewish merchant; and Last-Knight the barber.

Funny episodes of “local color” rub up against the poignant last days of the District, the inevitable encroachment of the policy of discrimination.

At the end of the novel, before they go in opposite directions, Zoot draws around a fire with his friends Pretty-Boy and Oubaas and says fiercely,

“We knew that District Six was dirty and rotten. Their newspapers told us so often enough. But what they didn’t say was that it was also warm and friendly…That is was never a place – that it was a people. We must tell how they split us apart and scattered us in many directions like the sparks from this fire…We must never forget…”

There is now a museum on the site of District 6, a collection of memories and of artifacts: wedding pictures, street signs, baby clothes, hairdresser’s scissors, and musical instruments. On the floor there is a map of the District carefully replicated street by street. Families have returned to the museum to mark the spot where they once lived, permanently signing their name to a place which was a bedrock of identity and cultural belonging. It is a sad place, but a pace where the sparks from the fire are still warm.

If you find a copy of Richard Rive’s novel, a superb blend of storytelling, language and history, read it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

La Vie Francaise

I have been bitten by a Frog.

I suppose it's been dormant ever since three days in Paris nearly six years ago, revived briefly by watching Amelie, and by those Berlitz language tapes I still have in my car.

Kristin and I finally watched Kristin Scott Thomas in Philippe Claudel's Il y a longtemps que j'aime, or I've Loved you for So Long, after being tantalized by previews of women with tear-stained faces yelling "pourQUOI" very loudly at each other. We do this sometimes when feeling particularly emotive.

Juliette (Scott Thomas) emerges from fifteen years in prison. Her sister Lea, years younger than Juliette, is thrilled to have her long-absent sister back, but Juliette's bleakness is ghostly in comparison to Lea's shy delight and full life.

It was worth the wait. We sat on the edge of our seats, completely absorbed in the unimportant daily conversations that occur against the backdrop of this significant sometimes unmentioned past, while characters grasp for truth and redemption in the dark.

Sometimes I think this blog is not so much a record of what I'm reading, but a record of the cycles of my obsessions. And now, I have French mania. I find that the French films and books I've been recently exposed to have been quirky, magical, and luminous. That quintessential French combination of existentialism and joie de vivre.

Next on my to-do list is reading Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal, the chronicle of a mysterious man's stay in various international hotel rooms. And Eric, a co-worker, has graciously compiled a list of must-see French film. He's into New Wave.

Since I don't know anything about cinema, we've been toying with the idea of starting an unofficial, highly subjective film club. My first proposition is Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary starring Big and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (on the Bouvier side), in their dilapidated Hampton mansion. Warbling to records, fancy-pants dancing, innumerable head scarves, cats peeing on paintings, and the terrible sad decay of time... Need I say more?

But - it is soon time to go home to mon brie et cafe.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

That Old Homesick Feeling

I may be biased, but I think South African history is one of the most fascinating I have had the opportunity of learning. Learning the Groot Trek year after year got old, but that was much preferable to the annual onslaught of Holocaust videos.

There, at the point of the world, the stormy nexus of Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Portuguese adventurers Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip. The Dutch sent South Africa's own Columbus, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1652 to establish a trading station for the Dutch East India Company. The French Huguenots settled in the seventeenth century, leaving a lush valley of vineyards and chocolatiers. The British arrive in 1812 to annex the Cape to the Empire, sowing the seeds of the Boer War, which was to introduce the first concentration camps. Bloodshed and diamonds, covered wagons and massacres, and endless exploitation.

History may be a treasure trove on her own - but sometimes the story is only ever as good as the teller. My mother, a once-budding historian, lost interest in history on account of a droning lecturer. There are many excellent books on South African history; excellent and dry. I started one in 2006 and still haven't finished it; I petered off somewhere in the early nineteenth century. That's why, when I saw the translation of Dominique Lapierre's exciting and energetic work, A Rainbow in the Night: the Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, published at the end of October, I bought a used copy as soon as it came in. It begins with gusto: with the Dutch fleeing the flames of the Inquisition that swept through Europe in the seventeenth century. For what? "The Bible!"

Lapierre packs the first three hundred years of South African history into two or three chapters and spends the majority of the book on the policy of apartheid and the recent process of reconciliation. It looks like a good read: a tightly-packed, vivid visit home.

Recently, I've experienced a resurgence of pride in my mother country. Earlier this year I read Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys: the City of Johannesburg Unlocked, a poetic homage to a city I'm not too fond of. Despite it's ugliness, grime, and poverty, Vladislavic explores the layers of memory embedded in the city's physical and social structure. I don't usually think of South Africans as a poetic or especially literary people, barring a few (Coetzee, Gordimer, Breytenbach), but this book proved me wrong.

As the days in Seattle shorten and the sun dies at 4.45, I think about the lengthening days at home. The gradual yearning and pulling towards summer, towards the beach and school holidays and Christmas. Instead of getting on the plane for a New Year's Eve flight south, I will have to settle for curling up with Rainbow in the Night and three blankets, drinking rooibos tea with a Frenchman.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

In one week, two things that become ironic side-by-side. Today, I received a copy by the director of Harvard’s library Robert Darnton’s apologia, the Case for Books. The other is that our bookstore has become one of the six bookstores in the nation [sic] to have received an espresso book machine. This enables us to print, for a low cost, any book in the public domain and bind it within minutes (300 pages in 4 minutes). The panels are clear so that you can see the cogs working. (I assume; I haven’t actually seen it run yet.)

There’s an espresso book machine at the Harvard Book Store named Paige M. Gutenborg (the opening was attended by Robert Darnton), one in Vermont, at several at libraries around the country. And there’s one at Third Place Books, north of Seattle.

Of course, this development chilled me to the bone. What will happen to the industries? What will happen to the book? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Could it make bookstores obsolete? (Probably not) But Time will Tell. For the moment, I am going to keep my eye on the big lumbering machine in the corner.

Note: I am feeling guilty and disloyal to the store, so I must admit that the EBM does have its attractions. Perhaps I should admit that there is this wonderful website, Internet Archive, which has free downloads for millions of books that are otherwise hard to get a hold of. These are examples of books that will be rescued from obscurity, like Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Present and the Past, or an eighteenth century guide to running the home. Rare books will no longer be restricted to expensive scholarly editions.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are writers who are widely credited for having introduced and developed the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, which sacrifices traditional grammar, punctuation and syntax in the attempt to chronicle the natural flow and organic development of ideas and sensations, the scattered impressions the mind collects from moment to moment.

But before Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the Waves, before Ulysses and just after the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) began to publish volumes of her magnum opus, what would amount to life-long project, a thirteen novel sequence called Pilgrimage.

Richardson, who experimented with the “interior monologue,” is the largely un-credited creator of “stream of consciousness”, though she disliked that phrase and parodied it as “shroud of consciousness. Virginia Woolf attributes Richardson with the invention of “what we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”. Richardson was trying to redefine the novel and create “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism” (her introduction to the first volume in Pilgrimage).

I discovered Richardson entirely by accident (as usual). I found the first volume of Pilgrimage, containing the first three novels: “Pointed Roofs”, “Backwater”, and “Honeycomb”, on a shelf at Goodwill for $1 a few weeks ago. After noticing Virginia Woolf’s praise on the back cover, and seeing that Richardson was a modernist – a period that interests me – I bought it. I’ve become increasingly glad that I did.

Pilgrimage is a largely autobiographical sequence which starts by addressing the “beginning of economic autonomy [which] corresponds with the beginning of autonomous self-consciousness” (Gill Hanscombe’s intro to Pilgrimage). The first novel or chapter (as Richardson preferred to call it), “Pointed Roofs,” introduces young Miriam Henderson who, in the wake of her family’s economic misfortune, goes to Germany to teach English to young ladies as Richardson did.

I’m only partway through “Pointed Roofs” so I’m no expert, but am excited to read more of Pilgrimage and read more about Richardson and her influence. As with all new discoveries, I am a bit of an evangelist right now. So now you know! Give credit where credit is due. Dorothy Richardson: modernist, innovator.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Before Bed

I find that the best, most luxurious time of the day to read is just before I go to sleep. The house is quiet, the dishwasher might be running, the candles are lit, and everything is solemn and flickering and drowsy. There's a brown chair that is tucked into the corner between my mammoth desk and my bed, and when you sit down there's no getting up. A pillow for your back, a blanket for the legs you can prop up on the foot of the bed.

Some nights I read Rebecca Fraser's Story of Britain, a chronological history. (So far I've just passed the Battle of Hastings, which I've always enjoyed because of the family legend that we're descended on my mother's side from a Norman knight, St. Clair, who came over with William in 1066, and from a Viking. I have a few more opinions about Vikings, those destroyers of architecture, churches, monasteries, schools, villages, literacy, farms, crops, flocks, herds, and households - but that can wait.)

And other nights I read from Lydia Davis, recently hailed as "master of the American short story". Some stories so short they are only a paragraph, or a sentence. Ms. Davis is coming to the Seattle Arts & Lectures this Wednesday night and I am hoping to see her - but we'll see...because I may have chicken pox.