Monday, September 27, 2010

Literary Pilgrimage

Raymond Carver, master of the blue-collar blunt American short story, is buried at the Ocean View Cemetery, overlooking Port Angeles and the Straits of Juan de Fuca. When I went to find his grave last Wednesday, it was the first time I’d looked for the grave of someone I admired, aside from the accidental run-ins with beloved poets and historical figures in Westminster Abbey.

I’ve always liked cemeteries. There is something about them that makes one feel both surrounded and also utterly alone. It’s the best place to be alive, the graveyard. Every step and breath and laugh and word emphasizes the quickness of us above, the silence of those below. I like to think that the dead cheer us on in our youth. Do something, they urge beneath the plastic flowers, the stone, and the mulch.

When confronted with the whole cemetery, we worried we wouldn’t find Carver. But in the end it wasn’t difficult: his grave was set apart from the others, marked by a double grave (the spot for his wife, Tess Gallagher, is empty) with a metal bower supporting plastic roses and poppies and other flowers, and a few rocks laid in the dip between the two headstones, as if to weigh down the spot with quiet.

Next to a small bench, in a metal box, we found a guide to Raymond Carver in Italian (Raymond Carver e un grande scrittore…), a letter from a recovering alcoholic who found Carver a major inspiration, and a small notebook containing letters to Carver and about him from fans, pilgrims, and Tess, who writes to him regularly and with more direct intimacy than I imagine many living partners express. Her letters were warm, poetic, knowing, melancholy – “our love”, she says. She writes about giving an award in Montevideo, about a cottage in Ireland.

We left our scratches in the book and a collection of his short stories in the metal box and took our leave. The day started with surprising brilliance, but as the afternoon wore on the weather settled into that expansive, grey brooding Northwestern weather, where everything is beautiful, but sad, because all things end.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I found this article by Lindsay Johns on Arts & Letters Daily on the importance of the canon for black people (and, by extension, I presume for other minority groups). I'm a sucker for discussions on the canon, and for the canon itself.

Here's an excerpt I found particularly apt:

"Naturally, if someone has me in shackles, is holding a gun to my head and denying me my basic human rights because of the colour of my skin, I would choose to firstly devote my intellectual energies to addressing that injustice. But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition.

The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm."

It's just how I feel about the topic of "women's writing" and the feminist response to the canon. Johns may not call the limited and focused responses to the canon by previously excluded or marginalized parties the "school of resentment" as Harold Bloom does, but I have no doubt that both Johns and Bloom are allies with a great cause.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

C is for?

The English writer Tom McCarthy, short-listed for this year’s Man-Booker Prize for his third novel C, dropped into the bookstore yesterday to sign our copies of his books. Booksellers orbited him like bashful satellites. His cleverness, his reputation, and his involvement with semi-fictitious organizations like the Necro-Nautical Society make him an intimidating person to shake hands with. (I satellited for a few minutes and then fled.)
I did, however, see him read at Elliot Bay Book Company Tuesday evening, and the experience completely merited any parking fees I paid.

McCarthy read emphatically and metrically, with sharp spaces between the words. This is a sign of a well-educated man, a man accustomed to poetry read aloud. (I found out later he was educated at New College, Oxford.) He stood with his right leg bent up against his left, like a halfway flamingo, hunched slightly and casually over the podium. I wondered if he is surprised by his comprehensive imagination every time he reads in public, as I was.

The first passage McCarthy read was about his protagonist, Serge Carrefax, as a young “bug tapper” in 1911, who listens compulsively to the crackles and snaps which correspond to Morse code sent out by ships and harbors and newspapers around the world. He describes early wireless transmissions precisely, but uses this technology as a point of connection to unseen individuals and groups and images – comparing the vastness of radio waves to the comprehensive silence that is thought itself.

McCarthy has always been interested in radios, but, unlike Serge, did not experiment as a boy. The novel springs from an art project he did in 2002 influenced by Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, a film where Orpheus is seduced by poetry on the radio, a perfect line for every hundred lines of nonsense and numbers. The poetry is transmitted a beautiful princess, who is also death, trying to seduce him.

C, McCarthy says, is not a historical novel. There is no need to link it to the internet, he tells an audience member, because it’s too blatant. It’s a novel about encryption and crypts: technology and death. And the novel is a tribute to many (“Bad writers imitate; good writers steal” – Ezra Pound): Alexander Graham Bell and his invention which was meant to contact the dead, Freud’s Wolf Man, Copperfield born with a caul, Ovid, Marconi, Ulysses (where Bloom attends a funeral and envisions a gramophone in every coffin), Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and the Wasteland, which McCarthy calls radio poetry, with voices dropping in and out.

Robert, my boss, liked C but found it incoherent. I wonder if he heard McCarthy talk about his influences and intentions he would change his mind. Though I doubted once whether I’d find the time to read anything by McCarthy, I’ve made up my mind now and hope to make time to inhale C.

Friday, September 17, 2010

To those who have had to put up with me as a morose and touchy and collicky fanatical email-checking credit-obsessed neurotic - my apologies. I've needed your support. I got the email from the British Consulate in L.A. yesterday with the news that my VISA had been approved, on the heels of the news that my loans had come through. This cannot sound miraculous enough.

So: in two weeks today I'll be on the plane to London with all of my possessions in two shabby bags. In the meantime lists are being formed. Movie Bingo Nights, compline, honey mead and Pimm's at the White Horse, museums, the continuing hunt for Raymond Carver, the quest for the perfect sweater, paying bills, seeing friends, Victoriana, and more David Attenborough.

(A still of a bird-of-paradise trying to impress a drab female. Voice over from David: "But sometimes your best just isn't good enough." I just can't stop talking about Planet Earth.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The private lives of famous men

I've been waiting for months and today it appeared: Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art. It's a play-within-a-play about W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, two men I admire but don't know as well as I'd like. And it's set in Oxford.

I loved Bennett's History Boys; Bennett's economic elegance and wry self-conscious Englishness makes me think of Auden (I just came across the phrase "lunefied landscape"). It's going to be hard not to justify buying this slim little book.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hand-holding in Public

On Tuesday morning I drove south to Tukwila to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to have a Biometrics Scan. While this sounds like an intimating test of potential robotics (and A. suggested it meant converting me to the metric system), a Biometrics Scan is simply (disappointingly) a set of finger print scans and a photograph.

It occurred to me as I sat in a chair with my number and VISA application waiting for my turn with the complex and mysterious machines that I had missed something by not working at the counter for the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t mean the money or the hours, or the unfortunate position of power in the face of hundreds of desperate individuals who need name changes, or naturalization, or extraditing. To be the person who admits or refuses the ability for people to make a new life must be a heavy thing.

But the faces that passed through the office were definite and interesting, a parade of nationalities and circumstances: the middle-aged Indian woman with her features set in an expression of patient transcendence, the two dashing Latin American men with sculpted noses and unsmiling lips under their mustaches, children in braids sucking their thumbs on their mothers’ laps. Everyone in an attitude of quiet heightened watchfulness, waiting for their numbers to be called.

The biometrics technicians work without urgency. I imagined the sameness of their days – and yet, the power they have. The things they must know about the people whose fingers they scan, the faces they photograph. The magical monotony: endlessly discarded latex gloves, hand-holding reduced to its most sterile.

When my number was called I was startled from my chair where I tried to shuffle the books I brought over my lap (I was the only one in the waiting room who had a book) and they scattered papers and pens over the floor beneath me. A Slavic woman (her name was Lyudmilla) scanned my fingers. First four at once, and then the thumbs, both left and right. Then one by one, slowly, side to side, she cleaned my fingertips and pressed them onto the scanner. “Relax,” she said softly, “hold fingers limp. Must relax fingers.” As she pressed my fingertips to the scanner, the picture appeared slowly, emerging from east to west, thousands of small dots appearing quickly to form the ridges of my print, like a time-lapse video of stars becoming visible at night.

“You go to the university?” she said to me softly. Yes, I said, and told her I was hoping to study literature. “This is something you want for a long time, yes?” she said, shyly, and I nodded, shy myself. It was moving: this stranger holding my limp hand, rolling my fingertips against the machine pad with her own latexed hand. And the constellation of my print ridges appeared and darkened and froze ten times. I let her hold my hands and grinned like a child. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so purely, childishly, and expansively happy.

(photo from The Age.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peering into the Vase

I've heard that people who read for pleasure as adults very often had a parent who read to them as a child. What is it about settling oneself down into a relaxed position, in a bed or on a stair, and stilling all movement, inclining one's head to hear a story, that is so comforting? (Or it might be news, or a letter, or a poem.) Whatever the document and its intention, reading aloud - or being read to - is rare and rich.

Reading aloud last week led me to a rediscovery of a writer whose oeuvre I intended to read in its entirety (and haven't). I read Bolano's magnum opus 2666 (a collision of Europe and Latin America, of detectives, whores, murderers, victims, and literary critics) first. Challenged by its girth, lured by the enthusiastic reviews, and tempted by the dusky sunshine of Latin American literature, I sat myself in the corner of Allegro's on a melancholic November afternoon and began. And then I read The Savage Detectives, which I thought a better book, though less provocative and less bleak, and yet every bit as impassioned.

As Bolano's cult increases, New Directions has published translations of his earlier stories, novels, and essays for the unfortunate Anglophone public not able to digest him in his original language. (I've heard he reached his apotheosis in The Savage Detectives and 2666, so these others will be only desert or cheese and crackers after the feast.) It was the beginning of Amulet (1998) that I heard read aloud. Those first two chapters convinced me again of his talent - raw, romantic, enraged, faulty, and endlessly propagating. His narratives - both the overarching and the minute - and connections are like rabbits which breed so frequently and yet still surprise the child owners who marvel at the magic of their duplication.

Here's a passage from Amulet which caught my attention:

"...I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to realize that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it), I saw clouds of dust gathering over a plain somewhere deep in my memory, and the clouds advanced until they reached Mexico City, the clouds that had come from my own private plain, which belonged to everyone although many refused to admit it, and those clouds covered everything with dust, the books I have read and those I was planning to read, covered them irrevocably, there was nothing to be done: however heroic my efforts with broom and rag, the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life."

And also:

"And I saw my hand move forward, way from my body, and rise and hover over the vase's dark mouth, approaching its enameled arm froze and my hand hung limp like a dead ballerina's, a few inches from that Hell-mouth...Then I thought: Does Pedrito Garfias know what's hidden in his vase? Do poets have any idea what lurks in the bottomless maws of their vases? And if they know, why don't they take it upon themselves to destroy them?"

Is it the image, or the book's melancholy atmosphere? Or is it the charming nature of the narrator who states and retracts endlessly, as though one is shuffling down a path, and choosing and re-choosing and rejecting each presented bend in the way. All so Bolanoan.

On recommendation from C I've just finished Bolano: The Last Interview, a quartet of interviews with the author, the finale completed just before his death. The reader of these interviews can enjoy like a fly on the wall (a position Bolano very well may have despised) the careless and heady weary revolutionary persona he projects: his carelessness for his novels and his fervor for reading, for poetry and for essential visceral living. Unlike many authors, who write but do not read, Bolano values his library far more than his own productions. (Or at least, he affects to.)

With a surprising idealism, Bolano (in the Borgesian vein) says "A library is a metaphor for human beings, or what is best about human beings, the same way a concentration is a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity."

This man is a Beat with political blood in his veins, an empirical, anarchist who is both a poseur who seeks to live the romanticized life of that which he is, and the real thing.

Beyond the gratifying answers to the usual questions writers are asked (How autobiographical is your writing? Who are your influences? etc.), the interviews feature an aloof but alert wit. Upon being asked if he should have cut pages from The Savage Detectives, Bolano says "In order to cut pages, I would have to reread it and my religion prohibits me that."

In his pessimistic but strangely (apocalyptically?) beautiful opinion: "The world is alive and no living thing has any remedy. That's our fortune." A sentence which deserves an entire essay. It is devastating that such an essay will never come from Bolano's pen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reading at Chez Ball

Erin has been nice enough to let me stay at her house in the gap between now and the future (which I hope will resolve itself soon.) It's a reading house - and here's what it's inhabitants are sinking their teeth into.

That heavy tome is a symbol of the weight of the law on which E is daily feeding. Strangely enough, the texts are mostly all black and red and weigh ten pounds.

Opal (O'Mitten) is very much into the first volume of Malcolm Muggeridge's Chronicles of Wasted Time.

Brody has a surprising interest in Victorian literature, with a penchant for Hardy and Bronte. And yet, both cats have absolutely no tolerance for Tennyson. When hearing any of his poems, they both run into another room. (E says they much prefer Wordsworth...)