Heartwood 4:4 – The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds with citationThe Birds is the story of Mattis, a man with learning disabilities in his late 30s, and his sister Hege who takes care of him. They live near the shore of a lake somewhere in rural Norway. Hege knits sweaters almost constantly to bring in the little money that supports the two of them. Due to his general ineptitude, Mattis is unable to secure much in the way of work  – he’s even worn out his welcome as a day laborer, though his neighbors could always use the help at harvest time.

Mattis is afraid of thunderstorms, is spellbound by the habitual flight-path of a woodcock, and sees omens in the two dead aspen that everyone refers to as Hege and Mattis. The story is told from Mattis’s point of view and we quickly discover his enthusiasms and desires as well as his worries and fears. We also come to understand with great intimacy the complex personality that lies beneath his “simple,” slow, and clumsy behavior. Every detail is significant in Mattis’s life and the natural world is especially filled with meanings, both awe-inspiring and frightening.

In one of my favorite scenes, a couple of bikini-clad girls rescue Mattis and his sinking rowboat from an island in the lake. He manages to take charge of the situation, rowing the girls in their boat and towing his empty boat behind as the girls indulge his vanity and chat with him along the way. This success helps convince him that he should offer a ferry service to take people across the lake. But everything changes for Mattis when he brings a lumberjack across who then takes lodging at the house with him and his sister.

I don’t know if I would have ever heard about this tremendous book if I hadn’t been reading My Struggle, the remarkable, multi-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard that’s been getting all kinds of coverage in the literary world in recent months. There is quite a bit in Knausgaard about art and music and literature, and somewhere in Book Two he complains about Norwegian fiction of the past fifty years, contentiously claiming The Birds (from 1957) is one of that country’s last successful novels. I love to follow leads like this, what Alan Jacobs calls reading upstream –  that is, finding out who has influenced the writers you admire and then reading the books they have read or enjoyed. Since reading so often shapes a writer, it’s frequently worth taking the bait when an author you like starts dropping names. It definitely worked for me in this case. So, who influenced Tarjei Vesaas? I don’t know yet, but after reading The Birds I’m beginning to think I should find out.

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Heartwood 4:3 – Colonel Chabert by Balzac

Colonel ChabertThe Colonel at the center of this novella by Balzac was left for dead and buried in a mass grave during the Napoleonic battle at Eylau. After miraculously digging himself out and being ever-so-slowly nursed back to health by a farmer couple, he returns to Paris where he discovers that his wife has remarried, and that she treats the news of his survival as the scheme of an imposter and would-be usurper of her (his) fortune. Chabert is penniless, physically disfigured, and ridiculed by those who hear him tell of his battlefield experience. He convinces a lawyer to take his case in the fight to restore his name and fortune, but his dignity and honor are no match for human avarice and callous disregard.

This powerful moral tale, told in Balzac’s capable yarn-spinning style, contains some of the darkest views of humanity to be found anywhere in his multivolume The Human Comedy. That the human condition has not improved since then can be readily confirmed by a casual glance at the daily newspaper. The book ends with the last encounter between the destitute and raving Chabert and his lawyer, Derville, who gives Chabert some alms and afterward tells an associate that he is leaving the practice of law and bitterly condemns the egregious behavior he has seen throughout his career, the multitude of “crimes that justice is powerless to rectify.”

I picked up Colonel Chabert after reading about it at length in Javier Marías’s recently translated book The Infatuations – a novel that opens with a shocking murder and is deeply concerned with questions of desire, moral erosion and the slippery slope of rationalized self-interest. The Infatuations also features some beautiful writing about grief. I encourage you to read both.

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Heartwood 4:2 – Lands of Memory

Jacket with citationTurn off your interruptive devices and find a comfortable chair where you can slip into the dreamlike short fiction of Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory.

The book consists of two novellas and four short stories all featuring a Uruguayan pianist as the first-person narrator. These pages are concerned with phenomena and spirit and thought and memory; they’re about people and events remembered later by a probing and persistent mind. The two longer pieces are especially satisfying – filled with episodic scenes, rich in detailed remembrances of the narrator’s life, and pieced together in sometimes surprising ways. As is the case with richly orchestrated music, those who immerse themselves in this concentrated and reflective storytelling will be well rewarded.

One of the things I especially like about Hernández’s writing is his narrators’ sensitivity to the world around him. This is not always a blessing, as can be seen in the passage below, which will give you an idea of what you can expect to find in Lands of Memory:

At times, without recalling the notes of a melody, I could remember the feeling it had given me and what I’d been looking at when I heard it. One evening as I was listening to a brilliant piece while staring out the window, my heart came out of my eyes and absorbed a house many stories tall that I saw across the way. Another night, in the penumbra of a concert hall, I heard a melody floating upon ocean waves that a great orchestra was making; in front of me, on a fat man’s bald pate, gleamed a little patch of light; I was irritated and wanted to look away, but since the only comfortable position for my eyes left my gaze resting on the gleam of that pate, I had no choice but to allow it to enter my memory along with the melody, and then what always happens happened: I forgot the notes of the melody – displaced by the gleaming pate – and the pleasure of that moment remains supported in my memory only by the bald pate. Then I decided always to look at the floor whenever I was listening to music. But once, when a lady behind me was with a very young child, I saw water appear between my own feet, gliding along like a viper, and then suddenly its head began to grow larger in a depression in the floor and eyes of foam came running along the liquid body to gather in the head.

____________________________

Felisberto Hernández’s work has influenced Latin American writers from Julio Cortázar to Gabriel García Márquez to Roberto Bolaño.

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Heartwood 4:1 – The Novel: an Alternative History

   The Novel I     The Novel 2

The Novel: an Alternative History
by Steven Moore
2 volumes.   1711 pgs.  2010 and 2013.

Steven Moore’s two-volume labor of love, The Novel: an Alternative History, is an astonishing and thorough exploration that goes back some 4,000 years. Moore defines the novel quite broadly and presents evidence that authors have been experimenting with it since its beginning, not just in the modern/postmodern era. Despite recent innovations, Moore believes that novelists in our time who attempt to step outside predominant mainstream practices are unjustly vilified by conservative critics – a reaction not nearly so prevalent for innovators in any of the other arts.

Moore includes titles many readers will recognize – Gilgamesh, The Golden Ass, Satyricon, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, the Decameron – but his worldwide focus brings to light many titles Westerners are likely to be completely unaware of. It’s interesting, for example, to see that quite a bit of fiction was written in Sanskrit in the first millennium, and that the Japanese novel in the 10th and 11th centuries was immensely popular. Irish fiction (8th C) and Icelandic sagas (13th) appear in Moore’s index before any fiction written in English (Le Morte d’Arthur in 1469). Readers may be surprised at the number of women authors active in earlier times, especially given present-day concerns that women writers are often neglected in terms of review coverage and critical assessment (see here, for example).

I won’t pretend to have read even half of the two volumes’ seventeen-hundred pages, but Moore’s lively, often humorous, and always informative writing has prompted me to read at length in sections I hadn’t really expected to explore. My approach has been to scan the chronological index of titles discussed, and then jump to the text after finding such curious and irresistible titles as The EggLugubrious Nights, and The Victim of Magical Delusion. Most of the titles in Moore’s book are in too little demand to be in the Everett Public Library’s relatively small collection (but you can submit requests for purchase, or ask for an interlibrary loan). We do, however, own some of these historic works, so I’ll share just a few, along with brief descriptions derived from Moore’s text (including a few of his quotes) to whet your appetite:

Life of an Amorous WomanThe Life of an Amorous Woman
by Ihara Saikaku  (1686, Japanese)
A “lively if sordid tale” that looks at the life of a woman who, when still a young girl, gives in to her sensual yearnings thus embarking on “a downward spiral into degradation.” As an old woman, after having had sex with maybe 10,000 men, it appears she has renounced her wanton ways and has devoted herself to the Buddha – until the reader reflects back to the framing device at the beginning of the book.

OroonokoOroonoko
by Aphra Behn  (1688, English)
Behn’s most famous novella features “one of the earliest examples of a conflicted narrator,” and includes such subjects as forced marriage, slavery, and colonialism. But principally, it delivers a sharp attack on religion for its failure to live up to its own ideals of nobility and justice. Moore calls Oroonoko a heroic romance at heart, but with graphic violence, and notes that it also employs the “noble savage” character type which would later be of interest to Voltaire and Rousseau.

EvelinaEvelina
by Frances Burney  (1778, English)
This novel was wildly popular at the time it was written. Its focus is a provincial young woman who goes to London for the first time, and the frequently humiliating, hilarious, and ridiculous situations she gets herself into. The book also looks at the dark side of courtship and marriage and portrays, well, just “how badly it sucked to be a woman in 18th-century England.”

But don’t settle for my boiled down accounts of these books, go to The Novel for Moore’s expanded, insightful appraisal and ebullient colloquial style – his infectious commentary will convince you that many of the books under discussion are ones you will want to check out. Moore’s history opens the doors to an expansive world of little-known fiction that awaits your exploration; let us know the titles you want to read and we will do what we can to get them into your hands.

I’ll close with a passage, pulled almost at random, characteristic of the kind of thing you can expect to find in The Novel. Here’s Moore talking about the Persian Adventures of Amir Hamza:

But the story doesn’t end there. A decade after the popular Lakhnavi/Bilgrami edition appeared, a publisher named Naval Kishar decided to bring out a complete unabridged version of the 800-years-in-the-making communal novel. He had the best Hamza storytellers (a class known for their use of performance-enhancing opium) come to his printing house and recite the portions they specialized in to scribes, and the result is the longest novel in world literature: his Urdu Dastan-e Amir Hamzah was published between 1883 and 1917 in 46 volumes averaging 900 pages each – in other words, a novel more than 41,000 pages long!

Fans of the novel owe it to themselves to poke around in The Novel.

For more on Steven Moore, see this interview in Music & Literature.

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Heartwood 3:6 – Bruges-la-Morte

BrugesBruges-la-Morte is a perfect little book for our drizzly, dismal fall season.

The story begins with a respectable widower who has chosen to move to Bruges, Belgium as the most suitably melancholy city in which to mourn his dead wife. When Hugues Viane sees a woman who resembles his wife on the street one night, he follows her until he loses her in a tangled intersection of alleyways. But having had this encounter, he keeps an eye out for this woman who so resembles his dead wife. Eventually, he sees her again and follows her into an opera house where he again loses sight of her. After intently scanning the audience, he can only assume that she must be in the production, so he settles into his seat and watches the performance without much interest in the story but only to see if she will appear on stage. When she does, it is in the resurrection scene of the opera Robert le Diable – and it as if he is watching his wife come back to life. So begins Hugues’ scandalous infatuation with Jane Scott.

The book is written in a somewhat old-fashioned style, that of a dreamlike yarn, but details are handled with nuance and care, and the emphasis on Bruges as a dying city, with its decaying architecture and stillwater canals, is poetically and atmospherically depicted. When the book was first published in 1892 it included photographs of the city, and this finely translated edition also has somber black-and-white photos taken at a later date.

As Alan Hollinghurst notes in his introduction, Bruges-la-Morte is written within the symbolist tradition but also prefigures elements of modernism – and since this blog is called areadinglife, I thought I would highlight some resonances to other books that, in my reading experience, lend support to this observation.

Thematically, I found Bruges to overlap strikingly with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (Rodenbach’s novella predates Proust’s multi-volume work), particularly the focus on resemblance, infatuation, jealousy, habit, otherness, public opinion, and the temporal world of memory. But where Marcel attempts to recapture the past, Hugues seeks “the infinite luxury of forgetting.” When Jane tries on one of his wife’s old dresses, he hopes a pinnacle of resemblance will be reached that will “abolish time and reality,” but because of Jane’s wanton behavior it results instead in a feeling of vulgarity and degradation. (On top of all this, it is hard not to think of Proust when one reads of a white swan flapping its wings in a canal “like a sick man thrashing about when he wants to get out of bed.”)

Rodenbach’s style and subject matter also reminded me of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, especially: “The Fall of the House of Usher” for its sense of melancholy and decay; “Ligeia” for the theme of a dead wife’s resurrection; and “William Wilson,” one of the first fictional works to feature a doppelgänger.

Lastly, the ubiquitous ringing of church bells brought to mind “the leaden circles dissolved in the air” as Big Ben repeatedly rings out the hours in Mrs. Dalloway.

There’s a lot more to say about this moody, image-rich novella – a wonderful and memorable read – but I’ll stop here and encourage you to read it for yourself. It’s a book well worth living with for a gloomy autumn evening or two.

Heartwood 3:5 – Squaring the Circle

Squaring the Circle-4Fans of captivating, compact storytelling of an almost mythological quality, will relish these 24 very short tales about fantastical, imaginary places.

The first story, “Vavylon,” is about a city whose social hierarchy is reflected in the design of the city. Anyone, it is asserted with egalitarian zeal, can reach the highest levels – provided, that is, they can climb its well-greased ramps. In “Gnossos,”a retelling of the Icarus myth, the high-soaring Icarus discerns the one way out of the labyrinthine city his father Dedalus designed. As his wings melt and he plunges toward the city it transform into a network of honeycomb cells, the smooth walls of each containing a solitary citizen, each holding a ball of yarn. In “Dava,” a brilliantly imaginative piece with a striking conclusion, three climbers summit a remote peak in what they believe is a first ascent, only to discover evidence of previous climbers and, more remarkably, a precipitous, saddleback ridge leading to an unmapped and even steeper peak capped by a citadel. “Sah-Harah” is another perfectly executed story about which I’ll say nothing more than that it brings the best of Borges to mind.

These stories were written at the very same time that Italo Calvino was composing his similarly wonderful and fantastical book Invisible Cities, both authors unaware of the other’s work. Săsărman’s book was suppressed by Romanian censors before eventually being released in mutilated form in 1975. It did not appear in its complete form until 1992 when it was translated into French. Ursula K. Le Guin, the multiple-award-winning doyenne of fantasy fiction, (whose too often overlooked Earthsea series I frequently recommend to Harry Potter fans) has done a painstaking job of translating these selected stories beautifully into English. In staying with its original design, Săsărman’s own bold geometric drawings preface each story.

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Heartwood 3:4 – The Big Money

The Big Moneyquote image no border

The Big Money
by John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

Sometimes a writer only gets one chance to hit it off with a reader. For many long years that was all I gave John Dos Passos, based on an excerpt from one of his books (I’ve forgotten which one) I’d read in an English class. This past April I finally decided to give him another go when I saw that his book The Big Money was going to be discussed in the Library’s ongoing series, “Books You’ve Always Meant to Read.”

Dos Passos made a strong impression the second time around. I found myself immersed, intrigued, and entertained by this book, the third volume in his U.S.A. trilogy, set in the years spanning World War I and the Great Depression. It goes to show, our tastes, moods, and interests are variable – and exposure to a single, brief example of writing is probably not enough to form a judgment.

As the title indicates, money is a major concern for the many characters in the book, especially the lure of easy money, hitting it big. And as in our own recession, big money is there to be made, but mostly what we see is people struggling to get ahead in whatever ways they can, while living within social and economic systems that seem designed to crush them despite their best efforts. These characters are also looking for personal and emotional connection, but their relations with others are often marred by poor choices and the primacy of self-interest.

Dos Passos uses four modes in structuring the book. First and most substantial are the character-focused chapters which are completely engaging and enthralling. Interspersed among these chapters are other, somewhat shorter ones that feature fascinating and creatively told biographical sketches of such figures as Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, William Randolph Hearst, and dancer Isadora Duncan. The sections with Newsreel headings are brief collages composed of headlines, snippets from news stories, advertising slogans, and fragments of popular songs. The brief Camera Eye chapters are largely unpunctuated and experimental in nature – I found them a bit of a slog at times, though the second-to-last one grabbed me by the throat with its devastating and despairing account of the power of money in American life.

The heart of the book is found in the long chapters named after the various characters. They are perceptively told with crisp descriptions, tons of what-happens-next momentum, and just-right character development that illuminates the hopes and suffering the various characters face.

Though the book was written over 75 years ago, the social and economic scenarios it presents are completely relevant to life in our own Great Recession. In fact, the U.S.A. trilogy has provided the model for George Packer’s new non-fiction book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Why not read them both?

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Heartwood 3:3 – Apophenia in Blue

speedboat  Bluets  Game of Boxes

apophenia - the perception of connections, patterns or meaningfulness in unrelated things.

As regular readers of Heartwood know (that’s right, all five of you), I am frequently stunned that whatever I happen to be reading seems to connect in surprising ways with other things I’ve read or recently lived through. I find this one of reading’s greatest pleasures.

A couple of years ago I was reading a book that briefly discussed Renata Adler’s Speedboat in glowing terms, especially appreciative of: its collage structure; its quick changes in subject; the aphorisms and miniature stories; the interweaving of ideas, emotions and experiences; and its thematic recurrences or reiterations. This made me think of another book I’d recently read and loved called Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – though clearly nothing in the above description would make one think that Speedboat would have anything to say about the color blue.

Anyway, when my interlibrary loan request for Speedboat came in (it’s recently been reprinted and is now in the EPL collection), I was pleased to find it did indeed share something of the structure and qualities I’d seen in Nelson’s book. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for this passage late in Speedboat, which looks like it could be an emblematic entry from Bluets:

We spoke of the quality of the blue in the stained-glass windows of Chartres, which modern science had not been able to reproduce, as though the medieval craftsman who had produced it were a colleague. He had, we knew, billed his diocese for the purchase of sapphires ground up to create that color. Modern science had, at least, established that sapphires played no part in its composition at all. It was our first, most scholarly appreciation of the padded expense account.

Adler’s Speedboat crosses continents in passages that relate the life and observations of a woman who works as a reporter. Nelson’s Bluets takes an obsessive interest in the color blue, which she pursues through philosophy, art, personal experience, and other channels of research. Nelson breaks up these passages with others in which the narrator grieves a broken relationship and assists a friend who has become quadriplegic. Here’s a sample entry from Bluets that also touches on stained glass:

For Plato, color was as dangerous a narcotic as poetry. He wanted both out of the republic. He called painters “mixers and grinders of multi-colored drugs,” and color itself a form of pharmakon. The religious zealots of the Reformation felt similarly: they smashed the stained-glass windows of churches, thinking them idolatrous, degenerate. For distinct reasons, which had to do with the fight to keep the cheap, slave-labor crop of indigo out of a Western market long dominated by woad, the blue-dye-producing plant native to Europe, indigo blue was called “the devil’s dye.” And before blue became a “holy” color – which had to do with the advent of ultramarine in the twelfth century, and its subsequent use in stained glass and religious paintings – it often symbolized the Antichrist.

OK, now for round three. Last week I was reading Catherine Barnett’s smart and sensual collection of poems, The Game of Boxes, and came upon “Which System Is Most Miraculous?” It opens with the poet discussing the subject of the poem’s title, presumably with her partner who has since left her. Some of the miraculous systems they identify are language, vision, conception, and birth. Among the things she doesn’t name, but suggests, are time, love, and – if I can read into it a bit – the significations we attach to important life events, such as in the giving of wedding gifts. But as our lives progress and/or change direction, these systems can also change, break down, become ambivalent, deteriorate – which leads her to question whether she should outgrow her attachments. When faced with it, however, it’s not so easy. She informs us that “A blue glass broke but I can’t throw it away. / There’s room for it on the shelf. / Or there’s no room.” Even though the glass has been destroyed, she notes the absurdity of feeling unable to part with it.

The poem ends in lines that are as awestruck by this particular blue as Maggie Nelson is by the various blues throughout Bluets. Where the interpersonal bond has proven fragile, and where even the power of language has its limits, the immediacy and intangibility of this blue stays vibrant, persists, almost succeeds in holding together what’s been broken:

Words still fortify me but the blue is better,
brighter, almost as bright as when it was first
removed from its tissue and passed
from hand to hand.

*          *          *

I love that Barnett’s poem and the passage in Adler cited above happen to unite with Nelson’s Bluets in these unique, though somehow stylistically similar and excellent books. Yet, astonished and pleased as I am by this, another of Adler’s observations causes me, at least momentarily, to check my enthusiasm:

when invention failed them, they used the fail-safe method for undergraduate work at any solid institution: take two utterly unrelated things or matters and show that they are, if not in fact identical, actually related in the most profound and subtle sense.

Heartwood 3:2 – Weldon Kees and Robinson Alone

Robinson AloneRobinson Alone
by Kathleen Rooney

Weldon Kees was a mid-twentieth-century American poet, writer, painter, filmmaker and musician who disappeared one day in 1955, his car abandoned on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. People who know of Kees at all today probably do so for his poetry (though his talent as a painter was real, and his pieces were once exhibited alongside those of Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning). But even among contemporary poets, many are unfamiliar with Kees’s stylish and often bleakly noir-ish work.

I’ve been captivated by Kees brooding, embittered poetry for a long time now, so it is a genuine pleasure to find Kathleen Rooney’s new novel in poems exploring all aspects of Kees and his alter-ego, Robinson – the anxious, shadowy, cipher featured in several of his poems.

Rooney adroitly follows the rough trajectory of Kees’s life as he goes from his Nebraska home to New York City, where he participates in but is never quite comfortable with its artistic milieu. He and his wife, Ann, decide to leave the city, driving cross-country on their way to eventually settling down in San Francisco. We learn of Kees/Robinson’s nightmares and insomnia, his anxiety regarding success, his fastidious nature and natty style. We also learn of Ann’s drinking and paranoia, and her ultimate institutionalization. Rooney has drawn heavily from Kees’s correspondence in fifteen fascinating entries all titled “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone.”  And finally, we come to know that in his later life Kees had an interest in taking off to Mexico, which leaves the lingering possibility that he didn’t commit suicide but instead went there to start a new life.

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees in the Everett Public Library catalogI don’t think I’ve spoiled anything by revealing this general chronology: it is Rooney’s nimble, imaginative and attentive language that forms the heart of this book. Her dedication and skill in capturing the spirit of Kees as man and artist even frees the reader from needing to know his actual work – though her book will certainly spur some readers to explore his brief Collected Poems, his letters, or his striking paintings. Robinson Alone will introduce you to both a lively contemporary poet and to a terrific, neglected, and long-missing one.

Heartwood 3:1 – An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

In order to write this little book that can be read in an hour, Georges Perec parked himself for three days behind café windows at Place Saint-Sulpice square in Paris to record all the routine, typical activity going on around him – to describe “that which is generally not taken note of … that which has no importance.”

There’s an addictive, propelling rhythm to this catalog of passing buses, shoppers, churchgoers, deliverymen and schoolchildren. Perec categorizes certain things, such as types of two-wheeled vehicles and varieties of advertising signs, and otherwise notes the parade of objects people tote – from baguettes to attaché cases to pipes (this was written in the 1970s after all). He considers making an inventory of umbrella styles. He muses on the pigeons circling in synchronized flight.

These are largely objective observations, but Perec also recognizes and greets friends, notes personal associations regarding a particular breed of dog, and he wonders how his having had a coffee one day versus a mineral water the next might transform the impressions he has of the square.

This restless attempt to capture the banal minutiae of the city is not exactly the sexy, romanticized Paris of most fiction, but it teems with life and is tinged at times with Perec’s unique charm and humor. If Paris is your passion, this small book should offer a pleasant reading experience. It pairs nicely with another brief but striking book – Things Seen, Annie Ernaux’s crystalline observations of quotidian Paris and its suburbs.

_________

Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo and, as such, relished imposing constraints on his literary creations. He is perhaps best known for having written a full-length novel without ever using the letter e.

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